Posted in Rants on March 22nd, 2017 by Ed

CNN is reporting that the FBI has evidence of collusion between Trump's campaign and the Russian government. At this point we have no idea what that evidence consists of. If it is firm evidence, he is not going to last the year.

I know, I know. You've heard "This is the end of Trump" before. Too many times. But consider the following points before you disregard this, remembering that the argument is contingent on the evidence being firm and more than circumstantial.

1. "The GOP will never turn on him in Congress." Look, I know it doesn't feel like it – it feels more like an eternity – but Trump has only been President for sixty-one days. Nobody could realistically expect they would impeach him at the first hint of a scandal. They've stood behind him thus far, but "thus far" hasn't been very much time in this case. So…

2. Two months of constant damage control might be OK with the Congressional Republicans. After six months? Eight? Remember, members of Congress do not like wasting their time on things that provide them with no benefit, and that midterm election will be here before you know it. What they feel willing to put up with today may not be what they're willing to tolerate in six months. Remember Watergate; Republicans stood firmly behind Nixon, right up to the point where they didn't. If the tide turns, it will turn with dramatic speed.

3. Trump has surrounded himself with a group of people (excepting family) who seem almost comically self-interested and ready to turn on each other in a heartbeat. There's no Ollie North ready to take a bullet for the old man. Some of his hangers-on look like they would squeal on their own mother under the slightest pressure.

4. It's Russia. Russia. Americans agree on few things, but almost everybody hates the Russians ("Alt-Right" dead-enders who recently discovered a deep love for Russia excepted). The Russians are The Bad Guys. Sure, your core group of 20% of the population will defend Trump to the bitter end. Your McCain-style Republicans will end up deciding between a GOP president they never wanted in the first place and America's long-time rival and enemy.

5. The GOP realizes that an impeached Trump would be replaced with another Republican from whom they can get anything Trump can give them…except for constant headaches and bad press.

6. The most important point is that, as I've repeated to the point of absurdity, the Russia story gets worse almost by the day. Like clockwork, a new piece of Even Worse News for Trump comes out like clockwork every two or three days. There is no indication this is going to stop.

61 days is not long. Even a principled party with a sense of shame would stand behind one of their own for two measly months. Six? Twelve? Eighteen, which would run smack into next year's midterm elections? That they will indulge him for that long and potentially imperil themselves to defend a guy they don't like and didn't want in the first place seems questionable.

I don't believe this is the end. But I believe that what has been happening since December – new, incriminating revelations about Trump-Russia connections surfacing every few days – will continue to happen. It is like Watergate or any other scandal; it doesn't strike like lightning. It builds like a wave, and sometimes it becomes big enough to do fatal damage when it finally hits the shore.


Posted in Rants on March 20th, 2017 by Ed

Many years ago I saw a judge at on academic panel making a great analogy in defense of laws that punish "sovereign citizen" and Tax Protester types for filing frivolous lawsuits based on their gibberish-level understanding of the law and a whole lot of nonsense they find on the internet.

Imagine that a man in attendance at an academic conference raises his hand to ask a question to a panel of astronomers. He steps to a microphone and asks if anyone on stage can prove that the moon is not made of cheese. Laughter ripples through the room. He smiles and waits politely for it to die down. "I am waiting for an answer," he says. Only light laughter this time, as everyone realizes that he might be serious. He waits. Someone on the panel will eventually say, with tenderness due a person who may not be quite All There mentally, that multiple space programs have flown to the moon and taken samples and conducted observational studies of the moon and ran tests that demonstrate, with complete confidence, that the moon is made of rock.

Still, the guy persists. No, that is all fake, nobody has ever been to the moon, and the moon is actually cheese. Now there is no laughter from the audience and the panelists are probably getting a little cranky. No, they say sharply, you are proposing a conspiracy theory. It is easily debunked and there are literally millions of pieces of information, freely available, that demonstrate the fact that the moon is a rock. "No, it is similar in color to cheese," he says. "Therefore it is cheese." What started out as polite amusement devolves into a general frustration at wasting time. Having politely played along for a bit, now they just want someone to drag this guy out of the room so they can get back to doing something more useful (or at least more interesting; useful might be a high bar for an academic panel to achieve).

