In the Time of Quarantine

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Between Wasilla and Talkeetna

I had already booked a work-related flight to Fairbanks when Covid19 began spreading through the U.S. I remember talking about it with Moni in the days before I flew, and especially the night before I was to go. We seriously talked about cancelling the trip, but I thought it best to follow through with my plans. By the time the plane hit ground the next day, pubic sentiment had shifted from something along the lines of “maybe wear a mask, wash your hands a lot, and avoid crowds” to something more like “don’t go out at all, definitely wear a mask, and start shutting down the businesses. By the time I left Fairbanks 3 days later, the University was all but closed and restaurants were take-out only. Touching people, even to shake hands, was not done. Needless to say, I didn’t get much done. I felt pretty relieved to get home safely.

And then there was a period when we were all just locked down and travel wasn’t really an option.

I felt this.

I felt it in my teeth.

And in my stomach.

I had already scheduled a visit with an oral surgeon. He was to take the remains of 2 molars out the right side of my mouth, hopefully before the botched cap on my left side fell out and left me on a solid yogurt diet.

Oh well!

As the time of Covid stretched on, and people began to realize this wasn’t ending any time soon, I started to think about flying south to get my teeth done after all. With the help of her sister (a nurse), Moni had the safety precautions down to a science, and we started making limited forays out of the arctic. I still cringe at the thought of leaving the state, but with a little planning, I feel like we can get down to Anchorage and get what needs doing done. We can even venture pout of our room a bit, in which case we figure it’s best to keep going right out of town.

One good thing about Alaska, some of the best things about it take you well away from other people.

Still got one last procedure before I can sink my teeth into a proper steak. I would prefer to hunker down completely for the next few months, but I may need to risk one more trip. In the meantime, it occurs to me that I haven’t done a proper poto-gallery in awhile. So, here are a few pictures from recent travels. This of course includes a few drives around town, and maybe a few from before the pandemic. Anyway, …pics!

(Click the pics to embiggen them. You know you wanna!)

Gallery 1: In flight.

Gallery 2: The Beaches of Barrow.

Sea Ice.

Skies.

Denali (and Nearby).

Matanuska Glacier

Southeast from Anchorage.

Other.

…and, oh yeah!

Whatever you are doing?

This guy disapproves!

Judging You, Judging You!

A Machine for Satan?

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Denver Villainy

We’ve all heard the ‘deus ex machina,’ right? Everyone knows that little story about how the folks in ancient Greek theater used to end a play by hoisting a God out over the stage at the end of a play to resolve the major problems in the story line. We all know that the phrase is now used derisively to describe any device in which an author solves problems by means of an external resolution. When the protagonists of the story can’t solve their own problems, we consider it cheating to have the cavalry ride in at the end or cut to the central character waking up to find it was all a dream, or find out the protagonists were really faking the audience out right along with their villain. (Supernatural, I’m looking at you!) I cringe when a hero pinned down by bad guys with automatic weapons manages to run across and open field without getting hit, and I have long since grown tired of engines that are supposed to blow up at warp-factor 10, but somehow manage warp factor 12 for a minute or so as Captain Kirk looks at us with that special mixture of fear and confidence, and possibly without his shirt. It’s also bad when the hero somehow gets through all the guards without any explanation as to how she got there to confront the big-bad-evil Night King and win the most important battle of the whole series two full episodes before its over, and now we have to wonder why we should watch the last two episodes at all when this was supposed to be the biggest conflict of the whole story? Why!?! WHY!?!

…okay I get a little carried away, sometimes.

I do.

Anyway, the point is that it’s cheating to impose a solution on the end of a story without forcing the protagonists solve the problems for themselves. If they can’t solve their problems, then they can end tragically. Sometimes that works too, but when the problem is solved magically, it feels like a cheat. We call that sort of ending a ‘deus ex machina’, and when we use that phrase it is not used in praise.

So what about a Satanus ex machina?

I’m probably botching the grammar in that phrase, but in my defense, the Devil Made me do it.

I personally find it no less irritating when the central problems to be resolved in a story are unmotivated by any reasonable sense of how the world works or what a villain wants. Oh, I can suspend belief for a central premise or two, but there is a point at which the story should begin to follow a logic of it’s own. Once those premises are established, the actions of the characters in question, including those of the major antagonist of the story ought to make sense within the universe in which they live. If this isn’t the case, then how do we understand the protagonists own responses to the difficulties at hand? What do they need to do to solve those problems? Unless the problems facing our main characters present them with some meaningful choices, they are just as deprotagonized as they would be if someone else solved their problems for them, and the problems posed by the story do not have a meaningful logic of their own, then they impose no meaningful choices on the protagonists.

What am I talking about?

I’m talking about the villain who is doing villainous things just to be a villain? Worse yet, I am talking about the villain who has a clear rationale for their actions, but whose actions leave that rationale aside as the story approaches its climax. We knew why he did this, but why is he doing that? Why would a bad guy who steals a ton of money, for example, wish to cause havoc with the global economy on his way out the door? (Sorry, Die hard. It’s a sticking point.)

I’m talking about a supernatural power that kills people right and left, and does so without any clear explanation.

I’m talking about any sort of fight in which supernaturally powerful characters pound away at each other with no effect until the writer finally decides to show us mercy and let one of them actually get hurt and/or die. (Alright, this may not be entirely a problem of villain construction, but it’s damned irritating and all-too damned common.)

I’m talking about a world in which the rules are frequently rewritten to undo whatever resolution our protagonists come up with. If “It was a dream” makes for a cheap resolution to a story, then so does; “You only beat the bad guy in a dream and now you are back in the battle again.” You may even get by with that one if I can be seduced into believing the next solution will actually matter. Do it enough times, and I am ready to surrender the hero to his nightmares.

In all of these cases, the villain, the monster, the mysterious force or natural disaster, all seem to emerge from out of nowhere, being imposed upon the plot almost as if hoisted in on a machine themselves. Think of the wolves from The Grey. They don’t really make sense in themselves; they are just there to make the characters miserable and kick off a plot point there never really rises above the implausibility of its central villains.

I get the fact that a certain degree of mystery can help drive a story and pose interesting questions for us at its start, but somewhere along the line, we need to get a sense for what is happening and what can be done to stop it? We can even be mislead about that sense of a possible resolution, providing the revelation that our hero’s strategy won’t work after all makes sense when we come to it. If mystery persists, however, the central characters need some plausible course of action to pursue, at least a hope that this or that stratagem could help to resolve their problems. Otherwise, they are just thrashing around. Hell, they can even thrash mindlessly for a scene or two, but if we don’t develop a meaningful sense of the problem and a meaningful response to that problem at some point, then I for one start to lose interest.

This is the central damage done by villains that are just their to be villainous; they often leave us with no sense of how the heroes are to engage them at all, no ideas about what could possibly work. An apparently infallible villain renders the actions of a protagonist pointless. A pointlessly evil villain deprives the conflicts they create of depth and richness, and a one dimensional villain tends all-too-often to set us up for a one-dimensional hero. If the events that kick off a story have no motivation behind them, it is unlikely that the responses to them will have much more depth to them in the end.

I think writers sometimes leave the villain undeveloped to convey a sense of mystery; they sometimes leave a natural disaster or a mysterious force unexplained in order to convey a sense of hopelessness. This approach can certainly be interesting, for a moment anyway. If that hopelessness persists throughout the whole story line, then, I for one start to say; “let the bad guy’s have them!” (Even monsters gotta eat,)

A villain, a monster, or even a natural disaster must have some logic to it in order to give the protagonists a meaningful chance of beating the challenge. Letting us wonder about them works early in a story line, but if the answer to our questions comes too late (and by ‘too late’, I mean after the central strategies of the protagonists are put into play), then this doesn’t help the story. Generating a problem with no central rationale to it is a lot like solving one without addressing the problems posed in the opening scenes. In the latter case, the heroes do not engage the problem; in the former, they cannot. The effect is the same. It makes us care less about the main characters.

