Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Town hall numbers down showing legislators avoiding constituents

Here’s a “significant digit” from FiveThirtyEight.

88 in-person town halls
According to Legistorm, that’s how many town halls the 292 congressional Republicans have scheduled in the first two months of their term, with Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner accounting for 35 of those. In the same period of the previous Congress, the GOP congressional delegation held 222 such events. [Vice]

What about the Dems? Vice reports those stats.

… Despite outnumbering Democrats in Congress 292 to 241, Republicans are holding 19 fewer in-person town hall events than their colleagues across the aisle in the first two months (54 fewer if you don’t count Sensenbrenner’s 35).

Vice continues:

But ultimately both parties are holding fewer in-person events to avoid unwanted viral moments. Senior Democratic lawmakers this week asked progressive favorite Sen. Bernie Sanders to reach out to activists and urge them to not protest at Democratic town halls, according to the Washington Post.

“I bet if you looked at the number of members of Congress holding fundraisers next week during recess, it would be nearly 100 percent,” said Ezra Levin, co-founder of the Indivisible Project. Constituents should demand that 100 percent also attend town halls, he added.

SB 1142 thought police bill dies in AZ House

SB 1142 died in the AZ State House Committee yesterday. Howard Fischer reports in the Daily Star: Fear that it erodes rights kills Arizona rioting bill.

Not really. It was fear that the legislators idiotors who might vote for it would look bad. Here’s some of the story.

A state bill that would have allowed protesters to be arrested over the potential to riot is dead — at least for this year.

House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said Monday he does not know whether legislation to expand Arizona’s racketeering and conspiracy statutes to include rioting are needed to go after those who organize violent demonstrations.

“I haven’t heard the policy arguments to decide one way or the other,” he told Capitol Media Services.

But what Mesnard said he has decided is that the public has concluded that SB 1142 would chill the rights of Arizonans to peacefully protest. And that, he said, makes the legislation politically unacceptable.

“You can’t have that many people, whether it does or doesn’t, believing that we’re, in this bill, taking away people’s rights,” Mesnard said.

Not constitutionally unacceptable. Just politically unacceptable. Had the people not spoken up, the bill would have gone through and, indeed, some of our rights under the Constitution of the United States would have been taken away.

As State Sen. Steve Farley noted.

But Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, who tried to stop the Senate from approving the measure, said Monday the legislation was overly broad and would have had a chilling effect on the right of groups to demonstrate for fear a single bad actor could result in racketeering charges against organizers. And Farley also scoffed at the idea that expanding the laws will give police the opportunity to stop riots before they start.

“I’d like to stop crimes before they start, too,” he said. “But you can’t do that if you’re not using thought police.”

The author of the bill, San. John Kavanagh is ever so happy with endowing the police with the ability to read our minds.

For now the people have spoken and SB 1142 is spiked - “at least for this year.”

Why did Donald Trump resurect "Enemy of the People"?

Scriber’s answer? I think Putin fed it to him. Just my opinion. Read on.

Donald Trump escalates conflict with media: ‘They are the enemy of the people’ reports Australian Broadcasting Company (among most other sources).

US President Donald Trump continues to escalate his conflict with the press, declining an invitation to attend the annual White House Correspondents dinner and doubling down on his statement that the mainstream media — and what he claims is its fake news — is the enemy of the American people.

“A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people and they are, they are the enemy of the people,” Mr Trump said.

On Friday major media outlets were excluded from an off-camera press briefing at the White House, prompting calls for a boycott of briefings altogether.

“In a lot of cases it does look like a war. It looks like The Washington Post and The New York Times are directly contradicting the White House over and over,” Vox media writer Carlos Maza said.

“I don’t think that’s because those newsrooms want to be at war with the White House. I think it’s because those newsrooms badly want to tell the truth and describe reality as it is, and we have a White House that has a very strong incentive to describe reality as something else.”

Yesterday Scriber dropped in on an interview by NPR with Nina Khrushcheva, the great granddaughter of Nikita Krushchev. She describes the history of “enemy of the people” as rooted in the Bolshevik revolution and later used by Stalin to consign perceived enemies to the gulags (or to disappearance). She said the term gave her “goose bumps.”

Writing before the inauguration, Krushcheva accurately predicted much of what followed in her December essay on The Manchurian Cabinet. Excerpts follow.

As Trump’s inauguration draws near, Americans must confront three big questions. One, in a sense, is a take on a question that Trump raised about Clinton during the campaign: what happens if the FBI finds evidence of criminal conduct by the president? Or, perhaps more likely in Trump’s case, what happens if the president tries to shut down FBI investigations into his commercial activities involving Russia, or into the actions of cronies like Manafort?

Scriber: how prescient! It’s happening.

The second question, which the US Senate should ask before confirming Tillerson as Secretary of State, concerns the extent of his and ExxonMobil’s financial interests in Russia. The Senate should also probe how closely Tillerson has cooperated with Igor Sechin, the chairman of Rosneft and a notorious ex-KGB operative, particularly in renationalizing much of the Russian oil industry and placing it under Sechin’s personal control. …

Scriber: The Senate, in their rush to judgment, did not ask.

The biggest question of all concerns the American people. Are they really willing to accept a president who denounces men and women who risk their lives to defend the US, and who is equally quick to praise and defend Putin and his cronies when their reckless, even criminal, conduct is exposed?

Scriber: Sadly, the American people, many of them at least, were happy, to the point of almost religious ecstasy, to accept that president. Benjamin Franklin anticipated this disconnect.

The deliberations of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 were held in strict secrecy. Consequently, anxious citizens gathered outside Independence Hall when the proceedings ended in order to learn what had been produced behind closed doors. The answer was provided immediately. A Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” With no hesitation whatsoever, Franklin responded, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

And to call the press, the remaining bulwark of our democracy, the “enemy of the people”, is beyond reprehensible. Trump embraces ‘enemy of the people,’ a phrase with a fraught history

MOSCOW — The phrase was too toxic even for Nikita Khrushchev, a war-hardened veteran communist not known for squeamishness. As leader of the Soviet Union, he demanded an end to the use of the term “enemy of the people” because “it eliminated the possibility of any kind of ideological fight.”

“The formula ‘enemy of the people,’ ” Khrushchev told the Soviet Communist Party in a 1956 speech denouncing Stalin’s cult of personality, “was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals” who disagreed with the supreme leader.

It is difficult to know if President Trump is aware of the historic resonance of the term, a label generally associated with despotic communist governments rather than democracies.

But his decision to unleash the terminology has left some historians scratching their heads. Why would the elected leader of a democratic nation embrace a label that, after the death of Stalin, even the Soviet Union found to be too freighted with sinister connotations?

Kruschcheva concludes.

At the end of The Manchurian Candidate, another brainwashed character – Frank Sinatra’s Marco – escapes his programming to foil the communist plot. But that was Cold War Hollywood: of course the good guys won. Trump the Movie is unlikely to end so well.

Nina L. Khrushcheva, the author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics and The Lost Khrushchev: A Journey into the Gulag of the Russian Mind, is Professor of International Affairs and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at The New School and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute..

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Presidential Poisoner

Alexander George, writing for the NY Times column The Stone, characterizes President Trump as Our Forger-in-Chief. Trump’s continual assault on the tools of rational thought and civil deliberation undermines our ability to distinguish fact from fiction and thus is a clear and present danger of the sort seen before only in authoritarian regimes such as Hitler’s Germany of the 1930s.

“Alexander George (@AlexanderGeorge) teaches philosophy at Amherst College. He runs Ask Philosophers, a website where anyone can pose questions to philosophers.” As such, he makes philosophical arguments about Trump’s “poisoning the well” of our sources of knowledge: science and the news media. I want to make the case differently. Please indulge my one-time, teen-age aspiration to be the Great American Novelist as I outline my crime thriller The Presidential Poisoner.

