Thoughts and Opinions

Dealing with My Biases

I like to remind myself that I may be wrong. As a natural born egotist, I think it helps to make me more humble. But I don’t like it so much when I hope I am wrong.  When I hope I’m wrong, it’s usually because I don’t like what I’m currently thinking.  Today may be one of those times.

No one sees all the reactions my posts provoke, since the posts (and the reactions they provoke) appear in numerous places. A few reactions have appeared on this website, but they’ve been joined by numerous others. And my predictions about the impeachment of President Trump sure did provoke reactions.

“Provoke” does seem the right word here.  Judging by comments I’ve received so far, it seems my predictions were taken by a good number of my friends and correspondents as indicating I’ve already made up my mind about impeachment, i.e., that I already think Mr. Trump should be impeached and removed from office.  I’m told, for example, that I’ve been “duped” by his opponents.

It’s as if predicting a tornado is the same thing as favoring one.

I said in a recent post that I hoped to keep an open mind on the questions surrounding impeachment.  However, I did predict that Mr. Trump would be impeached by the House.  I predicted that he would not resign, and so would be tried by the Senate.  (By way of contrast, I’ve made no predictions about whether the Senate will remove him from office.) I predicted that we’ll hear much in the coming months about the meaning of the constitutional standard for removal from office, i.e., “high crimes and misdemeanors,”  and I hope to add to that discussion.

The problem appears to be that I also predicted my own eventual position: that once all the investigations are finished, once all the charges have been fashioned and all the evidence received, I would support his removal from office.

As I saw it, that prediction was much like my 1978 prediction that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have yet another losing season.  And my 1988 prediction that our side would lose our case in the U.S. Supreme Court.  And my 1995 prediction that my mother would live to be a hundred.  In none of these cases was I predicting my hope, only my expectation. Two of these predictions proved true, and one did not.  A prediction is no more than that, a guess about a future state of affairs.  Of course the outcome of the Buc’s 1978 season would depend on a lot of things not yet known when the prediction was made.  All my predictions would depend on things unknown when I made them, including my prediction about how I’d eventually feel on the matter of Donald Trump’s possible removal from office.  It’s all those things yet unknown that make a prediction a prediction.

I struggled with whether to include a prediction of where I guess (now) that I’ll end up on the matter of Donald Trump and his presidency (many months from now).  There were several reasons I did so, but it now seems that the prediction was taken by many as an announcement that I’ve already made up my mind.  In addition to the accusation of being “duped,” I’ve been asked several times why I think Mr. Trump should be impeached.  The answer is that (present tense) I don’t.  I simply predicted that, eventually, he will.  In the meantime, I am undecided.  And as I said in the earlier post, I will strive to remain undecided until the House has brought its charges and all the evidence is in. 

I’m not sure what to make of those who act as if they already have their minds made up.  Because they feel a certain way today, can they say, with confidence, that they’ll feel the same way tomorrow?  If so, what distinguishes that stance from the very definition of close-mindedness?

I think those are legitimate questions. But those are not the current thoughts that I said, at the outset here, that I dislike, and wish I was wrong about.  What I don’t like about my current thinking is that I think others may have reacted as they did not only because I didn’t express myself well enough, but also because we’ve become so jaded.  Do we believe that anyone who writes a blog must have already made up his mind?  Do we ask, “If not, why on earth would he be blogging?”  Have we got to the point that genuine open-mindedness has gone the way of the dinosaurs?   That it’s not possible for a blogger’s agenda to be, simply, that he wants to “think out loud” publicly, in an effort to foster a dialogue that will help us learn from each other?  Put selfishly, to help him make up his own mind? 

I hope not.  I hope I’m wrong about the way people think these days.  And I hope this post will help clarify where I’m coming from.  I hope that there are others who, like me, have not already made up their minds.  I hope we can talk, can learn from each other, and maybe even learn from those who have already made up their minds, regardless of which “side” they’ve taken.

But I’ll make another prediction: that upon reading this post, some will dismiss my claim of undecidedness.  Some will think I’ve made up my mind already, whether I realize it or not.  I predict they’ll draw this conclusion because my prediction reveals an anti-Trump bias.  And I predict that some will think me a hypocrite for denying that bias.

If so, let me answer that charge now.

Of course my prediction reveals a bias

I’ve already written in this space that I didn’t vote for Mr. Trump.  That alone reflects a bias.  On the other hand, I’ve voted mostly Republican in my life – does that mean I’m biased in Mr. Trump’s favor?  What about the fact that I spent a career defending clients accused of wrongdoing?  Of pointing out all the reasons that accusations alone do not prove guilt? Of believing that people are innocent until proven guilty?  What about the fact that I think the media has often been unfair in its reporting about Mr. Trump? Which way do those beliefs and experiences bias me?

Here’s what I think about bias: Every experience we’ve ever had helps shape our interpretation of everything yet to come.  In other words, our experiences inevitably create biases.  In fact, I believe, it is these experiences and the biases they cause that define who we are (or at least the way we think about the world around us).  The same, I believe, is true for every one of us.  The way I see it, we can try to guard against and compensate for the biases we recognize in ourselves – but those we don’t recognize, we’re helpless to overcome.

Those who read my earlier post, “Asking the Ad Hominem Question,” may remember my thinking on this point.  If all our opinions are a reflection of our biases, it’s good to identify and acknowledge why we think the way we do.  I wonder which of the people who read this would claim that they are not already biased by the things they’ve heard and seen and experienced.

I intend to follow developments as they occur.  Now, even before the new Congress is sworn in, I’m trying to take stock of my biases.  Acknowledging my predictions for the end game is in part an effort to help clear the way for the desired objectivity of my own future thinking.  

I do have initial thoughts about the impeachment proceedings I predict will come.   But I hope they are not set in stone.   I expect to be giving a lot more thought to them in the weeks to come.  And I hope that my eventual views will be informed by the wisdom and perspectives of those who visit WMBW in the months to come – whether you agree with the thoughts I share or not.

— Joe

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Happy Holiday from WMBW

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The Impeachment to Come

First, a series of predictions: The U.S. House of Representatives will impeach Donald Trump.  He will not resign, so the Senate will conduct a trial on whatever charges are brought against him. The next couple of years there’ll be plenty of talk about the meaning of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”   At the end of the day, once all the evidence is in, I will approve of President Trump’s removal from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  Until then, I will try (not always successfully) to keep an open mind.  I will view some participants and spectators as sharks in a feeding frenzy.  And I will not be able to restrain myself from commenting, especially when I think the street buzz fails to appreciate nuances or fails to put today’s events in historical perspective. 

Anticipating all that, and before the gavel brings the first meeting of the Impeachment Committee to order, I thought I’d ask a question intentionally broader than the eventual “high crimes and misdemeanors” question.  Namely, is Donald Trump the most independent, egotistical maverick who has ever served as president?

Perhaps he is.  Perhaps cabinet shake-ups, midnight tweets, criminal investigations and mounting criticism by members of his own party demonstrate that the man is out-of-control, a rogue who has lost all sense of attachment to the country and even to his own political party, an egotistical maverick who thinks he’s smarter than the combined wisdom on Capitol Hill and is prone to take the law into his own hands. 

But on the subject of mavericks, I thought I’d take a look at two pieces of historical data.  One of these is how often presidents have used their veto power.   An independent maverick willing to assert himself over the views of the Congress would seem likely to use the veto more often. 

The other is a president’s use of the Executive Order.  Bypassing Congress, presidents have sometimes attempted to make law by executive order.  The courts have often found that executive orders have exceeded proper presidential powers.   This is certainly not true of all executive orders.  The first such order recognized by the American Presidency Project was George Washington’s order that his cabinet members report back to him on the status of matters in their respective areas of responsibility.  There’s obviously a big difference between the executive activism suggested by that order and, say, Harry Truman’s order nationalizing the country’s steel mills.  So as a measure of presidential activism, the count of a president’s executive orders may be more problematic than a count of his vetoes.  As with vetoes, a president whose party is in control of Congress might be expected to use executive orders less than a president with an opposition party in power on Capitol Hill.  So there are obviously variables at play, not accounted for by the raw numbers  Still, one might expect a president who’s apt to take matters into his own hands, a president who tries to control the country personally rather than letting Congress do so, might be expected to issue more executive orders than a more docile, less activist president.

My thought was that the frequency of presidential vetoes and executive orders may provide at least some insight into the degree of ego and power various presidents have attempted to wield while in office.

In the following table, from FDR through Donald Trump, I’ve included the data for all the presidents.  Before FDR, I’ve included only those presidents who set new record highs for use of executive orders or vetoes.  I’ve used the president’s months in office to convert absolute numbers to monthly rates.  Here’s what I get, using data from the American Presidency Project and the U.S. Senate.

* Figures for Donald Trump are to date, i.e.,  December of 2018.