As with any kind of writing, I’m sure there are times when all of this works anyway, but in most cases, the kind of narrative I am talking about just seems lazy. You won’t get an interesting answer if you ask a stupid question. Likewise, you will not get an interesting hero out o a conflict with a poorly written villain, and you will not get an interesting 3rd act out of a story whose first act is just literary vandalism. A villain too has to make sense. Her actions must be part of the story. They must fit in the story.

And by ‘fit in the story’ I do not mean that we should learn all about the true nature of the villain or mysterious force in the last pages of a novel or the final minutes of a movie as we also learn why some strategy we could never have imagined from the story-line actually works after all. In such moments, we get both Satan and a god on a machine.

It’s a wedding of sorts!

They make a happy couple!

Last Sunset of 2020

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I know! Most of y’all will get a few more of these, but no so, those of us up here in Barrow. Our last sunset was yesterday. I’m told we can expect to be overrun by vampires any moment. We hear about that every year, actually, but this being 2020 and all, it seems like it actually might happen this time.

Ah well!

Anyway, I was flying up from Anchorage yesterday, caught a couple pictures of the sunset as the plane came in for a landing. Turns out, my nephew, Danielito, was filming the sunset on the ground, and he caught my plane coming in.

Danielito is a good kid.

I hope the vampires don’t get him!

About a Dress!

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So, Harry Styles put on a dress or three in a piece for Vogue Magazine.

Apparently, it’s the end of the world!

Or at least the manly parts of it.

So says Candace Owens.

It’s cool though, because the internets needed a good laugh.

Enter the cavalry…

It’s all kinda ludicrous.

The reaction, I mean.

And by ‘kinda’ I kinda mean ‘definitely.’

No, definitely. I definitely mean ‘definitely.’

Anyway, I’m gonna ignore the larger battle here, because better social justice warriors than I are on this thing already. I’m just going to comment on one thing that seems to escape a few folks here. It might even escape a few of Harry’s defenders. It definitely escapes Candace and Ben, as most things seem to do. They totally forgot about the jocks from my high school.

Totally!

Once every year, the jocks from my old high school would dress up in cheer-leader outfits and perform a kind of burlesque for the rest of us. It was one of the few assemblies I genuinely enjoyed. Hell, it was one of the few things that actually got me out to one of those assemblies to begin with. Dog knows, I hated assemblies!

Still do, actually.

I don’t remember much detail. I can’t remember if it was a cheer or a dance that they did, or if it was a little of each. One thing I am sure of is that these guys were not exploring their feminine side.

Far from it!

The point of these bro-leader performances was clearly to underscore the masculinity of the young male athletes doing them by juxtaposing their ostensibly feminine performance with all the manliness they could muster. The cheer-leader outfits didn’t belong on them. The dance moves were not meant for them. Everything about their approach was meant to enhance this impression. Far from breaking down gender-roles, these performances were meant to re-affirm them, to show us once and for all that men were men, even if you put them in a cheerleader outfit. What made the show so funny was precisely the incongruity of the whole thing. These young men were not cheer-leaders. They were not girls, and they would not become women. They would soon become men.

…manly men.

That was point was driven home with every botched move they made.

No exceptions.

Don’t get me wrong. I laughed. Not at them; with them. At 15 I was down for this message. For all my contrarian thoughts at the time, this perfectly conventional message resonated for me; men were men and women were women, and Hell, this time, we could even laugh at the whole thing. I didn’t get the politics of the performance at the time. I doubt they did either. It was just funny.

Anyway, I think about this whenever somebody seems to assume the only reason a man would put on a dress is to muddy the waters between manliness and femininity. Sometimes, men put on a dress to become a woman, yes, and sometimes they do it (as these young men Bro-leaders did) to affirm the difference between men and women. Frankly, I don’t think Harry Styles fits into either of these profiles.

The Vogue article in question speaks a lot of fashion and of Harry’s eagerness to play around with the possibilities of dressing up. No great agenda there, and you certainly don’t see Harry minxing it up in the photos. He’s in a dress, yes, but neither his pose nor his overall demeanor suggests any serious effort to feminize himself. The dresses do seem a little incongruous on his body. He isn’t exaggerating that effect, but it is certainly there. Seems to me that Harry has his own reasons for donning a dress, and those reasons may not have much to do with the culture wars some people are trying to fight over this.

It is at least possible that Styles was counting on some folks to bite at the bait of seeing a man in a dress and generate controversy. Of course it is also possible that some of those folks who bit at the story of Harry in a dress may have been counting on the rest of us to get mad at them and add fuel to that same controversy.

…oops!

Ah well! The whole thing makes for quite a sordid story.

Might lead to dancing.

Biases All the Way Down, Yes, but Some Biases are More Troublesome Than Others

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Bending to the Left?

When I listen to people complaining about indoctrination in the schools or dismissing perfectly sound journalism by chanting the mantra “fake news,” I’m always struck by the hopeless of trying to reason with them. These phrases do not usually convey skepticism; they do not challenge us to provide evidence or compelling reason. Instead, they signal an absolute barrier to any hope of meaningful communication. These phrases did not become popular in the American political vocabulary because they help to explain the problem with erroneous or dishonest journalism, nor have these phrases been generallyused to correct flawed textbooks or abusive teachers. As they are commonly used in America today, these phrases consistently provide thoughtless people with a shield against unwelcome information.

As I listen to such folks talk, or read anything they write, I can’t help thinking those who find nothing but bias in academia or mainstream news are often the same folks who speak of objectivity in terms of the most naive realism. Phrases like “just the facts” spill from their mouths, their keyboards, and their keypads quite often, and not a few of them are happy to remind us that facts do not care about our feelings. Facticity is part of their cultural capital, they own it (so they seem to think), and so they invoke it freely in encounters with others. Ask these people what it means to do a good job as a teacher or a journalist, a documentary film-maker, etc. and they will describe an absolute devotion to facts coupled with a complete absence of subjectivity. They have few thoughts as to how that works, but the goal seems pretty obvious to them.

If pressed, some might concede that such an account of any given subject never really happens, but they are likely to insist that it should be an ideal of sorts, a goal to which one ought to aspire. They don’t understand that the idela itself isn’t even coherent. You cannot describe a fact without injecting yourself into the description. Even the facts you choose to relate reflect a choice and a value statement about what is and what is not important in a story. So, does the language you use to describe those facts, and of course the conclusions you draw from whatever you take to be the settled facts of a story also reflect all sorts of choices about what lessons might be worth learning from the world around us. We never actually get a purely factual account of anything; we can’t even conceive of it in the abstract, because the most rigorous visions of evidence-based reasoning are themselves saturated with value judgements and personal biases.

If objectivity is meaningful at all, it is as a element in relation to subjectivity, (or perhaps inter-subjectivity), not as a pair of alternatives from which we choose. We can speak of an object only in relation to a subject. To imagine the one without the other is to indulge in fiction.

To those who suppose this fictional objectivity is reality, I suppose it is the rhetorical equivalent to reality television, a pretense to veracity offered with a smirk and wink even as any claims to meet that standard unravels unravels around us.

This naive realism goes hand in hand with a pan-partisanship in the consumption of information. As nobody ever actually meets these impossible standards of objectivity, it provides a ready excuse to dismiss any information one doesn’t wish to hear. You can always pick apart the choices other people make when they try to state facts. You can quibble over the language they use to express themselves or ask why they think this fact here is important and not that one there? Nobody meets the standard in actual practice, so each and every source of information comes ready-made with all manner of excuses for rejecting it. One has only to make exceptions for those one wishes to keep after all. If those exceptions seem selective, well then, by what standard would anyone presume to make such a judgement?

