Friday, May 27, 2016

The Pro-Gun Argument

The Omnivore is watching a gun-control argument unfold on Facebook and is struck by how, well, stupid some of the pro-gun arguments are. They don't have to be: there are internally consistent arguments for Americans owning guns that, at least, meet the standards of internal consistency and are on-topic.

A bunch of arguments like:

  • You must also want to ban cars then, huh--they kill a lot of people too! --or--
  • What about knives?? --or--
  • Look, look! Hillary is protected by guns. Why not normal Americans??

These are all bad on the face of it--instantly (cars are not used by murderers to murder, knives are both heavily regulated--look it up--and far less lethal than guns in the hands of a bad actor, and the risk profile of a president isn't the same as an ordinary person).

So let's look at some pro-gun arguments that are not instantly self-defeating.

Our Metric: Not Stupid

If you think there is no possible argument for Americans to have assault weapon-style guns, that's your standard and personal belief--and that's fine. The Omnivore, here, is going for arguments that are not internally inconsistent. Basically? One's argument should not be self-refuting.

Also: These arguments may or may not convince anyone--people making them are probably more concerned with convincing themselves they having moral ground to stand on. That's fine--but these arguments still need to have relevance to other people. If you come off as heartless--or worse, an idiot--you can make the whole side look bad.

Why are these arguments so bad? The Omnivore has a theory--most of the more solid ones imply some kind of compromise would be achievable. This is an anathema to the pro-gun side as they are afraid (perhaps rightly) that given an inch, the gun-banners will take a parsec or two. Still, it is better to use consistent arguments--even if that leads to compromise--than arguments that just make everyone look like they're talking out of their asses.

Argument 1: Because 2A

The first line of defense for Americans owning guns--including AR-15-style weapons--is "Because we get to." This is guaranteed by the Second Amendment--full stop. If you don't like it? Change the Amendment.

The Counter Argument: The counter-argument is that 2A is about well-regulated militias (which Bob and his 50 guns does not represent) and (b) because it is out-dated, as Bob and his friends cannot beat a government-deployed Specter gunship.

Why The Counter Argument is Bunk: These counters are bunk because the point of the 2A is to make it impossible for a Federal Government to illegally seize power from the citizens. The Founders conceived of that defense in the form of a series of militias--which do, in fact, still exist--and credited their existing militias with being the method by which they would resist England's army.

Today things have changed. By a literal reading of the Constitution, Congress could not fund an Air Force--but we still have one. State's identities as small nations have evolved a great deal since 1776--but the idea that a Federal Government could take over the populace is still a plausible, if very, very, very unlikely threat. In other words, the 2A is a lot less relevant--but it hasn't been proven irrelevant..

Ask yourself: as, today, no one is quartering troops in private homes, is it okay to get rid of the 3rd Amendment? No? Because . . . what if they started to, right?

As to beating the government? The idea isn't to win a ground war with the US Army. It's to make it too expensive for the Federal Government to hold America. We have seen, first hand, how weapons of the AR-15 / AK47 make it very difficult for us to hold Afghanistan. A collection of 9mm handguns would not work the same way. Assault-style weapons, even if not fully automatic, accomplish the goal of making America impossible to hold by force.

The Problem With 'Because 2A': The problem, of course, is that this sounds heartless if you are staring down a tragedy. Well, it kinda is. "Your dead kids don't trump my right to guns" is a asinine thing to say when a nation is grieving--but it is true and internally consistent.

A second problem is that most of the population finds it inconceivable that Washington D.C. is going to "take over the country," that we are going to be invaded by North Korea in the "Red Dawn" scenario, or that the United Nations will come in to take over Peace Keeping duties.

If you read The Omnivore's Facebook feed, of course, this has already happened (Obama, a literal tyrant, has abolished the rule of law, overturned the Constitution, and now rules the country with an iron first--apparently guns have not prevented this??). Otherwise the argument, while valid (we wouldn't repeal the 3rd Amendment--we still think keeping troops out of our house is a good idea even if it isn't especially relevant to modern times)--is not going to convince a lot of people.

Argument 2: The Moral Imperative To Self Defense

It is a widely accepted truth that we have the right to defend our lives and those of our loved ones. We also know that however good the police are--or are not--they cannot be everywhere at once. The Omnivore has a relative who suffered a home invasion. She had a gun--and ready to use it--they broke off before successfully making entry--but 9/11 wasn't there in time and if they had made it to her, the gun would have been a necessity.

Under certain conditions--specific conditions--guns are a moral right.

Worse, they may even be a moral necessity: if you are not armed, in those situations--it is possible to be reasonably found to be negligent (this sounds like the 2A version of "slut shaming"--but bear with The Omnivore here for a minute). The 'boxing rule' (defend yourself in the ring at all times) means that a boxer who is hit illegally, can't say "Well, the Ref Didn't Stop It." The boxer is responsible to defend himself--even if the match isn't currently "on."

If your risk-profile is such that you might be attacked (such as being in a boxing ring--or being a public figure--or being especially wealthy--or carrying large sums of money as your job--or living in a violent neighborhood)--then you probably ought to defend yourself.

Today, that means a gun.

The Counter Argument: If people didn't have guns you wouldn't need one to defend yourself.

Why The Counter Argument is Bunk: (a) This is not true for people significantly weaker or smaller than the average attacker (which is most women) and (b) unless there is a real, viable plan to get rid of all the millions of guns in America, it can be a true argument--but a useless one ("Sure--get rid of all the guns and we'll talk.")

The Problem With Moral-Imperative: The problems with this are that while the absolute version of the counter-argument above is bunk, there is a valid argument to making guns harder to get. Making guns harder to get will limit some criminals who find it too expensive, too much of a pain in the ass, or whatever--to get a gun if they don't really need one.

There is also a question of what risk-profile a person has to have before they are negligent in not having a gun. We know presidents can be attacked by foreign nations. They need hard-target defense. We know celebrities attract crazies. After that, though, it becomes a much bigger question.