The numbers above don’t tell the whole story by any means. For example, hundreds of Cleveland’s vetoes were of private pension bills for Civil War veterans. Congress wanted to grant pensions to individual, named veterans after the Pension Bureau had investigated and denied them.  The bills presented the same issue again and again, and the result drastically inflated Cleveland’s total vetoes.

So the bare counts are no doubt subject to all sorts of explanations and interpretations.  But for me, the counts suggest a couple of things worth keeping in mind.

The first is that there have been two growth spurts in presidential activism as measured by these indicators.  The first spurt was when the country was being rended apart and put back together again over the slavery question. President Pierce nearly doubled the prior record of executive orders, Lincoln advanced it again, and after Lincoln’s assassination, Johnson and Grant, while trying to put the country back together again, more than doubled it again.  Meanwhile, Johnson and Grant each set new records for presidential vetoes, and did so by large margins.  It was certainly a tumultuous time.

The second spurt began with Teddy Roosevelt and ended with Harry Truman, a period spanning the Great Depression and two world wars.  That spurt is evident in both executive orders and vetoes, with FDR setting the all time record for both, despite the fact his party was in control of both houses of Congress for his entire presidency.  More tumultuous times.

Judged by that historical observation, in this time when the country is so polarized and divided, one might expect we’d have an activist president, at least as assessed by these measures.

The second observation I would make is more subjective, but I think important to think about, even so: namely,the correlation between a president’s “executive activism” as suggested by this data, and his reputation as a great president, as judged by history . To me, this will be important to keep in mind as we face the impeachment proceedings to come – not to argue that Donald Trump is a great president, but to help us remember what standard we’re judging him by, and if we remove him from office, what it is we remove him for.    

Putting Grover Cleveland aside, consider how history has regarded the other notables on the list:  Shortly after his election to office, President Lincoln ordered the arrest of several Maryland legislators who favored secession, right before a scheduled vote on secession, for the transparent reason of keeping Maryland from voting to secede.  (Now that was a bold display of executive activism!)  Yet history has judged that bold presidential action by all but forgetting it. 

Two years later, when Lincoln issued his most famous executive order (the Emancipation Proclamation) he took great pains to make sure it was “legal.” Lincoln disagreed with the U.S.Supreme Court’s recent decision in the Dred Scott case that, because slaves were private property  under state law, the federal government had no right or power to free them.  That decision was the law of the land, but Lincoln circumvented it by asserting that he did have power to confiscate property being used in rebellion against the federal government. So rather than having Congress do it, Lincoln freed the slaves by a stroke of his executive pen.  But recognizing the Supreme Court’s ruling, he only freed those slaves in the states that were in armed rebellion against the national government.  That respect for the rule of law is something Lincoln is much criticized for today.  Current progressive thinking would probably treat him better if he had contravened the law as then decided by the Supreme Court, and used his executive power to free all the slaves.  Lincoln was a maverick, but as judged by history, possibly not maverick enough.

Nearly a hundred years later, when President Truman used an executive order to place the country’s steel mills under federal control, the Supreme Court held his order unconstitutional. Truman is also third on the list of most active vetoers in history.  Yet Truman is highly regarded for his independence today.

Theodore Roosevelt, who set new records for issuing Executive Orders and established a reputation as one of the most egotistical mavericks to ever occupy the office, got his face enshrined on Mount Rushmore.   He is often considered one of the five greatest Presidents in American history.

And Franklin Roosevelt, who tried to pack the Supreme Court when too  much of his agenda was ruled unconstitutional, who set the record for issuing activist executive orders by a large margin, and who set the record for presidential vetoes even though his own party controlled Congress throughout his presidency, is widely hailed by many as the best president in history. He is certainly highly regarded by today’s “progressives” for his executive activism.

The point is that, as I see it, history has generally looked upon presidential activism with high regard  — at least when it approves of the goals a president  has pursued.  

So where does President Trump fall, on these measures of  ego and executive activism?  He has used the Executive Order more frequently than President Obama, but then, Obama’s use of the Executive Order was the lowest in modern times.  When compared to other modern presidents, Trump’s rate has been comparatively low.  And as for his use of the veto power, there have been 2,574 presidential vetoes since 1789 — not one of them by Mr. Trump.

There are a lot of ways to measure a President’s ego, independence, and executive activism. If measured by midnight tweets and rash statements made to the television news media, President Trump is surely the most arrogant President in history. (That’s an easy claim to make considering Andrew Jackson and Ulysses Grant had neither twitter nor TV.)   But measured by such quantifiable things as frequency of executive orders and vetoes, Mr. Trump has been far less of a maverick than either of the Roosevelts , Wilson, or Truman.  And as far as I can tell, being mavericks who were not always in line with their own parties had a lot to do with why such men have been regarded well by history. 

My point?  I simply hope that, as the impeachment proceedings progress, we keep in mind that impeachment was not designed to punish presidents for having policies and positions we disagree with.  Impeachment was not intended as a remedy for presidents with big egos, or even for those who run counter to the views on Capitol Hill or within their own political parties.  Let’s not impeach Donald Trump because he’s a maverick, unless we think that presidents yet to come who are cut from the mold of Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson and both Roosevelts  will deserve to be impeached for their  roguishness.  Let’s think long and hard, with a sound historical perspective, about the separation of powers, the presidency, and the best meaning to give to “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

I may be wrong, but I predict I’ll have more to say in the months to come about that term.  But those are my thoughts for now.  I look forward to hearing yours.

— Joe

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Bad People?

Two years ago, I started this blog with the aim of being different from the usual internet sites where people hurl insults at each other.  I hoped for a forum where people who admit their fallibility could strive for humility and civility towards those they disagree with — where they could learn from each other, or at least effectively explain themselves for the sake of mutual understanding.  To do this, I thought it wise to keep my own political views out of it.

I’ve long been one to play devil’s advocate, trying to spur self-reflection by questioning strong convictions.  As a result, many of my liberal friends consider me a real right-winger, and many of my conservative friends think of me as a leftist.  It’s the price I pay for playing devil’s advocate — for thinking that, through discussion, analysis, and genuine listening, I might  better understand those who see things differently than me. That I might profit from remembering the sign I once put on my office wall:

“Agree with me once and I’ll like you.  Agree with me all the time and I’ll think you’re a fool. Convince me I’m wrong and I’ll be in your debt forever.”

In today’s polarized climate, advocacy for the devil is a risky business.  In a conversation last May, a liberal friend asserted that no thinking person could support Donald Trump.  I offered a few examples of people I thought of as “thinking people” who did.  This fellow promptly dismissed me as a Trump supporter.  In the same way, but from the opposite side, when I’ve told some of my conservative friends that there may be good reason to be concerned about climate change or gun violence or celebrating confederate warriors, I’ve been written off as a liberal and everything I have to say (on any subject) is thereafter dismissed as political correctness. Real discourse shuts down. The devil’s advocate is shunned as the devil himself.

After much reflection, I’m coming out of the closet.  Once and for all, I’d like to assure my conservative friends that I am no liberal, and to assure my liberal friends that I am no conservative.  PLEASE don’t label me just so you can dismiss me.  Meanwhile, I wonder if there are others like me who feel that partisans on both the left and the right are making the same kind of mistake — namely, cutting off their noses to spite their faces with respect to people “in the middle” like me.

The Dictionary of Cliches (James Rogers, Wings Books, 1985) defines that old expression about cutting off noses as “seek revenge for some pain or injury to oneself: a self-defeating action.” I like this definition because I think it usually is pain or injury that makes us seek revenge and renders us likely to disfigure ourselves.

The left and the right both want to win converts, right?  Why is it that, from my perspective, both sides do more to alienate those of us in the middle than to turn us into converts?

I suggest this Einsteinian thought experiment: start with a population of 100 people. Try to arrange them by the extent to which they agree or not, so that you get a sort of continuum in which  #1 and #100 disagree with each other about nearly everything.  While none of them think exactly alike, imagine that #32 and #33 agree on a lot of things, as do #75 and #79.

Now, as I see it, the nose gets cut off this way: #1, who doesn’t agree with #100 as to whether the sky is blue, sees the similarities at that end of the continuum and lumps everyone from #95 to #100 together as idiots.  She offers statements or behaviors by #98 and #100 as proof of how idiotic those above #90 are.  Because#92, #95 and #96 actually disagree with #100 about some of those statements and behaviors, they take offense.  

So they criticize #1 for lumping them together on the basis of things they don’t identify with.  But #1 lashes back, pointing to other things that they DO agree with #100 and #94 about.  #1 reiterates her point: everyone above #90 is indeed an idiot.  She then adds, “now that I think of it, a lot of those in the 80’s aren’t much different either, and by their silence, I have to imagine some of them are idiots too.”  

So now a response comes from #84, taking offense and pointing out the many points of difference among the 80’s and 90’s crowd, and lashing back at #1 for being oblivious to those important differences.