I would begin by researching what is known about the psychology of poisoners. A Psychological Profile of a Poisoner appeared in Psychology Today in 2012 with the subtitle Serial Murder By Subterfuge. Here are excerpts.

Killing someone with poison, by it’s very nature, requires careful planning and subterfuge, so it comes as no surprise that poisoners tend to be cunning, sneaky, and creative (they can design the murder plan in as much detail as if they were writing the script for a play). Male or female, they tend to avoid physical confrontation and, instead, rely on verbal and emotional manipulation to get what they want from others.

Convicted poisoners also tend to have a sense of inadequacy, for which they compensate through a scorn for authority, a strong need for control, wish-fulfillment fantasies, and a self-centered, exploitive interpersonal style. Often either spoiled as a child or raised in an unhappy home, some experts liken the poisoner’s personality to an incorrigible child whose immature desire for his/her own way leads him/her to try to control and manipulate the world. It’s as if the poisoner never grew up and is determined to take what s/he wants just as a child would from a candy store. Developmentally stunted, other people are viewed without empathy and the poisoner’s internal compass is guided instead by greed or lust rather than morals. And, because poison is often not detected initially, the power and control poisoners experience with success tends to increase his or her confidence in future endeavors.

Given that 1 out of 5 verified murders by poisoning is never solved, it’s hard to draw a definitive psychological profile of the typical poisoner. Those who’ve been caught and convicted give us some clues - clever, sneaky, emotionally immature, methodical, and self-centered. Many of them are amazingly skilled at pretending to be something they’re not - a doting husband, caring nurse, or devoted friend. Behind the mask, though, lies a psyche that is propelled by childish needs and unencumbered by moral restraints.

Then the task as novelist is to imagine a poisoner operating on a national and even international scale. Because the poisoner in this piece of fiction has a “psyche that is propelled by childish needs and unencumbered by moral restraints”, it is easy to imagine how such an individual would crave adulation and approval of the masses. It is just as easy to imagine how such an individual would be easily manipulated by some foreign power with motives inimical to our national security.

What could actually be poisoned on a national scale that could bring down our country? Try the food supply. We live almost day to day in dependence on the integrity of our production and distribution of food via grocery stores big and small, general and special. What if we collectively came to believe that all our food stuffs were no longer safe to consume? What nation-wide mayhem would ensue? You think lines at the gas pump were disturbing? Try hundreds of millions of people fighting for the last scrap of safe food on nearly empty shelves. And all this could be done just by an authority figure claiming that the food supply was unsafe - with no credible supporting evidence. You don’t have to poison a well in order to get people to avoid it.

And that brings us back to the present. Trump and his advisors and supporters are in the process of poisoning the well of our knowledge. If that well cannot be trusted, then the people will no longer drink from it. The foreign power, as in my novel, does not have to directly confront us to do us profound damage. That hideous strength just needs to make us believe that our well of knowledge is poison.

Alexander George, after his philosophical analysis, explains.

There is a lesson here about the lurking dangers of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and that of his minions. Citizens in a technologically advanced liberal democracy must rely on its scientific community to deliver disinterested information upon which to base their decisions about the policies they would have their elected representatives enact. Citizens are also highly dependent on a probing press to help them judge the performance of their elected representatives. Trump, first as a national candidate and now from the pulpit of the presidency, has not ceased to deny and denigrate the findings of scientific bodies concerning the rate and causes of climate change. In addition, he regularly calumnies individual members of the press and vilifies entire news organizations. They are dismissed as purveyors of “fake news” — a label Descartes’s skeptic might have been delighted to apply to the allegedly untrustworthy deliverances of our sense organs.

This behavior is not merely offensive and outrageous. The real problem is that it is dangerous: It poses an existential threat to our democracy. These attacks poison the wells of reasoned public discourse, a prerequisite for a functioning democracy. The problem is not merely that we are being fed a falsehood here, a lie there, though that would be problem enough. The issue is rather that by destroying the citizenry’s confidence in the institutions of science and the press, we risk being deprived of the tools needed to assess what to believe and want. If we cannot trust what vetted scientists or professional journalists tell us, then we will have been rendered rationally impotent. It is damaging to be fed falsehoods or to be outright lied to, but it is utterly debilitating to be deprived of the resources by which to sort fact from fiction.

Descartes’s skeptic is a traitor to knowledge: His threats are not directed piecemeal but instead to the entire enterprise of coming to know how things are. The assaults on science and the press by Trump and his followers are not local eruptions of deceit and mendacity but a well-poisoning assault on public rational discourse, a prerequisite for a healthy democracy.

Perhaps I should retitle my novel Putin’s Presidential Poisoner.

Notes and credits

New York Times: The Stone
A forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless. The series moderator is Simon Critchley, who teaches philosophy at The New School for Social Research.

From Wikipedia
That Hideous Strength “(subtitled A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups) is a 1945 novel by C. S. Lewis, the final book in Lewis’s theological science fiction Space Trilogy. … The story involves an ostensibly scientific institute, the N.I.C.E., which is a front for sinister supernatural forces.” I recommend it as being still relevant 72 years later.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Slov**ia

Yesterday Scriber posted Why Melania Trump should feel afraid in Authoritarian America. Mea culpa. The post contains a small geographic error. Melania Trump is from Slovenia, not Slovakia as I claimed. The main point stands: other countries,notably Slovakia, have experienced authoritarian rule and managed to defeat it.

… Slovakia’s story is an optimistic one, as it shows that creeping authoritarianism can be defeated — even in a vulnerable society. In the early 1990s, Slovakia had just woken up from 40 years of communist rule: Its democratic institutions, rule of law and civil society were weak. Yet it succeeded in fighting off Meciar’s abuses of power. Surely Americans will not let their traditions of democracy and limited government be destroyed by a hyperactive and unstable reality TV host — at least not without a fight.

Regardless of her national origin, Melania should be afraid of the authoritarianism presented by her husband. As should we all.

h/t Pam Duchaine for catching my error.

Why Melania Trump should feel afraid in Authoritarian America

The answer is that she is from Slovakia.

That country endured an authoritarian government that came to power after the breakup of the Soviet Union. But the citizens ultimately prevailed. The Washington Post carries an op-ed by a native Slovakian in My country had its own Trump. Here’s how we beat him.

Two and a half years after the fall of communism in 1989, the ruthless and charismatic Vladimir Meciar was elected as prime minister in my home country of Slovakia after a brief previous stint in the office. His larger-than-life personality and bombastic rhetoric filled much of the media space, often with lies and conspiracies. His opponents, many of them former dissidents from the old era, lacked the rhetorical skills, charisma and political acumen to compete.

Notoriously unstable, Meciar lashed out against critics when under pressure. He rejected experts who, he argued, didn’t understand Slovakia’s exceptionalism. Instead of opening the country to international businesses, he let his cronies get spectacularly rich by seizing publicly owned assets. At regular intervals, Meciar got into unprovoked fights with leaders of neighboring countries and indulged in crass jokes about their sex lives. More seriously, he was widely suspected of using the politicized secret service against his political opponents. No wonder that then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once called the country a “black hole in the heart of Europe.”

But there was a semi-happy ending - or perhaps better viewed as a promising beginning.

… After the 1998 election, Meciar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia was unable to secure a parliamentary majority and lost power to a broad coalition of center-right and center-left parties.

Three factors accounted for Meciar’s demise. First, his base was slowly eroding, as his supporters were often drawn from older segments of the population. … Second, Meciar’s demise was precipitated by the emergence of an effective opposition that coalesced around the questions that mattered the most: rule of law and Slovakia’s place among European democracies. … Third, Meciar’s political decline had a strong international dimension. Meciar’s brutish manners alienated Slovakia’s neighbors, as well as Brussels and Washington. In defending himself, he tried to sell his voters a grotesque idea of an international conspiracy directed against Slovakia. His domestic critics, too, were smeared as paid agents of anti-Slovak forces abroad. That message resonated with Meciar’s core supporters, but more and more Slovaks saw that their country’s growing isolation was purely of their own government’s making.