Consider at this point the number of things our political system and government have had to devote time, money, and attention – all valuable and finite resources – to things Donald Trump insists are true that are not. Birtherism. Mass voter fraud. Having a record inaugural crowd. The size and historic nature of his victory in the election. And now this ridiculous two week long fiasco about being wiretapped. Despite the continued partisan nature of the reaction – at the Comey hearing on Monday the Republicans asked questions exclusively about leaks, ignoring the Trump-Russia ties more broadly – there is a sense of weariness from everyone involved at playing this game. In less than three months in office, even Republicans and people generally friendly to Republicans appear to have found this exercise useless and frustrating.

It was cute the first time, maybe. The birther thing didn't waste the time of members of Congress. Trump was just Some Guy back then. Now the need to respond to his fantasies and conspiracy theories eats into their time directly, time they would prefer to spend raising money, distributing the benefits of being in power, and passing some legislation. Every moment they have to devote to explaining with practiced patience to the President of the United States that, no, that thing he saw in the comment section on Brietbart is not actually true is a moment they have wasted.

Without a doubt there will be some new and equally baseless conspiracy theory from the White House before we know it, and the hearing that took place on Monday – not to mention the time the FBI was forced to waste "investigating" his delusions – will be repeated in the future. One certainty is that patience for playing a redundant and pointless game is not infinite, at least for an adult. A toddler will throw his sippy cup on the floor a thousand times just for the joy of watching you have to pick it up. At some point you simply stop giving it back.


Posted in Rants on March 19th, 2017 by Ed

It is a common negotiating tactic in any context to begin with an offer that borders on outrageous. If I expect to pay around $250,000 for your house, my first offer will be $180,000, yours will be something equally silly like $400,000, and after we haggle the price will end up right where we expect it to be.

Most people understand that in a process of negotiation, not every proposal is intended to be taken seriously. The budget recently proposed by the President shares some things in common with budget proposals from previous presidents; it has not a chance in hell of getting through Congress, as it turns out that even (or perhaps especially) Republicans love the gravy train of benefits and projects they can bring their districts. In short, the budget proposal from the White House often is kind of delusional unless one understands it for what it is – an exercise in position-taking. It's symbolic of the president's priorities and is as much an exercise in Public Relations as a serious proposal.

In that sense it isn't unique to this President to look at the proposal and declare confidently that it is DOA as even hard right Republicans are doing. What is unique, though, is that nobody in the White House seems to understand that their ludicrous proposal is indeed a ludicrous proposal. This is becoming one of the hallmarks of this surreal administration: They propose something without understanding that in our system the first proposal is not what you are actually going to get.

The belief that they can make whatever they want happen is rooted in the baffling insistence that 45 is some sort of Master Deal-Maker. In reality, he doesn't seem to understand even the basics of how a negotiation between two parties works with the ability of one of them (Him, that is) to bark out orders unilaterally. For all we know, he might not even fully understand that he can't make a budget without Congress signing off on it.

To the extent that there is any thought, strategy, or logic behind such a stupid proposal, it should be seen as a budget proposal designed to cause a shutdown. If I need to make you an offer on your house for some reason but I don't have any real desire to buy it, I can throw out the dumbest offer imaginable and declare it 100% firm and final. Perhaps – doubtful, but perhaps – someone in the Inner Sanctum sees a shutdown as the true goal and knows that Congress will oblige by making huge changes to the basic outline proposed by the White House. Then the standard "my way or nothing" response from the President will guarantee a lengthy shutdown. Incidentally, the Republicans have engineered two notable shutdowns and were wounded politically in both cases. For some reason they think shutdowns will increase their popularity, but it turns out that people tend to get pretty mad when things they depend upon stop working.

If engineering a shutdown is indeed the goal, then this budget proposal is a smart move. But something tells me that a lot of inmates running the asylum at the moment do not fully understand that this is not going to happen. To be on the safe side, if you feel the need to visit and federally funded institutions in the near future you might want to do it before May 1.


Posted in Rants on March 12th, 2017 by Ed

For myriad reasons Shaun King is not the most reliable of commentators, but I'd encourage you to give this take on the fundamental problem with the Democratic Party moving forward a look. In particular this part at the conclusion is worth thinking about:

Recently, I’ve asked the crowds where I am speaking two key questions about the Democratic Party. The response that I get is always the same – mass laughter or audible frustration.

The first question is, “If I asked you, in just a few sentences, to sum up what specific policies the Democratic Party stands for, what would you say?”