#2 and #5 come to the defense of #1.  As they see it, the charge of being “oblivious”amounts to calling #1 (and anyone who agrees with her) “stupid.”  #2 and #5, in agreement with #1,  resent being called stupid.  They demand  “Are you on our side (that of righteousness), or on their side(that of indecency)?”  

Seeking to restore civility, #65 says, “I’m not really on either side, or more precisely, I agree with some things from each side.”  But the answer comes back from #2 and #5, now joined by #8 and #11, “You admit you agree with #100 about things?  An intelligent person cannot agree with #100.  You, too, are therefore an idiot.”

Over time, this lumping together under derogatory labels has an inevitable effect, and it is not the one intended.  It does not win converts. Whereas people in the 80’s and 90’s formerly thought a lot about their differences with each other and with #100, pretty soon, they come to agree with each other that the “bigger problem” is the threat from “those stupid people below #30.”  They start to label them all together, solidifying them, so that #22 and #28 resent being thrown in with #1 under the label “stupid,” decide that those above #60 are the “bigger threat,” etc.   

Both sides end up with placards and microphones, parading through the streets chanting,”If you’re not with us, you’re against us. Your silence condemns you.”  And pretty soon, #45 through #55 get squeezed out, compelled to side with one side or the other in order to avoid being trampled by both.  At this point, everybody is somebody else’s deplorable.

Presenting this purely as numbers, as I have here, I’m curious how many people, right and left, would say, “well, of course that happens,” but not recognize  their “own side’s” role in the process.

Suppose, for example,that I mention one small part of my personal political beliefs: namely that Donald Trump has done a good job of representing American interests in negotiations with China, North Korea, and Mexico.  Or what if I mention that I approve of his judicial appointments?  Does that anger my liberal friends?  Am I now an “idiot” or a “Trump supporter” or a neo-Nazi because I approve of those particular actions?  

Frankly, I suspect so, in the minds of many.  Because of that realistic possibility, now, out of the closet I must come.  I started WMBW in the autumn of 2016 because I was aghast at the degree of polarizing rhetoric and incivility I saw in the country.  I wanted to work toward harmony between combatants.  The primary impetus was what I saw coming out of candidate Donald Trump. And while I hardly thought he had started the centuries-old process of polarization, and while I hardly thought he was the only arrogant and uncivil public figure around, I did think that some of his statements were among the most arrogant and uncivil  I’d ever encountered.  So I resolved not to vote for him. 

I mention my extreme distaste for the way Donald Trump campaigned –and I now add my extreme distaste for a number of divisive statements and actions he has made since his election — only because of what comes next: namely, my appeal, to my liberal friends and readers, not to cut off your nose to spite your face by driving me into Trump’s camp.  Please don’t alienate me, please don’t turn me into your enemy, by demonizing me as a “Trump apologist” just because I see some good in him and haven’t demonized him with all the venom you have.

Somewhere between #40 and #60, I feel like both sides treat me as their enemy.  The side that’s likeliest to win me over to their thinking is the side that’s going to treat me with respect, to listen to my thoughts, to share their own and to see if we can reach some sort of mutual understanding about the issues (not the people) that separate us.   What I don’t understand is why neither side does that.  What I hear from both sides seems, at times, to insult me, to treat me as an enemy because I sit somewhere in the middle.  Both sides demand my 100% loyalty.  Both sides tell me, in effect, that I’m either with them or against them.  Neither side respects my desire to engage in open-minded discussion of specific issues, whichever side of it I happen to be on

A few weeks back, I posted on this site a piece I titled “The Corruption that Stems from Performing Acts of Justice.”  The piece contained a number of posters created by graphic artist Jeff Gates.  I’d been attracted to the posters by their message that divisiveness and polarization were doing great harm to the country.  But my deeper look into Mr. Gates’s work revealed that the vast majority of his wrath was directed, not only at President Trump, but at the Republican Party as a whole — and that his attacks on them were highly insulting. 

This past Saturday afternoon, Mr. Gates posted a comment on this website in response to my piece.  His comment included a reference to an article he’d written last year, “Choking on Our Words,” which he said would explain his perspective in greater detail.  You can find his comment and its link to “Choking on Our Words” here on this website.   I encourage you to read both for yourselves.  Meanwhile I have my own observations to share about them.

First, there is much in them I like.  When Gates draws a distinction between “debate” (it “means you’re trying to win”) and “dialectic” (it “means you are using disagreement to discover what is true,”) he gives voice to the raison d’etre for WeMayBeWrong.  (Needless to say, I couldn’t agree more.)  When he writes, “Like many, I’m tiptoeing through a cultural minefield.  Both the left’s politically correct orthodoxy and the right’s intransigence are corrosive,” I feel I’m reading the work of a kindred spirit. When he criticizes the right and left for using phrases like “political correctness” and “racist”as marks of scorn that shut down intelligent dialogue, I want to cheer.  When he writes,“I’m fighting hard to make my way to higher ground, out of this filthy, smoggy air, to a place where we can communicate more constructively,” I want to ask him to dinner — or at least to create another poster, giving visual life to that feeling he has had that I so strongly share.

But there was a reason I titled my post “The Corruption That Stems from Performing Acts of Justice.”  Those of us who feel aghast at many of Donald Trump’s arrogant statements, who deplore the derisive and polarizing way he insults his opponents and detractors, who feel we’re performing an act of justice by criticizing those specific offensive behaviors — can be corrupted, I believe, by the very self-righteousness our condemnation of such conduct inspires.  We can feel so pained by the behaviors we deplore that we want to strike back, and we do – and that, I think, is when we risk cutting off our noses with tactics designed to win debates rather than get at truth through dialectic.

Mr. Gates writes that the bipartisan posters I liked were “from those early years when it seemed that bipartisanship was possible.”  He writes that there is “no equivalence between the behavior of the GOP and the Democrats.”  He writes that “the fact that the rest of the GOP is silent … is the saddest of all.”  He writes that, as a result, not only Mr. Trump, but the GOP as well, are “valuable subjects for critique and criticism” in a way that he apparently believes is not just a difference in degree, but in kind, from the excesses and failures of various Democrats.

I think it sad that Mr. Gates seems to have given up on bipartisanship. I and many Republicans who remain interested in bipartisanship feel many points of difference between us and our current President.  But the fact that we still agree with some of the things he has done and don’t demonize him in every possible respect, puts us at risk of being lumped together with him in every respect, due to our alleged “silence,” i.e., our lack of complete and total condemnation.  So the Gates posters now attack the entire GOP — and, may I say, insultingly so. To the extent that I (sort of) still consider myself a Republican, he has attacked me.

Am I to mourn the loss of someone who seemed so recently to aspire to bipartisanship?  Or, if Mr. Gates still really desires bipartisanship, should I wonder whether his insults directed at all Republicans are meant to bring them around to his point of view?  If so, I suspect he’s cutting off his nose to spite his face.  I don’t see how the insulting criticism of one’s opponents — and even those who occupy a middle ground between one’s self and one’s opponents — gains converts, rather than more enemies.

On November 26, the New York Times carried an opinion piece by Michelle Goldberg titled “Maybe They’re Just Bad People.”  In her piece, Goldberg wrote, “Trump is hardly the first politician to attract self-serving followers…  But Trump is unique as a magnet for grifters, climbers and self-promoters, in part because decent people won’t associate with him.”

Really?  What is the sole basis Ms. Goldberg offers for finding Trump  “unique”? Because “decent people won’t associate with him.”

Well, well. I gather that how many people are”indecent” or just plain “bad” because they associate with Trump depends on how you define “associate with.”  Maybe, Ms. Goldberg is only calling all of Trump’s immediate family bad.  Maybe it’s just everyone who works in the White House, or anywhere in the administration.  Or, more broadly, maybe it’s everyone who ever voted for him, worked for him, or said hello to him on the street one time.  Maybe I’m bad because I’ve approved of some of the things he has done.  Who knows? I know only that, according to Goldberg, decent people simply don’t associate with him, so if I do, I’m bad.

The wide broom that sweeps together anyone who even “associates with” your enemy is the tactic that energized the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch trials, and the worst excesses of McCarthyism — all movements I’d venture to guess Ms. Goldberg deplores.  It’s the wide broom of animosity toward all Muslims that drives some Muslims to become terrorists.  And since Mr. Gates says that Trump is woefully ignorant of the constitution, maybe he can remind Ms. Goldberg that the Constitution guarantees us freedom of association — and that inclusiveness is all about associating with people you may not agree with.  If liberals are so self-righteous in their condemnation of President Trump that they can’t look in the mirror and see this wide broom in themselves, then maybe Mr. Gates is right, maybe there’s no hope left for bipartisanship.   Gates writes that you can’t achieve bipartisanship “when one party refuses to participate.”  I wonder what he’d say about the example Ms. Goldberg appears to endorse.  

