President Bannon

February 7, 2017 Comics, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 1006

President Bannon Cartoon

My first finished portrait of President Bannon. I have a feeling I might not get that official portrait commission.

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Inside the Mind of the Alt-Right, the Internet’s Nihilist Nazis

February 2, 2017 Featured, Politics / Religion, Pop Culture Comments (4) 1220

A friend and I recently spent an hour or so dissecting the mind of the alt-right. Brian is a good workout buddy not only because he gets me to the gym, he also shows up with interesting topics.

This time around, he said he’d just had an epiphany: The members of the alt-right are frustrated pick-up artists whose misogyny fills them with hate.

In my experience this is pretty accurate, but I don’t think it’s quite that specific. I am, fortunately or unfortunately, pretty familiar with the alt-right. This is thanks to my early Internet adoption (when Usenet was one of the few interesting places), and several years of morbid fascination with 4chan.

My read is that young men (primarily) are led to the alt-right by a particular blend of toxic masculinity, animal instinct, and frustrated entitlement. Members of the alt-right are struggling with the very feelings of powerlessness and disillusionment they project onto left-wing “snowflakes.” It’s their chosen solution, a performative embrace of cultural talismans of power, that makes them pawns of fascism.

It all starts with the rules.

Let’s back up. First, what’s the profile of your typical alt-right troll?

Male. White. Intelligent, but not TOO intelligent. Just a bit above average. Young — usually not older than 30, and often too young to drive. Tech savvy; gamers and programmers are over-represented. This may be a product of the alt-right’s primary recruiting channels (4chan, Usenet, and Reddit) or it may be something deeper. Notably, I do not believe sexual orientation plays a prominent role — in my non-scientific observation, there are just as many queers inside the alt-right as outside.

There are certainly exceptions to this profile. There are certainly women, older men, and people of color inside the alt-right, but they are far less common, and I believe them mostly outliers. In my theory they are drawn into a community created by angry white men, motivated by a sense of tribalism and a desire to belong.

As an intelligent white male who generally understands how systems work, your future alt-right member grows up feeling like the world should pretty much give him what he wants. They regard themselves as masters of the world, in a way. They know the rules, they understand how things work. My theory here is that programmers are especially prone because they’re especially rule-oriented. They write code, which dictates how the world operates today.

This is where stuff like “Seduction” arises. If you regard the real world as a sort of Matrix with underlying program you can manipulate, then it stands to reason there are cheat codes for stuff like social interaction and sex. A peacock, three negs, then going caveman should unlock the next level as surely as the Konami code.

When it doesn’t — when knowing the rules doesn’t pay off the way it should, in love or money or fame, and our future alt-right member feels he isn’t getting what the world owes him, the result is a powerful cognitive dissonance, frustration, and anger.

The alt-right is about performance, not belief.

Clearly, none of this functions without a baseline of toxic masculinity. But toxic masculinity in itself does not forge the alt-right; most, if not all men in the United States grow up with toxic masculinity. The path to the alt-right, like the path to the Dark Side, originates with how one handles that cognitive dissonance.

The alt-righter’s response is to blame the rules. Maybe they decide their failures stem from cultural bias in favor of women and people of color; maybe it’s just that the rules are inconsistent and unfair. One way or another, they decide they will no longer obey those rules. They are above the rules, outside of them. They’ve taken the red pill; they can see the Matrix.

This is why a key aspect of the alt-right is the performative aspect. It’s not sufficient to sit at home and quietly hold alt-right beliefs, or even to join like-minded conversations on Internet forums. No, to truly embrace the alt-right, one must troll social networks and confront strangers. With your pepe avatar and a ready arsenal of memes, you unload racist invective and display your lack of empathy like a peacock spreading his tail.

The motivation is pure ego defense. Rather than process feelings of inadequacy and failure, the alt-righter grasps onto some alternative iconography that makes him feel powerful; some stimulus that will generate a predictable response and restore his feeling of being in control. There is nothing in American culture that fits this definition more than bigotry.

This is why trolling is a definitive aspect of the alt-right. The specific content, the argument itself, is totally unimportant. The only important thing is to keep their attention and make them behave the way you predict. Specifically, to make them angry.

Spend some time on 4chan, and you will find threads in which young trolls share screenshots of long trolling sessions, which generate a collective laugh. The longer they can keep a conversation going, especially if the target of their trolling responds with escalating anger, the more powerful and successful the troll.

Within alt-right culture, the worst thing to do is show an emotional response to provocation. This grants power to your tormenter. Strength comes from stoicism, from being the first who can accuse the other, “U Mad, Bro?”

The alt-right worship the anti-hero.

Brian mentioned a letter he’d read from an alt-righter, praising the film Taxi Driver and suggesting its creator would appreciate the alt-right movement. My question to Brian was whether he thought the letter’s author recognized Travis Bickle as an anti-hero, or related to him as an ordinary protagonist.

Alt-righters worship anti-heroes, but especially those anti-heroes who express a declarative philosophy that puts them outside society. Heath Ledger’s Joker looms large, and alt-right memes and artwork often place members of the movement in the role of “wanting to watch the world burn.” There is no greater hero to the alt-right, however, than Fight Club’s Tyler Durden.

Rarely do members of the alt-right recognize the inherent tragedy of anti-heroes. Brian asked me whether I believe they even understand what an anti-hero is, or if they outright mistake them for the protagonist. Here he and I diverge; he thinks they know full well what an anti-hero is, and choose to embrace them. I think many of them mistake sociopathy for bold individualism, and (like stockbrokers quoting Gordon Gekko) completely miss the point.