The legacy of Meciar’s reign is continuing corruption and distrust of government.

Overall, however, Slovakia’s story is an optimistic one, as it shows that creeping authoritarianism can be defeated — even in a vulnerable society. In the early 1990s, Slovakia had just woken up from 40 years of communist rule: Its democratic institutions, rule of law and civil society were weak. Yet it succeeded in fighting off Meciar’s abuses of power. Surely Americans will not let their traditions of democracy and limited government be destroyed by a hyperactive and unstable reality TV host — at least not without a fight.

Here is what it will take.

… nurturing the institutions of liberal democracy requires much more work than simply keeping aspiring authoritarians at bay. It requires ensuring that liberal democratic governments are seen as legitimate and effective at delivering key public goods, including justice and security.

Trump's profiles in cowardice

The Daily Star (tucson.com) reports on Trump’s tweet Trump: I won’t attend correspondents’ dinner. As MSNBC observes, Trump will be the first president to skip WHCD in 30 years. So Trump is leading by example. Every president since JFK has attended the give-and-take dinner with the press. But those presidents, whether you agree with their ideologies or not, toughed it out and accepted the roast in good humor. But this president is a thin-skinned chicken.

Steve Benen (MSNBC/Maddowblog) reports on one of Trump’s fellow cowards and how the epitome of courage Gabby Giffords offers advice to lawmakers afraid of their constituents.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) isn’t a politician who generally has to worry about pushback from the left. The far-right congressman won re-election in the fall by more than 49 points, and the district he represents – Texas’ 1st – is among the reddest in the country.

But Gohmert still doesn’t want to hold a town-hall events for his constituents, and as the Washington Post noted, the Texas Republican pointed to a specific excuse for his decision.

As Republican lawmakers across the country have faced raucous, chaotic town halls in recent days, a number have refused to have these events. Some cited safety as a reason, while others said they didn’t want their events “hijacked” by the confrontations seen elsewhere.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), in a statement released this week, blamed his decision not to hold these events in person on “the threat of violence at town hall meetings.” He also pointed to a specific violent event to bolster his case, invoking the 2011 shooting that severely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six others.

“Threats are nothing new to me and I have gotten my share as a felony judge,” he said in a written statement. “However, the House Sergeant at Arms advised us after former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot at a public appearance, that civilian attendees at Congressional public events stand the most chance of being harmed or killed – just as happened there.”

By this reasoning, of course, members of Congress, six years after the Giffords shooting, shouldn’t hold any public appearances.

This prompted Giffords herself to speak up and push back.

“To the politicians who have abandoned their civic obligations, I say this: Have some courage,” Giffords said in a statement. “Face your constituents. Hold town halls.” She added that during her congressional career, “listening to my constituents was the most basic and core tenet of the job I was hired to do.”

Gohmert, however, won’t budge. “Unfortunately, at this time there are groups from the more violent strains of the leftist ideology, some even being paid, who are preying on public town halls to wreak havoc and threaten public safety,” he said.

To the extent that reality still matters, no Republican town-hall gathering this year has turned violent; there’s literally no evidence to support far-right conspiracy theories about paid protesters; and progressive activists to date haven’t “threatened public safety” at all.

Have some courage. Face your constituents.

But these cowards are just emulating the behavior of their exalted thin-skinned cowardly ruler.

The Urban Dictionary defines one of Trump’s words in a different sense: “cowardly.” I use that word here in that sense to describe Trump’s refusal to attend WHCD. It applies to Gohmert and his ilk as well.

Pussy.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

Cross-posted from RestoreReason.com.

Let me be clear from the onset that I am "borrowing" this article. In fact unless the words are in bold italics, they are hers, not mine. I'm hoping the author, Athens Banner-Herald columnist Myra Blackmon, a resident of Washington, Ga., sees my “borrowing” as the "sincerest form of flattery. I chose to use her piece titled "School vouchers raise too many questions," because I found it both very well written and remarkable in that I needed only change the state name and some of the numbers to make it apply to Arizona.


With the confirmation of Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education, we can expect to see a flurry of new “initiatives” designed to address the so-called education problem in our country. For the moment, let’s set aside the relationship of poverty and poor academic achievement. Ignore for a moment the fact that our schools are actually performing pretty well.


We will likely see a renewed push for voucher programs, where parents can supposedly take the tax money allocated for their children and use it to enroll them in private, religious or charter schools, many of which are combinations of those categories.


If I believed vouchers would improve educational outcomes for Arizona’s poorest children, I would be the first to jump on that bandwagon. The reality is that even vouchers aren’t likely to improve the lives of the 421,000 Arizona children who live in poor or low-income families, despite efforts of reformers to convince us otherwise.


First, the average worth of  $5,600 for mainstream students that vouchers provide just isn't enough to fully fund private school tuition. I chose not to spend an hour looking at websites (as Myra did) of private schools in all parts of the state to determine the range of tuition, but did find a school in Phoenix that charges $24,000 a year, and the average school tuition is almost $6,000 for elementary, and $18,000 for high schoolDoes this even seem possible for a disadvantaged child, even if a scholarship is available?


Second, not all non-public schools are open to all children. The majority of private schools in Arizona are religious schools, many of which set very strict standards for admission that have little or nothing to do with academic potential. They would exclude children from families of same-sex couples, or families whose moral standards are, in the judgment of the school, not consistent with the school’s values. That might exclude children whose parents are not married, or who were behavioral problems at their previous school.


Third, few private schools provide special education. Of those that do, many limit that special education to mild learning disabilities, or limit them to mild ADHD or other learning differences. Many private special education schools...don’t address severe or complex disabilities. Only public schools are required to meet all those needs. In fact, when Arizona parents pull their children out of district schools to educate them with a voucher, 
 they must waive their rights under federal special education law.”

Fourth, even if a voucher covered tuition at a private school, it would be almost impossible to include allowances for additional fees that would allow the poorest children to attend. Lab fees, textbooks, materials fees and technology fees add up. I found more than one school where those items quickly totaled more than $1,000 a year. And that didn’t include trips – sometimes mission trips in religious schools – or athletic fees, which also ran into the thousands of dollars. What about these costs?Fifth, about 10 percent of Arizona’s schools are rural schools...with some children on buses more than 60 minutes each way every day. And those are the public schools. Private schools can be even more distant. For public schools, transportation is provided. Bus fees for private schools could run several hundred dollars a year. Who covers this?


And what about homeless students? According to New Leaf, a mesa non-profit human services organization, about 3 percent of Arizona students – nearly 30,000 children – were homeless in 2016. In fact, the National Center on Family Homelessness ranks Arizona as worst for risk of child homelessness. Do you really see these children as able to take advantage of vouchers?Seventh, I found listings for many private religious schools that enroll fewer than 100 students and have only two or three teachers. Would a voucher to such a school improve a student’s chances over even the most poorly resourced public school? I doubt it.


The bottom line is that vouchers help middle-class families who can almost-but-not-quite afford private school tuition. Those are also the children who score best on standardized tests.
Vouchers help segregate those families from the poor and different in their communities. They isolate students from daily contact with needy families or children from unusual families. Some charge their students for “mission” work, which is a completely different dynamic in relationships with people different from us.


I simply do not see how vouchers for private schools, unregulated and not accountable to any elected officials, can do anything but set up our public schools as the place for the poorest, neediest and most severely disabled students.


That is wrong. I know it. You know it. Yes we do Myra, and that's what the "something blue" in the title of this post refers to. This kind of misery shouldn't have any kind of company. 