***

All of this leaves us with is a sense of bias which provides license for more of the same, and a way of talking about bias that reduces everyone and every approach to information to the level of open partisanship and nothing but partisanship. All biases are equal in this mindset, because those adopting it do not really think about how one sorts a reasonable account of any given subject from a foolish one. They needn’t accept the authority (or the credibility) of a judge, or a scholar, or a journalist, because they can find evidence of a personal point of view in each.

…if they want to.

This flattening of critical merit makes every controversy into a sort of intellectual playground, a range of possibilities all of which possess equal intellectual merit. It puts every couch-potato responding to a 3-minute news segment on Covid19 right on par with a scientist who has studied infectious diseases throughout her career. It empowers the Dunning-Krueger effect, in effect, by denying that there is any meaningful difference in knowledge to begin with.

***

I keep coming back to this, not because the problem is conceptually interesting, but because I find myself talking to so many people who seem to live in this mindset. They know what sources they like, and they know which sources they cannot be bothered with, but their own explanations boil down to a kind of unacknowledged voluntarism. Intellectual rigor of any kind simply does not enter into this mindset, because every actual stance is, for them rooted in pure personal bias. A professional historian writing about World War II might as well be their friend Frank who told them about a thing he saw once in a movie. A journalist summarizing countless hours of research enjoys no more credibility than the first thought that jumps into their own head upon hearing the story. A medical doctor talking about a global pandemic is easily trumped by a blog post detailing an elaborate conspiracy theory. These same people are happy to sing the praises of objectivity, and in particular to use high standards as a foil against their enemies, but in practice, their mental life is a playground of choices made on thin pretexts. That is all they hear from others; it is all they produce themselves.

I find myself struggling to produce a simple account of objectivity and bias, one which affirms neither this naive realism nor this practical pan-partisanship.

***

If I am thinking about bias in the presentation of information, and I am, I usually want to make a distinction between 3 broadly different approaches, objective, polemic, and deceptive. This distinction isn’t metaphysical. It’s a question of intent.

When I refer to an account as objective, I do not mean to suggest that its author has achieved some miraculous account devoid of any personal bias. What I mean in such cases, is that the author has made an effort to express the relevant facts of the story, and perhaps to provide an account of the different positions others have taken on the subject. I will still have questions about the author’s specific choices, the accuracy of their descriptions, and if I know something about the subject, I am likely to sense bias creeping into their narratives. When I call it ‘objective’, it is because I can still see some objective information creeping through the haze of personal bias, and because I perceive the author’s goal as being rooted in the objective features of the story. Whatever their personal views, there is something about the facts of the matter that has their interest. If they are doing their job right, it will have mine as well.

If I am ever tempted to dismiss the prospect of an objective account as a result of the many subjectivities that always seem to accompany them, I have only to consider some of the alternatives. There is a world of difference between someone who is trying to tell a story based on the facts as they understand them, and someone for whom a story is solely an instrument of their own personal agenda. While bias might count as failure in the former case, in the latter, that bias is precisely the point.

If ever we forget the merits of an objective account, their absence is certainly noticed whenever we encounter polemic work. An author or speaker whose primary goal is the advancement of a partisan view tells a very different story than one who is trying to give us an objective account. The facts they elect to provide are not merely shaded by personal bias, they are explicitly chosen on that basis. One literally doesn’t get any information that doesn’t help the polemicist build his case. His language too is chosen for the purpose of expressing a clear stance on the subject in question. We don’t expect of such writers that they will spend a lot of time on things that don’t facilitate their own argument. To so so would be setting ourselves up for disappointment.

What do I mean? Let’s take for example the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of WWII. I have plenty of textbooks that provide a basic (if horribly brief) account of this event. One of the major controversies of this story is the question of whether or not doing so was necessary and/or justified in any sense by the circumstances facing the allies near the end of that war. Any author trying to tell me that story will normally provide some account of the reasons for dropping the bomb, and in doing so, they are likely to show some sense of their own take on that controversial subject They will cover the facts most relevant to their position on the subject, and they will likely describe them in language that suggests some degree of their own sense as to whether or not the decision was sound. Some authors try to address the controversy by providing an account of the controversy itself, telling us what different people have said about the question over the years. In such cases, it would not be unreasonable to expect they will do a better job of accounting for those positions they agree with than the ones they do not agree with.

…all of which is very different from reading a text in which an author takes a stand on that very question. You can find such readings. You can find people who will tell you the decision was absolutely appropriate, and they will make the case as to why. Others will describe it as an atrocity, and they too will provide an argument as to why that is the case. In neither of these instances would one expect the polemicist to spend a great deal of time covering facts which don’t help their case. If they do, it will only be to show how their position deals with these facts after all, and so their account of these seemingly neutral features of the story will of course be largely an exercise in stretching a specific viewpoint to cover the facts in question. None of this is a terrible thing. There is a place for polemics in human communication. My point is simply that a polemic is very different from an attempt at an objective account. If bias is a bug in the former; it is a feature of the latter, a genuine benefit. If polemic writing is well done, it leaves us with a clear vision of the viewpoint expressed within it. It is a good thing, but it is a different kind of thing than we get from those trying to write a more through and objective account.

Whatever the goals of a writer or a speaker, whether it be polemic or objective, we can also distinguish between those who show a certain respect for truth and reason and those who are consciously deceptive about such matters. Even the most strident of polemicists is perfectly capable of telling the truth as she understands it and using reasoning that is at least plausible rather than fallacious. On the other hand, some people are just bad actors. Not only do they make a conscious choice to advance a single point of view; they are willing to deceive to us in the service of that point of view. Their account of the facts will contain not mere errors but conscious lies, and their reasoning will include deliberate cases of misdirection. Such people are not merely influenced by personal values and personal agendas; they operate free of any moral or intellectual restraint. Lest we forget that objectivity matters, or give up on it altogether, an encounter with such a deceitful soul ought to remind us that facts matter after all, and so does sound reasoning.

***

As I finish this, I am struck by my own feelings of discomfort over the way I am talking about ‘objectivity.’ I really do not mean to advocate some naive objective metaphysics, but I am sure some folks will say the way I have tried to qualify my use of the term here is inadequate, but this post isn’t really meant to outline an epistemological theory. It is mean to describe some differences in communicative practice. The need to do so is motivated less by abstract philosophical questions than a general sense that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain any standards of honesty or intellectual rigor in public discourse. The problem isn’t just that some people cannot tell the difference between sound journalism and internet gossip; it is that such people increasingly dominate our public discourse and they are increasingly able to obscure such distinctions for purposes of public policy. Much of their ability to do so lies in their ability to find personal or political bias in even the most professional of publications (whether scholarly or journalistic). My own point here is not to suggest that some people are above personal bias; it is call attention to the different ways in which bias enters into the work of public media.

For some people bias is a problem they can never really seem to escape.

For others, bias is precisely the point.

For some, it is the only point.

Uki

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A friend and colleague of mine, Moema Umann, has a short film out.

She describes it as follows: “In frozen Alaska, a child wonders about distance, solitude and boredom.”

Uki is part of the Pandemos Project, a series of short films about people dealing with Covid 19 within the varied contexts of their own lives.

Moe’s other work can be found on her Youtube channel. I’m particularly fond of some of the films she has been doing on immigration. Have a look!

Just How Much Fallacy is Your To Quoque?

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Judging you!!!

We all learned that two wrongs don’t make a right when we were kids, didn’t we?