In my view, one way to combat polarization is for people on both sides to stop sweeping with such wide brooms.  To stop blaming entire political parties, or religions, or movements for the excesses of individuals among them.    That’s what drives moderates into the opposing camp.  If we don’t like Mr. Trump, or any other politician, let’s start talking about the specific statements and behaviors  we disapprove of — that is, the issues, not the people, or the “team,” we support or deplore.   When people of one party see polarization entirely as the fault of the other — and certainly when they suggest that anyone on the other side may just be “bad people”— then my question is, is any one party to blame, or is it just the difficulty we all have of seeing ourselves as others see us?

Best to all this holiday season,


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The Divide

“Sometimes, I want to reach right through the transmitters, WIFI’s and touch screens that divide us.  I want to reach through them and come after you with a vengeance.

“You know who you are – with your ridiculous politics, your seeming ignorance of human nature, and your arrogance.  You think all the evidence, all logic, all justice and morality are on your side.  You think anyone who doesn’t see the world the way you do is the victim of propaganda, guilty of stupidity, or worse.  You accuse others of being arrogant, when in fact, your arrogance is far greater than theirs.

“Yes, I’m talking about you.  Sometimes I want to reach right through the transmitters, WIFI’s and touch screens, grab you by the shoulders, shake you hard and ask, “What in the name of God do you think you’re doing?!”

“I’m sorry if this offends you, but sometimes, it feels good to tell you what I really think.”

Let’s face it: I’m not the only one who has felt  this way.  It’s a feeling practically every one of us has had, about somebody.  So I suspect you have felt the same way, perhaps about me.

That much we share.  Doesn’t that tell us something?

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The Corruption That Stems from Performing Acts of Justice

More and more, it seems to me that the problem with the extreme left is precisely the same as the problem with the extreme right: an inability to realistically self-reflect, an inability to see ourselves as others see us.

My case in point today is the Chamomile Tea Party.

I came across a reference to it in Jonathan Haidt’s excellent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion.  (A book that’s definitely worth a read, if we want to understand why so many people disagree with us.)  At page 320 of the Vintage Books paperback edition, Haidt offered two images designed to express the  reaction many of us are having to increasing polarization and lack of civility in politics.  Haidt identified the images as posters created by graphic designer Jeff Gates for the “Chamomile Tea Party.”

Stop This Bickering

We're Losing Our Competitive Edge

I loved both posters.  The messages about disunity, about cessation of bickering, seemed right up my alley.  “What is this Chamomile Tea Party?” I wondered. “Have I finally found a civil, respectful, harmonizing, unifying political party I can identify with?”

Finally, this morning, I googled on the Chamomile Tea Party. At first, my reaction was positive.  I liked the tagline I came across, a quotation, “The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress. – Joseph Jouber.”

As I read on, I started thinking how much the Chamomile Tea Party had in common with WeMayBeWrong.  Both seemed focused on restoration of civility.  I found more posters I liked.

Call Congress!

Your Animosity Hurts the Country

I was ready to join their fight to combat arrogance and incivility in the political process.  Ready, if I could, to register as pure Chamomile for the next election.

But as I continued to peruse the posters on the CTP website, I began to get a different impression.   As I looked deeper, it began to seem that the CTP has very clear views about where all the blame lies.  If you’re interested, check out some of the other posters with which the Chamomile Tea Party is working to restore civility to American politics.  Here are just a few:

Tie His Hands Tight: VOTE!

GOP, We'll Remember...

Trump: More Than an Inconvenient Truth

Visit the Isle of Anger and Unmet Promises


2017 National Scout Jamboree


Hell Yeah He Colluded!

A Xmas Card from the GOP

There are plenty more on the website, but I’ll end this small sampling with my personal favorite:

Avenge Donald Trump

If posters like these will help to restore civility and close the political divide by assigning all the blame for today’s incivility on Trump and the right, I don’t get it; I must not have that “superior intellect” they’re talking about.   (Actually, the posters don’t put all the blame on Republicans.  There are also a few posters that put the blame on lobbyists, corporations, and capitalists.)

What is it about the offensive arrogance of our opponents that causes us to adopt offensive arrogance ourselves?  Can’t we see that “we” come across to “them” exactly as “they” come across to “us”?  That both sides were becoming increasingly hostile long before Donald Trump?   How are “our” attacks and insults intellectually (or morally) superior to “theirs”?

I mentioned above  how much I liked the quote I found on the CTP’s website, so I wondered who this Joseph Jouber was who pointed out the difference between victory and progress.  The brief Wikipedia article on the man (an 18th century appointee of Napoleon Bonaparte whose name is actually Joubert) included another quote by the man.  Maybe, having read nothing else of what he said, and maybe, not seeing these quotes in context, I misunderstand Monsieur Joubert completely.  But, standing alone, his other quote may tell us much about why  incivility on one side seems to induce reciprocal incivility on the other.

According to Wikipedia, Joubert also said, “There are some acts of justice which corrupt those who perform them.”  If I had to guess, Joubert, writing in the Napoleonic era,  was talking about the corrupting effect on executioners of letting guillotines fall, or something of that sort.  Maybe being an executioner leaves a person heartless and insensitive to death?  Maybe being responsible for punishing wrongs leads to arrogant self-righteousness?  Whatever Joubert meant, it strikes me that the same may be true of many who find Mr. Trump’s style of leadership so offensive.  Have they been so outraged by him, have they become so self-righteous in their condemnation of him, that they’ve become blind to how they come across to his supporters?

I’ve heard some vocal critics of Mr. Trump say their reaction is justified because “Trump started it.”  I disagree.  I think the Trump/Clinton election campaign was an escalation, not a beginning.  True enough, those of us who hoped Mr. Trump would become more presidential if elected have been disappointed, in at least some important respects.  (Calling a reporter’s question “stupid” doesn’t strike me as a path to unifying a divided country.)  But that doesn’t mean he is somehow solely responsible for the invention of political incivility.  And if the act of condemning him makes us feel self-righteous and superior, how far off can our own arrogance be?

So, no, I guess I won’t be joining the Chamomile Tea Party after all.  At some point, if we’re ever to escape from the downward spiral we’ve fallen into, someone has to rise above  insults.  I’m willing to bet that it won’t ever be “them” that do so, so if it’s going to happen at all, I think it will have to begin with us.

— Joe



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This Week’s Remarkable Arrogance

Regardless how you feel about the outcome of this week’s midterm elections, you  have to admit it’s been a great week in some respects. The mid-terms seemed to bring out the electorate rhetoric in record numbers.  For me, it was like watching a meteor shower. I mean, as far as I can see, it was a perfect week for reflection about the meaning of arrogance.

Did we see arrogance in others, but not in ourselves?

Personally, I thought the President was unusually insulting this week.  When he said to a reporter, “That’s a stupid question,” then repeated the comment a second time, then told her she had asked a lot of stupid questions, I saw that as extremely rude and insulting.  It was for that type of comment that I did not vote for him regardless of my expectation that I might agree with a lot of his policies.  When he answered a question about releasing his tax returns by saying that tax returns are complicated documents that most Americans would not be able to understand, I found the comment insulting to the American people.  But was either comment arrogant?

When Steven Colbert devoted his Wednesday night Late Show monologue to insulting the President, I thought him completely unfunny and boorish.  But was he arrogant?  If so, was his arrogance different from that of the President?

Many would say that Trump this week was even more arrogant than he usually is, while Colbert was funny, rather than arrogant.  Others would say that Trump was not arrogant, just “telling it like it really is” and that Colbert was an arrogant snob or an arrogant traitor (whichever is worse).  Bottom line, I think, is that we tend to find arrogance in the passions, attitudes and statements of those we disagree with – pretty much the same places we find stupidity.

Is the concept of arrogance capable of being objectively assessed?  Put another way, if Jack calls Jill arrogant, does that really tell me anything about Jill, or does it only tell me about how Jack himself feels about her?  Is it possible to define the word “arrogant” so that it gives me more reliable information about Jill than it does about Jack?

This has a lot to do with why I think the President may not be the only one who exhibited arrogance this week.

My edition of Webster’s defines arrogance as “offensive display of superiority or self-importance; overbearing pride.”  The O.E.D. defines it as “the taking of too much upon oneself as one’s right.”

Both definitions are highly subjective.  When President Trump said this week’s midterms were largely a referendum on him, would it be right to say the statement was arrogant if you didn’t consider it “offensive” (Webster) or “too much” (OED)?  But what is offensive to one of us doesn’t seem to offend the other.  Many observers have opined that the President of the U.S. is the most powerful person on earth.  If a president acts as if he’s the most powerful person on earth, is that offensive?  Is it taking too much on one’s self?   If a 2002 news analyst said that midterm elections have traditionally been referenda on whoever the sitting president is, we might have agreed.  Could we agree, yet still find Trump’s 2018 statement  arrogant?  When spoken by oneself, about oneself, can an accurate statement ever be arrogant?  I have the sense that it can, but only when I think it “offensive.”  And when Jack finds Jill offensive, I’m back to feeling it tells me as much or more about Jack as it does about Jill.