From what I can tell, the alt-right recruits most followers when they are young. Very young. It begins during the early teens, when emotions and sex drive both run their hottest, and when feelings of shame and failure and inadequacy are at their most powerful.

The alt-right as chimps in a bonobo society

Brian drew a parallel between rape and alt-right membership, the thesis being that both are attempts to reclaim power after sexual rejection. That got me thinking, as often happens, about humans as animals and the influence of our baser instincts.

A dramatic and interesting contrast exists between our two closest animal relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. Chimp society is violent, and stresses on chimp tribes often lead to brutal attacks. Bonobo society, in contrast, is entirely non-violent but hyper-sexualized. Introduce any stress to a bonobo group (a newcomer, a food source, or any other social disruption) and the response will be a literal orgy. They have literally replaced violence with sex as a means of social sorting.

Bear with me, I promise I’m going somewhere with this.

This leads to a question I’ve seen some raise: Are humans more chimp, or bonobo? We have traits in common with both. Look at the murder rate among our primitive ancestors, however, and an interesting trend emerges. Experts place the murder rate among the earliest true humans at a level consistent with most other mammals, but as our species evolved that rate shot up to 30 percent, extraordinarily high but consistent with other primate species — except bonobos. That rise in the murder rate correlates roughly with the concept of property ownership — the point at which many experts say humans turned from a matriarchal, free-love society to one where men expected to own access to reproductive resources (ie, women).

I’ll phrase that in a shorter, simpler way: When men decide they own women, they either get the sex to which they feel entitled, or they turn to violence. To be clear, I’m speaking of animal instincts here, so it should not be interpreted to excuse any behavior. We also have an instinct to shit wherever we stand, but to maintain a society we learn to use the toilet.

Here’s where we come back to the alt-right. See, that instinctive behavior, the idea of men owning women, the braggy, chest-puffing machismo is something American society, what some would describe as liberal society, has worked hard to purge. As a culture, we have deemed that unacceptable, but it retains a power over our animal instincts and urges. Humans will always be vulnerable to the political strongman for exactly that reason.

To the alt-right, that social compact by which we devalue machismo in favor of egalitarianism is just another rule they are above, one more aspect of the Matrix that those of us who are “blue pilled” cannot see. Thus they embrace sexism and male domination (“Gorilla Mindset,” if you will). They embrace tribalism in all its forms — racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia — and reassure themselves that anyone who claims otherwise is only pretending, only trying to abide by the rules.

This is not an especially new phenomenon; Rush Limbaugh is an early example of an alt-righter, with his screeds against the “Feminazis” who were “Pussifying” American society, and his rants about how liberals value consent above all else. Rush never particularly cared about what he was saying, as long as he could keep the attention of his listeners, and as long as their anger made him powerful. His politics were never defined by classical conservatism, but a performative display of lack of empathy. He, and his listeners, are classic alt-right.

From 4chan trolls to fascist pawns

 

Given this background, it isn’t hard to understand what attracts the alt-right to fascism and totalitarianism. Beyond a simple reinforcing of those base animal instincts, fascists are dedicated to the rules. By instituting draconian policies with no exceptions, the alt-right can reassert their mastery and control of the world they believe they understand.

Interact with them enough (hard as that can be) and you’ll gradually realize that their primary objection with liberals is that our compassion leads us to inconsistency. Because bleeding heart snowflakes are so concerned with people’s feelings, we make all kinds of exceptions that make the rules no longer apply.

Affirmative action gives people of color an unfair advantage over white people. Immigration is allowing outsiders access to limited resources that should go to real Americans. Women’s equality runs counter to the natural order and denies alpha men the sex to which they are entitled.

Way down deep, at the heart of it, is the same consistent theme of ego reassurance: The world hasn’t been fair to me. I haven’t received what I believe I deserve. I don’t want to feel like a failure.

This is, to me, the defining feature of the alt-right, the thing that sets them apart from conservatives, Republicans, true fascists, white nationalists, and the rest of the Right. It is perhaps ironic, perhaps predictable that it’s the exact accusation they most often level against their perceived enemies: They are special snowflakes who haven’t received the participation award they think they deserve.

The problem, of course, is they also become useful idiots for more nefarious forces — the true fascists, whose interest isn’t ego defense so much as actual power, or wealth, or racial purity. Your true motive is irrelevant when you’re embracing and voting for fascism and white nationalism; the end result will be the same.

Is there a practical lesson here?

So if we assume my theory holds — and I’ve done my best to sell it here — is there anything we can learn to undo the power of the alt-right?

I’m honestly not sure.

There are certainly lessons in how to deal with an alt-right troll:

  1. Don’t take anything he says as an actual argument, but understand that the central goal is (a) to show you how he’s outside the rules, and (b) to feel powerful by taking up your time and triggering your emotions.
  2. When an alt-right troll responds to something you say by demanding you “prove it” with links to news articles or other sources, understand that the motivation is just to waste more of your time and keep the conversation going. Nothing you link will prove anything.
  3. Understand that the ultimate reward for the alt-right is a strong response of any kind. Milo Whathisname isn’t upset when his speeches are cancelled by massive protest, he’s delighted — because he made that happen, and it makes him and his followers feel powerful. 10,000 people got mad, bro!
  4. Know that the best way to deal with the alt-right is to ignore them. Their deep insecurity and desire to feel powerful means something like an on-camera punch in the face will traumatize them, which is satisfying — but their need to reclaim power means such public embarrassment will motivate them to terrible ends. Were Richard Spencer not in the public eye, I would fully expect his next action to be a shooting spree or bombing.