Clearly ordinary citizens do get attacked--but how often? What's the cost-to-benefit ratio of having a lot of guns vs.defensive uses. No one knows. This creates the possibility that the argument will be perceived as unconvincing--even if logically correct.

Finally, the conditions under which a weapon is useful in an unpredictable civilian-assault-style situation are very narrow. Guns that are locked away, unloaded, and not-practiced with, are potentially useless in a home-invasion scenario. Guns in purses sometimes create tragedies when kids get their hands on them.

While there is a moral right to self-defense, the logistical requirements of a gun for that defense also imply things like smart-gun technology making it impossible for the wrong person to use the gun (this is something the gun lobby absolutely does not want). If there is a moral imperative to not be negligent in your defense, there is also one to ensure that your method of defense does not statistically create more danger. This is a narrow line to walk.

Finally, this line of defense doesn't apply to AR-15 or other similar weapons.

Argument 3: Legitimate Recreational Uses Of Guns

This may sound odd--but there is a real argument for having guns that is based on (a) hunting is a legitimate American activity and (b) guns are fun to fire. Both of these things are indisputably true whether you like it or not. The US Army credits the tradition of American hunting for a significant part of its battlefield superiority in terms of personal marksmanship.

The Counter Argument: Your hobby is getting people killed.

Why The Counter Argument is Bunk: Hunting weapons are not getting people killed in any great numbers. Handguns used primarily for recreational shooting are also not generally in the hands of criminals or murderers. Simply put, there does not seem to be a lot of overlap between recreational gun users and murders--at least not historically.

The Problem with Legitimate Uses: The problems are that (a) there is some overlap. People who have purchased guns with intent to murder (Adam Lansing, Elliot Rodger) have gone and fired them at ranges and such. There is no clear way to tell who is an enthusiast and who is a guy training for murder.

This argument could also be used to justify smart-guns (if you aren't arguing self-defense then the idea of the security failing temporarily doesn't matter so much) and could let out some kinds of weapons (if you restrict to hunting weapons, for example, or cheap "Saturday night specials"). Neither configuration is of interest to the gun lobby.

Argument 4: It Ain't The Guns, It's The People

The argument that bad people use guns badly is unquestionably true. If we could catch people like the San Bernadino shooters--or Lansing--before their rampage, the presence of the gun would be meaningless.

Counter Argument: You can't do that. Or, you aren't even trying to do that.

Why The Counter Argument is Bunk: We know that there are tells. Studies of school shooters have found there is significant leakage in that people talk--it just isn't reported or isn't taken seriously. The Aurora theater shooter was notably unstable and talked to his psychiatrist before his rampage. The San Bernadino jihadis has a trail of evidence on social media.

Clearly some technology or program could catch some of these people. And really, these incidents are not that common. If we could stop half of the ones that get through today . . . that'd be significant.

The Problem With It-Ain't-The-Guns: The problem here is the second part of the counter argument--no one is even trying to do this. There is no gun-lobby support for improved mental-health services. The specter of a false-positive--of well meaning authorities descending on a law-abiding gun-owner because he has triggered a profile would be seen by gun owners as proof door-to-door gun-grabs were beginning.

The idea of AI's scanning social media--of having guns registered--of basically doing anything to invade the privacy of gun owners to determine if they are dangerous--is an anathema to them. If the It's-The-People argument is made, it needs to be followed up with some kind of plan to do something, you know, about the people.


The rational for limiting guns is to make it harder for murders to murder. Failure to acknowledge that leads to bogus arguments like "Shouldn't you restrict knives??" (Firstly: Knives are greatly restricted and Secondly: knives are far harder to murder with than guns). It leads to arguments that "your favorite candidate" shouldn't have guns protecting them (as though the risk profile of everyone is equal and steps should not be taken to protect our hard-targets).

In short, it leads to stupidity.

The obvious fact is that in the hands of a bad actor, a gun is a powerful "force multiplier." If we can find some way to keep guns out of the hands of bad actors--or even reduce their presence in the hands of bad actors we limit the damage they can do.

Whether the cost-to-benefit ratio of any attempt to actually do this would be worth it specific to the plan--but failure to acknowledge this wholesale leads to stupid or meaningless arguments or makes the person sound like a conspiracy theorist.

It is true that all the sound arguments have problems--but having problems is not the same thing as being invalid. The gun-control side has issues as well (that banning assault weapons seems unlikely to have any real effect other than pissing off recreational gun owners). These arguments need to be refined so that people are actually talking about things that make sense instead of trying to tie rhetorical knots.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

An Awakening?

RedState writer Brandon Morse has left the Republican party:
But the truth is that once I walked away from the Republican party I didn’t feel the need to look back. I didn’t feel sad that it died, and I sure didn’t wish to fix it. In fact, I felt something akin to relief.
I didn’t want to feel like I need to defend people like Mike Huckabee, or Sarah Palin anymore. I hate that I was with a party that sometimes outright refused to embrace the culture. It annoyed me that this party only wanted to get involved with certain communities when it was time to vote. It was a party that was just as guilty of tribalism as the left, while it maintained that it was a party that respected individualism.
I was sick of its morphing definition of freedom depending on what policy it was passing. It was a party that continuously snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, and thought that if it was sure it couldn’t win a fight, it just wouldn’t fight.
I was sick of being in a party that was stuck in the 1980’s.
Meanwhile Glenn Beck, returning from the Facebook conservative conclave, articulates a similar set of concerns:
I sat there looking around and heard things like:
1) Facebook has a very liberal workforce. Has Facebook considered diversity in their hiring practice? The country is 2% Mormon. Maybe Facebook’s company should better reflect that reality.
2) Maybe Facebook should consider a six-month training program to help their biased and liberal workforce understand and respect conservative opinions and values.
3) We need to see strong and specific steps to right this wrong.
It was like affirmative action for conservatives. When did conservatives start demanding quotas AND diversity training AND less people from Ivy League Colleges.
I sat there, looking around the room at ‘our side’ wondering, ‘Who are we?’ Who am I? . . .
What happened to us? When did we become them?