When Wednesday night’s Late Show moved from the monologue to Colbert’s conversation with CBS White House Correspondent Major Garrett, their conversation centered around the arrogance of “Trump.”  I had previously noticed how the news media now tends to refer to the president as “Trump.”  (With Eisenhower, it was sometimes Ike, with Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson it was FDR, JFK or LBJ.  But even with Nixon, and up through Clinton, Obama, and even the first year of the current presidency, I also heard the President called “the President.”  I haven’t heard the media call Donald Trump “the President” for months now.  Touting his new book, “Mr. Trump’s Wild Ride,” Garret explained that when Trump began to campaign for President, his staff made very clear that they wanted him to be called “Mister Trump.”  Given Garrett’s explanation, it sounds to me as if the media’s repeated reference to him as “Trump” without the Mister is an intentional avoidance of Trump’s expressed desires, as if to irritate or disrespect him the way he irritates and disrespects them. Whatever one thinks on that subject, can the media’s statements about the people they cover ever reflect media arrogance?   Can their reporting imply an “offensive display of superiority or self-importance?”  Can their reporting of news suggest the taking of too much upon themselves, as their right?

During Wednesday night’s show, Garrett told Colbert that Trump’s attacks on the media had become so aggressive that it was time for the news media to ”lock arms” and support each other “because collectively, the First Amendment is what unites all of us.”  I am curious whether Garrett’s reference to “all of us” meant all Americans, or just all of us in the institutional news media.  Garrett was talking about the widely-viewed scene in which Trump told another reporter to sit down, he hadn’t been recognized.  The reporter refused, holding onto the microphone when a staffer attempted to take it away from him.  Was Trump arrogant for telling the reporter to sit down?  Was the reporter arrogant for refusing to yield the microphone?  Who was taking onto himself more than was his right?  Does your answer depend on your subjective views about politics, or Trump, or the news media?  Or is there something more objective involved?

Since Garret’s comment about “all of us” came in the context of saying that White House journalists had traditionally been in it entirely for themselves, but now had good cause to “lock arms” in dealing with Trump, I tend to think that by “all of us” he may have meant the White House Press Corps, and I was reminded of a question of law that has long bothered me.

Since my law school days in the 1970’s, I’ve heard the argument that because the First Amendment protects freedom of speech AND freedom of the press, the latter gives rights and privileges to the institutional media (“the press”) that the rest of us do not enjoy.  I think of journalists refusing to divulge their confidential sources and citing other privileges based on “freedom of the press.”   Some states give specific rights to professional journalists (such as a refusal to disclose sources) that us common folk don’t enjoy.   Is that what the Constitution really means?

I remember one childhood day when a VW beetle in which I was riding was stopped for speeding.  I had joined my friend’s family en route to a folk music festival.  When my friend’s father (the driver of the beetle) pulled out his press badge, he was quickly waved on by the trooper, who apparently assumed that the flashing of press credentials gave the man a free pass to exceed the speed limit – never mind that his children were packed into the back seat with a bunch of banjos, guitars and a neighborhood kid named Joe.  When this man joked about his success – at a tactic he acknowledged employing before – was he taking too much, as his right?

More generally, to some, “freedom of the press” seems to protect only those who carry such credentials. I don’t see it that way.   Thomas Paine, the revolutionary icon who authored Common Sense,  was a corset-maker, sailor and school teacher before publishing the pamphlet that helped birth our nation. But the U.S. Supreme Court has yet to rule explicitly on the question of whether the protections it has extended to the institutional media also protect the rest of us.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a 2014 case that an untrained, un-credentialed private blogger enjoys the same constitutional privileges as the institutional press.  It was good news for untrained, un-credentialed private bloggers like me.   I remain hopeful that, someday, the Supreme Court will agree.  As I see it, employees of big media corporations who get press passes to White House Press Conferences have no more right to insist on holding microphones than I would have, had I been invited to the White House.  I feel that if I’d been allowed into the briefing room and refused to give up the mike, I’d be taking too much on myself, as my right — which is to say, arrogant.  But I have the feeling that much of the institutional press – now “locking arms” against the President – would disagree.

So, yes.  while I may be wrong, I am one of those who thinks Donald Trump is at least as arrogant as any President before him, and very possibly moreso, which is saying a lot, since I can’t recall a president who didn’t seem arrogant.  But at the same time, I think that many institutional journalists have reached their own pinnacle of arrogance in this divisive time.  (I, for one, will refer to the President as Mr. Trump, if that’s what he wants, even as I plan to vote against him the next chance I get.)

I voted in several races and on two constitutional amendments this week without much confidence that I was voting the objectively “right” way.  Yet there was one candidate for whom I cast a very confident vote, and for a reason I don’t regret.  While I didn’t agree with her on every issue — maybe not even a majority of issues – her campaign ads shared a single theme: that she would work with any president, and any Congress, for what was best.  She ran no “negative” ads slamming her opponent.  She cast herself as someone who might listen to, and even respect, those she disagreed with.  When a buddy of mine asked if I thought she really would act that way, if elected, my reply was “Probably not; but that won’t change my vote.  We’ve got to start somewhere, and politicians will never behave with civility unless they’re willing to campaign that way.”

“Arrogance” comes from the Latin word rogare, meaning “to ask.”  The Romans gave certain tribes the privilege of making requests (voting) first, a practice that gave rise to our word for all sorts of “pre-rogatives.”  A press pass, or credential, is essentially such a privilege or prerogative – not a God-given right.  To insist on keeping something you don’t have a right to is to “ar-rogate” something to yourself, which is the etymological core of arrogance.  Yet Colbert and Garrett spoke of news reporter as if he were the victim of injustice — which I take as a sure sign of the media “locking arms.”  So, to members of the press (including those of us who are untrained and un-credentialed): for us, my prayer is that as we rail against the arrogance of others, let us be ever alert to our own.

“Be kind,” said the philosopher.  “For everyone is fighting a hard battle.”

From where I sit, it’s been that sort of week.


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What do the Kavanaugh hearings, Halloween and Homer’s Odyssey all have in common?

Here’s my take on it.

  1. The Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings

Someone recently said to me, “Joe, you were a lawyer once.  You understand evidence.  You can see that all the evidence supports my position on this.”  The person who said that to me could have been talking about the Kavanaugh hearings.  Like so much media coverage of the hearings, this fellow thought of a trial as the evidence all points in one direction or the other .  My answer to him was that if I’d learned anything in thirty years of bar membership it was that my mother was right: there are always at least two sides to a story, and the truth is generally somewhere in between.  If juries heard only one side’s witnesses and arguments, every verdict would be unanimous.  Is it any wonder that if you tell me what news source you follow, I can pretty well predict how you feel about the world?

In years of practicing law, I saw over and over again how witness testimony polarized over time.  From the plaintiff’s perspective, the size of the wrong and the depth of the injury always grew, while from the defendant’s perspective, the strength of the alibi and the sense of indignation always did likewise.  Add the way politicians and the media frame a case as pitting good against evil, and you have everyone asking which of the witnesses is lying.  In this view, it has to be one or the other.  When I said, about the Kavanaugh hearings, that I thought both witnesses were telling the truth as they saw it, people looked at me like I was some sort of crazed lunatic from outer space.  The hearings, and especially the media coverage of them, left me shaking my head about what made them so typical of polarized American politics today: namely, a complete inability to empathize with the other side.

  1. Halloween

Yesterday, I came across a piece published last year in USA Today titled “5 Halloween Myths and Urban Legends, Debunked.”  Myth Number 3 was titled, “Satan is the Reason for the Season.”  While acknowledging that Halloween can be traced back to ancient Celtic harvest festivals, the article argued that the modern event has nothing to do with Satan, and never could have, as Satan is a Judaeo-Christian character that would have made no sense to the ancient Celtic polytheists who started those harvest festivals.  The article also points out that All Hallow’s Eve is the first of three days Christianity devotes to remembering the souls of the Christian faithful.  The religious origins of the modern holiday have to do with honoring the good dead, not the immortal Satan, the embodiment of evil

But when it comes to Halloween, like the Kavanaugh hearings, people are polarized.  To many, Halloween will always be about pure evil.  For many on both sides, there’s a complete inability to empathize with the other.

  1. The Odyssey.

My first exposure to the Odyssey was probably Kirk Douglas’s portrayal of the classical hero in 1954’s Hollywood version, Ulysses.  While I don’t remember much of that movie, I feel sure that Kirk Douglas’s character must have been very heroic, in the modern sense of that word – which is to say, a particularly good and capable guy fighting the good fight against evil.  My sense of the story has always been that the Cyclops, Poseidon and the suitors were monstrously bad while Odysseus wasn’t far shy of sainthood.  I want to take this opportunity to rave about the new translation I just finished reading by Emily Wilson.  It manages to be an amazingly easy and accessible read while maintaining the strict metrical qualities of the original.  For the first time, I didn’t have to “study” the epic, I could just read it, and do so at the same pace I might read John Grisham or Dan Brown.  As a result, I acquired a sense of the whole as I never have before.   I strongly recommend her translation, whether you’ve read the epic before or not.

