The DACA- Is Trump Eliminating It or Codifying It?

(getty images)

This week, Americans are learning another acronym that most had ignored until it became media sensation. The letters DACA stand for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. You can read more about it on Wikipedia, which has some of the history, criticism, etc..  But in basic terms, DACA was an executive order that President Obama enacted in 2012 when the DREAM act failed. Both the DREAM act and DACA aim at providing the children of undocumented immigrants to remain in the U.S. because it has become their home. In other words, the idea is that the children of such immigrants did not do anything wrong, and many (most) of them have become full members of U.S. society, contributing just like other members. Deporting them, according to Obama, would punish them unfairly.

President Trump has announced that he is cancelling the executive action, and this has rightly caused some controversy and confusion. What exactly will happen to the so-called Dreamers (people who were protected by DACA)? Will they be deported after all? Or does Trump really want Congress to pass a law that will ultimately protect them without using the executive order approach that he has often called unconstitutional (in practice, this seems to mean when Obama does it, since he hasn’t really rescinded Bush’s EOs and has made a few himself).

There are certainly some signs that Trump simply wants Congress to provide a permanent solution, which the DACA is not. One reason to be suspicious about this is that Trump has given no concrete path to such legislation. Another is that nothing prevented Congress from creating such a law while DACA was in place. In other words, he didn’t have to remove it in order for such a law to be passed. If anything, removing DACA means that if Congress does not act, then there will be no protection for these young persons.

Why does this matter? Well, there are nearly 800k people who are currently covered by the DACA. The DACA allows them to receive work permits, and almost all of them have jobs. These are not jobs that have been taken from ‘other Americans’ either. Furthermore, in order to keep these permits (and thus their jobs), they must keep a clean record. In other words, they are not criminals. While some might counter that being undocumented is a kind of crime, remember that these are people who were born in America. By law, that should make them Americans. However, since their parents are not documented Americans, they fall into a gray area here.

Still, we should remember that those of us who are Americans by birth have ancestors that weren’t, and that many of our families likely received citizenship basically by being born here. This is not new. What is new is the way that they are being protected in this case. President Trump says that he cares about these Dreamers. But he also campaigned on ending the DACA. This puts him in a tough spot. So tough that many feel that he’s essentially following Democrats here, rather than Republicans.

Whatever his motives, the process is very unclear right now, since there is no direction on how to create legislation. This leaves nearly 800k people facing an uncertain people, and many others are affected by what will happen. If the U.S. suddenly loses 800k employees that will be a huge hole to fill. And it’s not as simple as saying that other Americans can then just have those jobs. The U.S. has a skill labored shortage right now, which is leading to a lot of empty jobs with no one to fill them. So it will not likely provide an equal number of jobs for others. More likely it will simply leave a vacuum in our economy.

One additional piece of information about the process is worth noting. When Jeff Sessions, the Attorney General, made this announcement official, he claimed that it was a correction of the misuse of Presidential authority that Obama had used to create DACA in the first place. He even adds this choice quote:

“Societies where the rule of law is treasured are societies that tend to flourish and succeed. Societies where the rule of law is subject to political whims and personal biases tend to become societies afflicted by corruption, poverty, and human suffering.”

He is correct, of course. However, as the article where I got this quote notes, this is the same person who has fought for a Presidential right to ban Muslims categorically from entering the country. Does this mean that the President has no say on whether people are allowed to remain in the country but has complete power to bar people from entering? That seems like a line that is hard to match with rule of law, which is about following Constitutional authority properly and not making up new rules on the spot. Trump has made up new rules all over the place, and removed existing precedents repeatedly. Personally, I would love to get back to proper separation of powers in the U.S. It’s a critical part of our political system. But having the President force Congress into an action that it doesn’t want to do seems like a pretty big misuse of authority.

On the other hand, if we read this as simply correcting a previous mistake (and forget the ways in which Trump has abused his own authority), then we can try to be generous and see this as an attempt to come up with a better way of dealing with young Americans (yes, Americans) who need more than just a system that allows them to stay but without the full rights of other Americans. If that is the goal of this process, I agree with it. What I don’t agree with is the particular path being taken to reach this goal. It carries too much uncertainty and it certainly smells like an attempt to deport a bunch of people who have done nothing wrong.

Of course, some states are already saying that they will offer sanctuary. In my own state of Ohio, Governor Kasich (a Republican, for those keeping score) has announced that the Dreamers can come here and he will not try to force them to leave the country. However, moving states is not easy, which is why I generally favor a federal solution to a state solution where rights are concerned (perhaps I’ll detail this a bit more in a future article). Many of those affected by DACA live in states like California and Texas, with large populations, both far from Ohio. Relocating your family is difficult, and doing so while under scrutiny of law even more so.

This is complicated by the fact that President Obama collected information from those protected under DACA in order to ensure that they would not be deported. Many worry that this same information might now be used to target people instead, which seems like a reasonable concern. However, if President Trump really does want to protect the Dreamers and is simply pushing Congress to make it an actual law, then they should have nothing to fear. I guess we’ll see soon enough.

The Ethics of Shooting Nazis

The other day, my partner arrived home from work, and asked me a simple question:

“What are you doing?”

“Shooting Nazis,” I answered evenly, as I concentrated on my computer screen.

“What?” she asked, this time a bit more interested.

“Playing Wolfenstein. I felt like shooting some Nazis. Seemed appropriate. Remember my last blog?”