People have no genuine idea. They know some things the party stands against, but it’s genuinely hard to be sure of what they stand for.

The other question is, “What exactly is the strategy of the Democratic Party to take back the government from conservatives across the country?”

That one always gets the most laughs. Nobody has any idea. Not once has somebody stood up and said, “Hey, I know the strategy.” Hell, I don’t know it. I don’t think one exists. Whatever the strategy was this past election, it didn’t work either. And again, I don’t just mean in the presidential election. Democrats lost all over the place in national, state, and local elections.

I think this is as good a way to sum up the current problems on the left as any – twenty years into the experiment in forever moving toward the middle to "peel off moderate Republicans," nobody can really tell you what the Democratic Party stands for anymore. Republican Lite and the post-Reagan death of actual liberalism have left the party without any meaningful identity other than "Not the Republicans" and the GOP has managed to brand a party that is barely left of center on most issues (and to the right of it on a few) as some sort of radical Marxist death cult. That was a problem before 2016 and it's a problem now.

Ask people what the GOP stands for and they will say small government and low taxes. Now, you and I know that they don't actually stand for small government in practice; they merely want the government to be very big, expensive, and intrusive in a way that suits their preferences. But the point is that people can tell you what the Republican Party is about. They can tell you what the brand name means.

Try to explain what the Democratic Party stands for using any amount of words, from a short slogan to a healthy paragraph, and you'll find that you can't. "Liberal on social issues" is about the clearest, most concise true statement I could come up with, and even that is a comparatively recent development. Ten years ago they were still talking about Civil Unions, the most prominent example of their inability to show leadership on these issues and instead to wait until they're absolutely, 100% positive that a majority of the public will support them before embracing any changes.

Economically and in terms of foreign policy, they've signed off on so much of the Republican agenda since 1990 that it's essentially impossible to give a meaningful explanation of their overall ideology. "Like the Republicans, but maybe not quite as much" is disturbingly close to the truth. A party can only throw its support behind so many wars before they can no longer sell themselves as anti-war and so many neoliberal economic ideas before it can no longer claim to be usefully distinct from the right. The centrist Democratic Party has had some electoral successes; that is undeniable. It has also had some staggering failures, though, and its biggest shortcoming may be that it has left Democrats poorly positioned to recover from those failures. Lacking any real identity, the path to success, as was the case in the early George W. Bush era, seems to be to wait until people tire sufficiently of the Republicans and then elect some Democrats because our system offers no other real options.


Posted in Rants on March 8th, 2017 by Ed

In teaching one gets used to the fact that no matter how many different ways it is strategized around or how many reminders are given, students are going to do their written work at the last minute. Divide the assignment into sections, give pep talks, urge them to get started before it is Too Late…none of it will matter in the end. Most students will be writing the paper the night before it is due. And very few of them are naturally smart and gifted enough to slap something together on a 5 AM Monster Energy and Ritalin bender that is actually good. They think they can, of course. But here's the thing: they can't.

I've used the analogy a number of times that Trump's unscripted statements sound exactly like an oral presentation given by a college student who forgot that he had to do an oral presentation in class today. The bravado, the confidence in his own bullshitting skills, the superficial knowledge (often consisting of facts that are not actually Facts), the generic and empty language, and the failure to hide disdain for the idea that you people dare judge someone as great as him are well recognized by anyone who has taught before.

Over time, though, two things are becoming clearer. One, this problem is not limited to Trump. The Republican Party that once touted itself as the "Party of Ideas" is officially at a point where it has no ideas whatsoever. Not bad ideas, which is a different issue, but no ideas. They are now designed solely for obstruction and have no ability to govern now that the dominant ethos has gone from "Let's govern this way instead of that way" to "lol governing sux." Should we be surprised that a group of people who claim that the free market can solve any problem in a complex society struggle to come up with concrete proposals for governing? No. But that doesn't make it any less shocking that after seven full years of trying to repeal the ACA, House Republicans had to slap together a half-assed proposal the night before the due date because they had nothing prepared. Not "We had a plan ready but some parts are works in progress" unprepared. Literally unprepared. They had nothing. And regardless of the amount of time – seven years might as well have been seven days or seventy years – that is what they would have had: nothing. They no longer bother with the pedantic and time consuming tasks of coming up with "ideas" or "solutions." This is a party designed to obstruct and nothing more. Hell, some of them were heartbroken Trump won, having become a machine well designed to prevent a Hillary Clinton from doing anything. Working with a president? That, they haven't a clue how to do.