Wilson’s excellent and engaging translation gave me several new perspectives about the story.  One is that the very name Odysseus can be translated as “hated” or at least “disliked.”  He’s easy to hate because he’s not just duplicitous, he’s multiplicitous.  There’s something for everyone to hate.  In Wilson’s words, he is “a migrant…, a political and military leader, a strategist, a poet, a loving husband and father, an adulterer, a homeless person, an athlete, a disabled cripple, a soldier with a traumatic past, a pirate, thief and liar, a fugitive, a colonial invader, a home owner, a sailor, a construction worker, a mass murderer, and a war hero.” Wilson gives much attention to how a person can be so complex and multi-faceted, at once so hated and so loved.  Her Odysseus is anything but the one dimensional champion of goodness that I grew up admiring. Perhaps we see ourselves in him.  Perhaps that’s what allows us to empathize.

It has become common to dismiss the pagan gods as amoral and often wicked libertines that no thinking person could believe were real.  Modern criticism of the Greek gods generally amounts to the argument that they are no better than us human beings.  Wilson points out they’re essentially the same as powerful human beings except that they live forever, but morally and ethically, they’re no better than us.  This strikes me as a natural criticism of deity if you’re comparing it to a God conceived of as morally perfect and all knowing.  But have there been unintended consequences to conceiving of God as the embodiment of perfect goodness and omniscience?  What have been the consequences of living with the aim of achieving such righteousness ourselves?  What have I done by measuring my self-worth by comparison to a single, homogeneous and absolute goodness who has revealed Himself to me?  Has it worked to make me self-righteous?

One reason I’ve always been attracted to Greek myth is that the gods DO behave like human beings.  I’ve long felt that such portrayals allow us to see the consequences of our foibles in archetypal ways that can help us to avoid mistakes as effectively as a lot of sermons I’ve heard.     At their cores, the modern worldview suggests that the difference between good and evil is apparent, and that life is simple: if we choose correctly, we’ll live forever in the home of the gods.  In the old pagan worldview, life is a constant struggle to sort out the difference between good and  bad; that even in the home of the gods, it can be hard to distinguish right from wrong; that sometimes, what seems good to one person (or god) seems bad to another.  In this worldview, there isn’t any Grand Commission of Justice to tell us which is which.

There’s little doubt in my mind that most of us would choose to live in a world where good and evil are clearly defined and labelled. But is the real world more nuanced and dependent on point of view than that?  Wilson points out that Odysseus is offered a perfect and immortal life by Circe, but turns it down, choosing instead his mortal home in his mortal world.  Is that why we can love him and hate him at the same time?  There are good reasons the Bible has stood the test of time.  I think there are good reasons the Odyssey has too.

So: What similarities do I see between the Kavanaugh hearings, Halloween, and the Odyssey? For me, all three tell us something about the extent to which Platonic thinking about absolutes has changed the world.  In the pre-Platonic, polytheistic world of Odysseus we could celebrates diverse and multiple perspectives; in the modern world, there must be a single and absolute truth distinguishable by its righteousness.  In the Christian Era, we’re used to hearing the gods of Greek myth dismissed as either “immoral” or “amoral.”  But in the Odyssey, Zeus is the god of justice and of hospitality toward strangers.  One of the most constant themes is that the gods will not approve of mistreating strangers.  It’s not that the Homeric gods don’t care about what’s good and right, but that (just like people) they don’t share a singular and unchanging view of what “goodness” consists of.

Of the many epithets applied to Odysseus (apart from being godlike),  most begin with the prefix “poly-,” meaning multiple.  Odysseus is “poly-tropos” (multiply turning), poly-phrona (multiply-minded), poly-meganos (employing multiple devices), poly-tlas (multiply enduring), poly-penthes (multiply-pained), poly-stonos (multiply-sorrowed) and poly-aretos (multiply prayed for.)  In a sense, this multiplicity makes him all things to all people.  It’s a big part of why he’s hated.  He is also incredibly adaptable, assuming different guises and characteristics in different situations.  His understanding of right and wrong is neither absent nor irrelevant – it is simply changing.

All our modern religious and political instincts tell us to condemn such inconstancy.  We’re trained to think in terms of Platonic absolutes, of clear and perfect Goodness on one side and clear and perfect Evil on the other.  We’re told we can identify the Truth and that we’re bound to adhere to it.  If Professor Ford was telling the truth as she saw it, then Judge Kavanaugh had to be lying, as he saw it.  If Halloween is not a glorification of the Judaeo-Christian God, it must be the work of Satan.  If Odysseus is inconsistent from one day to the next, he must represent an inferior state of being because perfect people have to be constant, unchanging and right.

But is there a difference between being constant, unchanging and right, and being rigid, intolerant, and set in our ways?

I’m not advocating for a rudderless, amoral view of the world.  Goodness is certainly worth striving for.  But how can I know for certain I’ve found it, when others disagree with me about what’s good?  Once again, I’m reminded of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s words:

“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who’s willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

I recently read Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. The book is worth a read for many reasons, but the concept I found most thought-provoking was Haidt’s view on the evolutionary origins of human reason.  The traditional view is that the capacity for reason and logical analysis evolved in human beings as tools for reaching the best conclusions.  In reality, Haidt suggests, human beings wouldn’t have survived unless they could form immediate judgments about things without reasoned analysis.  (You can’t conduct a reasoned analysis of whether to run from a saber-toothed tiger or not.)  But we are also social animals whose early survival depended on the ability to work together in teams.   And to act as a team,  we needed coordinated approaches.  Haidt says our social survival depended on leaders able to persuade others to follow their judgments.  According to Haidt, reason and logical analysis arose about the same time as language did, and they evolved for much the same social purposes: that is, not as tools of decision-making to help an individual determine what’s right, but as tools of persuasion to help convince others to go along with our judgments.  (In the process, we convince ourselves that our judgments are right, too, but that’s a result, not a cause.)

In this view, all of human reasoning has its origins in persuading others, in post-hoc justification to support judgments already formed.  If Solzhenitsyn and Haidt are right, then all the arguments between Professor Ford and Justice Kavanaugh, Democrats and Republicans, Christians and atheists, NPR and Fox News, Halloween enthusiasts and its enemies,  and indeed, between you and me, have to do with persuasion, not with what either one of us has always revered as “reason.”

In this sense, maybe Ford’s and Kavanaugh’s truths are similar.  Last year, I blogged about liking Halloween because it invited us to try out the worldview of a character we normally think of us strange, monstrous, or even evil.  Maybe it isn’t bad that we put ourselves in the shoes of terrible others on Halloween.  Maybe it’s okay to change our understanding of right and wrong at times, to try out new perspectives, just like Homer’s Odysseus did.  Maybe multiplicity helps us empathize.

After listing the many (contradictory) traits her Odysseus exhibits, Emily Wilson  writes, “immersing ourselves in his story, and considering how these categories can exist in the same imaginative space, may help us reconsider the origins of Western literature, and our infinitely complex contemporary world.”

Maybe she’s on to something there?

– Joe

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The Biggest Delusion of All

When I was fourteen, my parents sent me to Texas to work on my grandfather’s ranch.  The first job would be to paint the fence around the field between his house and the road.    When I asked what else I’d be doing, he replied, “Let’s see how long it takes to paint the fence.”  Two months later, having painted for eight hours a day, I returned home, the job of painting the fence still not finished.

The word “comprehend” means taking something in all at once.  Since flat land let me see that fence all at once, it seemed comprehensible.  In fact, if I held my two thumbs in front of my face, I could make the fence  seem to fit between them.  So thinking it might take a few days to paint the fence seemed reasonable.  Problem was, my brain does tricks with perspective.   In reality, that field was probably close to ten acres, the fence probably ten football fields long.  “Comprehension” of very large things requires large scale trickery.  It depends on deception.

I should have known better than to trust my brain about the fence.   My teacher Paul Czaja had told our class the story of the Emperor’s chessboard and the grains of rice: the Emperor said that if a single grain of rice were placed on the first square, two grains on the second square, four grains on the third, and so on, until the 64th square, the final square would require enough rice to stretch to the moon and back seven times.

The story of the Emperor and his grains of rice “wowed” me with the power of exponential growth.  I knew the moon was far away, and a grain of rice very small.  Stretching back and forth seven times had to make it a very large number indeed.

Of course I wanted to know what the total number of rice grains was in numbers I could understand.  Rather than simply give his class the answer, Paul asked us to compute the number ourselves.  Our homework was simply to multiply by two sixty-three times.