And we learned that ‘you too’ arguments are a fallacy back in Freshman logic class, right?

Right?

Okay, maybe not everybody, but this is a lesson a lot of us probably have in common. Most educated people ought to know that there is something wrong with answering a criticism by saying “you do it too!” or some variation thereof. Hell, most decent people ought to know better than that regardless of their education.

So, why do we do it?

Hell, almost everybody does it on at least some occasions. To be fair, some people do it more than others. They will do it every chance they get. Others try not to, most of the time anyway. So, the penchant for answering a serious concern with a quick ‘you-too’ gambit varies from one person to another, but I don’t know that anyone avoids it entirely.

This tactic also comes and goes with the times. It’s been particularly common for the last 4 years, so much so that folks even coined a new term for it; ‘whataboutism.’ The “Your side does it too” gambit has made a regular appearance in public debate for a long time, but it’s been particularly common for the space of about one presidential administration (or an administration plus the campaign before it). So, the internet collectively coined a new term to describe it.

Okay, but why is this kind of argument so common?

One reason? It’s not always a fallacy.

Another? For some people, it really is a way of life.

Variable Relevance: The (ir-)relevance of ‘you too’ games varies in a couple of interesting ways.

If someone corrects my behavior and I respond with “you do it too?” am I really engaging in a fallacy?

Variable Conclusions: If I mean by that you-too response that I am not really wrong, because you do it too, then yes. Hell yes! If that’s what I mean, then I am absolutely engaging in the tu quoque fallacy. If, on the other hand, I mean; “Okay, I need to correct my behavior, but so should you, because you do in fact do this too,” then my response is not entirely unreasonable. I’m not denying my wrong-doing in this instance. I am just asking you to correct your own behavior right along with me.

Alternatively, I could employ a ‘you-too’ argument by of refusing to accept a rule that I have good reason to believe others are not going to follow themselves. Let’s imagine we are playing a game of soccer and you tell me I should stop touching the ball with my hands. I could then say you do it too as a means of insisting either that you stop yourself or that we are just going to continue playing an odd game of soccer in which both of us are allowed to touch the ball with our hands. In this case, I am refusing to play by unfair rules, or unfair application of those rules.

It seems that there are at least some conclusions which could be reasonably drawn from a premise beginning with an assertion that is essentially saying “you do it too.”

Plus Alternatives: There is another context in which “you too” starts to become more relevant than it would otherwise be. In this case, the tu-quoque fallacy has some company, because the False Alternatives fallacy comes in here right along with it. This is the context of constrained choices. If I tell you that apples bother my teeth, so I don’t like eating them, it would normally be quite foolish to respond by telling me that cookies have too much sugar. Whether or not cookies have too much sugar, apples still bother my teeth (always feels like I am biting into styrofoam). That does not change if cookies are bad for me. So, the cookie-themed response seems quite irrelevant.

…unless I want a snack, and I have exactly 2 options!

If my universe of possible choices includes an apple and a cookie, then problems with one might very well be a reasonable answer to my expressed concerns about the other. It’s not so much a logical inference as it is a conversational implicature. A possible respondent hears me complaining about the apple, realizes I have offered it as a reason for choosing the cookie instead, and responds by reminding me of a good reason to avoid the cookie

Of course apples and cookies don’t make these arguments themselves, so if this is a concern about false alternatives, how does it relate to the tu-quoque fallacy? Well, it comes into play when the apples and cookies do make these arguments themselves, or at least when we divide ourselves up into an obviously apple camp and a clearly cookie camp.

Or maybe when we try to pick a President.

If I say that Donald Trump has been self-dealing throughout his Presidency as a means of saying he is a terrible President, it wouldn’t normally help matters to say that Hillary does it too (using the Uranium One story about her charity foundation for example). Neither would it help to raise the prospect of similar corruption on the part of the Biden family. These become relevant during elections precisely because the obvious alternative choice is understood, and so the range of viable possibilities is narrowed sufficiently to make these normally irrelevant arguments matter after all.

And here, 3rd party-proponents will have an obvious complaint of their own. What if there are better choices? What if you can point to a candidate that doesn’t have a history of self-dealing (or, more to the point, a history of having the charge of self-dealing leveled at them by political opponents)? That’s a reasonable concern and one that speaks directly to the very kind of problem that logicians are trying to call our attention to when speaking about ‘false alternatives’ and ‘tu-quoque’ fallacies. Of course, part of the concern here lies in just how viable the third parties really are and what you are trying to accomplish with your vote, both of which speak to the question of just how constrained the alternatives here really are. If a 3rd party might really win, then it would be quite illogical to respond to a criticism of one major party candidate as though it were an obvious endorsement of another. Conversely, you may know that the 3rd party is going to lose but choose to vote for them anyway as a means of signaling to the major parties that they should take you own political values more seriously. If enough others vote the same way, this could become leverage in the next election. If a 3rd party candidate is, however, not a serious contender for winning an election, and the election is just too important to risk on a symbolic statement, then we may be back in the realm of 2 real choices and dirt on one viable candidate really will have to be weighed against dirt on the other. In such cases, “your guy does it too” and “the alternative is worse” start to become relevant again.

Where your choices are constrained, criticisms of one choice can provide a meaningful response to criticisms of another, but this is still problematic. Such arguments don’t erase problems, and they don’t disprove initial claims. If you tell me, for example, that Hunter Biden was using his father’s position as Vice President under the Obama administration to make money, reminding you that the Trump family profits from his role as President (e.g. through fees paid by the Secret Service to Trump properties during his visits, use of political leverage to get Ivanka’s patents in China, or simply the profits made when foreign diplomats choose to stay at Trump properties while negotiating with him) will not prove the claims about Hunter Biden are untrue. If I want to do that, then I have to provide an argument directly debunking the claims about Hunter Biden activities. What do I get out of calling attention to similar shenanigans about Trump? I get an argument about the significance one relative to the other. I get an argument about how each balances against the other when we assume both criticisms are of roughly equal merit. That may not be the best argument I could produce on the topic, but it would not be fallacious. It’s in this context that ‘you too’ (or at least ‘your guy too’) arguments start to make a little more sense.

One fascinating thing about this is the way that the relevance of such arguments comes and goes. I understood claims about Uranium One, debunked as they are, as a concern in the 2016 election. It was fascinating to me, however, seeing Trump fans continue bringing this up in response to criticism of his actions well into the Trump administration. I found myself saying; “well let’s impeach her too” then, by which I hoped to suggest that this was no longer a relevant means of answering concerns about Trump’s own actions. As the 2020 election heated up, concerns about Biden became a more viable means of offsetting those about Trump (at least to those who care nothing about proportion or credibility of the sources). In terms of addressing the choice at hand, it was useful for the Trump camp to have a claim about political corruption in play precisely because they knew many such claims could be held against Donald. What the merits of each claim really are is of course a debatable question, but having comparable accusations on the table makes possible a kind of argument about how one wishes to weigh one relative to the other.

When we were all expected to weigh Donald Trump’s character against that of another person, complaints about that other person could pass a certain test of minimal relevance to complaints about him. So, the relevance comparison to other people to criticisms of Donald Trump came and went over the course of his Presidential administration. When he was operating on his own, and the only viable question was about his own competence and integrity, they should have gone away.

Of course they didn’t.

Constraining Personalities: This brings us to one last point; some people thrive on the sort of constrained choices I am describing here. When they face an open range of possibilities, they work very hard to create the illusion of constrained choices anyway.

Yes, I have Donald Trump in mind here.

I am also writing about his many fans.

There is a reason the Trump camp was such a source of whataboutism claims throughout his Presidency. This is both a feature of the base to which he consciously pitched his politics and to personality of Donald Trump himself.