The other thing I realize with time is that the same student who slaps a paper together at the last second is unlikely to produce a paper much better by starting the assignment earlier. The person who cares so little about what he or she writes that the assignment is left until hours before the deadline is not the kind who will devote greater attention to it just because more time is available. In other words, if you're gonna half-ass the paper at the last minute you will probably half-ass it whenever you do it. The problem isn't the time you have available; the underlying problem is that you half-ass things.

This applies to the Republican analogy as well. No matter how much time they do or don't spend trying to create policy, they're such a one trick pony now (Cut taxes + magic = Everything's Super) that they wouldn't have produced a markedly better ACA alternative had Paul Ryan spent seven straight years working on it. The means is the end for Republicans; they propose cutting taxes for the wealthy as a means to solve any and all problems because – ta da! – all they really care about doing is cutting taxes for the wealthy. Does it "work"? Who cares. As long as it gets done on a regular basis it doesn't have to work. Their job is already done.

Democrats lose elections because they propose things that voters don't like or that strike people as unnecessarily convoluted. Republicans avoid that problem by being for nothing and against almost everything. You have to hand it to them, it's a brilliant system. The flaws become apparent when the GOP, like a dog that finally catches a car, ends up with control of all of our political institutions.


Posted in Rants on March 6th, 2017 by Ed

Every generation succumbs to the urge to criticize those that follow. No generation in history has taken more crap than The Millennials, some deserved and some illogical. Gen X probably had more words spilled on its behalf in the 1990s, but not all of it was negative. The sheer volume of analysis directed at The Boomers has as much to do with the fact that America has been talking about them for six decades at this point. Millennial bashing, though, appears to rank somewhere above college football and below drinking cheap beer in the hierarchy of American likes and dislikes these days.

As is customary, the most complaining comes from the oldest generation, as these people are separated from adolescents and young adults by the greatest amount of time and cultural dissimilarity. Yet the criticism today has taken on an increasingly ironic tone; for all its complaints about the specific faults of Millennials, it is more apparent by the day that the 70 year old they elected acts more like a stereotypical Millennial child-man than any 22 year old Brooklynite with a Journalism degree we could put in the same position.

Narcissistic? Yes. Addicted to social media? Check. Constant self-aggrandizement? Obviously. Vain? Almost pathologically. Short attention span? Inattention to substance and detail? Superficial knowledge paired with lots of buzzwords and image bolstering? Avoids or is incapable of doing hard work? Unable to handle any kind of criticism without going berserk? Believes garbage repeated on the internet? This only scratches the surface. Take any caricature in the media of Americans between high school age and thirty and you will find every last stereotype embodied in the grandfather that a generation of grandparents embraces as its hero. While wagging its finger at The Kids These Days, Americans at or near retirement age today elected a man with the exact personality and behavioral profile of a 17 year old girl who describes herself as an "Instagram Model." The only difference between that kid and Trump is that the kid probably isn't as racist.

The point is not what is or is not true about Millennials as a generation, but that it takes a rich sense of irony to appreciate how older Americans have embraced everything bad that they insist is true about Millennials in a geriatric package. Perhaps the lesson to take from this is that generations are not that different fundamentally, and given enough time to acclimate themselves to the new technology an aging Boomer can use social media to prove how vapid, self centered, and dumb they are just as successfully as any teenager.


Posted in Rants on March 1st, 2017 by Ed

Look. I have nothing against Steve Beshear. I have a lot of Louisvillian friends who vouch for him as Not Bad. He's about what one can hope for in the category of Democratic Governor in Red State. Additionally, the Democratic response to Tuesday evening's presidential address won't amount to a pile of dust in the long run. Content-wise it likely left an impression on exactly no one. It was, in that sense, Fine.

It was also a good example of everything wrong with the leadership of the Democratic Party.

Leave aside the terrible message it sends to have a 72 year old ex-elected official in effective retirement in a spot of high, albeit temporary, visibility. Leave aside how awful an impression it creates to include the phrase "I am a Republican" in the first 15 seconds. Consider the setup, conceptually, for what the people responsible for this were trying to do here and you'll see directly to the heart of the problem with Democrats.