As to preventing their rise? Keep an eye on your kids, I guess. If the primary motivator is avoiding feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness, then our best hope is to teach our children how to process those feelings in a healthy way.

I guess what I’m saying is we’re all counting on those Feminazis to Pussify the country before it’s too late.


Disclaimer: I wrote this in a big hurry and I’m pretty tired, and I sure hope it makes sense. If you liked it, I’d love if you would follow me on Twitter and consider supporting my work at Patreon.

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People Matter. Enough Already with the Macro-Analysis

January 31, 2017 Featured, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 686

I don’t understand how a person can watch refugees sent back to the nation they fled, families separated, children handcuffed, and write 1,200 words about how it’s a “head fake.”

On second thought, yes I can. Because we live in the era of the “30,000 foot view.” In our modern age, data is available and accessible, and big systems-wide analysis dominates our media. But when we reduce humans to data points — whether it’s Jake Fuentes writing about a systemic power takeover, Nate Silver forecasting election outcomes, or Barrack Obama assuring us we’ll all be fine — we lose sight of the individual experiences and stories that actually matter.

Mr. Fuentes might have a point about the Trump team testing America’s appetite for fascism. In fact, I think he does. But what he might regard as a “head fake” or dry run does serious harm to actual people.

Dozens were detained in airports nationwide, some for days. Reports say they were subjected to interrogation tactics, and pressed to sign away their rights Others, fleeing religious persecution and fearing for their lives, were turned away and sent back into harm’s way. Seniors, some with very little language access, were kept from family members waiting for them right outside of customs.

All of these are real human beings, experiencing real suffering, at the hands of a government whose sole rationale for existence is to protect the rights and well-being of the innocent. They are more than data points, more than pawns in the game of global politics. To describe the policy that harmed them as a “head fake,” to imply it is a distraction, is to minimize their experience.

Closing the Empathy Gap

The world is big, and data analysis can reveal illustrative trends that are useful to governance and policy. When we let that data stand in for actual lived experience, however, we initiate a kind of cognitive dissonance that sews distrust and disdain for government.

This was likely one of President Obama’s greatest shortcomings. Time and again we watched our President stand at a podium and tell us what a success the ACA was, or how job growth figures revealed the strength of our economic recovery. And those things were certainly true, from a macro-analytic scale. The trouble is, it wasn’t the whole story.

For those people whose premiums were skyrocketing out of reach, or those in communities folding up for lack of industry, macroeconomic trends are at best meaningless. At worst, they sound like outright lies.

Imagine living in a bombed out Rust Belt town, surrounded every day by the signs of industrial collapse and economic ruin. Every time the President talks about the economy, he’s touting job growth numbers, and record GDP. Contrast that with your lived experience, and of course you are going to feel passed over. Of course you are going to feel resentful.

To be clear, I’m not joining the ranks claiming we need to “listen more to the White Working Class,” which is most often code for endorsing white supremacy. What I am saying is that macroeconomic analysis has its utility, but that a government is obligated to also understand the human stories behind the figures.

A Product of the Shrinking News Media

I suspect that the movement toward macro-analysis is, like many of the issues that plague our current political discourse, a result of the reduction in staff and scope of the modern news media.

It comes down to simple math: With fewer beat reporters available to meet and interview individuals, it’s easier and more cost-effective for editors and anchors to rely on data analysis. Why send reporters to talk with laid off workers, when you can cut together a serviceable story from the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site?

This is not to suggest there aren’t dedicated journalists out there doing the hard work of speaking with actual humans. Trump’s Muslim Ban yielded a particular outpouring of real human stories, possibly because those victimized were condensed into major city airports, convenient for networks and newspapers. This is one thing that makes Fuentes’s “head fake” argument so wrong-headed; for once, the human cost of a bad policy was readily visible.

That said, there are reporters working to get those stories every day — there just aren’t nearly as many as there used to be.

It’s increasingly questionable whether Americans really know our country at all. The tendency to substitute broad demographic statistics for individual engagement lies at the heart of many recent narratives —the Democrats’ failure to recognize Rust Belt disenchantment, liberal America’s shock at the power and prevalence of white supremacy, White astonishment and denial at the abuse of Black communities by police… The list goes on.

We have an obligation, as a society, to focus not only on the big picture but on the millions of small pieces that make it up. Humans are not data points. Families are not clusters. Trends are not universal.

We need to take more time to pay attention to one another, to recognize and value the lived experience and inherent value of each individual human. We are, after all, a government of the people, for the people, by the people — not “a statistically significant sample” of the people.

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Anti-Trump Images for Free Use Everywhere

January 31, 2017 Artwork, Featured, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 971

I am making these anti-Trump images available for free use anywhere and everywhere. Commercial or non-commercial use, with or without attribution or modification. The original images are public domain, and the adaptation is mine, so there are no rights issues.

I’ve set up a Redbubble shop where you can buy these as vinyl stickers — but feel free to make your own if you prefer.

Share, share share.

(Click an image in the gallery to get the high-resolution version)

Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Christopher Keelty is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://christopherkeelty.com.

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What Hillary Clinton Could Learn from Charity Fundraisers

January 23, 2017 Featured, In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 302

[Up front, a disclaimer: This is not a “why Hillary Clinton lost” post. I’m as sick of those as you are. This is sharing some thoughts on a lesson I think we might learn, and improve on in the future.]

In addition to my various creative endeavors, in my day job I’m a nonprofit fundraiser. I don’t talk about it much because, frankly, I don’t think most people would find it especially interesting. But I’ve been doing it for about 15 years, and I’ve learned a lot of things.