If Paul had told us that the total grains on the chessboard came to 18,446,744,073,709,551,615, I’d have realized that the number was larger than any I’d ever seen – but my brain would have attempted to make sense of the number’s “bigness” in the same way it had made sense of the fence in Texas – namely, by making it appear far smaller than it really was.   The only way to see a huge field was to make it seem small enough to fit between two thumbs.  The only way to make such a large number seem comprehensible is to reduce it to funny little shapes on a page that we call numerals.

Upon seeing that large number on the page, my brain immediately perceives it’s large, because it is physically longer than most numbers I see.   But how large? If it takes up two inches on the page, my brain suggests it’s twice as long as a one-inch long number, the same way a two-inch worm is twice as large as a one-inch worm.    But my schooling tells me that’s wrong, so I count the digits – all twenty of them.   Since twenty apples is twice as many as ten apples, and since my brain has spent years making such comparisons, my intuition suggests that a twenty digit number is twice as large as a ten digit number.  But I “know” (in the sense of having been told otherwise) that’s not right.

But here’s my real question: if my intuition is wrong, is it even possible for me to “know”  how wrong? Does “calculation”: amount to “comprehension”?

Psychologists tell me my brain is useful in this inquiry only because it tricks me into seeing the distorted, shrunken  “mini-icon” versions of things – numerals and digits, rather than the actual quantities themselves.  If we’re asked to describe what it feels like to be alive for a million years, we can’t.  We’ll never be able to.  And for the same reasons, it seems to me, we can’t “comprehend” the reality of 264, only the icons we can comprehend – the mental constructs that only work because they’re fakes.

Consider the Emperor’s assertion that the rice would be enough to go to the moon and back seven times.  That mental  image impressed me.  It made the size of 264 seem far more real than it would have if I’d merely seen the twenty digits on a page.  But do I really comprehend the distance between the moon and the earth?

The moon’s craters make it look like a human face.  I can recognize faces nearly a hundred yards away.  So… is my brain telling me that the moon is a hundred yards away?

I’ve seen the models of lunar orbit in science museums – the moon the size of a baseball two or three feet away from an earth the size of a basketball.  My brain is accustomed to dealing with baseballs and basketballs.    I can wrap my brain around (“comprehend”) two or three feet.  So when I try to imagine rice extending between earth and moon seven times, I relate the grains of rice to such “scientific models.”

But is that , too, an exercise designed to trick me into thinking  I “understand”?  Is it like making a fenced field seem like it could fit between my two thumbs?

I have little doubt that analogies seem to help.  Consider that a million seconds (six zeros) is 12 days, while a billion seconds (nine zeros) is 31 years and a trillion seconds (twelve zeros) is 31,688 years.  Wow.  That helps me feel like I understand.  Or consider that a million hours ago, Alexander Graham Bell was founding AT&T, while a billion hours ago, man hadn’t yet walked on earth.  A billion isn’t twice as big as ten thousand, it’s a hundred thousand times bigger.

Such mental exercises add to our feeling that we understand these big numbers.  They certainly “wow” me.  But is this just more deception?

Distrusting my brain’s suggestions, I decide to do some calculations of my own. A Google search and a little math tell me that seven trips to the moon and back would be about 210 billion inches.  Suppose the grains of rice are each a quarter inch long.   The seven round trips would therefore require 840 billion grains of rice.  The math is simple.  If there’s anything my brain can handle, it’s simple math.  Digits make it easy to do calculations.  But does my ability to do calculations mean I achieve comprehension?

Thinking that it might, I multiply a few more numbers.  My calculations show me that the Emperor’s explanation of his big number was not only wrong, but very wrong.  The number of grains of rice on the chessboard would actually go to the moon and back not seven times, and not even seven thousand times, but more than 150 million times!

Such a margin of error is immense. I don’t think I could mistake a meal consisting of 7 peas for a meal consisting of 150 million peas. I don’t think I could mistake a musical performance lasting seven minutes for a musical performance lasting 150 million minutes. What conclusion should I draw from the fact that I could, and did, fail to realize the difference between seven trips to the moon and back, and 150 million trips?

The conclusion I draw strikes me as profound.  It is that I have no real  “comprehension”  of the size of such numbers.    I’ve retold Paul’s chessboard story for fifty years without ever once supposing that the Emperor’s “seven times to the moon and back” might be wrong.  Could there be any better evidence that I have no real sense of the numbers, no real sense of the distances involved?  The fact that I can’t really appreciate the difference between  two such large numbers tells me that I’ve exceeded the limits of any real understanding.   My brain can comprehend baseballs and basketballs.  Using simple tools like a decimal number system, I can do calculations.    But when I try to comprehend the difference between 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 and 18,446,744,073,709,551,615,000,000, am I really able to understand what it means to say that the second number is a million times larger than the first?

I got my first glimpse of the difference between “calculating” and “comprehending” about five minutes into Paul’s homework  assignment.  Just five minutes into my calculations, my brain was already playing tricks on me.  Pencil in hand, there were already  too many numbers going around in my head.  I was (literally) dizzy from arithmetic overload.   I made errors;  I began to slow down, to be more careful.  The numbers were already absurdly large.   Five minutes after starting with a sharp pencil, my numbers were eight digits long; I was multiplying scores of millions, but no matter how slow I went, the frequency of errors increased.    After ten minutes, I had to sharpen the pencil because I couldn’t read my own writing.  After twenty minutes, my fingers hurt.  Soon, I could feel calluses forming.

Since the first eight squares of the chessboard had taken me about fifteen seconds to calculate, I’d unconsciously supposed that doing all eight rows might take me eight times as long.    But the absurdity of such a notion was becoming quickly apparent.  Looking up at a clock after half an hour, still not quite half way across the chessboard, my inclination, even then, was to think that the second half of the chessboard would take about as long as the first.  If so, I’d be done in another half an hour.  So I determined to finish.  But a couple of hours past my normal bedtime, I assured my mother I’d be finished soon – notwithstanding finger pain that had been crying for me to stop.  By the time I finished –about two a.m., the calculations having taken me over five hours to complete despite the fact that I’d long since given up trying to correct errors – my fingers were so painfully cramped it seemed they’d never recover.

In this way, I started to “feel,” to “experience,” the hugeness of the number 18,446,744,073,709,551,615.

By reading this account, some may feel they have a deeper sense of the enormity of 2 to the sixty-fourth power.    But I’m willing to bet that if you’ve never done it before, but now actually try to CALCULATE it, yourself, you’ll appreciate the hugeness in ways that symbols on a page – the stuff our brains use – can never convey.

As I look at the digits on the page, my brain is trying to spare me that visit to the land of reality.  It strives to shield me from calloused fingers and mental exhaustion with its easy comparisons, its suggestions to count digits, even its way of hearing words and using them to imagine a story  about going to the moon and back seven times.  In the same way, perspective had tricked me into thinking I understood the length of a fence as if to spare me a sore back, sore feet, sunburn and thirst for two months.  But the experience of painting the fence had taught me more about its length than framing it with my thumbs or even counting the posts between the rails   I don’t know how long it would have taken to finish painting that fence.  I could do the calculations, but only finishing the job would have really made me “comprehend” the time involved, and who knows –I might have died of heat exhaustion before I ever finished.

I should know that the farther away something is, the bigger it must be, if I can see it.  But through the deceit called perspective, my brain tells me precisely the opposite:  the farther away something is, the smaller it appears.  Stars more massive than the sun are reduced to mere pin pricks in the sky. When I remove a contact lens, my thumb  look like the biggest thing in the world.  What better evidence can there be that our brains are built to deceive us?

My brain (wisely) keeps me focused on things I need, like apples, and on things than can kill me, like woolly mammoths, men with rifles, fast moving cars, or thumbs in my eye.  But to do this, my brain necessarily distorts the things that are far away, and the things that are many, and the things that are very much larger than me, because they are things I can do nothing about.  In fact, I suspect that If my brain were asked to identify the biggest, most important thing in the world, it would say it was me.

And that might just be the biggest delusion of all.


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Digesting Reality

After I gave a short talk on We May Be Wrong, one man who heard me suggested I might want to read “Seeing Like a State,” by James C. Scott.  Along with Scott’s more recent book, “Against the Grain,” it has had a profound effect on my thinking.

Scott is a Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale.  His subtitle, “How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed,” gives a clue to his thinking.

Seeing Like a State begins with a description of forestry practices in late eighteenth century Prussia and Saxony.  The forest, Scott reminds us, was a complicated, diverse ecosystem, consisting not just of varieties of trees, but of bushes and smaller plants, of foliage that was useful for fodder and thatch, of twigs and branches from which bedding was made, of bark and roots for the making of medicines, of sap for making resins, of fruits and nuts available for consumption, of grasses, flowers, lichens, mosses, and vines – not to mention being a habitat for fauna from insects and frogs to birds and foxes and deer, and a place human beings used for hunting, gathering, trapping, magic, worship, refuge, poetry and (he didn’t mention it, but I will –) love.