Evolution of cooperation imposes limits on reasoning in the political domain

If you are just browsing and want to save time, I’ll make this easy for you. Humans started living together thousands and thousands of years ago in the African plains. Being able to work together for the common good required habits of mind that are now counterproductive when faced with modern inventions like smart phones and new forms of communication like Twitter. We rely on other persons’ knowledge so our own knowledge is only as accurate as that of our neighbors. And once having acquired that knowledge we admit only those new facts that fit our existing knowledge. Those are cognitive habits that bind the Trumpians together. But beware: they apply to you progressives as well. Now read on.

New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert reviews research in the realms of cognitive and social psychology showing Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds. New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason.

It’s a longish (but good) read so I am going to try to distill the evidence on two of the limitations on reason.

The “myside bias”

That’s how the researchers re-conceive of the well known confirmation bias.

In a new book, “The Enigma of Reason” (Harvard), the cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber take a stab at answering this question. Mercier, who works at a French research institute in Lyon, and Sperber, now based at the Central European University, in Budapest, point out that reason is an evolved trait, like bipedalism or three-color vision. It emerged on the savannas of Africa, and has to be understood in that context.

Stripped of a lot of what might be called cognitive-science-ese, Mercier and Sperber’s argument runs, more or less, as follows: Humans’ biggest advantage over other species is our ability to coƶperate. Coƶperation is difficult to establish and almost as difficult to sustain. For any individual, freeloading is always the best course of action. Reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups.

“Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective.

Consider what’s become known as “confirmation bias,” the tendency people have to embrace information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them. Of the many forms of faulty thinking that have been identified, confirmation bias is among the best catalogued; it’s the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments. One of the most famous of these was conducted, again, at Stanford. For this experiment, researchers rounded up a group of students who had opposing opinions about capital punishment. Half the students were in favor of it and thought that it deterred crime; the other half were against it and thought that it had no effect on crime.

The students were asked to respond to two studies. One provided data in support of the deterrence argument, and the other provided data that called it into question. Both studies—you guessed it—were made up, and had been designed to present what were, objectively speaking, equally compelling statistics. The students who had originally supported capital punishment rated the pro-deterrence data highly credible and the anti-deterrence data unconvincing; the students who’d originally opposed capital punishment did the reverse. At the end of the experiment, the students were asked once again about their views. Those who’d started out pro-capital punishment were now even more in favor of it; those who’d opposed it were even more hostile.

If reason is designed to generate sound judgments, then it’s hard to conceive of a more serious design flaw than confirmation bias. Imagine, Mercier and Sperber suggest, a mouse that thinks the way we do. Such a mouse, “bent on confirming its belief that there are no cats around,” would soon be dinner. To the extent that confirmation bias leads people to dismiss evidence of new or underappreciated threats—the human equivalent of the cat around the corner—it’s a trait that should have been selected against. The fact that both we and it survive, Mercier and Sperber argue, proves that it must have some adaptive function, and that function, they maintain, is related to our “hypersociability.”

Mercier and Sperber prefer the term “myside bias.” Humans, they point out, aren’t randomly credulous. Presented with someone else’s argument, we’re quite adept at spotting the weaknesses. Almost invariably, the positions we’re blind about are our own.

This lopsidedness, according to Mercier and Sperber, reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

Among the many, many issues our forebears didn’t worry about were the deterrent effects of capital punishment and the ideal attributes of a firefighter. Nor did they have to contend with fabricated studies, or fake news, or Twitter. It’s no wonder, then, that today reason often seems to fail us. As Mercier and Sperber write, “This is one of many cases in which the environment changed too quickly for natural selection to catch up.”

Knowing more than you know and never thinking alone

Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, are also cognitive scientists. They, too, believe sociability is the key to how the human mind functions or, perhaps more pertinently, malfunctions. They begin their book, “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” (Riverhead), with a look at toilets.

Virtually everyone in the United States, and indeed throughout the developed world, is familiar with toilets. A typical flush toilet has a ceramic bowl filled with water. When the handle is depressed, or the button pushed, the water—and everything that’s been deposited in it—gets sucked into a pipe and from there into the sewage system. But how does this actually happen?

In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets, zippers, and cylinder locks. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped. (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

Sloman and Fernbach see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.

“One implication of the naturalness with which we divide cognitive labor,” they write, is that there’s “no sharp boundary between one person’s ideas and knowledge” and “those of other members” of the group.

This borderlessness, or, if you prefer, confusion, is also crucial to what we consider progress. As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance; if everyone had insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amounted to much. When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.

Where it gets us into trouble, according to Sloman and Fernbach, is in the political domain. It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about. …

Surveys on many … issues have yielded … dismaying results. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Sloman and Fernbach write. And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless. When I talk to Tom and he decides he agrees with me, his opinion is also baseless, but now that the three of us concur we feel that much more smug about our views. If we all now dismiss as unconvincing any information that contradicts our opinion, you get, well, the Trump Administration.

“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” Sloman and Fernbach observe. …

[The books Kolbert reviews,] “The Enigma of Reason,” “The Knowledge Illusion,” and “Denying to the Grave” were all written before the November election. And yet they anticipate Kellyanne Conway and the rise of “alternative facts.” These days, it can feel as if the entire country has been given over to a vast psychological experiment being run either by no one or by Steve Bannon. Rational agents would be able to think their way to a solution. But, on this matter, the literature is not reassuring.

Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999. She won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction for “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” I recommend her book for insights into why we, Homo Sapiens, are an invasive species.

Bannon admits X-antiX cabinet picks are intended to destroy their agencies

The Daily Kos reports that Bannon Admits Trump’s Cabinet Nominees Were Selected To Destroy Their Agencies.

At CPAC today Stephen Bannon, the Chief Advisor and intellectual heft behind the Twittering infant that sits in the Oval Office, provided a little glimpse of the future he has planned for all of us.

In the clearest explanation for why nearly all of Trump’s cabinet choices are known mostly for despising and attacking the very Federal agencies they’ve been designated to lead, Bannon explained—in very clear language–that they weren’t appointed to lead these agencies, but to destroy them:

Atop Trump’s agenda, Bannon said, was the “deconstruction of the administrative state” — meaning a system of taxes, regulations and trade pacts that the president and his advisers believe stymie economic growth and infringe upon one’s sovereignty.

“If you look at these Cabinet nominees, they were selected for a reason, and that is deconstruction,” Bannon said. …

You might recall that Scriber reduced the logic behind the cabinet picks to a simple formula: for a given agency X, pick as its leader anti-X. What is new here is that Bannon admitted it.

The crippling or wholesale elimination of Federal agencies that ensure we receive such things as clean air, clean water, fair labor laws, fair housing standards, anti-discrimination laws, financial protections, food and drug safety, national education standards and the like, has been a goal of far-right “thinkers“ for decades. The rationale, propagated by corporate and industry-funded think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, has always been that that the existence of these “unelected” agencies represents a mortal threat to American “sovereignty and self-government." This is exactly the line Bannon was peddling at CPAC today. It is delusional, right-wing garbage.

The reality is that these extensions of the Executive Branch—the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education, for example– exist to serve the interests of all the American people, performing the painstaking and complex task of regulating the very things that make all Americans’ lives worth living. They perform this function because history has clearly shown that neither the Congress nor the states are remotely up to the task of doing it. They have neither the time, the expertise, the manpower, or the ability to handle such mammoth responsibilities in a country of 330 million people.

… In practice, with the current composition of the Republican-dominated Congress, [deconstruction] amounts to complete corporate predation, the absolute elimination of our ability as citizens to halt corporate malfeasance. In essence, he’s talking about corporate-enforced slavery, aided and abetted by a Congress corrupted through and through with corporate largesse.

Bannon is a fanatic, a clear and present danger to the America we all know and care about. Unfortunately, his fanaticism, poured into the ear of someone as fundamentally incurious and vain as Donald Trump, brings us closer to the wholesale destruction of this country than any of us could have expected in our lifetimes.