The most important lesson I’ve learned as a fundraiser, I think, is talk with the donor about the donor. A lot of people, when they want to convince someone’s support, they start listing great things about the organization. How long they’ve been around, the great staff, the many people they’ve helped, and so on. But that’s wrong.

People want to hear about themselves, not about you.

Donors don’t want to support an organization, they want to do something good for the world. When you see a hurricane or a flood, you don’t give to the Red Cross because you’re worried about the organization. You give because you want to help the victims.

In that respect, philanthropy is a selfish act. Donors want something from their donation–they want the knowledge that their gift is doing good, and the feel-good feeling that comes along with that. For that reason, a good fundraiser doesn’t talk about how great the charity is. They talk about how great the donor is. Don’t talk about “me,” “we,” or “us.” The important word is always “You.”

Credit is due here to Tom Ahern and Jeff Brooks, from whom I learned this rule. In Brooks’s book How to Turn Your Words into Money, he goes so far as to present a template for a fundraising letter that is just the word “You” over and over again. From there, says Brooks, you fill in the blanks.

What can successful politicians learn from fundraisers?

So why do I bring this up now? Because I’ve been reflecting on the 2016 Election, and how Hillary Clinton failed to follow this rule.

One of the most common complaints I heard about Hillary was that she was “too ambitious.” This was from both Trump voters who hated her, and reluctant Democrats. Now, I will not discount the role sexism plays in this assessment. It’s classic sexism to regard ambition as a negative quality in a woman.

However, I think there may have been something else at play here as well. Hillary Clinton talked about herself a lot. I wonder if this created a perception that her campaign was about her, rather than about the voters, and if this might be what some voters meant when they said she was “too ambitious.”

Obama, and even Trump, talked more about the voters

I’ve been trying to recall how often, during his first Presidential campaign, Barack Obama even mentioned the fact that he would be the first Black President. I’ve asked friends, Googled, watched some old speeches, and I don’t think he ever mentioned it once. Other people did, certainly, but I don’t think Obama himself ever addressed it.

Hillary, by contrast, mentioned her opportunity to become the first woman president quite frequently. If it came up in every speech, that would not surprise me.

I don’t fault her for that, any more than I would fault Obama for mentioning his own historic opportunity. I mention it not because of his race, or her gender, but because that focus made Hillary’s rhetoric more self-oriented than Obama’s. Even the slogan, “I’m with Her,” put the focus on the candidate herself, rather than the people she sought to serve. While it would lack the clever double-meaning, “She’s with You” may have worked better, from that perspective.

In some respect, Hillary’s experience might have worked against her. Yes, she ranked among the most qualified candidate ever to run for President. And yes, as a woman she was under an unfair obligation to state her qualifications. But every time she recited her remarkable resume, she was talking about herself instead of talking about the voters.

The remarkable thing here is, if we analyze the rhetoric of Donald Trump, narcissist though he is, he did better. When Trump took the podium at any of his rallies, he talked a lot about the voters and his promises to them. I lack the resources to count the number of times each candidate used the word “You,” but I bet Trump far outpaced Clinton.

The candidate as cipher for voters’ hopes and dreams

There’s a particular similarity some commentators have pointed out between Barack Obama and Donald Trump. I’m paraphrasing here, but the similarity is that supporters of both candidates tended to attribute views neither candidate ever actually expressed. Each was, to some extent, a policy cipher onto whom voters could map their own wants and desires. In 2016, I had a Facebook friend explain to me how Donald Trump was going to eliminate the federal deficit and pay off the debt–during the same period when Trump himself promised to build a wall across the southern border and deliver massive investments in infrastructure.

I suspect part of the reason Trump and Obama presented this opportunity is because they talked more about the voters than about themselves. In contrast, by presenting so many concrete policy positions, Hillary won the allegiance of voters like me, but she also clearly defined herself. That stripped voters of the ability to attribute their own values.

At least I think that might be the case.

It’s possible that political strategists already embrace the same rule as fundraisers. Certainly, in 2016 fundraising is a priority role for political candidates–if not their primary responsibility. But it’s not something I’ve heard pundits comment on. I suspect it’s something to which candidates and strategists may want to pay closer attention.

 


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Women’s March: Welcome to the Resistance. Here’s What to Do Next.

January 22, 2017 Civil Rights, Featured, In The News Comments (0) 608

Congratulations, ladies [and gentlemen, and non-binary folks], you did it! The Women’s March brought three million people into the streets in the largest protest movement in American history. In a world of television and Internet and home delivery, you got people out of their homes and into the streets. Do you know how powerful that is?

You stood, and you marched, and you chanted, for kindness and equality and decency — and you brought your kids! Their understanding of American democracy is so much richer for it — they will grow up seeing themselves as active participants with a voice and a responsibility. That’s amazing.

But what do we do now? You’re probably still buzzing with adrenaline and patriotic fervor. You’re looking through photos from yesterday. Maybe you’re thinking about framing your sign. But one protest does not a movement make, and there are places you can put that energy where it will go to good use.

I can’t provide you with a definitive list (ie, I’ll definitely leave out some worthwhile causes) but here are some suggestions.

A young man at the New York City Women's March, dressed in costume as a minuteman and holding a sign that reads "I'll take King George over Trump."

1. Don’t stop protesting!!

It may be a while before we get another three million people out in the streets — but there are protests, rallies, and marches happening all around you, all the time. Your voice, your time, and your body are the most powerful contribution you can make to most movements.