Conservative Republicans vs. Conspiracy Republicans 

The various charges that Paul Ryan is some sort of secret agent of “The Establishment” echo craziness from the days of None Dare Call it Treason (1964) and A Choice Not an Echo (1964) with their conspiracy theories about Communists and New York Bankers.
Unlike in the 1850s there is no second dimension of Congressional voting. Almost all issues — including lifestyle and affective — have been drawn into the first dimension. The split in the Republican Party will occur on this strange dimension that mixes economic and the classic “social” issues. Below is a figure we used in an earlier post showing a smoothed histogram of the 114th House:
Suppose the split occurs somewhere to the right of Gowdy. Not everyone to the right of Gowdy listens to “talk radio from Area 51”. So some sorting out will occur between the two factions — traditional Republican Conservatives vs. “Conspiracy Republicans”.

What People Think Is Happening?

 This is the conventional understanding of what is going on:

The iconic Pogo cartoon panel indicates the realization that we, in fact, are either our own worst enemy or that our actual enemies share so much with us that they practically are us. Beck goes straight to this. For Morse, if he was having trouble defending Huckabee and Palin, which he bloody well should have been (moreso Palin than Huckabee who was, at least, a reasonable state governor), then one wonders which "era of the GOP" he felt was legit.

It also indicates that he knew Palin's detractors ("the left") were right about her--but couldn't admit that because: Partisanship.

What Is Really Happening

The Omnivore suspects that what's really happening isn't a stark realization that Trump is the Right's Obama--or any nonsense like that--that's the lie people are telling themselves to justify having been part of a movement that nominated Trump in the first place ("We used to be pure--but years of being beat-up by Obama turned our weaker members evil!").

No, what's happening is this: The unusual nature of this election has resulted in a case where partisan efforts to win have counter-intuitively juxtaposed with a perceived loss. The GOP's intellectual wing is convinced that Trump is likely to lose. Oh, sure, he's polling pretty well right now. Yes: no one thought he could get this far. Definitely Hillary is a candidate with a lot of damage. Of course: both candidates have huge negatives.

Historically? It's "time for a change." Whatever--here's some real talk:

  1. Most political observers are horrified by the potential downside of Trump (yes: it might not happen--but the smart money is that he collapses in the general).
  2. Most GOP political operatives would rather face Sanders than Clinton (yes, yes, The Omnivore knows all about the head-to-head polling).
Both of the above statements are true, whether you like them or not. Part of the conventional wisdom that Trump could never win was predicated on the assumption that the GOP just could not be that stupid--and that the "strong bench" of successful GOP governors would, you know, actually be strong.

The governors, they were not strong.

The Omnivore's metric for knowing when the game is lost is this: "When the finger-pointing starts." 

The fingers, they have been pointed.

Now: don't misunderstand--we haven't even gotten to the general election. Trump has pulled one rabbit out of a hat and he's still got the hat. Is there another rabbit? Time will tell.

The issue is not that Trump can't win.

The issue is that a lot of people on the GOP side have the perception that Trump either cannot or almost certainly will not win the general election. That position gives the non-Trumpers (of which #NeverTrump is a faction--but includes people who don't like him--but might vote for him) some unusual latitude in their ability to evaluate their party. This is the converse of the TruCons who were convinced that Romney and McCain could not win (this, however, was never based on actual fact--both were the "most electable" choices offered). Still, the choice of a loser gave them the space to declare their party dead.

Freed from the lust for victory, this time with the intellectual class, they can take a long-hard-look at their history and go "You know, I always kinda knew that Palin wasn't a legitimate VP choice . . ."

Make no mistake: if Trump seemed like more of a winner we'd be seeing the same kind of "The Confederate flag is just a symbol of their proud-Southern-heritage which, in no way, was related to slavery!" type intellectual knots. All this stuff was there before. Why didn't Glenn Beck see it then?

Over To The Left

Lest you think that the Democrats are immune from this sort of thing, think again. Sanders is, very much, the same kind of caricature of the Left that Trump is of the Right. He is also the choice of a losing generation. 

  • Hillary is not perceived as the same kind of loser Trump is (check the betting sites) --and--
  • Sanders is not going to win the nomination
In this case the events are far more conventional: rather than the party elite believing they have (or are about to) nominate a losing candidate, instead it's the upstart insurgents who have to swallow the defeat. This, predictably, creates Conspiracy Democrats. These are the Sanders supporters who see any loss of a state or a delegate as part of an orchestrated conspiracy by the power-elite. We also see the same kind of Us and Them casting that has usually dominated inter-party thinking:
It's really not that hard to understand. The rank-and-file Clinton supporters are mostly Blue Team partisans who take their cue from the party hierarchy. And the party hierarchy would much rather lose with Clinton than win with Sanders, because if Trump wins they will still get to feed at the public trough, whereas if Sanders wins the whole parasitic, pay to play, succor the rich and screw the middle class system that has rewarded them so handsomely could conceivably come crashing down. Protecting their own privileges and prerogatives comes before anything else.

I'm not sure if [ Clinton Supporters ] truly don't understand [ about Climate Change ] that we're already literally on the brink of existence or they just don't give a fuck. I know Hill only cares about her Saudi Friends.
And so on. Conspiracy factions are what you get when you can't win and can't face the reality that your loss means you / your movement was found wanting on the merits. It's a psychological defense mechanism that you employ against yourself to not have to take responsibility for having unpopular ideas or dead-ender strategies.

To be fair, for a dead-ender candidate, Sanders has done well--better than Santorum (another dead-ender candidate) did vs. Romney. He is not super-unpopular--but he is also not effectively convincing Democrats that he can either get his policies enacted or that, if he did, they would be preferable to Hillary's anyway.