Audience: There are people who live in a world of artificially constrained choices, and you can see it their responses to a broad range if issues. Did you say Fox news got something wrong? Well then you must be watching too much MSNBC. If there is a problem with capitalism, well then why don’t you just go try China? Don’t like Christianity? You must be an atheist! Is the American healthcare system broken? Well then, let me tell you the horror stories coming out of Canada! Concerned about police brutality? You must support riots in the streets! Don’t like coke? Shut up and drink your Beer!

And so on…

(Okay, I might not be that be that serious about the coke and beer example.)

Perhaps all of us fall into this way of thinking from time to time, but some people really do seem to think in such terms on a regular basis. They live in a world of social Manichaeism, a world in which 2 rival forces contend with one another for control of the world and of our loyalties. Anything said against one can clearly be understood as support for the other, because all questions of value must be measured according to the standard of which force one wishes to align oneself with. Other options are always illusory. You are with the lord of light or you are with the lord of darkness, and if you don’t declare your loyalties openly, then that is a good reason to suspect you are on the wrong side of this conflict. In effect, such people keep making use of the false-alternatives fallacy because they actually do live in a world in which their choices are always constrained. Their assumptions about the world around them and the choices available to all of us consistently reduce all choices to a binary opposition.

Always!

Brief Technicality: I should add that the not all binary opposition are equal. What typically happens here is that people looking at contrary relationships often construe them as contradictory relationships? What is the difference? In a Contradictory relationship between two claims, they two have opposite truth values. If one is true, the other is false. If one is false, the other is true. In a contrary relationship between two claims, on the other hand, one of them must be false, but it is at least possible that both will be false.

In the case of either a contrary relationship or a contradictory relationship, you could infer the falsehood of one claim from the truth of the other, but you could only infer the truth of one claim from the falsehood of the other in the case of a contradictory relationship, not in the case of a contrary relationship.

Case in point: If I know that John is voting for Biden, I can conclude he is clearly not voting for Trump (unless he wants his ballot to be thrown out). If, on the other hand, I know he is not voting for Biden, I could not normally conclude that he is voting for Trump. He might be voting for a third party after all (and whether or not that is a good idea brings up all the points made above). So, political loyalties are not usually well modeled on the basis of a contradictory relationship. Such loyalties are contrary at best even if specific choices made on the basis of those loyalties (e.g. voting) might be framed in terms of contradictory relationships.

Another example? If you like capitalism, it’s probably safe to assume you are not in favor of communism, but could we really infer from a criticism of capitalism that you were a communist? No. You could be in favor of some alternative political economy. Old fashioned trade guilds, perhaps coupled with mercantilism, subsistence economics (as practiced in many indigenous communities), or good old Georgism (which may or may not be a form of socialism, depending on who you ask), all come to mind. (So, does rejecting the terms ‘capitalism’ or ‘communism’ outright as being to vague and sweeping.). Inferring support for one of these highly loaded terms from opposition to the other is hardly reasonable, and yet, people do it all the time.

People who should know better.

But people often treat contrary relationships as though they were contradictory, thus enabling a faulty implicature, the inference of a specific loyalty from criticism of an alternative commonly understood to be its opposite. This empowers both false alternatives and tu-quoque arguments. For some people this approach to decision making is just too gratifying to resist.

We sometimes encounter simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, and hence make choices between contradictory values, but much of our thinking takes place in a world with a broader range of possibilities. Those locked into the mindset of Social manichaeism are constantly pushing us to think in narrower terms to begin with. If all of us are prone to miss the possibilities from time to time, then some people seem to take this as a point of principle.

Personality: Enter a living train-wreck such as Donald Trump! He thrives on constrained choices precisely because his own actions and his own statements cannot stand up to scrutiny on their own merits. Whatever the man may have been like when he was younger, he has long since accumulated a range of of bad deals, unpaid debts, and obvious lies in a personal history of chronically abusive behavior. His own credibility would never stand up to scrutiny, not from anyone making an honest effort.

So, how does he manage?

He always brings with him a broad range of bluffs and diversions, and one of the most important is a constant penchant for attacking someone in virtually any context, and for doing it in the most humiliating way possible. Every claim he might make, every question one might ask, is then subsumed under the effect of this personal attack. For those under attack, this means trying to balance the need to defend yourself against the effort to address any objective issues that may be on the table. For bystanders, it is a question of balancing concerns over Trump’s behavior against those he raises about others. In the ensuing hostilities, trump can raise and drop any issues he wishes, make false claims, and set them aside at his liesure. If he is caught flat footed, the solution is as simple as insulting the person who pointed it out or any source they may rely upon. The end-result is a choice between him or someone else, and any doubts about that other person whatsoever will be enough for Donald. He has spent his lifetime exploiting the benefit of the doubt. It is a benefit does not share with others.

The logic of the whataboutism gambit suits Trump’s style perfectly.

Is Trump University credible? What about Hillary!?!

Did Donald tell a lie? Ask Obama if you can keep your insurance!?!

Is he mistreating immigrants? What are the Dems doing to protect us!?! (…and after 2016, ask Obama, because he did it first?)

Is the Trump family self-dealing through their position in government? Where is Hunter!?!

You get the idea.

This is a man in deep need of enemies. The closest he will ever get to redemption lies in the hope that those around him will think him better than the alternative. Small wonder that he preferred to keep Hillary on the table as a kind of shadow President, a mythic character he could use as a whipping woman even in the 2020 election. At the peak of his Presidency, when she should have been off the table entirely, she was still the answer to concerns about Trump, replaced only when Biden stepped in to become Trump’s new foil, and only partially so at that. Trump has always needed a constrained choice to make a case for himself, because he is of no value on his own.

To know the worth of Donald Trump, one has always to ask what about someone else.

A man like that is made for the sort of strife we have seen this week, and throughout his Presidency. He is at his peak when the whole world has to think in terms of the constrained choices he seeks to bring about in all times and all places. For most of us these moments come and go. For the likes of Donald Trump, such moments are the only ones that count.

***

Is Donald Trump the only person like this? Not by a long shot, but he is my exhibit ‘A’, and as he is still in a position to do us all harm, he seems to be a relevant example. It was the dramatic nature of our recent elections that got me thinking about the way that certain arguments seem more compelling at some times than other.

I could just as easily have written an epitaph for nuance.

Perhaps that would have been more to the point.

Let us hope that subtlety finds room to breathe in all our minds sometime soon! It is one thing to say ‘no’ with conviction when that is what is called for, and it is quite another to live in a world that is polemics all the way down.

In the end, the point here is that there seem to be some folks who really thrive on the ability to reduce the world to a pair of choices under the assumption that to affirm one is to deny the other. Elections may be a special time to such folks, a moment in which certain patterns of thought seem a little less flawed and a moment in which the rest of the world may just be happy to join in that same pattern of thinking.

We probably all engage in similar patterns of thought in many other contexts, sports rivalries and all manner of brand loyalties come to mind. For my own part, I hope soon to set some of this aside and think about other things. I can’t quite say that i am ready yet.

I can’t quite say that the rest of America is either.

Hopefully soon!

The Politics of Personification

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As I watch the election coverage tonight, and I wonder how a President who has compromised our national security, broken countless laws, enriched himself at the public expense, and willfully allowed an infectious disease to kill thousands of Americans is still in the running, or even on the ticket at this point, I am thinking more and more about the way Americans think about the electoral college.

What first got me thinking about this?

It was the election maps deplorables began circulating after 2016, maps showing how much of America voted in favor of Donald Trump. Comparing the vast swaths of red turf against the lonely spots of blue on these maps, it was easy to think of Trump’s victory as fitting. How could the rest of us doubt his legitimacy if so much of America voted for him? This wasn’t even close.