But the German state was focused on a single aspect of the forest – the commercial value of its timber.  In a series of steps recounted by Scott, the German state essentially redesigned its forests in order to maximize timber production and increase the wealth of the German state.  The consequences ultimately proved disastrous – for the state, its citizens, and the forest itself.

From this and a variety of other examples, Scott generalizes:  “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.” State action has frequently failed, says Scott, not because the particular state is politically leftist or rightist, wise or inept, forward or backward-thinking, but because its focus is the sort of abstract overview a state must adopt in order to manage a complex system based on whatever fundamental principles it chiefly values.  The connection to WeMayBeWrong  is suggested most strongly when Scott writes, “If the utilitarian state could not see the real, existing forest for the (commercial) trees, if its view of the forests was abstract and partial, it was hardly unique in this respect.  Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis (my emphasis).

If Scott’s next book is called “Thinking Like a Human Being,” I suspect I’ll like it, too.  For isn’t some level of abstraction necessary, not just for all forms of state action, and all forms of analysis, but  for all forms of communication?  For all forms of thought?  Isn’t it true that to make sense of things, we have to select certain attributes to focus on, to the exclusion of others?  Aren’t we compelled to categorize?  To deal in types rather than specifics?  To oversimplify?  Surely we can’t possibly think in terms of every dachshund on every street in every town in every country of the world, not to mention all the individual dogs of every other breed – especially if we’re going to start comparing them to cats and birds and lizards and apes.  We can only get our mind around such large numbers of unique animals by lumping all those breeds and individuals together, ignoring all their differences,  and speaking of “dogs.”  How could it be otherwise?

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “The often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.”  Or, as Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness, “It is difficult to escape the focus of our own attention – difficult to consider what it is we may not be considering.”

We aggregate.  We categorize.  We stereotype.  We oversimplify.  As I see it, group unique things together based on certain similarities – despite other differences – is fundamental to the very way we think.

The lead story on the front page of last Sunday’s Richmond Times-Dispatch was about a twenty-six year old man named Ted.  According to the article, Ted had gotten into hard drugs including opiates, cocaine, and heroin.  He’d been fired from his job and had stolen from his girlfriend.  He’d spent time in jail periodically for assault, grand larceny, and violating probation.  A few days after release from jail, he entered a “sober house” for addicts seeking to beat their addictions.  He signed a contract with the facility that laid out the rules, including curfews, twelve-step meetings, and a specific provision that use of drugs was grounds for immediate expulsion from the house.

As one official was quoted as saying, “These sober homes are not locked down jail cells.  The kids come and go.”  When Ted showed up at his sober house a week later acting suspiciously, a required drug test was positive for cocaine and morphine.  When asked to submit to a drug search, Ted refused.  In accordance with the contract he’d signed, he was told he had to leave the house.  Together with another resident, he did.  That was late on a Friday night.

On Saturday, Ted and the other man did some work for a landscaper.  Saturday night, Ted was exchanging text messages with a girlfriend in Florida and with the landscaper, who was asking about Ted’s plans for Sunday.  But on Sunday, Ted’s body was found on the side of a country road not far from where we live.  He had died of an overdose of fentanyl, cocaine and heroin, presumably consumed later that Saturday night.

Alright – it’s a tragic story, but what does it have to do with Seeing Like a State?  Or with WeMayBeWrong?

Ted’s picture was printed, rather large, on the front page of the paper, along with a headline that read, “The System that Was Trying to Help Him Crumbled.”  The article’s subtitle was “Death in Chesterfield Highlights Gaps in Care for Addicts Living in Sober Homes.”  According to the article, Ted’s grieving mother was “strongly critical” of the sober house’s conduct in telling him he had to leave, rather than releasing him to someone who could give him “proper care.”  What that might have entailed and how it might have worked is far from clear to me.  Apparently, calling a probation officer late on a Friday night is problematic.  Even had he been reached, would Ted’s probation officer have been able to locate Ted, or do anything that would have led to saving Ted from his final overdose?

But what I find interesting is the acclaim of “experts” calling for a standardized fix to the system. Interviewed for the article, the head of an unrelated recovery program said “operators of recovery homes need to have policies for making sure residents get the care they need when they test positive for drugs.”  The grieving mother posted a letter on another website to the effect that recovery facilities “MUST have a protocol, a plan of action” in such cases.  When interviewed for the article, the President of the National Alliance for Recovery Residences said that all fifty states should have laws requiring all sober houses to be certified – by them (state affiliates of the N.A.R.R), or by organizations like them.  Such certifications, he said, would be based on “clear policies,” “trained staff” and “approved standards.”   The grieving mother’s complaints that the “system” had “crumbled” became the headline the Times-Dispatch gave to its coverage.  That newspaper’s attention had caused the Virginia Association of Recovery Residences (V.A.R.R.) to schedule a vote, this coming month, “to create a uniform policy for what operators of sober homes should do when someone relapses.”

No less so than central governments, private organizations like the N.A.R.R. and V.A.R.R. meet, and analyze, and sometimes vote (depending on how democratic they are) to determine the best method of dealing with categories of problems.  Once these entities identify “best methods,” they seek to encourage or require others to adhere to them.  Hence the call for uniform policies, approved standards and “certifications” by these organizations.  But in Ted’s case, amidst all the calls for uniformity, written policies, standards and certifications, I fail to see the connection between such proposals and the conduct of this particular house, and this particular drug addict.  And I wonder whether all the sober houses of the world should be treating all the drug addicts of the world in a “uniform” manner when they relapse, as if all members of the category ought to be treated the same.

Understandably, the grief-stricken mother believes that releasing her son to “proper care” would have made a difference.  Understandably, she believes that the “system crumbled.”  It’s harder for me to understand why a newspaper headlines its story about Ted with that same diagnosis – that  the lack of – or deficiency in – a “system”  was the cause of the tragic event two days later.  And I wonder why organizations like the Virginia and National A.R.R.’s see written policies, uniform standards and certificates of compliance as the answer to problems like Ted’s – until I remember that those same organizations would be the ones setting the standards and issuing the certificates – in other words, “thinking like states.”

But I don’t think it’s just states.   Gilbert, again: “[M]uch of our behavior from infancy onward is simply an expression of [our] penchant for control.  Before our butts hit the very first diaper, we already have a throbbing desire to suck, sleep, poop and make things happen… Toddlers squeal with delight when they knock over a stack of blocks, push a ball, or squash a cupcake on their forehead.  Why?… The fact is that human beings come into the world with a passion for control…”

The questions raised by Ted’s tragic death and by Professor Scott’s books include whether uniform standards and systems imposed by any central authorities, public entities or large private corporations or associations,  are capable of fully addressing the complexities and fluidity of the world.   Large organizations, says Scott, can only operate based on uniform standards applied to categories shaped along lines that are capable of centralized, standardized administration.  By their nature, standards are uniform across whol categories. They are also meant to be relatively permanent in the face of constant change – permanent in the sense of controlling things until some newer, wiser “standard” is discovered and deemed worthy of taking its place.   But if the lack of uniform standards is the answer to Ted’s problems and the rest of the world’s problems, what do we make of the German approach to forestry?  Of the widespread use of DDT?  Of the failure of the Soviet Union?  Of the unbridled use of petrochemicals by private industry?  Of the increasing tendency for “superior” (but genetically uniform) corn to be planted all across America?

These days, science has become acutely aware of the dangers of monoculture when it comes to crops, wildflowers, bees, viruses, and all species of living things.  It was standardization that killed the forests of Saxony.  Diversity in the gene pool of flora and fauna is recognized as the best long term protection against an ever larger list of catastrophes – both the few that we’re aware of and the many we’re not.   The Supreme Court has before it a case in which Harvard University stresses the importance of diversity in its admissions practices, and most of the universities in the country support Harvard as to that importance.  . More and more, I hear scientists and psychologists speak of the impossibility of predicting the future, so that any scheme designed to protect us from the most visible threats may well subject us to others not yet perceived.  Yet in the face of growing concerns about monoculture and the importance of diversity, cries for standardization and uniform solutions continue from people convinced they know what’s best for us all.

According to Scott, the tendency of authorities who’ve decided they “know what’s best” to impose those ideas uniformly, in a “one-size fits all” manner, is a serious problem, and whether those authorities are private or public, totalitarian or democratic, they do so only after over-simplifying the world.   They design their systems like monocultures, giving precedence to a few priorities in an extremely complex and inter-dependent world that is, in the end, a forest (of one sort of another).   “Certain forms of knowledge and control require a narrowing of vision.” “Some level of abstraction is necessary for virtually all forms of analysis.”

Or, to borrow a thought from Jean Paul Sartre, quoted by Scott: “Ideas cannot digest reality.”

Perhaps, yet another reason that we may be wrong.

– Joe

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