The human condition is to be blinded to our own hypocrisy as much as conditions will allow. Partisan ties are strong, our information filters are, most likely, an almost necessary protection in an age of overabundant information. The conditions of the 2016 race are exposing these because of the unusual divorce of candidate-strength and likely-winners.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Nevada Democratic Meltdown

This weekend at the Nevada Democratic convention there was a procedural meltdown caused by conflict between the management and Sanders supporters. This is the Washington Post view and, in The Omnivore's opinion, it's a pretty good take.

In essence:
  1. The rules are complicated. There's a multi-step process for awarding the spoils (the delegates) that happens after the caucus. Basically, there's a caucus winner (Hillary) and then a delegate awarding process (the Democratic Convention). At the convention there's another set of votes.
  2. Sanders supporters and Hillary supporters showed up. The Sanders supporters wanted to change the rules of order and objected to the person running the show, Roberta Lang (the party chairwoman).
  3. The votes happened--but were struck down by the person running the show. After all the voting was done, Hillary prevailed by about 30 people (out of like 3000). 
  4. A huge issue was that around 60 Sanders supporters were disqualified because they were not registered Democrats within the time provided. This was deemed fraudulent or at least unfair.
  5. Now we've got rage!

That isn't the only take. Here's a YouTube of someone who was there discussing / complaining bout the process (he's a Sanders' supporter).

What Really Happened?

Here's what really happened: At this point Sanders supporters are unwilling to concede defeat--despite being actually defeated: Hillary has won the majority of pledged delegates, the majority of votes, and has convinced the superdelegates that she is the candidate to back. By any reasonable metric she is winning.

This unpleasant truth is obscured by (a) a serious need to win on the part of many Sanders supporters and (b) lack of guidance / leadership by Sanders himself who knows better. The result is a self-serving highly unlikely path that winds through a somehow-contested convention, a California landslide, and unmasking of a great right-wing conspiracy (orchestrated by Hillary Clinton, of course--for extra irony).

In this scenario, Bernie catches up, the super-delegates flip over to him, and they pull a win from not the jaws--but the actual belly--of defeat.

Oh--and then Hillary gets busted by the FBI for treason (which makes this whole drama unnecessary--but why not have two competing salvation narratives?).

The way this expresses itself is as follows:

  1. An attempt to win battles that can be won by very small amounts of very devoted followers. This is identical to the Ron Paul approach wherein he knows that he can't win the hearts and minds of the party but boy can he read a rule-book.
  2. Allegations of fraud when these attempts don't work. Keep in mind that these caucuses and conventions are messy events to begin with. They are complicated, non-transparent, political minutia. Nevada Convention rules-gaming isn't "Inside Baseball." It's actually inside the actual baseball. Like: It's dark in there and full of rubber or something. At this level of complexity you don't need conspiracy to have everything look like a fuck-up. Everything looks like a fuck-up on a good day.
  3. The people who form Team Sanders are going to be a cross between true-believers and conspiracy theorists--of which, it turns out, there is a great deal of overlap. This leads to a variety of self-inflicted wounds and own-goals which are, of course, blamed on the dominant power-structure. Examples?

People Came Late

A bunch of Bernie Supporters came late, the parking lot was full--so they circled for an hour looking for other parking. This, apparently, did not happen to Hillary Supporters for some reason (conspiracy?). The hotel also did not announce that the parking lot was full--maybe also a cover up.

Sanders Supporters Were Not Always Registered Democrats

One might predict that when your candidate is not a Democrat (Sanders is Independent) and a huge part of your strategy is to win Independents (and that's also a big chunk of your argument) that actually having people in Sander's army be registered Democrats might be an issue. Predictably, it was.

Now, there are allegations of registration changing and lies about being unable to verify people's addresses--but there's also this:
There's ALWAYS Hope It's Fake. ALWAYS. Keep Telling Yourself No Sanders Backer Would Do This.

Maybe There Was Shenanigans

Of course we also can't discount the idea that there was something wrong with the way it went down--but consider this: if the margin of error was really 30 votes out of thousands, what kind of plan could the Democrats have put in place to ensure that would be enough? Also: how many people would need to be involved? If it's a lot: people would talk.

If it's one or two guys, it's not a Democratic Machine Conspiracy. Either way, this doesn't pan out.

The Real Problem

The real problem here is that Sanders has not conceded defeat--despite being beaten. He has a cadre of loyal, enthusiastic followers who are basically not going to stand down until he tells them to. Traditionally a candidate who wanted to have a future with the party (Clinton) would stand down at some point and start making amends to unify the party. Sanders should do this (and likely will--he doesn't appear to be a Ted Cruz-level asshole)--but the fact that he has not done it yet is troubling. 

Does he really believe in Election-Day Miracles? Is he going for the choke-hold of maximal leverage at the convention? Does he think he can muscle his way in to VP? The Omnivore isn't sure--but whatever the case, at this level of dysfunction, the bad behavior is on Sanders.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Bathroom Bill Conunndrum

There exists in politics, a loss-condition where one party is forced into taking and defending an untenable position because they cannot profess the real issue. We've seen this in the anti-gays-in-the-military position where people cite "Unit Cohesion" as the 'real problem' instead of "gays are icky." When faced with military forces in the real world (Israel, Canada) that have effective and integrated militaries the person is forced to argue some kind of "American exceptionalism" which boils down to "Well, Bob, Americans are more racist than Canadians and Israelis."

We also see this in the Defense-Of-Marriage position where the argument is not that gay-marriage is icky but rather that we should not redefine the word marriage. It turns out that polling supports not-redefining the word over "gays are icky" but it quickly leads to a bizarre series of arguments wherein it is made to appear that the sanctity of the dictionary is what must be defended at all costs.

It's no coincidence that these blind alleys are seen on social conservative issues: Social Conservatives usually have arguments that are either religion-based or tradition-based--wherein the tradition is possibly unsavory.