Clearly, the vast majority of America wanted Trump as President!

Of course these maps show us territories, not people, a fact easily demonstrated by accounting for population using a 3D projection.

Once you do that, the story quickly changes!

If you are counting territory on a map, Trump’s win back in 2016 looks impressive as Hell. It’s a decisive victory. In fact, it’s a grand slam! How could any Democrat even show their face in public after such a one-sided slaughter?

Once you account for actual people, however, it’s easier to remember that Donald Trump didn’t even win the popular vote. He won the electoral college, but the majority of Americans who weighed in on the 2016 election actually chose the other candidate.

If the will of the American people had determined the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton would have been president these last 4 years.

The discrepancy between the popular vote and the actual outcome of the 2016 election kicked off a new round of discussion about the electoral college. Democrats had a new reason to oppose it. Republicans had a new reason to defend it. This of course means some of us were treated to a whole new round of sophomoric semantics over the difference between a republic and a democracy.

Which brings me to a fascinating argument in favor of the electoral college. You see this a lot from the right wing, the notion that without the electoral college, a few states would dominate our national politic. According to some of these folks, L.A. County alone would have more impact than many states. New York City would have more impact than quite a few states. The Electoral College is, according to this narrative, the only thing preventing ‘coastal elites’ from dictating every major political decision at the expense of the more rural states.

It’s a fascinating narrative, one with clear villains and clear victims. The story elicits a genuine fear for the states that would be oppressed under such conditions.

What’s particularly fascinating about this narrative is that its characters are geographical units. They are stretches of land. Without the electoral college, it is the Dakotas that will suffer, Montana, Wyoming, or even my own state of Alaska. Actual people appear in this story, only as the loosely implied victims of oppression by virtue of being within the rural states of our nation. The implication that anything is wrong only emerges so long as you remain focused on geography, forgetting how the electoral college actually skews the significance of individual voters to begin with.

As a citizen of Alaska, my vote counts more than that of the Californians in my family. Hell, it even counts more than those of the Texans! It is the electoral college which makes this possible, because it boosts the impact of smaller states, giving us more representation per person than than states with larger populations. This means each individual voter gets more impact out of a vote cast in a rural state than she does in a vote cast somewhere like New York. Without the electoral college, our votes could be given equal value, and if certain states have less impact in such a system, it would only be because our individual votes are actually given equal value. The present system gives some people more of a say over who becomes President than others. Equalizing our the votes of individual citizens effectively skews the significance of regions, even as it puts us on a level playing field with each other. So, the narrative which has us crying about mistreatment of rural sates has the ironic effect of making equality look like its opposite, and that only works if we mistake states for people.

So, what does this mean? It means the prospect of keeping or rejecting the electoral college poses a decision over which matters more?

Geography?

Or people?

Television: A Loathe-Like Relationship

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My old cable company (back when I used to live in Flagstaff, AZ) sucked all kinds of rot-water. I lost track of the number of times I would come home on a Friday night to find my service had been cut off for no reason, or the connection just didn’t work, and because the cable company was closed for the weekend, I could not get things fixed until Monday, just before heading back out to the Navajo Nation for the week. Pay-per-view never worked, and of course there is the usual problem of umpteen channels of nothing worth watching.

Hated it!

I also remember watching about the 5th or 6th episode of MTV’s Real World in a row one night, and mumbling to myself; “What could possibly be more stupid than this show?”

I was alone, of course, but a little voice in the back of my head spoke loud and clear; “You watching it.”

One day, I moved across town, and at a certain point I realized this little mini-migration, along the fees for changing various services over to the new location, was going to cost a little more than I could afford on my next paycheck. So, I asked my cable company if I could delay one payment for two-weeks. I could have started with any number of other companies, but for some reason I called these guys first. They said, ‘yes’, and that was enough to solve my problem.

…or at least it would have been, had the person who actually said ‘yes’ to my request been authorized to do so, or even if that had been possible under their actual policies. Apparently, this was not the case. My service was cut off. Nobody cared that I had been told explicitly that I could do this, but they were happy to take my payment along with a couple extra fees and schedule a time to reconnect me.

I told them ‘nevermind.’

My initial plan was to save up and get a satellite dish. I figured it would take about a month to save up the money. What I didn’t plan on was kicking the television habit altogether. By the end of that month, I no longer needed, or wanted television. I had somehow just gotten used to life without it. I watched plenty of movies, and the internet enabled me to catch many great scenes without submitting myself to a whole show (or a whole series), but I no longer wanted continuous access to television.

That was that!

***

Letting go of television was one of the best decisions I ever in made in my life. I listened to a lot of great music, and I watched some great movies, and I dabbled at writing some things myself, to no avail of course, but I did find the experience a lot more satisfying than your average television show.

When asked about my seemingly freakish existence without functioning connection to a television service, I used to tell people it wasn’t that I wouldn’t want to watch TV, but rather, that I would sometimes watch it all day whether there was anything on it worth watching or not. (That Real-world-binge late on a Friday night comes to mind!) Ever since I was a kid, I recall, getting into a certain kind of mood, one that just made sitting in front of the idiot box seem like the perfect way to spend an hour, or a whole weekend. If that mood hit, I was watching something, even if that something disgusted me. Saying ‘no’ to television service was a way of saying ;no’ to that mood and the wasted time that went with it.

People usually responded to this explanation by telling me how to set up an antenna or steal my cable service.

Seriously, it’s almost as though some folks just can’t imagine a life without television. Life without TV must be an unfortunate existence, they seem to suppose, and so they respond to clear statements of preference for life without it as if it is a clear cry for help in getting television after all.

Ah well!

***

Things I noticed during my time without service: Some things about television got more interesting when I didn’t watch it regularly, and some got less interesting, a lot less interesting. I mostly remember the latter.

Laugh Tracks: They annoy the hell out of me now. I’m not used to them anymore, and when I hear one I feel personally insulted. All to often, a show runs with a joke that isn’t even remotely funny and uses the laugh track to try and convince us that it’s worth laughing anyway. This didn’t bother me when I was younger, but it sure does now. Those of us who grew up watching television have been trained to go along with this. My laugh-track training now has a glitch and so a laugh track is often enough to take me right out of a show altogether.

I hate them so much!

Made-for-Television Documentaries: the average television documentary crams about 5 minutes of information into a half-hour show. How they manage it, I will never know. The information these shows reveal is consistently lame, because just like so much television fiction, their stories are shaped by people who don’t trust an audience to handle anything but common television tropes. Add to that, the necessity of re-introducing the audience to the whole story at the end of every commercial break, and you have a whole bunch of fluff. If you are watching one of these documentaries for 8 minutes or so, half of that is reiteration of whatcame before and half is telling you something that won’t introduce anything new into the world of your present understanding. It really isn’t worth the time it takes to watch it

Or even to fast forward through it.

There are some amazing documentaries out there. They are not made for television.

News: I never noticed this pattern until I left off of television for awhile, but once I went without for a few years, it jumped out at me plain as day. If you were to measure the amount of time most news programs tease a story over the course of a day and then measure the amount of time they spend on the actual story, you would find that the former often dwarfs the latter.

All day, some of these stations just keep telling you about what’s coming up on a certain news segment that evening. The show starts, and they remind you about the story t the beginning and the end of the first segment. They do a commercial break and then they tell you the story is coming up soon, then remind you its coming after covering something else. This happens again, because they saved the big story for last. Finally, the story comes up and in the 5 or so minutes that follow, they add 1 or 2 new pieces of information to the stuff you already knew and the story is over before you even begin to get into it.

If these guys spent half as much time covering a story as they do selling it, they might be worth watching, but that’s a damned big if.

Drives me nuts!