Trump escalates war on media - best response comes from Navy Admiral who commanded the Seals' Bin Laden raid

The New York Times reports that the White House Bars Times and Other News Outlets From Briefing

Journalists from The New York Times and several other news organizations were prohibited from attending a briefing by President Trump’s press secretary on Friday, a highly unusual breach of relations between the White House and its press corps.

Reporters from The Times, BuzzFeed News, CNN, The Los Angeles Times and Politico were not allowed to enter the West Wing office of the press secretary, Sean M. Spicer, for the scheduled briefing. Aides to Mr. Spicer only allowed in reporters from a handpicked group of news organizations that, the White House said, had been previously confirmed.

Those organizations included Breitbart News, the One America News Network and The Washington Times, all with conservative leanings. Journalists from ABC, CBS, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and Fox News also attended.

The Times reported on the follow-up by Press Secretary Sean Spicer to Trump’s latest rant at CPAC.

In the West Wing less than three hours later, the consequences were becoming clear. Mr. Spicer told a handpicked group of reporters in a briefing in his spacious office that the White House would relentlessly counter coverage it considered inaccurate.

“We’re going to aggressively push back,” he said, according to a recording of the session provided by a reporter who was allowed to attend. “We’re just not going to sit back and let, you know, false narratives, false stories, inaccurate facts get out there.”

If you had any doubts about where this is headed, ditch ’em. That remark from Spicer is a perfectly clear statement of intent to control the press. Anything the Trump/Bannon crew does not like, will be spiked if they have their way. What gets reported to the public will be tainted by Trump.

The press reacted with scorn and condemnation.

Reporters from Time magazine and The Associated Press, who were set to be allowed in, chose not to attend the briefing in protest of the White House’s actions.

“Nothing like this has ever happened at the White House in our long history of covering multiple administrations of different parties,” Dean Baquet, the executive editor of The Times, said in a statement. “We strongly protest the exclusion of The New York Times and the other news organizations. Free media access to a transparent government is obviously of crucial national interest.”

Representatives of the barred news organizations made clear that they believed the White House’s actions on Friday were punitive.

“Apparently this is how they retaliate when you report facts they don’t like,” CNN said in a statement.

Ben Smith, editor in chief of BuzzFeed, called it “the White House’s apparent attempt to punish news outlets whose coverage it does not like.”

In my opinion the best reaction came from the retired Admiral who is now Chancellor of the University of Texas system. The Washington post has the story: ‘Greatest threat to democracy’: Commander of bin Laden raid slams Trump’s anti-media sentiment

William H. McRaven, a retired four-star admiral and former Navy SEAL, slammed President Trump’s characterization of the media as “the enemy of the American people,” calling that sentiment the “greatest threat to democracy” he’s ever seen.

That’s coming from a man who’s seen major threats to democracy.

McRaven, who was commander of the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, organized and oversaw the highly risky operation that killed Osama bin Laden almost six years ago. The admiral from Texas had tapped a special unit of Navy SEALs to carry out the May 2011 raid on the elusive terrorist’s hideout, a high-walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock reported shortly after bin Laden’s death.

McRaven left the military in 2014 after nearly four decades and later became chancellor of the University of Texas System. The UT-Austin alumnus, who has a bachelor’s degree in journalism, addressed a crowd at the university’s Moody College of Communication on Tuesday.

“We must challenge this statement and this sentiment that the news media is the enemy of the American people,” McRaven said, according to the Daily Texan. “This sentiment may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.”

All together now, let’s sing America the Trumpiful.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Payday Loan Elementary

Cross-posted from RestoreReason.com.
Once again, Arizona’s public education advocates find themselves in battle against those in the Legislature seeking to commercialize our district schools. The worst threat this year is a replay of last year’s failed attempt to fully expand Empowerment Scholarship Accounts (ESAs) to all Arizona students. This, despite the fact that vouchers will cost the state more…at least $1,000 more per student. This, despite the fact that according to the Pro-voucher Friedman Foundation, 58% of AZ ESA recipients have incomes ABOVE $57,000 (39% over $72,000 and 19% between $57,000 and $71,000.) And, only 15% of families that use vouchers have an income lower than $28,000. Not surprising actually, when the average private school in Arizona costs $6,000 at the elementary level and $18,000 at the high school level. A $5,200 to $5,900 voucher just doesn’t go far enough for those without means.
And, as if that isn’t enough, the New York Times (NYT) just reported, “a wave of new research has emerged suggesting that private school vouchers may harm students who receive them.” An examination of an Indiana voucher program which grew to tens of thousands of students under then Governor Pence, produced significant losses in achievement in mathematics on the part of voucher students who transferred to private schools. There was also no improvement in reading.
Then in Louisiana in early 2016, researchers found “large negative results in both reading and math” for those students on vouchers. The NYT quoted Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as saying the negative voucher effects in Louisiana were, “as large as any I’ve seen in the literature.” He wasn’t just comparing voucher programs, but rather the Louisianna voucher experience against “the history of American education research.”
Likewise, in June of 2016, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and school choice proponent, looked at a large voucher program in Ohio. They found that, “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools.”
Maybe the schools “were unusually bad and eager for revenue” posits the NYT, but that just shows that “exposing young children to the vagaries of private-sector competition is inherently risky. I love the NYT’s explanation of how ”the free market often does a terrible job of providing basic services to the poor – see, for instance, the lack of grocery stores and banks in many low-income neighborhoods.” Why should we expect it to be different for education? I can see it now. Gourmet grocery stores and boutique bank equivalent private schools in affluent areas and the Circle K and payday loan operation version of underfunded public schools where people have no other real option. I know there are plenty of people who see nothing wrong with this scenario (many of them work at the state Capitol), but it IS wrong and it is not in the best interest of our people, our communities, our state, or our nation.

Arizona's KKK: Kavanagh's SB 1142 makes Konstituents Kriminals

Yesterday morning I posted on a reaction to lawmakers dodging town halls in which they are confronted with angry constituents armed with embarrassing questions. I observed that the AZ Senate Republicans have a solution to help out those poor legislators who are so fearful of their constituents: make those citizens criminals.

Quoting from Howard Fischer’s report:

Claiming people are being paid to riot, Republican state senators voted Wednesday to give police new power to arrest anyone who is involved in a peaceful demonstration that may turn bad — even before anything happens.

SB 1142 would expand the state’s racketeering laws, now aimed at organized crime, to also include rioting. It would redefine rioting to include actions resulting in damage to others’ property.

“Wouldn’t you rather stop a riot before it starts?” Kavanagh asked colleagues during debate. “Do you really want to wait until people are injuring each other, throwing Molotov cocktails, picking up barricades and smashing them through businesses in downtown Phoenix?”

I countered:

“That may turn bad.” “May”?!?! This is an attack on Amendment I of the Constitution of the United States of America which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I guess the Founding Fathers should have said “Congress and the Arizona Legislature shall make no law …”

I was wrong about that. It turns out that there are court rulings on exactly that point - that the Constitution applies to the states.

Yesterday AZBlueMeanie also took issue with Kavanagh’s bill published in this morning’s Blog for Arizona, Authoritarian Tea-Publicans criminalize protests. Edward Cizek posted a comment citing court rulings that apply the first and 14th amendments to state governments.

Edward Cizek | February 23, 2017 at 12:01 pm | Reply
Perhaps Kavanagh should go back and read SCOTUS case DeJonge v. Oregon, 299 U.S. 353 (1937).

This case held that the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution explicitly applies the freedom of Assembly guaranteed in the 1st Amendment to state governments via the incorporation doctrine.

Nor can the State even lawfully criminalize the abstract advocacy of law-breaking or violent action unless such speech falls under the limited scope of either incendiary speech or presents ‘clear and present danger’. (Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969)).

Not that they care. Kavanagh & co. will still get their paychecks from the state & their donors, and we the taxpayers will still foot the bill of watching Brnovich attempt to defend a law in laughable contempt of decades of SCOTUS precedent.