The problem with using a religious argument is that young people are more and more unchurched (and, to be fair, the various churches have made some serious missteps in dealing with large-scale policies). The problem with tradition is that today most people recognize that the halcyon-days of America's past (the 40s-60s) were, in fact, pretty racist and sexist (see Mad Men)--but then demanding that the cultural artifacts of that time be respected has a paradox problem (The Confederate flag is a symbol of proud southern heritage--a heritage that came from a slave-holding way of life and a rebellion against the United States government and Abraham Lincoln!).

Today? Bathroom politics.

Bathroom Politics

In case you've been under a rock, Bathroom Politics refers to the culture war that has erupted over North Carolina's transgender law. Here's what happened:
  1. Charlotte NC passed a law allowing transgender people to use whichever bathroom they identify with.
  2. This sparked immediate controversy and outrage and the North Carolina government hit back with a counter-law that effectively nullified the Charlotte ordinance and required citizens to use the bathroom of their gender on their birth certificate.
  3. As the battle raged and various celebrities canceled concerts--and businesses threatened pull-outs, Obama issued a statement that said public schools should allow students to use the bathroom of the gender they identify with.
  4. This, predictably, has fanned the flames even higher.
 The conspiracy theory that Obama is acting so as to provoke the right into a battle it can't win is attractive--but it is unlikely. For one thing, bathroom bills were, until a little while ago, a turn-out formula for the right. A good bathroom bill on the ballot was a technique to ensure social conservative voters (and a lot of other people) got to the polls to vote against it.

Secondly, the idea that Obama would only weigh in here out of a wish to increase the temperature is short-sighted. Everything Obama does creates polarization (including giving--or NOT giving--ABM technology to American allies). The idea that he would try to corner the right on this is possibly plausible--but unnecessary.

The right is already cornered on this.

The Bathroom Paradox

The problem with the Bathroom Bill is that (a) the real issue is a problem with acceptance of Transgendered people (either because it is felt they are counter to 'reality' or because they are seen as gross--or both) and (b) the battlefield that has been chosen is the unlikely--but visceral--image of pedophiles using the bill to get into women's bathrooms to molest girls.

In other words, the issue is a social one--but because it isn't (presently) socially acceptable to speak badly of transgendred people in the context of a political forum, the approach has to be that this law is bad for kids in the least likely and creepiest way possible.

Now, to be clear: this isn't the only argument.

The Left Struck First! (Religious Freedom)

In this formula The Left opened fire on churches and religious organizations by explicitly refusing the compromise of allowing them an exemption and they are trying desperately to defend themselves:

The problem with this is that it doesn't appear to have been part of the conversation (i.e. that people would be okay with it had it exempted churches). Franklin Graham called it 'Wicked and filthy' for letting pedophiles into the girl's room.

Acceptance of Transgendered People Erodes Society

The link is to Reaxxion--but make no mistake: this view is far more prevalent in society than you might think. Acceptance of transgendered people is seen by social conservatives as a slide into decadence and a 1984-style rewriting of "reality" to suit ideological biases. Even that link (to a reactionary blog) doesn't advocate violence against people who are transgendered (although that is certainly what happens to them)--but it maintains society must disapprove and disprove them.

The problem with this is that we, as a society, have moved in a direction of "acceptance so long as it isn't hurting anyone." The appeal to the social equivalent of "second hand smoke" is unproven and unconvincing. Trying to sell people on that is either done by tautology (in which case you only make sense to the already converted) or by vague appeals to slippery slopes and pointing to the great decadent Canadian empire as what could possibly befall us if we move an inch further left.

Acceptance of Transgendered People is Acceptance of a Sin

A lot of people hold that as biological gender is assigned by God and the bible isn't kind to cross-dressing, that transgendered people are sinning and society should not support them in this. This is probably more prevalent than a lot of people would like to think. There are a great deal of religious positions that, in more progressive venues (such as the news) usually don't get explicitly stated--but underlie lots of apparently secular policy positions.

The problem here is that all kinds of things we do that have social acceptance are either arguably or definitely sins. Holding that we should have policy and social disapproval of one kind of sin vs. another sin which the majority prefers isn't a winning position. Everyone knows it--so the driver mostly stays hidden.

All of this gets us back to the children.

The Problem With The Children

The good thing about the predators-in-the-girl's-room argument is that parents are, yes, squicked. Some women are squicked. No woman wants a bunch of guys parading around in their bathroom. The bad thing is that these bills seem totally unlikely to produce this kind of scenario. It leads to this:
CHRIS MATTHEWS (HOST): Travis, tell Jenny what bathroom she should use. 
MATTHEWS: Which one should she use? 
WEBER: Yeah, I mean I’m not sure, um -- 
MATTHEWS: Well just answer that question. 
WEBER: I think people should be -- 
MATTHEWS: She said she would not be comfortable or not cause such problem if she walked into a men’s room. Should she walk into a men’s room? 
WEBER: I think we can do things the way we’ve done them for decades, and people could use bathrooms according to biological sex with specific accommodation made for people who have a genuine issue. If we look at the North Carolina law, it made an accommodation. People are not happy with that, however. And now the Obama administration -- 
MATTHEWS: Let’s just talk about transgender people. What should a transgender person who identifies as a woman do? What bathroom should they go to? Just keep it simple. 
WEBER: Yeah well there’s an issue of privacy concerns. 
MATTHEWS: See no, you can’t answer the question, can you? What should they do? 
WEBER: They can use the bathroom of their biological sex, except when there's a genuine issue and an accommodation can be made.
When faced with a transgendered person who clearly presents as female, the anti-trans position has to hold that she should walk into a men's room. The opposite--that some very, erm, manly looking men should, because their birth certificate says W, walk into the women's room is obviously going to create more problems than it solves.

What people can't say is that some people--especially while transitioning--pass for a specific gender better than others--and that people who really care are going to be looking a lot closer than people who don't. This creates specific situations which have nothing (or little) to do with the larger issues.

We don't seem to be able to acknowledge that seeing someone who looks ambiguous (or less than ambiguous) in the "wrong" restroom makes us uncomfortable even if they are just going about their business. The reason we can't acknowledge that is because we now, as a society, know that's the wrong position.