Good: What I like: There are certain things I enjoy more once you stay away from television for awhile. I just can’t find many patterns to them. I do think it’s mostly in the area of humor. Because I am not constantly exposed to some clichés, they seem less cliché to me. So, a show that is actually just recycling that one great inspiration from the first season may get a bigger laugh out of me than they would if I had been watching it all along. Others in the room may wonder why I am laughing at all, but for me, the joke is new. Their delivery is polished, and it’s perfect. I’m laughing my ass off at a joke everyone else already finds tiresome.

Random Television Sets: The first thing most people do when they walk into a hotel room is turn on the television set. I still did this for years after letting go of TV in my own home. Somewhere along the line I stopped doing that. Nowadays, I will stay for several days in a hotel room without even looking for the remote, much less hitting the ‘on’ button. It’s the same when I visit other people’s homes. If television viewing is the activity of the day, I used to plop down and enjoy it with them. Nowadays, if someone is doing something else in another part of the house, I am a little more likely to seek them out than to sit down with the television viewers.

***

My significant other, Moni, has very different ideas about television.

She likes it!

After some pretty serious battles over the matter, I finally surrendered, and we ended up with cable service connections after all. It’s a big house, I can usually escape the television if I want to. I do find that a couple of decades without the box have left me much better prepared to just walk away fro the television set than my younger self could manage. I can look at a television without feeling the overwhelming urge to sacrifice my day to its mind-altering effects.

This is a relief.

When that cable guy first showed up, I had visions of a hours spent grumbling in front of reality television or some such atrocity. I felt like an addict teased with my former drug of choice.

Happily the temptation has proven less than tempting.

For the most part.

***

One of the unexpected benefits of life with my own personal ambassador for television is that she has introduced me to a number of shows I missed during my years away from the box. The experience is hit or miss for me, but the hits have been worth the time.

Arrested Development: This was truly a brilliant show. I am sorry I missed it the first time around, and ever so grateful to have been introduced to it after the fact. I could watch the whole thing again, to be honest, and some day I probably will.

I gushes because it’s good.

Becker: Amusing, but not enough to keep me watching.

Gilmore Girls: This is also amusing, but somehow, I doubt that I’m in the target audience for this show.

Friends: I remember really enjoying this show when it first came out (back when i still had television service. I particularly enjoyed a lot of the Chandler humor, specifically, the way his tone of voice often failed to match the content of his words. He could concede a point with all the conviction of a man declaring absolute victory. (That still makes me laugh.) And of course, the girls were crush-worthy. None of that mattered by the end of the first season though. The show was already old, and frankly the Ross character was so far under my skin, the very thought of watching another episode made me a little queasy. I mean, well done to David Shwimmer! A lesser actor could not have made me hate his character so much, but I do think I was supposed to like him. I just don’t.

Moni watches friends all the time now. I have several episodes memorized, just from chance moments passing through the living room while it plays for the umpteenth time. …Grumble! I still laugh at some of the jokes, and I still cringe at others. Ross still makes me want to gouge my eyes and ears out with a broken ink pen.

Monk: This was really clever. The cleverness got old though. I enjoyed a season or so, and that was enough.

Myboys: One of my old college buddies plays “Kenny” in this show. I knew it was a good run for him, and I was happy to see him have it, but I had no idea how cool the show was. When Moni met Mike at a New Year’s Party, I finally got some notion of just great that gig must have been for him. (She totally freaked!) Moni made me watch the entire series of course, and I enjoyed every episode of it.

Now if only Superstore would make more use of Mike!

Lost: We watched a season or two of lost, and I just wasn’t down to keep at it. I get tired of story lines that keep pulling the rug out from under reality, and this was clearly a worst offender. (I had heard complaints about this feature of the show before, and I must say, I was surprised to see just how bad it was.) Why invest yourself in plot point if the writers feel free to take it away in the next episode and just tell you the whole thing was an illusion, only to rip up the new reality once again at the start of the next season.

The Mindi Project: This is fun.

Community: I had no idea Chevy Chase was on television back when this was showing, and I can’t believe I missed it. Also, I think I was 2 or 3 seasons in before I realized Donald Glover was Childish Gambino. Moni was playing the America video, and I think my response went something like this;

“Hey Donald Glover is doing a parody of the America video, but why would he make fun of that… You know, he’s sticking pretty close to the original here, he.. oh!”

Ah well, I’m old and I’m white. I’m really not supposed to know about rappers anyway, am I? Anyway, “Community” was fantastic. The paint-ball episodes are especially brilliant. Hell, they are absolute genius. I don’t mean ‘genius’ for television. I mean genius! I would watch the whole series all over again, just to see one of them one more time.

Walking Dead: I tried binge-watching this. The zombie scenes get old when you watch them back to back. My internal monologue usually goes something like this; “Hit him in the head! No, now, hit that one in the head! Be careful, somebody is going to slip or something and one will almost get you, then someone will fix it (usually), and then you guys can just hit the rest of them in the head….” Suffice to say, there wasn’t enough good stuff happening outside that theme to sustain my interest. I quit a few seasons in.

Downton Abby: This was interesting. It was also irritating. I may try to explain both feelings in a post some day.

Supernatural: This is the best and worst of television for me. There are times when this show reminds me of those days sitting in front of the television because that’s what I wanted to do at that moment and the story line just wasn’t quite bad enough to change my mind. Seriously, the endless plot twists with angels and demons and various powerful entities grow tiresome. A bit like all the warp-drive talk on Star Trek, the world-building narratives in this show just get old for me. That said, I am actually amazed that they somehow landed on a final story-line in which the heroes of the show actively plot to kill God himself.

..and the fan base is right behind him.

(Chuck is such a dick!)

And seriously, that is brilliant! Getting to this point has occasionally been a little tedious, but the shear audacity of this final plot line is just amazing.

When Supernatural is at its best though, it is when they are doing one of their satirical episodes. Super natural has done some absolutely amazing stories commending on aspects of popular culture or various television tropes. The trickster episodes are good for this. Whether Sam and Dean find themselves in a completely different kind of of show, or suddenly deprived of their role as protagonists in the series, I know damned well I am going to enjoy what follows. Those episodes are right on par with the paintball episodes in Community.

****

Ah well! I’m not entirely sure what all this adds up to. I haven’t even talked about what television meant to me as a kid. Like so many children, that box was my main baby-sitter, and it had an awful lot of time to influence my ways of looking at the world. That said, this post has already gone on for far too long.

I am mostly talking about a medium that is rapidly evolving into new things. Many of the patterns I grumble about here have already changed. Others are changing now. Whether that is for the better or for the worse, I do not know. One thing that strikes me as I look up at the post above is just how much I have to say about television for somebody who has actively tried to avoid it for much of my life.I still say ‘no’ to television a lot, but as the rambling words above demonstrate, it is still a large part of my life.

Television is a big part of modern life.

Big enough to reach even its nay-sayers.

A Certain Value of ‘Greatness’

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When exactly do you suppose America was great according to Donald Trump?

When do you suppose it was great in the minds of his supporters?

America is not great now, at least not in the minds of Donald Trump, and it certainly wasn’t great when he ran for office. That much is clear from the very nature of his old campaign slogan. “Make America great AGAIN,” certainly means it’s not great in the present age, at least not when he decided to run.

Perhaps Trump and his supporters might think to claim the economic stats he used to parade as success stories in the first 3 years of his administration made the difference and pulled us all the way from something else to greatness. How those economic trends differed from those under Obama is a different question, and whether or not Trump did anything but coast his way to a good look on paper is another. Either way, I could imagine he and his supporters might see in that enough cause to claim putting his label on the nation had made us all great again, but that would be a thin pretext indeed. Regardless, the moment in which this pretext could be claimed is long since gone at this point, and we are back to the same other-than-great world Trump seemed to see in America back in 2016.