And what happened to SB 1142? “The 17–13 party-line vote sends the bill to the House.” Anyone think the House will do any thing differently? Any bets on Guv Doozy signing off on an unconstitutional law?

Yep. Cizek is right. More lawsuits on the way.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Republican legislators faced with angry constituents deflect, dodge, and disappear. AZ Senate bill penalizes peaceful assembly.

All over the nation Republican Senators and Representatives are facing town halls filled with angry constituents. “Do your job” is the kindest chant. Here’s a summary of some of those face-offs by vox.com in Republican lawmakers are getting an earful from their home districts. This afternoon Martha McSally might well be added to the list given her 100% voting record - 100% consistent with Trump, that is. That record does not reflect the makeup of CD2. In terms of the discrepancy between her record and her constituents, she ranks number 13 out of the entire House of Representatives and 12th out of all House Republicans.

The Republicans in the AZ Senate aka Phouls in Phoenix have an answer to the protests by an outraged citizenry: arrest them before they do anything. Howard Fischer covers SB 1142 in Senate OKs police power to arrest peaceful protesters to prevent riot.

PHOENIX — Claiming people are being paid to riot, Republican state senators voted Wednesday to give police new power to arrest anyone who is involved in a peaceful demonstration that may turn bad — even before anything happens.

SB 1142 would expand the state’s racketeering laws, now aimed at organized crime, to also include rioting. It would redefine rioting to include actions resulting in damage to others’ property.

By including rioting in racketeering laws, the proposal would permit police to arrest people who are planning events. Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, a former police officer, said if there are organized groups, “I should certainly hope that our law enforcement people have some undercover people there.”

“Wouldn’t you rather stop a riot before it starts?” Kavanagh asked colleagues during debate. “Do you really want to wait until people are injuring each other, throwing Molotov cocktails, picking up barricades and smashing them through businesses in downtown Phoenix?”

Senate Dems responded, for example:

Sen. Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said the legislation is based on a false premise of how disturbances happen. “This idea that people are being paid to come out and do that?” she said. “I’m sorry, but I think that is fake news.”

Sen. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, had her own concerns. “I’m fearful that ‘riot’ is in the eyes of the beholder and that this bill will apply more strictly to minorities and people trying to have their voice heard,” she said.

The 17–13 party-line vote sends the bill to the House.

“That may turn bad.” “May”?!?! This is an attack on Amendment I of the Constitution of the United States of America which reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I guess the Founding Fathers should have said “Congress and the Arizona Legislature shall make no law …”

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

McSally's voting record

For those of you going to the McSally town hall tomorrow (Thursday) - or for those who are submitting questions to Dan Shearer (GV News editor and moderator of the town hall) - here is a link to McSally’s voting record - the “Trump Score” from FiveThirtyEight.

Please do go to that site and confirm for yourselves some of my own observations:

  • McSally votes the Tump position 100% - even though her district is about evenly divided. If she was voting her district, you would expect a score of about 50%.
  • She consistently votes against environmental regulations.
  • She votes against Planned Parenthood.
  • Her score puts her at 13th in the entire House of Representatives, 12th among House Republicans.

Whatever else you might think of McSally, don’t make the mistake of thinking her to be moderate.

Maintaining intellectual integrity in the age of Trump

Conservative columnist Bret Stephens delivered the Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture this week at the University of California, Los Angeles. Time (Feb. 18) published his cautionary essay, Don’t Dismiss President Trump’s Attacks on the Media as Mere Stupidity. Here are snippets.

We honor the central idea of journalism — the conviction, as my old boss Peter Kann once said, “that facts are facts; that they are ascertainable through honest, open-minded and diligent reporting; that truth is attainable by laying fact upon fact, much like the construction of a cathedral; and that truth is not merely in the eye of the beholder.”

And we honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood, which is never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with.

So that’s the business we’re in: the business of journalism. Or, as the 45th president of the United States likes to call us, the “disgusting and corrupt media.”

The Trumpian view of the world: Truth is what you can get away with.

Trump’s war on the media dishonors not only Daniel Pearl but also the thousands of journalists killed while doing their job. But as reprehensible as that is, the real, deeper, darker danger from Trump is the discrediting of one of the mainstays of our democracy - the factual reporting of a free press.

[Trump is] saying that, as far as he is concerned, facts, as most people understand the term, don’t matter: That they are indistinguishable from, and interchangeable with, opinion; and that statements of fact needn’t have any purchase against a man who is either sufficiently powerful to ignore them or sufficiently shameless to deny them — or, in his case, both.

If some of you in this room are students of political philosophy, you know where this argument originates. This is a version of Thrasymachus’s argument in Plato’s Republic that justice is the advantage of the stronger and that injustice “if it is on a large enough scale, is stronger, freer, and more masterly than justice.”

Substitute the words “truth” and “falsehood” for “justice” and “injustice,” and there you have the Trumpian view of the world. If I had to sum it up in a single sentence, it would be this: Truth is what you can get away with.

Now, we could have some interesting conversations about why this is happening—and why it seems to be happening all of a sudden.

Today we have “dis-intermediating” technologies such as Twitter, which have cut out the media as the middleman between politicians and the public. Today, just 17% of adults aged 18–24 read a newspaper daily, down from 42% at the turn of the century. Today there are fewer than 33,000 full-time newsroom employees, a drop from 55,000 just 20 years ago.

When Trump attacks the news media, he’s kicking a wounded animal.

But the most interesting conversation is not about why Donald Trump lies. Many public figures lie, and he’s only a severe example of a common type.

The interesting conversation concerns how we come to accept those lies.

How we come to accept Trump’s lies

Scriber note: you might recall that I was saying during the 2016 campaign that the real story was not Trump but was about his followers who so readily ignored or even accepted Trump’s lies and churlish behavior. Stephens continues.

So far, I’ve offered you three ideas about how it is that we have come to accept the president’s behavior.

The first is that we normalize it, simply by becoming inured to constant repetition of the same bad behavior.

The second is that at some level it excites and entertains us. By putting aside our usual moral filters—the ones that tell us that truth matters, that upright conduct matters, that things ought to be done in a certain way—we have been given tickets to a spectacle, in which all you want to do is watch.

And the third is that we adopt new metrics of judgment, in which politics becomes more about perceptions than performance—of how a given action is perceived as being perceived. If a reporter for the New York Times says that Trump’s press conference probably plays well in Peoria, then that increases the chances that it will play well in Peoria.

Let me add a fourth point here: our tendency to rationalize.

Overall, the process is one in which explanation becomes rationalization, which in turn becomes justification. Trump says X. What he really means is Y. And while you might not like it, he’s giving voice to the angers and anxieties of Z. Who, by the way, you’re not allowed to question or criticize, because anxiety and anger are their own justifications these days.

The most painful aspect of this has been to watch people I previously considered thoughtful and principled conservatives give themselves over to a species of illiberal politics from which I once thought they were immune.

It has been stunning to watch a movement that once believed in the benefits of free trade and free enterprise merrily give itself over to a champion of protectionism whose economic instincts recall the corporatism of 1930s Italy or 1950s Argentina. It is no less stunning to watch people who once mocked Obama for being too soft on Russia suddenly discover the virtues of Trump’s “pragmatism” on the subject.

And it is nothing short of amazing to watch the party of onetime moral majoritarians, who spent a decade fulminating about Bill Clinton’s sexual habits, suddenly find complete comfort with the idea that character and temperament are irrelevant qualifications for high office.

[On the part of Trumpian “conservatives”] There’s [a] desperate desire for political influence; the … belief that Trump represents a historical force to which they ought to belong; the … willingness to bend or discard principles they once considered sacred; the … fear of seeming out-of-touch with the mood of the public; the … tendency to look the other way at comments or actions that they cannot possibly justify; the … belief that you do more good by joining than by opposing; the … Manichean belief that, if Hillary Clinton had been elected, the United States would have all-but ended as a country.