Headscarves make us uncomfortable (for some values of "us"). Hoodies make us uncomfortable (for some values of "us"). Tattoos. Cut off shirts. Motorcycles and leather jackets--all these things are cultural signifiers which can make people who are not familiar with them feel out of place or even threatened.

Just the same, the surgeon who saves your life might have a bunch of tattoos. Even worse, "we" might have adopted some cultural signifiers that we wouldn't want to be judged for. That whole game is dangerous these days.

So we go to the children and the specter of child rapists. If The Omnivore wanted to be concern-trolly, he would speculate that crying wolf about these guys is worse for society than any transgendered person could be--but that's all immaterial. What's key here is that already the battle has moved from the "gets conservative voters to the polls" to "gets politicians cornered."

That's the current state of play and the reliance on doomsday scenarios that are laughable is only illustrating that--not causing it.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

"The House Always Wins"

Today is one of the most important events of the 2016 cycle: the Trump-Ryan Summit.
The 'Capitol Conclave' will be an attempt at bridge building between Trump, the larger-than-life showman nominee and Ryan, the previous VP serious conservative policy wonk (and Speaker of the House). The two went at it when Ryan said he couldn't "yet" endorse Trump--much to the surprise or Rience Pribus and the ire of Trump.

Today we'll see the first sign as to whether the two GOP luminaries(?) can take the first steps in putting Humpty Dumpty back together.

Or, wait, that's kind of bullshit.

Why This Matters

The outcome of the meeting--either fake accord or a non-resolution ("We made first steps!") with the requisite hopeful tone ("Trump is much more thoughtful in person than on the stump!" and "I love the Speaker. Great guy!")--will set the media narrative for the next few weeks.

The media narrative is gonna be pretty important from here on out.

The Both-Sides Effect

The general belief on the right is that The Media carried Trump to victory--but will now turn on him in the general. Vox thinks this isn't true. They point out, correctly, that The Media is generally inclined to see the election as a contest of equals--a run of two strong and nearly equivalent competitors against each other.

Trump, on substance, clarity, and qualifications is outside the normal range of politics to a startling degree. Clinton, however corrupt or Wall-Street or whatever, isn't. If The Media treats them as equivalent it is going to create a cross-fire and domino-effect of bizarre underlying unstated assumptions which will warp all coverage of the campaign until November (and maybe beyond). It'll also legitimize white nationalism . . . so there's that.

Will this happen?

Well, it won't so long as there's a GOP Civil War going on. In this case the narrative will be that the GOP is divided--historically so--and therefore the two sides (unless Sanders runs 3rd party or something) are not equal.

A big piece of that is Paul Ryan.

So long as Ryan is not endorsing Trump, there is sufficient blood in the water to sustain a narrative. If the party manages to unify convincingly, the media will have to sort out a Trump v. Clinton narrative to construct their stories around.

What About Romney? #NeverTrump?

Romney launched another broadside at Donald Trump about his tax returns (which is . . . ironic? Probably). The #NeverTrump faction is still hanging on. Could this be enough for the media to keep looking at? Maybe.

The thing about Ryan is that he was always a unification candidate. Romney picked him because he could appeal to both Tea Party guys and more mainstream Republicans. He was recruited to Speaker of the House because he was the one dude people could agree on.

Romney and #NeverTrump don't have the same credibility to disagree that Paul Ryan does--and Ryan's position as Speaker of the House is also singular in that respect.

How'd The Meeting Go?

 As of now, Trump and Ryan have met and the response was, not unexpectedly, a push. Ryan described the meeting as very pleasant--and that there were grounds for agreement and disagreement. His demeanor was hopeful and forward-looking--but he did not come out of the meeting endorsing Trump. The question is "Why not?"

Presumably Paul Ryan has a set of concerns:

  1. Keeping his job and his Speakership: For this to work, he needs to endorse Trump to the degree necessary to stop the House from rebelling against him.
  2. Keeping Republicans on the ballot from losing their races.
  3. His principles.
On #1 and #2 he has to weigh Trump's potential. If Trump is a viable candidate, he can endorse him and keep his majority. If Trump is a disaster, he has to maneuver. He's probably wanting to wait a while and see what happens.

For point #3, Trump's stated platform is antithetical to his. Of course Trump's changes rapidly so maybe all he has to do is wait. The fact is that Trump doesn't really have positions--he has negotiations. He might have goals. This sounds nice and flexible but the problem is that we don't really know what his goals are. Is it zero illegal immigration across the Mexican border? Or just a reduction. In the first case, we might get an attempt at a wall. In the second? Who knows.

Ryan probably will find that he can cut a deal with Trump on a bunch of things--but will that be enough? Probably: yes. #3--even for Ryan, probably pales in comparison to #1 and #2.


The Media, as an entity, doesn't like Donald Trump--but they are unlikely to go full out declaring the GOP party to be racists fools and the Democrats to be, well, Democrats. That would violate several core principles such as continuing to make money and expanding their reader-base. Also: appearing impartial.

That will likely work in Trump's favor. On the other hand, unless he can enforce his will convincingly on the GOP Establishment, the press will have another narrative they do like and can run with: GOP Civil War. If that manages to hang around it'll leave a mark.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Mind Control: A Facebook and Google Election?

Gizmodo broke the story: Facebook's trending topics was secretly (?) curated and manipulated by humans--specifically to kill conservative stories. Facebook says it's not so--but the Senate GOP has launched an inquiry to get some answers. Awesome.

Why Facebook (and Google) Matter

Facebook and Google--both private companies--and both places where people get--but do not themselves create--a lot of their news--are more important than ever in the national electoral landscape. This is proven science--not just theory.