With a party at low ebb after losing a presidential election to a joke candidate using a nominee nobody seemed to like all that much and a running mate whose name the country forgot even before the election, you might expect strategists to focus on the most obvious problem: If you can't fire up your base, you're not going to win elections. Republicans are forever hurling red meat at their base – 50 Obamacare repeals that had no chance of passing, 35 Benghazi hearings, etc. – even though they know those measures are futile. They do it because they recognize that if all else fails, they will at least get their core group of voters behind them solidly.

The Beshear thing is evidence of how deeply cynical and unmoored the Democratic Party is right now. The visual of a 72 year old white guy in a creepy diner surrounded by other old white people is exactly, precisely, to the last detail, what some Beltway or New York-San Francisco based consultant would think is going to appeal to the revered White Working Class. This is what someone who has no contact with Normal People thinks Normal People are like. This is cringe-inducing in the same way as the dialogue for black characters in TV shows aimed at (and written by) white people often is. It is at its core a caricature. It is a thing people look at and think, This is some asshole from Harvard's impression of what those dirty people he flies over will like. I'm stunned they didn't have Beshear wear a NASCAR hat and pound a Bud Light.

The insistence that they can "win back" the White Working Class is delusional to begin with, but they extra-certainly will never win them back with transparent cornball shit like this. This isn't outreach; this is pandering. And the most offensive part is that it isn't even good pandering. It's as convincing as John Wayne playing Genghis Khan. This was embarrassing to watch in the same way that is true of messages aimed at kids and written by adults according to their incomplete and outdated sense of what The Kids These Days are into.

I'm not saying the Democratic Party's path to success lies with some sort of hard lurch to the far left, embracing communism and waving a hammer and sickle. What seems very obvious to everyone except the holdover New Democrat people from the 90s who are still in charge is that whatever success the party will achieve will come from reaching out to and motivating the voters who find the GOP terrifying. Women. Young people. Gays and Lesbians. African-Americans. Hispanics. The highly educated. People in big cities. Non-Evangelicals. But for some insane reason they insist that the winning strategy is to find some way to peel away the same voters who clearly and strongly prefer Republicans – and worse, to do it by play-acting a six-figure strategist's impression of economically depressed white people, as though speaking with a little drawl and sitting in a folksy diner is going to convince some pissed off ex-coal miner that he loves the Democrats after all.

It is time to come to grips with the fact that the appeal Democrats had to rural whites is something that died many decades ago. It was already running out of steam by the time Reagan came around, and that was nearly 40 goddamn years ago. Let it go. Low-income rural whites are a rapidly shrinking part of the population. Trump may be their last gasp before they start dying in droves because Republicans rely so heavily on the elderly. Move on. Do something, anything, to communicate the message to the actual, real Democratic base, "You are our priority. We care about you. We need you." Not the base as they might like it to be, full of hard-workin' blue collar white caricatures, but as it is.

The DNC keeps telling us that the future of the party will not be served by a lurch to the far left. Perhaps, perhaps not. We could hear arguments on either side of that. What is absolutely and undeniably certain, though, is that the future of the party is not old white men playing at Rustic Everyman and all but conceding defeat to the mighty forces of conservatism. For those who warn that trying to fire up a progressive base will create a McGovern scenario, I have news: that has already happened. Republicans control the White House, the Senate, the House for what may be an eternity, and 38 state legislatures (!!!). It is difficult to conceive of how much worse things could go if they tried something a little different. But instead they will comfort themselves with what they know and then wonder loudly why old white centrists failed to excite their most important voters.


Posted in Rants on February 27th, 2017 by Ed

The appointment of a person who knows literally nothing about the profession as Secretary of Education reignited interest in our deeply flawed educational system. During her confirmation hearings, this was perhaps the best commentary I saw on an internet that overflowed with them.

The most basic problem with the educational system (K-12 only; colleges have a different set of issues) is that it is increasingly expected to show improvement in a society in which so many of the measurable things affecting educational outcomes are getting worse. When you have students who are basically on their own before the age of ten, or move eight times in three years, or live in violent and impoverished homes, or go days at a time without seeing their substance-abusing parent, or spend evenings trying to decide whether to call the cops because that man is beating up Mom again but you don't want to be taken away into a foster home so what should you do, or have reached adolescence without once seeing an adult set an alarm clock to wake up and go to work, very little in terms of policy is going to matter. Give 'em vouchers, send them to charter schools, public schools, Catholic schools, whatever you want; those kids are not going to succeed. Teachers are expected to extract good test scores from students who are absent 50% of the time or don't have an adult to reliably feed and shelter them.