***

So, when was America great in the minds of Trump and his supporters?

Could it be when Thomas Jefferson said that “all men are created equal?

Or when Martin Luther King challenged us all to live up to that very principle?

Some folks might say ‘both,’ and maybe so, but that is the answer to a different question. I didn’t ask which message you approve or admire? I asked when do you think America was great in the minds of Donald Trump and his supporters?

Maybe the former, but only if we discount the latter. They might well love the promise of equality and freedom, but only so long as that promise remained unfulfilled for a great many Americans. To the deplorables, the gap between American ideals and our political realities is an essential feature of our greatness. The greatness they seek is always gained at the expense of others.

***

I really don’t see how there could be any doubt in the matter. This man is a bully, and he has a bully’s sense of the world around him. His heroes are bullies. His villains are those that stand in their way. The vast majority of mankind are but cannon fodder by which his heroes distinguish themselves. They are the human sacrifices by which true greatness distinguishes itself from the mere men and women of ordinary humanity. Greatness in the world of Trump is a boot ground into the neck of someone unable to do anything about it.

(Or a knee.)

When was American great according yo Donald Trump and those who support him?

***

When slaves were sold on the market in Charleston, South Carolina, and when the profits from slavery flowed into all of the United States, North and South alike. This was greatness in Donald Trump’s world.

When Confederate Statues went up all across the south, reminding African-American that those who held slaves in bondage were the real heroes of their time, that was greatness in the world of Donald Trump. The suffering of African-Americans in slavery, and in segregation was (and is) a small price to pay for the greatness made possible by the profits of slavery.

…and the second class citizenship which was to follow.

There are those who would return African-Americans to that very second class status in the most explicit terms possible. Trump is a hero to these people. He would deny it of course, but countless White Supremacists have organized in the wake of his rise to power, encouraged by a dog-whistle here, a slow condemnation there, and of course the occasional glaring statement of racist sentiments by Trump or those in his inner circles.

There were those who thought the existence of a plebeian class in America was critical to republic, the price of greatness for those free enough to enjoy it. Clearly, a number of Americans see in Trump’s rise to power the chance to reconstitute that servile class of Americans who don’t quite enjoy their full rights.

For those who share this vision, every confederate statue is a memorial, not just to history, but to a natural aristocracy. Most, I expect imagine themselves the righteous heirs to that aristocracy, denied their proper station by the corruption of liberals and various minorities who are but pawns duped by the white liberal agenda.

It’s a message driven home every time right wingers tell us about the evils of the “Democratic plantation,” or tell us, as Phil Robertson once did, that African-Americans were happier in the days of Jim Crow than they are now living in the shadow of this very ‘plantation.’

For a good portion of Trump’s base, greatness lies in hierarchy, but only when it’s the right kind of hierarchy. In their world, we are all a little happier with slavery or something as close as they can get to it. Equality just means people end up in the wrong places within that hierarchy. For America to be great, each must be in his or her proper place.

***

Lest anyone forget this greatness, the greatness of slavery, it is celebrated in the Star Spangled Banner before every ritual in America’s one true religion, professional sports! This celebration takes the form of the star Spangled Banner, a song which triggers in every good American the obligation to display their loyalty and love of the nation by standing with their hands over their hearts for all to see. Any athletes who take exception to this on behalf of African-Americans mistreated by the police become enemies of America itself, and of its greatness, at least in the eyes of Trump and the deplorables.

That the full song includes a stanza celebrating the return of escaped slaves to their former bondage is perhaps a little more significant than this little-known passage would seem to suggest. That great celebration of freedom is also a celebration of slavery.

A point well made every time Trump and his fans demand obesiance of players and seek punishment for those who hesitate.

***

When Jewish women jumped from the upper floors of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in hopes of escaping the flames consuming the building and those within it, that was greatness to Donald Trump. It was greatness, because it was the price paid for great profits and a nation of industry unfettered by regulation or those Goddamned unions and all that bullshit red tape that comes with them. Those were days when Captains of industry were free, dammit, free from the death of a thousand paper cuts that require working fire escapes, reasonable work hours, and countless other protections for the safety and dignity of workers. That world without such regulations, that was greatness to the likes of Donald trump. The women who died in that fire? They were the price paid for the captains of industry to thrive, and the success of those men was worth every life snuffed out in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.

…and every indignity suffered by any worker ever sacrificed in the name of that greatness.

***

When Custer died for our sins on the greasy grass, THAT was greatness.

A great sacrifice.

And before that when Custer sacrificed the lives of Cheyenne Women and children at the Washita River, that was greatness, a greatness beautified by the music of Garyowen. Garyowen was the song played by Custer as he attacked Black Kettle’s encampment in the early morning of November 27th, 1868. Still reeling from the massacre at Sand Creek, Black Kettle had come to the Washita River in the hopes that he and his people could camp in peace and stay out of the fighting (just as they had tried to do at Sand Creek 4 years earlier). Custer showed them American greatness!

Lest the lesson be lost on any of us, the Trump administration made a point to play Garyowen at their July 4th celebration at the Black Hills this last summer. Most of America would have missed the message sent to Native American activists that day, perhaps noticing only a slight trace of nostalgia for the old west upon hearing the tune without quite knowing how they had come to form that association. For those that knew the tune, however, the message was unmistakable. What made American great was its willingness to slaughter Native Americans, not to respect them or their lands or anything else about them, but to slaughter them.

Accompanied by a catchy tune!

***

This message should have been clear enough earlier in Trump’s administration when he honored the Navajo Code Talkers.

With the name ‘Pocahontas’ falling from his sneering lips.

And the image of Andrew Jackson presiding over the whole scene.

***

Was greatness Abigail Adams telling her husband; “Remember the Ladies?” Or was it John Adams’ response, dismissing her concerns with platitudes about who is really in charge? Does greatness lie in Susan B. Anthony’s efforts to cast a vote in direct violation of the laws of her day. Or does it reside in the fine levied against her for doing so? Perhaps it can be found in Trump’s decision to pardon her? Or in the decision of the Susan B. Anthony Museum and House to reject that very pardon?

Could her greatness reside in the courage to break an unjust law, a greatness only erased by Trump’s worthless pardon?

Or did greatness actually reside in Trump’s pardon itself, a gesture which effectively put Anthony in a league with then likes of Sheriff Arpaio, Roger Stone, or Dinesh D’Souza, all men who have spent their entire lives punching down at those less fortunate than themselves? Some might think these men unworthy of respect. Clearly, they meet Trump’s standards of greatness. I somehow doubt, he’d have thought to put Anthony on par with these feckless whores if she were alive today and ready to give him a piece of her mind. A few a Republicans have indulged in fantasies about taking the vote away from women since Trump’s rise to office. If Anthony really does count as great to Trump, it is for a cause that neither he nor his supporters seem eager to support themselves. I don’t think Trump has suggested taking the vote away from women himself, at least not in public, but it’s easy enough to see how others might see it in Trump’s willingness to trash any woman who stands up to him in public.

…a point driven home withe every humiliation Trump unleashes on any woman who dares to stand up to him in public.

…or when facile deplorables make a point to remind us of the women who Trump always finds to speak on his behalf.

…as he punches down at others.

…other women.

***

I could go on of course, but you get the point. If America was ever great in Trump’s eyes, it was precisely when America’s greatness was clearly obtained at the expense of others, and that expense was itself celebrated openly in full view of bystanders and surviving victims alike.

For both Trump and his supporters, it must be said, the cruelty is always the point. If there is anything about America that they well and truly love, that is it.

Cruelty

That is what passes for greatness in the land of Trump.