Two women at the New York City Women's March, holding a handmade collage featuring images of famous and notable women.

…and if you are a white person, as we’ve discussed before, your presence at a protest will bring credibility, attention, and safety. Police are far less likely to abuse white people, the media is more likely to both cover the protest and actually take time to understand the message, and other Americans are more likely to take your demands seriously, and not label you a riot.

Yes, that sucks. But it’s reality. Meet the new “post-racial” America, same as the old super-racist America. But hey, this is something you can help change!

You can join almost any protest, whether you see it on TV or walk past it on the street. Even if people look angry. Just ask “Why are you protesting?” and if the answer is something you agree with, say “Is it all right if I join you?” The answer will almost certainly be, “Yes, here’s a sign.”

2. Learn about some intersectional movements.

Did I mention that three million people in the streets is incredible? In fact, there are a lot of other movements that would love to have even a tiny fraction of that support. And now that you’ve been one of those people out marching in the streets, you may find yourself with a revised perspective on their approach and tactics.

Might I suggest Black Lives Matter?

I know, I know, you’ve seen the fights with police, and people think the name is divisive, and you think maybe you read something about one of those terrorist gunmen having ties with the group, and etcetera.

That’s why I say learn about the movement. Did you know Black Lives Matter has a platform with six clear and simple demands, including reforming our criminal justice system, greater investments in education, and action on income inequality? That all sounds… pretty familiar.

At the core of it, though, the Black Lives Matter movement is about exactly what it sounds like. For too long, American society has treated the lives of Black Americans as worthless, or worth less at least than the lives of white Americans. That has to end — and isn’t that something you can march for?

To be fair, you don’t have to join Black Lives Matter. I just think you should. There are lots of other progressive movements — LGBTQ rights, environmental protection, economic justice, education, anti-war, anti-incarceration, and plenty more — that desperately need more voices to help achieve their goals. Get out there.

A young woman in a headscarf at the New York City Women's March holds up Shepard Fairey's "WE THE PEOPLE" poster featuring a woman in an American flag headscarf.

3. Raise up the voices of those with less power.

White folks, brace yourselves, because this one might upset you to read.

The Women’s March, powerful and inspiring as it was, had some pretty serious issues with racism. Organizers failed in their moral obligation to seek out and include minority voices among their leadership, and responded to critics by silencing them. Not great.

A young woman at the New York City Women's March, atop her father's shoulders with a sign reading "The Future is Female!"You might think such complaints are petty, or divisive, or detract from the central message. But look: Lots of activists have dedicated their lives to protest movements, only to be ignored. When a movement like this rises up, only to be dominated by the voices of white people who are relatively new to this, and push other movements further to the margins, they have a valid reason to be upset.

Again, as white people in America, we have a privilege: People will listen to us, especially when we get together in a group on the street. Cripes, the Tea Party got news coverage for rallies that were sometimes less than a hundred people.

We have a responsibility, a moral obligation, to raise up and amplify the voices of people who do not share our privilege. That doesn’t mean just welcoming people to attend, it means actively involving people, recruiting them even, to share leadership in a movement. In 2017, there is no excuse for failing at that.

I’m not here to say “the Women’s March is bad.” I’m saying they failed, in a major way, and we should all learn from that. We have to do better.

4. Spread the message.

Three million people is a lot, but it’s still only one percent of America. I am already seeing questions and debates on Facebook, as marchers share their photos and friends and relatives respond with confusion and/or disagreement.

A young woman, dressed in costume as the famous "We Can Do It!" poster at the New York City Women's March

It can be intimidating to stand up against opposition from friends and relatives. Lots of people avoid “politics on Facebook,” but if you were out to march yesterday you probably feel strong enough about it to engage.

Here’s a tip: State your position, clearly and boldly, and don’t get into back-and-forth arguments. If you need to clarify a point, do so, but avoid “You’re wrong and here’s why.”

Why? Because the goal is not to force other people to agree with you; it’s to express your position and let others make up their minds. Back-and-forth, which almost always gets bitter and personal, makes everybody look bad. You don’t need to defend yourself, just be the boldest, proudest voice for what’s right.

The same goes for all of your other social interactions, not just the electronic epicenter of 2017 culture. Be brave. Have faith that seeds of thought take time to germinate, and sometimes people who disagree with you today — violently, even — will tell you years later how you helped them see the light.

Share your photos, your signs, and your opinions. Do so with pride. Then sign off, and go play with your kids.

A young child rides his father's shoulders at the New York City Women's March

5. Get involved in politics. 2018 is coming fast.

Personally, I think the message of the Women’s March is bigger than any political party. It’s about humanity and culture, and equating it with “Get more Democrats elected” seems to cheapen it.

On the other hand, the new Republican President is the one who galvanized this movement, and the Republican party of late has taken a position in direct opposition to most of what Women’s Marchers stand for. So let’s get some Democrats elected!

For starters, an organization called Indivisible is here to help Americans participate effectively in opposing the Trump agenda. If you‘re looking for the most effective way to get involved, they have an easy-to-navigate web site to help.

Another group, Swing Left, will help you find the contested House district that’s closest to your home. Remember, every single member of the House of Representatives is up for reelection in 2018. Yes, many districts are gerrymandered beyond hope, but on the bright side House districts are small, and turnout for mid-term elections is tiny. Mobilizing only a small number of voters to get out and cast ballots will make a difference, and your direct action might be the key. That’s how the Tea Party did it in 2010, so look no further for proof.

Women protesting at the New York City Womens March

6. Get Woke, Stay Woke.

Yeah okay, people who describe themselves as “woke” are usually the worst. But it’s the only word I know that easily encapsulates an understanding of the vast world of social justice.