  1. Facebook's "I Voted Button" would allow a user to display the fact that they had voted on election day. In a limited test this created increased social pressure on people who saw the button and correlated to an increase in voting. 
  2. Tests using manipulation of search results (not done by Google) have shown significant impact on voting behavior--especially with late-deciding voters.
  3. Google Correlate, part of their analytics engine, does as good a job of predicting the GOP vote as polls do. Maybe better.
Correlate Results: Telling!
The upshot of this is that big-data and big-news-curating seems to have an inside-track on voting behavior both in terms of influence and prediction. These companies are, for the most part, left-leaning--and they certainly could (and if you believe the allegations, are) influence elections.

Is This Happening? How Bad Is It?

Facebook has a problem: they launched a necessary and beneficial attempt to identify and flag fake news. This is an unalloyed good: fake news is problematic and has become closer and closer to looking like real-news (with added outrage) to drive click-bait. Many of these are of a conservative bent, If part of the problem is that the whistleblower thinks that news stories of questionable provenance weren't promoted, that's could be a perfect storm of conservatives believing fake news and Facebook trying to limit it.

Now, let's be clear: everyone gets fooled by fake news and The Omnivore doesn't have stats to say that conservatives are either fooled more--or targeted more--than liberals. There are plenty of fake-news sources that aren't especially political one way or another. However, when you get into sites like or even The Daily Caller, you are moving pretty explicitly into partisan territory. If a story claims that Lois Lerner is about to be arrested from NewsMax (a conservative news site that is not satirical) is that credible? Or fake news? Clearly it's something of a matter of opinion).

Of course it's also entirely possible that people who work at Facebook are (a) naturally left-leaning and (b) are, in fact, bringing a strong bias to their job. We know that Google has an interest--a keen interest--in politics--could they ever decide to play favorites? It isn't impossible.

What then?

The operative question seems to be: how much control could Google and Facebook exercise? Could they get anyone elected? Can they make a push in a percentage point that only makes a difference in our hyper-partisan culture? Is it somewhere in the middle? Here are a few things to be aware of:

1. The Current Media Environment is Not Natural

We live in an era of fragmented national media. Many outlets are openly partisan. A great deal of news funding comes from what could reasonably be termed "click-bait." There is a monetary return in polarizing news and casting events in a way friendly to a specific audience. These factors likely already have some significant impact. The book Left Turn (Tim Groseclose) uses a somewhat questionable methodology to conclude that if the media were actually "unbiased" the national attitude would look a lot more like Texas than New York.

Whether this is literally true or not, we should consider that if Facebook and Google (or whoever else) were to act to subtly influence voters, they would be doing so in a great deal of "present company."

2. The Electorate Is Not All That Elastic

Our current thinking is that a large percentage of the vote is "locked in." Obama is one of the most polarizing presidents of modern history and his tracked approval ratings are more or less flat. There are dating apps coming out with political filters. We live in a partisan age. As such, it seems likely that (a) movement is limited to a few points on the margins but (b) a few points is all it takes. In other words, even if a Google/Facebook fix were in, it would probably require something like these current conditions to fully weaponize it.

Of course seeing as we have "these current conditions" that may not be too comforting.

3. Big Data Is Powerful

There's a final observation: it is possible that with proper targeting and enough insight, very, very specific political markets could be tracked and moved. If anyone can do this, it would be Google and Facebook. If you could, for example, determine that one county in Florida could sway the 2000 election and focus on that one? You could decide which of the two candidates would win. This is likely beyond current reach--but not necessarily. 

If anyone knows this stuff, it's Google / Facebook. If, in fact, they are training their augmented intelligences on hyper-specific voting groups and specific behavior profiles, the ability to manipulate things might be as subtle as Google's AlphaGo making a series of moves that even grand-masters don't realize the ramifications of until it's too late.

What To Do?

The obvious answer is: don't get all your news from Facebook. That ought to be a given--but, you know, apparently not. The second thing to do is to treat Search Results as personalized (they are--to you--if you use Google) and to look to a spread of sources before any conclusions are drawn. This is hard to do and often little more than frustrating--but it may be a necessity.

A final thing to do is to realize that fundamentally manipulation works best when someone is telling you something you want to hear. That's when your filters are down and confirmation bias carries the payload into your soft, spongy brain. If you are going to your news sources and coming away outraged? Consistently? That should be a yellow flag at least.

Good luck with all that.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Politics Of: Captain America - Civil War

When The Omnivore was taking a Karate class--back in the day--one of our Jr. black-belts (yeah, yeah, the guy was like 17--not 9--it wasn't that bad of a class) did a board-breaking demonstration and broke his hand. The instructor said it was good for the audience to see that every once in a while so they knew it wasn't "that easy."

The way Marvel makes complex super-hero blockbusters, it's maybe good that we have things like Batman vs. Superman or The Green Lantern to remind us that, yeah: it isn't that easy.

The first part of this reviews the movie. The second part assumes you have seen it.

Captain America: Civil War

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is its own thing. It borrows from the comics--but it does not hew to them. In the Marvel Comics Civil War story, the battle was over registration of heroes. It's fortunate they fixed that for the movie where it would seriously not have made sense.

In what is effectively The Avengers 3, Civil War gives us a United Nations mandate that the Avengers submit to global authority rather than doing whatever they feel like doing. Tony Stark, confronted by the mother of a child who was killed in one of his actions, sides with the government. Steve Rogers, however, won't submit to the authority of another when he knows he must follow his internal moral code.

As a terrorist begins staging attacks (including one on the UN itself) using Roger's friend, The Winter Soldier as a weapon, Rogers is forced to go rogue (to help his friend) and Stark is dispatched to bring him in. This gives us the set up for one of the best super-hero fights in cinematic history. The movie itself has been criticized for having some of the action scenes go on too long--but really? It does so many things so right that it's hard to criticize it at all.

It brings us the Black Panther, one of Marvel's first black super heroes (and with the exception of the Black Widow, everyone with "Black" in their name, tends to be, well, black). He's cool. He gets some good moves. We get enough of an introduction without having to sit through a lengthy origin story.