“Maintaining intellectual integrity in the age of Trump.”

When Judea [Danny Pearl’s father] wrote me last summer to ask if I’d be this year’s speaker, I got my copy of Danny’s collected writings, “At Home in the World,” and began to read him all over again. It brought back to me the fact that, the reason we honor Danny’s memory isn’t that he’s a martyred journalist. It’s that he was a great journalist.

George Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” Danny saw what was in front of his nose.

We each have our obligations to see what’s in front of one’s nose, whether we’re reporters, columnists, or anything else. This is the essence of intellectual integrity.

Not to look around, or beyond, or away from the facts, but to look straight at them, to recognize and call them for what they are, nothing more or less. To see things as they are before we re-interpret them into what we’d like them to be. To believe in an epistemology that can distinguish between truth and falsity, facts and opinions, evidence and wishes. To defend habits of mind and institutions of society, above all a free press, which preserve that epistemology. To hold fast to a set of intellectual standards and moral convictions that won’t waver amid changes of political fashion or tides of unfavorable opinion. To speak the truth irrespective of what it means for our popularity or influence.

The legacy of Danny Pearl is that he died for this. We are being asked to do much less. We have no excuse not to do it.

Credits and notes

Brett Stephens writes the foreign-affairs column of the Wall Street Journal, for which he won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

(h/t Maggie Sievers for the alert about the Times article.)

From Wikipedia’s entry on Judea Pearl:

Judea Pearl (born September 4, 1936) is an Israeli-American computer scientist and philosopher, best known for championing the probabilistic approach to artificial intelligence and the development of Bayesian networks (see the article on belief propagation). He is also credited for developing a theory of causal and counterfactual inference based on structural models (see article on causality). He is the 2011 winner of the ACM Turing Award, the highest distinction in computer science, “for fundamental contributions to artificial intelligence through the development of a calculus for probabilistic and causal reasoning”.

Judea Pearl is the father of journalist Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and murdered by militants in Pakistan connected with Al-Qaeda and the International Islamic Front in 2002 for his American and Jewish heritage.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

AZ Gov faced with shortage of greenbacks plans to balance budget with brownbacks

Scriber’s usually unreliable sources are saying that Arizona Governor Dougy Doozy fears a budget shortfall after his next round of tax cuts. Economic activity in the state remains anemic in spite of Doozy’s belief in the stimulating effect of massive tax breaks for the wealthy. So, with the shortfall in greenbacks, Doozy has turned to fellow tax-averse Kansas Governor Sam Brownback for fiscal assistance. The Kansas Governor has promised Doozy a loan of several million of the new Kansas currency, brownbacks. Scribers’ sources tell us that Doozy’s message to the Arizona legislature is “Faith will show us the way. If we have enough brownbacks we don’t need the greenbacks.”

Alright. I made all that up. The fact, reported by AZBlueMeanie over at Blog for Arizona, is that Kansas is fiscally crippled by Brownback’s tax cuts. They have a $320 million shortfall this year and an additional $750 million deficit over the coming two years. Their legislature passed a $1 billion tax increase package but the question is what will Brownback do: sign it, let it become law without a signature, or veto it. If the latter, Scriber opines, Brownback will be printing brownbacks.

Here are snippets from the Blue Meanie’s Kansas is a cautionary tale for Arizona: pigs do fly!

UK protests
Pigs do fly

Something truly remarkable happened last week: the state legislature of Brownbackistan fna Kansas passed an income tax increase to begin repairing the fiscal damage to the state caused by Governor Sam Brownback and Tea-Publicans’ religious experiment in creating a faith based supply-side “trickle down” utopia in America’s heartland. Pigs do fly!

Governor Brownback can face reality and admit that his religious experiment in creating a faith based supply-side “trickle down” utopia in Kansas has been a complete disaster and allow this bill to become law without his signature, or he can be a dogmatic ideologue and veto the bill (his veto would be sustained), which will leave Kansas in a fiscal disaster without a way out because of Tea-Publican ideological extremists.

We’ll find out if pigs do fly, or are slaughtered by Tea-Publican ideologues on the altar of religious extremism.

A note of caution: the Arizona legislature could not pass a tax increase by a simple majority vote because of the GOP’s “weapon of mass destruction,” Prop. 108 (1992), the “Two-Thirds for Taxes” amendment.

Exceptions rule your mind. Here's why

There is a lot of psychological research that is germane to political reporting and messaging. Here is one example. Wired.com reports on The Cognitive Bias President Trump Understands Better Than You.

You know who … isn’t as likely to commit murders in the US as native-born citizens? Refugees. Or immigrants from the seven countries singled out in President Trump’s shot-down travel ban. Or for that matter, immigrants at all. According to numerous studies, increased immigration correlates with lower violent crime rates in a community. Yet next week, Trump is promising a revised travel ban in the name of safety.

The problem here is not just that this singling out creates a distorted, fish-eye lens version of what’s really happening. It’s that the human psyche is predisposed to take an aberration—what linguist George Lakoff has called the “salient exemplar”—and conflate it with the norm. This cognitive bias itself isn’t new. But in a media environment driven by clicks, where politicians can bypass journalistic filters entirely to deliver themselves straight to citizens, it’s newly exploitable.

Lakoff, a University of California, Berkeley linguist and well-known Democratic activist, cites Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” as the signature “salient exemplar.” Reagan’s straw woman—a minority mother who uses her government money on fancy bling rather than on food for her family—became an effective rhetorical bludgeon to curb public assistance programs even though the vast majority of recipients didn’t abuse the system in that way. The image became iconic, even though it was the exception rather than the rule.

Psychologists call this bias the “availability heuristic,” an effect Trump has sought to exploit since the launch of his presidential campaign, when he referred to undocumented Mexican immigrants as rapists.

“It basically works the way memory works: you judge the frequency, the probability, of something based on how easily you can bring it to mind,” says Northeastern University psychologist John Coley. “Creating a vivid, salient image like that is a great way to make it memorable.”

Psychologists stress that your brain has to work this way, to a certain extent—otherwise you’d have a very hard time differentiating and prioritizing the avalanche of inputs you receive throughout your life. “It’s not a cognitive malfunction,” says Coley. “But it can be purposefully exploited.” When Trump uses a salient exemplar that will lodge in your brain, he’s manipulating your brain’s natural way of sorting information.

Recently, Trump told an audience of senior military commanders at CENTCOM that the “very, very dishonest media” didn’t report on terrorism. The implication was that journalists bury important news about terrorism because of some alternate agenda. Later that day, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer released a list of terrorist acts the president felt that journalists didn’t spend enough time covering. Journalists pounced: Hey, we reported on ALL OF THOSE! We won Pulitzers for our reporting! Here are a bazillion front page headlines proving it!

In doing so, journalists took the bait. The stories about their stories fed the narrative that terrorism is everywhere (it’s not). Instead, reporters need to get smarter about covering the non-aberrant, to show that commonplace does not equal mundane. It may not be rare, but it’s reality.

The challenge to those of us on the left is simply put but may not be simple: we need to create more of our own salient exemplars. Here’s an example. Remember Captain Khan? Capt. Humayun Khan, whose grieving parents have been criticized by Trump, was ‘a soldier’s officer’. Immigrants are heroes, not rapists.

Quote of the Day: Our Protozoan President

UK protests
Protesters outside Parliament

The NY Times reports on some reactions in the U. K. to Trump’s visit in "I Am Ashamed’ vs. ‘Get Over It’: U.K. Lawmakers Debate Trump Visit. One in particular is notable and merits my nomination for quote of the day.

The Quote:
“The intellectual capacity of the president is protozoan,” said Paul Flynn, an opposition Labour lawmaker who led the argument against a state visit.

Here is more of the debate.