I’ll point you to a piece I wrote after the election, How to Easily be a White Ally to Marginalized Communities, that included some tips for expanding your understanding of social justice, AKA “Getting woke.” In short, you need to be reading and listening to the voices of marginalized people. White people [like me] can be a helpful [*ahem*non-threatening*ahem*] point of entry, but we can only take you so far.

One fun read is “The 8 Wokest White People We Know,” at The Root, which illustrates some examples and provides positive role models for white folks.

Incidentally, I highly recommend becoming a regular reader of The Root. A Black-owned, Black-operated, and Black-oriented magazine, it pulls no punches and is guaranteed to expand your perspective and hit you right in your latent-racist white feels.

The cool thing is, the “woker” you get, the less guidance you’ll need about how you can take action. Instead you can begin to serve as a guide for other people, helping them along the path to fighting against racism and sexism and shaping our future America into a place of equality and opportunity.

You know, that thing we’ve been lying to ourselves about being all along.

Young women in pink pussy hats prepare for the New York City Womens March in front of a wall of Donald Trump signs

Hi! You can read this and similar pieces at my home page, where I make a tiny little bit of money from your visit. I’d love if you’d follow me there, and on Twitter. Thanks!

All photos accompanying this article are my own, taken at the Women’s March in New York City yesterday (January 21, 2017). They may be used under Creative Commons License 4.0 Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND). In other words, you can use them without having to ask, but please make sure to credit me as photographer and don’t change them around without my permission. If you feel like it, I’d love to know where you do use them.

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Nate Silver swung the election. He should admit it.

January 20, 2017 Featured, In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 403

It’s a simple but unfortunate fact that most humans don’t understand probability. It’s not our fault, exactly. Our primate brains are not designed for it. Take the Gambler’s Fallacy: If a coin flip comes up heads nine times in a row, you should bet on tails, right? It’s due, right? Well, no. If you’re educated you probably know the odds are still 50/50. But the multi-billion dollar gambling industry is built on how terrible our brains are at probability.

This is why it’s so infuriating to hear Nate Silver, patriarch and spokesman for data journalism, insist he didn’t swing the 2016 Presidential election.

The REAL Real story of 2016

Since Trump’s win, Silver has done innumerable interviews in which he disavows any responsibility. He’s prone to a judgmental tone about the way people treated polling data, and a blasé, even willfully obtuse response to suggestions that he had a role.

Yesterday, Nate Silver published a long analysis, titled “The Real Story of 2016,” in which he begins with a question: “Why, then, had so many people who covered the campaign been so confident of Clinton’s chances? This is the question I’ve spent the past two to three months thinking about.”

To his credit, Silver does acknowledge the role of polling data, and FiveThirtyEight specifically, but his analysis seats responsibility squarely with FiveThiryEight’s readers, and journalists who “lumped together” their model with other, differing forecasts. There is no recognition that the way Silver and his fellow data journalists represent their findings might be inherently misleading. No recognition that the winding path the election took might have been shaped by a certain hourglass-shaped graphic.

Data journalism changes how our elections work

Data journalism is young, and Silver’s model of compiling and analyzing poll data to produce a single projection has been with us for only three Presidential elections. Following his success in 2008, many (myself included) began treating Silver as some kind of wizard. Revisionist history will likely forget the absolute confidence with which many regarded FiveThirtyEight’s prediction pre-Trump.

In the months prior to the 2016 Election Hillary Clinton’s win seemed predestined. Journalists, talking heads, even candidates themselves tended to treat her as if she were already President. It is highly likely that strategic decisions were informed by that perspective, both within the Campaign and outside.

What might have been different, had people not assumed a Hillary win? Would the Obama White House have moved faster to let the nation know about Russian interference? Would FBI Director James Comey have sent his infamous letter to Congress? Would the Clinton Campaign have invested so much into states like Texas and Arizona, and so little in Michigan and Wisconsin? Would the mainstream press have focused so intensely on Clinton’s email “scandal,” or turned their attention to more intense scrutiny of Trump?

All of this is down to speculation, of course, but it stands to reason that some of the elements that shaped the outcome might have been different. In a few cases, dramatically so. Strategists live and die by polling data, and in 2016 Nate Silver was inarguably the forecast most people followed.

There is an argument that data journalism distorts our understanding of polling data. In October, following the final Presidential debate, polls showed Clinton with a four- to seven-point lead on Trump. That’s a sizable lead, but still a close race. FiveThirtyEight put Clinton’s odds at 88 percent. The Upshot said 89.

Silver’s front page projection is the core of the problem.

In interviews, Silver invariably defends himself by citing FiveThirtyEight’s disclaimers about polling errors. And that’s fair. It’s in the headline of this piece from November 4, and as a regular reader I will attest that this point was regularly included in their reporting. But direct your browser to FiveThirtyEight and you aren’t met by a nuanced analysis. You see this.

The 71 percent forecast comes from just before the election. By that point, it was too late for strategic shifts. A month earlier, Clinton’s odds were near 90 percent.The Upshot employs a similar presentation. Ignore the yellow bar here, that showed up only on Election Day.

“Who will win the Presidency?” asks FiveThirtyEight. “Who will be President?” says the Upshot. Then a simple percentage. No mention of polling errors, no disclaimer about margins. Not unless you click through to more detailed analysis. I can’t access internal traffic reports for either site, but I’m willing a small percentage did so. And that sets aside the way those numbers are reported across other outlets–though in fairness to Silver, that plays to his point about other journalists misrepresenting his work.