Where the movie really excels, though, is Spider-Man. Marvel studios has gotten permission to use their character in conjunction with Sony, who bought it as one of their A-List titles before Marvel started doing their own thing. Sony has made five Spider-Man movies ranging from decent to poor. The more recent ones showed how super-hero movies can do "everything right" and still get it wrong.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 had a good actor, great F/X, was even enjoyably light-hearted. The problem is that without any other hero characters, and with a slew of less than interesting villains, the movies keep contorting themselves into narrative knots in an attempt to (a) keep the story moving along but (b) make everything personal and compress it all into 2 hours.

Marvel, conversely, gives us a handful of minutes with Spider-Man and just nails everything. He's younger than the other Spider-Men (and his Aunt May is much younger)--closer to the teenager he's supposed to be. He's got a likable goofyness about him and he's star-struck by Tony Stark. On the battlefield he moves right, he has the chatter down--everything.

Marvel does all of this without an origin story or even an introduction (other than showing NYC and telling us it's QUEENS). After all, who in that theater doesn't already know who Spider-Man is? Of course if Sony had come to the same conclusion they might have saved us yet another Uncle Ben dying scene.

Captain America: Civil War shows that these individual-character stories aren't necessarily limited to that character's spot-light. Yes: Captain America is the central character--but only barely. Marvel isn't afraid to break the mold. They aren't afraid to take chances--and they perform again and again so well that they make it look, well, easy.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics Of: Captain America: Civil War

The central question in Civil War is whether or not the super-humans will agree to operate as required by the United Nations--or follow their own conscience. Tony Stark doesn't want the responsibility for deaths to fall on him alone. Captain America knows he won't be able to leave his conscience aside and rejects the controls. This is the core issue.

Is Civil War Right-Wing?

Nick Schager at The Daily Beast thinks Civil War is a Conservative Manifesto! After all, Captain America rejects the UN Nanny-State in favor of rugged individualism. He's got a point--the UN is probably best known for not getting seriously involved unless the situation aligns with China, the USSR, and America's interests. It's a recipe for inaction.

He also notes that Captain America is proven right--and Iron Man, thankfully not turned into a villain, is proven wrong (or, at least, pretty wrong).

Going even further, Captain America, while probably registered as an Independent (or something) is definitely a person who stands for some Right-Wing points. He's not down on America. He believes in God. Stark, on the other hand, has shut down his weapons division and has renounced hawkishness entirely. Stark is a drunk, a womanizer. He's really rich--but he's vulgar. He's charismatic--but it's a bad-boy vibe compared to Captain America's wholesomeness. 

On the other hand--

Is Civil War Left-Wing?

Jim Geraghty at the National Review Online takes issue with the above analysis, saying that Civil War isn't conservative. Partially that's because Schager takes a bit of a swipe at conservatism (so Geraghty dryly asks who expanded the drone-war . . . perhaps forgetting that that's one of the things that the GOP agrees with Obama on?). It's also because he thinks that the Iron Man team kinda has a point. In the MCU super-battles are terrifying ordeals (and there are alien invasions too).

He also, rightly, notes that a lot of conservatives would have a problem with a rogue SEAL team going around killing people. Sure, so long as they were killing terrorists, that's fine. What if they decided to assassinate President Trump? Don't answer that.

It's also the case that the UN--the symbol of the left wing--is shown to be pretty much "the good guys" and if you're going to have a hero called Black Panther, well, a lot of people in the Republican party don't have very good reactions to that.

The Reality

The answer to whether or not Civil War is left or right-wing is taken in two parts. The first is on a subtext level--what does the film itself think of these positions? Does it distinguish between left and right at all? The second is in a narrative fashion: what does the characterization and morality of the gestalt say? These are more meaningful questions.

On A Subtext Level: On a subtext level, Captain America is right and Iron Man is wrong. Iron Man isn't far wrong--but (a) he tries to kill Bucky when it's clear that Bucky was being mind-controlled and (b) he tries to beat up Captain America which is pretty much always wrong no matter what. The American general and Secretary of State are jerks. Ultimately the audience knows that whatever the "reality" of things like The Hulk running around would be, the heroes being free and able to pursue their conscience is the right answer. The movie makes Iron Man sympathetic--but not right.

Secondly, in terms of actual politics, the MCU tries to be fairly a-political. In The Avengers, a committee (Shield) releases a nuke on New York without even the president on the line. The Omnivore suspects this is done because (a) it's the wrong thing to do but (b) it absolves the Avengers from having to either cast Obama or have a central-casting president (old white-guy). Either way it would distract.

At a subtextual level The Avengers are probably more "libertarian" than anything else. They wish to have near-zero interactions with the government and when it does get involved with them, it's usually a bad thing (consider that the government--Shield--was infiltrated by Hydra). This, however, isn't making any kind of political statement. The Avengers are the good guys. Anything that gets in their way is kind of a bad-guy. Sam Jackson straddles the line--but by virtue of being Sam Jackson, he gets a pass.

On A Narrative Level: On a narrative level Captain America is the incarnation of "the greatest that America can be." As such, he's almost always right and he's more right than any given government will be (he transcends government). Tony Stark is a hero--yes--but a flawed one--so he can be wrong without damaging the character. 

Various people speculating about Batman (or Daredevil) have speculated about whether he causes more problems than he solves. This is not the position of the comics. The axiom of classic super heroes is that they are heroic and they are necessary. Their super-abilities allow them to rise to the level of super-human challenges--but they are not just over-powered vigilantes (you can see Watchmen for that).

As such, they are almost never left or right wing unless the writer is very far down a particular political rabbit hole. They're worried about good and evil--right and wrong--not who can use what bathroom or how badly we should be bombing ISIS (interestingly, ISIS is evil enough to rate an appearance in a comic-book world--they're comic-book level bad guys!).

In any event, the question of government control for super-heroes is not, in Civil War, about the merits of it. It's about Tony Stark's conscience vs. Steve Roger's conscience. everything else is just window-dressing.