In Parliament, Mr. Flynn cited the need to keep public trust in politicians and noted that no president had ever been invited for a state visit in his first year in office. He also accused Mr. Trump of acting “like a petulant child” and said the queen should not be seen as approving either his actions or his attitudes toward women and Muslims.

But a Conservative legislator, Nigel Evans, said that Mr. Trump was the president of a great ally of Britain and that the critics should “get over it.”

During the debate, a Labour legislator, David Lammy, spoke of Mr. Trump’s attitudes and asked why Britain should “abandon all its principles” and invite him, “because this country is so desperate for a trade deal that we would throw all our own history out the window?”

He said: “We didn’t do this for Kennedy. We didn’t do this for Truman. We didn’t do this for Reagan. But for this man, after seven days, we say, ‘Please come and we will lay on everything because we are so desperate for your company?’” He added, “I am ashamed that it has come to this.”

But James Cartlidge, a Conservative, said that if Britain canceled the visit, “there will be smiles all around in the Kremlin,” which wants to “divide the West.”

The Kremlin wins this one either way. Granting Trump exceptional full honors chalks up a win for Putin and his puppet.

McCain voting record marks him as Maverick In Name Only

Yesterday I wrote appreciatively of Sen. John McCain’s defense of a free press in #NotTheEnemy: Pushing back against Trump’s war on the press. For example:

"If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and, many times, adversarial press,” McCain added. “And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

But one of my readers reminded me that there is another side to McCain saying “McCain is a Toothless Tiger. He has voted Trump YES on every item put to him so far.  Did the Washington Post note that?” The discrepancy was also noted by MSNBC/Maddowblog writer Steve Benen, If only John McCain’s actions matched John McCain’s rhetoric. Here are snippets.

[McCain’s rhetoric] has led to a resurgence of media affection for the longtime senator – with plenty of outlets dragging his “maverick” nickname out of storage. The New York Times today labeled McCain Trump’s “Critic in Chief.”

Before the gushing gets completely out of hand, it’s worth pausing to appreciate the disconnect between McCain’s rhetoric and his actions.

Sure, the GOP senator has been willing to criticize Trump – at times, in surprisingly forceful terms – which is more than can be said for many of his congressional Republican colleagues, nearly all of whom remain silent, despite genuine concerns. [And, Scriber notes, more than a few Democratic Senators as well.] But McCain doesn’t just give speeches and sit down for interviews; he’s also a sitting senator who casts votes.

And in the Senate, so far this year, McCain is voting with Trump’s position 94% of the time. As a factual matter, the senator is a Maverick in Name Only.

I’m more than happy to give McCain credit for standing up in support of American principles, rhetorically defying a president of his own party, but his posture is clearly incomplete. McCain’s boldness ends when the voting in the Senate begins.

… 16 years ago, McCain was an actual maverick – voting against key Republican priorities, including the Bush/Cheney tax cuts – so it’s not as if we’re lacking a credible point of comparison.

And yet, much of the political world seems inclined to credit McCain for resisting Trump’s more outlandish excesses, even though McCain isn’t following through when it counts. Worse, there are Democrats trying to get attention for the fact that they’re actually resisting Trump both rhetorically and legislatively. It creates a dynamic in which voters are led to believe McCain’s verbal rebukes matter far more than more substantive Democratic opposition, which paints an outrageously misleading picture.

Maybe this will change in the coming months. Perhaps McCain will soon start breaking with his party, leveraging the power that senators in the majority have in a 52–48 chamber, and forcing real changes. Maybe McCain’s concerns will become more substantive and meaningful. There’s a fair amount of power in the senator’s hands, and it’s possible he’ll starting using it in constructive ways.

But in 2013, I wrote, “Every few years, we’re greeted with a fresh round of ‘Maybe the Maverick is back!’ headlines. As you may have noticed, they don’t last.”

This time could be different, but given McCain’s recent voting record, I wouldn’t count on it.

The confirmations of Trump’s egregious cabinet picks have proceeded along party lines, so we have here evidence of McCain supporting Trump where it really matters. DeVos –> Education. Price –> HHS. Pruitt –> EPA. Sessions –> Justice. Perry –> Energy. That’s a list of bad actors with a mandate to shrink or destroy the agencies they are supposed to support and defend. McCain rightly deserves credit for his defense of a free press. But he and the rest of the Republican Senators deserve blame for what will happen next in each of those agencies.

Monday, February 20, 2017

#NotTheEnemy: Pushing back against Trump's war on the press

Trump has found the enemy and he is the free press. The enemy is those journalists who died covering the war on terror. The enemy is those of the White House press corps who ask Trump to justify his false “facts.” The enemy is those investigative journalists who expose corruption. The enemy is those journalists who speak out in defense of our democracy. Here is Daily Kos’ story on Trump’s declaration of war in It Begins.

Until today, media reports Himself didn’t like were “fake news.” Journalists who dared report on him, by such heinous methods as quoting his words and pointing out objectively untrue statements, were “dishonest.”

A few minutes ago, Himself upped the ante.

The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 17, 2017

That’s right, patriots. Those reporters going through statements and documents, chasing down multiple sources before presenting a painfully objective picture of what your government is up to are your enemies.

By definition, “[The enemies] threaten you. They mean you ill.”

The institution that the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence called “the only security of all” has been declared your enemy.

And, being good patriots, you know what you have to do when threatened by an enemy, right?

This will end very badly.

The last conservative with guts enough to stand up to Trump is our own Senator John McCain: ’That’s how dictators get started’: McCain criticizes Trump for calling media ‘the enemy’. Here are snippets from the Washington Post story.

Sen. John McCain spoke out Saturday in defense of the free press after President Trump lashed out against the news media several times over the past week, at one point declaring it “the enemy of the American People!”

Such talk, McCain (R-Ariz.) said on NBC News in an interview set to air Sunday, was “how dictators get started.”

“In other words, a consolidation of power,” McCain told “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd from Munich. “When you look at history, the first thing that dictators do is shut down the press. And I’m not saying that President Trump is trying to be a dictator. I’m just saying we need to learn the lessons of history.”

In the “Meet the Press” interview, McCain told Todd that a free press was central to a functional democracy, even if news organizations’ stories challenged those being held accountable.

“I hate the press. I hate you, especially,” he said to Todd, who laughed. “But the fact is, we need you. We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital.”

Then McCain got serious again.

“If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and, many times, adversarial press,” McCain added. “And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”

These days, it is difficult not to notice McCain, whose dissenting voice can be heard — and is often amplified — criticizing Trump. In the four weeks since Trump’s inauguration, McCain has made headlines rebutting White House press secretary Sean Spicer and ripping Trump’s worldview in a speech in Munich without ever mentioning the president’s name.

This week, McCain appears on the cover of the Feb. 20 issue of New York magazine, where he candidly discusses operating in the Trump administration in a nearly 5,000-word profile by Gabriel Sherman, the magazine’s national affairs editor

In the wide-ranging profile, which covers everything from Supreme Court justice nominee Neil Gorsuch to Trump’s poll numbers, McCain also defends the news media in relation to leaks that have come from the Trump administration.

“In democracies, information should be provided to the American people,” McCain told Sherman. “How else are the American people going to be informed?”

Newseum wall
Photos of journalists killed while reporting news.

In the backlash to [Trump’s] tweet, #NotTheEnemy began trending, with people sharing stories about journalists who had dedicated their lives to — and, in some instances, paid the ultimate price for — reporting the news.

2,291 journalists killed while doing their job are memorialized at the Newseum.

Here, from Daily Kos’ It Begins is the view of Thomas Jefferson on Trump without newspapers vs. newspapers without Trump.

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." –Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, 1787 …

A free press is not the enemy of the people, but it is the enemy of dictators. So is a universal public education. The press provides Jefferson’s newspapers and public education provides for an informed citizenry capable of reading them.