Teachers are equipped, at their best and in the best environments, to be teachers. They are not prepared to be psychologists, social workers, parents, guardians, and miracle workers. Certainly not every public school draws from a population of students as poor and disadvantaged as what I described here. But it's hardly rare. Increasingly – and vouchers will serve only to worsen this problem – public school systems are a grease trap for the students no other school would take. The kid didn't do well enough on tests for a charter or magnet school, and whatever adult supervisor is responsible for him or her can't shell out for private school. Public schools, in essence, are expected to show constant and near-miraculous improvement with a student population from which the best and most well-supported students have already been plucked out.

So, when people ponder the solutions to the problems of education in this country, feel free to cut off anyone who starts ranting about teacher salaries, classroom sizes, No Child Left Behind, or any other education-specific issue. The problem is poverty. The solution is to mitigate poverty and the other social problems that flow from it. We don't want to face that reality because we don't like doing things that are hard; we want to maintain a delusion that there is some magic policy that will get our schools to start churning out great, well educated students. It does not exist. Teachers and schools have only so much contact with students and no power to solve or even push back meaningfully against the growing pile of problems many of these kids face outside of school. A good teacher will always get the most out of his or her students, and our elected officials will never recognize that many of them are doing exactly that – they are getting the most out of students who have everything stacked against them in life. The unfortunate reality is that sometimes "the most" a teacher can produce with a given child is not much.

We have to stop considering the problems of our schools in a vacuum. Throw all the money you want at schools or enforce whatever "teacher accountability" BS the Koch think tanks are pushing this month – none of that will make a lick of difference in the outcomes of students in communities that are both literally and figuratively falling apart.


Posted in Rants on February 22nd, 2017 by Ed

Pay attention the next time you are on foot at an intersection waiting to cross with a group of other pedestrians.

Everyone stands restlessly looking at the orange hand of the "Don't Walk" sign. It's like they want to cross – there's no cross traffic preventing it – but some kind of social surface tension keeps the waiting pedestrians stuck to one another and to the curb. Is this light ever going to change? Finally whichever person is most impatient will start walking. Then, despite the "Don't Walk" signal that had them frozen in place a moment earlier, everyone follows him or her.

Psychologists and sociologists call this a permission effect, or describe the first individual to violate the (in this case minor, obviously) social taboo the "permission giver." Everyone wants to cross, since there's no effective reason not to. The "Don't Walk" sign is intended to keep the flow of traffic moving and to prevent pedestrians from getting hit; since there is no traffic, ignoring the sign will have no practical effect on anyone. But we know it's illegal anyway, and we know that we're supposed to obey signals like red lights and crossing signs regardless of whether they matter in our specific context. Then as soon as we see someone else throw caution to the wind, all those thoughts go out the window and we refocus on, "Well if he's gonna cross, I guess it's OK for all of us to cross."

It doesn't make any logical sense, but if you watch an intersection for a few minutes you'll observe this over and over. Everyone hesitates, one person transgresses, and everyone else follows. Clockwork.

Despite the pained, contorted efforts of old white men to explain how nothing that happens anywhere in the United States has anything to do with racism, anti-semitism, gay-bashing, misogyny, or anything else that has seen a resurgence in the political arena since 2015, we see evidence all around us, every day, that human beings are more likely to do something after they see someone else do it. This is neither a new nor an especially contentious finding. People, particularly more impressionable people like kids and the poorly educated, are more likely to say and do racist things after they watch someone else say and do racist things and – importantly – suffer no consequences. Steve Bannon rode a brief online career of rebranding anti-semitism for the digital age of journalism into the White House; other people will try to follow his lead. Success breeds imitation. As sure as the next few years will produce thousands of bad Chance the Rapper imitators, the internet will spawn a million wannabe Steve Bannons.

When we see racist or anti-semitic graffiti (or see Jewish property vandalized) the people making excuses for it may be right in a technical sense – a lot of it is probably the product of stupid kids, because vandalism tends to come from teenage boys. But the content of the vandalism is not a coincidence. It's a result of watching other people engage in a kind of social transgression (which teenage boys love, because it gets a rise out of people and brings them attention) without consequences. If they thought they would get arrested or go to prison for spraying swastikas on things, it would happen rarely. Now that they see that they can do it without consequences – or even with the potential of benefiting from it – there's no real reason not to do it. If the President says it, other people will naturally follow suit. If powerful people express ideas that were only recently frowned upon without any negative repercussions, others are going to follow their lead. It's not rocket science, but it's amazing the lengths to which people will go to deny it.