Nate Silver understands probability. He doesn’t understand people.

The fact is, the projection model pioneered by Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight shaped the way Americans, including election strategists and the candidates themselves, understood the Election. Arguably, it was the single most influential factor. Yes, there are many other polls to take apart, and in past decades that’s what analysts did. But having a single projection is much neater, and easier for our primate brains to understand.

85 percent. Good. So Hillary will win.

Statisticians like Silver, who are better than most of us with probability, don’t see it that way. On Twitter, I’ve personally been chastised by people who say people should never have regarded Silver’s projection as “deterministic.” Which, again, is true, but it shows a failure on the part of data journalists to understand how bad most humans are with odds.

Personally, I still like Nate Silver, and I like data journalism. I don’t believe such projections should not exist. In the wake of what happened in 2016, however, I do think serious consideration should go toward how it’s presented. I do think a single projection, presented as a thermometer at the top of the front page, is harmful. It distorts the way people view the election and its likely outcome, and in doing so it shapes the election itself.

I’d like to see that change, but even more, I’d like Nate Silver to acknowledge his responsibility. It’s pretty obvious that when it comes to statistics, Nate Silver’s brain works better than most. The same does not appear to be true when it comes to human nature.

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First Amendment Friday: January 20, 2017

January 19, 2017 Civil Rights, Featured, First Amendment Fridays, Gay and Lesbian Comments (1) 326

Happy Friday! It’s January 20, spring is two months away, and I’ve been 38 for three whole days. There’s something else happening today, too, but damned if I can remember what it is. Still, some unnamed impulse has inspired me to bring back the old Friday First Amendment Roundup, which I haven’t written since I worked for the ACLU. That same feeling tells me I’ll try to keep at it for the next four years.

So… Let’s all dust off our vintage Louis Brandeis decoder rings and see what’s happening with the Constitutional Amendment that’s First in all our hearts.

The Slants, the Supreme Court, and the NFL

The Slants, an Oregon-based band whose members are all Asian-American, appeared before the Supreme Court this week. Why? The US Trademark office says a 70-year old law forbids them from registering racially offensive names. The Slants (whose name comes partly from a derogatory term for Asian-Americans) say the law violates their freedom of speech.

Watching with great interest is the NFL’s Washington-based football team, whose name will not appear here. In 2014, the Trademark Office stripped said team of their trademark rights, costing them major profits. They are definitely rooting for the Slants; no word yet on any SCOTUS-related face painting.

Curb Your Rights

DAPL Protesters, photo by Flickr user Fibonacci Blue

Photo: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue.

As the nation prepares for a protest that may be one of the largest in our history, five separate states have introduced legislation to crack down on peaceful protests. Oh, excuse me. That should read Republican legislators in five separate states.

Especially targeted are highway protests, popular with Black Lives Matter and Dakota Access protesters. Minnesota and Iowa seek to make such protests illegal, while in North Dakota lawmakers think motorists should be able to kill protesters with impunity. Provided they claim it was an accident, of course.

Washington state and Michigan are also looking at criminalizing protests. A number of these legislators, by the way, consider themselves members of the Tea Party Caucus. I seem to recall something there to do with protest… but let’s move on.

A Big, Beautiful Problem with the First Amendment. Just Huge.

It says here that some guy named… Donald Trump(?) is taking over as President. Trump has shown himself to be no friend to the First Amendment, and the Nation does a good job of breaking down the biggest issues, from his relationship with the press and his abuse of libel laws to his endorsement of laws against flag-burning.

The Nation doesn’t mention much about the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment. This Atlantic article from late December covers the bases: Anti-Muslim discrimination, mosque surveillance, and attempts to legalize discrimination against LGBTQ+ people and religious minorities. It’s morning in America, people.

Did I say morning? Sorry, I meant mourning. Damn homophones.

Hey, trivia: A “homophone” is the reason Mike Pence currently lets all his calls to go voice mail. And speaking of the midwest…

Priority of Zion

The ACLU is currently fighting a new law in Ohio that forbids the state from contracting with any business that boycotts Israel. Similar laws have recently passed or been introduced in about half of US states, including New York. The ACLU warns that such legislation not only punishes legal political action, but risks punishing businesses that divest from Israel for apolitical reasons, like new tarriffs.

Writing in Slate last April, Columbia Law Professor Katherine Franke and attorney Michael Ratner pointed out the irony of Zionist crackdowns on boycotts, observing that the Jewish community had long used boycotts as effective political tools. The two also expressed concern that such anti-boycott initiatives could be deployed against the LGBTQ+ population, which has deployed high-profile boycotts against anti-equality legislation in states like Indiana and North Carolina.

Anti-equality legislation? Hey, that brings us back to Mike Pence! So why not…

The No-Pence Party

In what has to be my favorite political protest… I don’t know, ever? LGBTQ+ activists staged a massive queer dance party outside Mike Pence’s DC-area home, just days before Pence was sworn in as Vice President. Protesters in hot pants and various rainbow garments sang, gyrated, and called for “Daddy Pence” to come out and join in the festivities.

Which goes to show: When it comes to American political protest, eventually it always comes back to tea bags.

Yeah… Sorry.


Top Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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Don’t Let Republicans Pretend Racists Face Discrimination

January 19, 2017 Civil Rights, Featured, In The News Comments (0) 297

A bizarre but illustrative moment came during last week’s confirmation hearings for Senator Jeff Sessions: As NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks offered testimony, Lindsey Graham (Republican senator from South Carolina) confronted him about the NAACP’s civil rights legislative scorecard.

Graham read scores for several prominent members of Congress, pointedly contrasting the high scores by Democrats with the low scores for Republicans. Graham then leveled the following:

“It means that you’re picking things that conservative Republicans don’t agree with you on and liberal Democrats do. I hope that doesn’t make us all racist and all of them perfect on the issue.

I think the report card says volumes about how you view Republican conservatives. Maybe we’re all wrong and maybe you’re all right. I doubt if it’s that way.”

Did you catch that? Lindsay Graham suspects the NAACP is discriminating against Republicans by giving them low scores on a Civil Rights scorecard. The Republicans, who have built a 60-year platform opposing civil rights and advancing policies that harm people of color.

Opposing Hate is Not Discrimination

It’s surprisingly hard to lay hands on a copy of a recent NAACP scorecard, but their 2009–2010 scorecard lays out the issues they deem important, including predatory lending, opposing school voucher programs, ensuring wage equality, health care reform, and strengthening hate crime laws, among others. As Brooks says in his response, “The ratings are based on legislation, not party affiliation.”

This is of a piece with recent right-wing outrage over fashion designers who announced they would refuse Ivanka and Melania Trump their business. Designer Sophie Theallet, the first such designer, issued a statement explaining her refusal to dress the incoming First Lady: “The rhetoric of racism, sexism, and xenophobia unleashed by her husband’s presidential campaign are incompatible with the shared values we live by.”

Non-discrimination laws, like those enforced against homophobic cake artists, do not forbid any person from denying service to any other person. They forbid certain specific types of discrimination, including that based on race, religion, gender, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation, and others. The Supreme Court labels these “suspect classifications,” groups of people who are likely to be the subject of discrimination.

Republicans, apparently, believe that racism, sexism, and xenophobia deserve to be protected under the very laws designed to prevent them. Or, more likely, they believe that when those values are so ingrained into a political philosophy that they might be labeled “beliefs,” that political philosophy warrants the same protection against discrimination as, say, a religion.

This is a ludicrous position, however. For the record, there is no legal protection against discrimination based on political affiliation or belief. Nor should there be. Political parties exist for the sole and specific person of taking positions others may find disagreeable to the point where they would refuse association.

I’m certainly not in favor of predicating all commercial services on political affiliation. I don’t want my local deli asking me how I voted before they’ll make me a sandwich. But for an event as momentous as the inauguration, at which much fuss will be made over who produced the First Lady’s attire, a designer has every right to refuse service. Just as the NAACP should be able to announce that every single member of the Republican Party is taking action to harm people of color without being accused of “discriminating” against their oppressors.

There is no specific test to determine whether a group legally constitutes a suspect classification, but the Supreme Court has specified some criteria. Political affiliation meets none of them. It is not an immutable trait; you are not born a Republican, you align with the party based on your political beliefs. Nor is it highly visible, unless you choose to put on a button or a bright red hat. Political parties are by definition not powerless within the political process (particularly laughable for Republicans, in light of recent election results) and while members of political parties may be subject to hostility, to characterize that as stigma is too far to stretch. Political ideas and positions are meant to be subject to scrutiny and rejection; that is their nature and purpose.

It’s been common for some time to hear Republicans in daily conversation claim to be victims of discrimination. It is breathtaking, however, to hear a lawmaker as prominent as Lindsey Graham claim victimhood when his party is called out for its own discriminatory practices. That’s a level of rhetorical normalization that verges on dangerous.

Do not allow Republicans to claim they face discrimination. Do not acquiesce when people equate their loathsome defense of racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-gay rhetoric with being born black, or Mexican, or gay, or Muslim. Do not allow oppressors to advance their cause by co-opting the language of the oppressed.

Look at it this way [and indulge the extreme example — it’s meant for illustrative purposes].

Imagine this was Germany in 1936, and Lindsey Graham was seated as a member of the Nazi Party. Imagine the NAACP was a group that advanced the civil rights of Jewish people. Would the Nazis say they were victims of discrimination when that organization gave them poor grades on Jewish rights?

Yes, you may be thinking. They almost certainly would. And that is something you should always remember.

Photo: Flickr user Fibonacci Blue, used under Creative Commons license.

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A Poisoned Oklahoma Town Says Scott Pruitt Should Know about Lead

January 18, 2017 Featured, In The News, Politics / Religion Comments (0) 444

At his hearing today, Scott Pruitt (Donald Trump’s nominee to head the EPA) said he could not testify as to the impact of lead poisoning in children because he hasn’t read the science.

Okay.

It will be safe to move back into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone before it is safe to move back into Picher.

Scott Pruitt’s has been Attorney General of Oklahoma since 2011. Prior to that, he unsuccessfully ran for an Oklahoma Congressional seat (in 2001) and Oklahoma Lieutenant Governor (in 2006).Something else happened in Oklahoma during those years. A town, Picher, was ordered evacuated and abandoned because the history of industrial mining for lead and zinc had left levels of those heavy metals so high that 1/3 of the town’s children had lead poisoning. The order to permanently close the town came in 2006, while Pruitt was running for Lieutenant Governor.

Today, Picher Oklahoma is a ghost town, called “America’s most toxic town,” and one of the worst cases of industrial pollution in the history of the world. Where once there was a population of more than 2,000 residents, now there is an uninhabitable husk. It will be safe for humans to move back into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone before it is safe to move back into Picher.

How can a man who was Attorney General of that state, who ran for Congress and the office of Lieutenant Governor, NOT be familiar with the science of lead poisoning?

Better question: How can such a man be on record as opposing most EPA regulation?

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