Posted in Rants on February 20th, 2017 by Ed

This week in one of my courses we're doing Maus. It was something I added to the syllabus at the last minute, after the election in November and before the January deadlines for book orders. I felt that, under present circumstances, it would be…fitting.

Everyone knows about the Holocaust. If you managed to miss it in school, you couldn't help but encounter it in literal thousands of books, movies, TV shows, comics, video games, and more. The question of what we can learn from it is often reduced – not surprisingly – to the simplest, narrowest possible lessons. For all the talk in the United States of World War II (the topic that dwarfs all others in our media, both fiction and non-fiction) and our nation's heroic role in bringing the Nazi menace to a halt, Americans seem to lack a grasp of lessons from the Holocaust beyond "Don't vote for guys with toothbrush mustaches" and "The people waving American flags are good; bad guys have swastikas." In other words, we learn it as a lesson that applies to others but not to ourselves. We could never be the bad guys, because we are the good guys. If nobody's being gassed and thrown in ovens, we're not like the Nazis. QED.

The lesson a sentient being takes away from the Holocaust, and one that this book does an unusually good job of illustrating, is that organized evil unfolds slowly in complex societies. It develops in stages. The Nazis didn't come to power, wake up the next morning, and announce to the country, "Time to kill all the Jews." Like the master propagandists and populists they were, they took a more gradual (and ultimately, for their purposes, more effective) approach. Start with rhetoric separating Real Germans from The Other. Encourage by example stigmatizing The Other. Normalize verbal abuse, prejudice, and petty mistreatment. Ramp up to abusive acts of a more serious nature. Start passing laws – again, small ones initially – to institutionalize separate and unequal treatment. Explicitly legalize violence against the person and property of The Other. Eject Them from positions of social and economic power, to be replaced with Real citizens. Begin physically segregating Them under the pretense of public safety, necessity (especially wartime necessity), or for Their own good. Direct citizens to focus their anger for any privations – economic, military, or social – the nation faces on The Other. Turn a blind eye to public outbreaks of vandalism, assault, and even the occasional dead body. Dehumanize; compare Them to insects, viruses, animals, and so on. By this point the dumber, more obedient, authoritarian-follower types who make up the bottom third of the population will be more than happy to don a uniform and get a paycheck for rounding up and policing the internal "threat."

At this point you're not yet engaged in state-sanctioned ethnic cleansing, but you're certainly within hailing distance of it. You can see it without binoculars. The public as a whole is unlikely to accept that final step, which is why you've carefully segregated the public as a whole from it. You've condensed and defined The Problem, and you've put the borderline intellects and sadists – the kind of people who know how to follow an order, and what how – in charge of carrying out the gruesome parts. Voila. Just say when, Mein Fuhrer. By this point it is too late; having condoned and made excuses for the first 49 steps of the process, any part of the population that wakes up now will find itself powerless to stop Step 50.

That's what people don't get – that a valid analogy can be made to Nazi Germany without extermination camps bellowing human ash into the sky. "Don't be so dramatic" and "You're exaggerating" are appropriate responses if we focus only on the "Final Solution" and ignore the 100 steps that led to it. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and societies never go from placid to monstrous acts of evil overnight. Getting ordinary people to condone genocide, fostering the banality of evil, requires the careful laying of groundwork. It begins with normalizing social deviance toward an Other that is responsible for every aspect of your life that leaves you dissatisfied. It begins when a population is conditioned to read a news story about one of Them being gunned down by someone in a uniform and to react not with human empathy but with satisfaction. It begins when people become convinced that there are Good People like themselves and Bad People like everyone who looks, thinks, or acts differently than themselves. It begins when the oppression of a minority to satisfy the histrionics of a majority (rule of law be damned because I want to feel safe at any cost) is not only tolerated by the political process but becomes one of the products it is most eager to deliver.

Every crime against humanity has humble beginnings. And the kind of people who want to perpetrate them know that they don't grow like weeds. They have to be nurtured, slowly, until the process is so far along that no group, individual, or institution in society can stop it.