She laughed, but also cocked her head in that way she does when she knows I’m half serious and agrees with whatever I just said. “Oh! Of course!”

The game in question, Wolfenstein: The New Order, is part of a serious of first person shooters that lets you fight Nazis. This one (like some of the others) takes place on an alternative timeline where the Allies did not win the war in 1945. Instead, it is now 1946 and things are not going well. I’m playing an elite commando badass of some sort (I’m always a badass in these games…cause I’m awesome!) single-handedly ruining things for Hitler by taking out all his elite troops.

The game is a bit cyberpunkish, with tech that didn’t exist at the time, like robot dogs that attack you and special weapons that don’t even exist today, much less in the mid 1940s. It’s all in good fun, right? I mean you are fighting Nazis, and who doesn’t know that they are pure evil. In this way, Wolfenstein allows gamers to indulge in violence with less moral ambiguity than many such games. It certainly has a different feel from Resident Evil V, where many people noted that killing African zombies felt more than a little racist at times.

But after the events in Charlottesville, where Neo-Nazis marched openly in the U.S., I’m feeling a strange sense of ambivalence. On one hand, I feel closer to the problem than ever, as though I’m battling a real evil, not just something I heard my grandparents discuss in hushed tones. Nazis still exist, and they still need to be fought! And they are literally killing people. Eat this grenade, Nazis!

On the other hand, a video game simulation of a fight with a fictionalized group of Nazis in an alternate time line feels a bit empty. There are real Nazis to fight.

Then I start to wonder…how do we fight them? What are we supposed to do in order to stop the Nazis in our own society? This is an ongoing debate right now. I see it on the forums I visit. I see it on FB and Twitter. I see people posting pictures of American Nazis getting punched, and I see others arguing against such violence because it will only fuel more.

I don’t know which is the correct approach to take when dealing with Nazis. I know I would forgive someone for punching a Nazi in the face when confronted with their rhetoric. But I don’t know if it does any good. What I do know is that Germans (and others) in the 1930s did not take Hitler and the Nazis very seriously. Some did, of course. But anyone with high school history can tell you that some politicians adopted a policy of appeasement toward the Third Reich, and this proved disastrous.

Turns out that Nazis don’t go away when you ignore them. They don’t just want attention, or for someone to hear their message. They want change. Nazism is an action movement, not a passive one. Nazis don’t wait for the world to move in their direction; they actively believe that the world needs them to make it better. That’s one of their priors—an assumption that only they can see the truth about the world, whether that means Zionist conspiracies or a need for harsh eugenics programs.

In my Biomedical Ethics class, I show the poster below, which was used in Nazi Germany, together with the translation.

Is this the kind of thing that we should ignore? Is it clownish? Is it buffoonery? Is it just trolling, as some alt-right members suggest, meant to get a rise out of people but not really meant to be serious? No. It is none of these things. None of us should be complicit in this. We must speak out, and we must realize that even if this seems like a fringe movement, it must be expunged from our society as the cancer that it is. You don’t ignore cancer. You shoot it with radiation.

Time to return to Wolfenstein and find a radiation gun…..

Literal Nazis Are Marching for White Power in the United States

I shouldn’t be writing this post; I mean it shouldn’t exist. There should be no need for me to talk about a rising movement of literal Nazis in the United States. But here we are. It’s 2017, and as I am writing this blog, there are people battling white supremacists in Virginia, on the University of Virginia Campus. A state of emergency has been declared, after violence erupted in the city of Charlottesville, VA. This includes an incident where a car seemed to intentionally drive into a crowd of people who were protesting the white supremacists, injuring many, and possibly killing at least one person (at the time of this writing, reports are conflicting, but the video is awful….I’ll be amazed if no one is at least seriously injured).

Let me start by noting that we should not equivocate here. These are people who believe in the ideals of the Nazi movement. The picture above is from this gathering, showing the Nazi salute. There are photos of people wearing Nazi symbols, or even T-shirts with Hitler quotes on them. Those are not literal Nazis are basically still Nazis. They believe in white power and in “taking the country back” from minorities. The people fighting against this group are not just as bad. They are not the other side of the same coin, unless you believe that the people who fought the Nazis in WW2 were just the other side of the same coin, too. Fighting against Nazis does not make you a Nazi. It makes you a decent human being, willing to stand up for the rights of yourself and others.

So how did we get to this point? It’s easy to point fingers at Trump, and I won’t completely refrain from doing so myself. Whether Trump is a believer in this cause or not, he definitely plays on the same fears that this movement represents—fear of the other, fear of difference, general xenophobia. I cannot tell whether Trump actually believes most of what he says, but I do know that his words have an effect on our country. They must. He is the President. When he says that Mexico is sending us rapists, he is playing on fears of immigration. When his son makes reference to a handful of Skittles filled with a few bad ones, he is asking us to consider all refugees as potential threats to our country, with no real way to distinguish them (despite the fact that our vetting is incredibly stringent). These statements play on existing fears, but they also play on fallacies of bias that are difficult to avoid.

Consider this analogy. Suppose that the first time you ever saw a dog as a child, it bit you. That was your first experience with a dog. Because dogs are so prevalent, however, you might get over that first impression. Your friends will have dogs, and you will eventually realize that most of them will not bite you. Your first impression was wrong. Now, suppose that one of your friends has a rat as a pet. Already, you might be thinking “That’s not a pet!” Well, for many people rats are great pets! But they are still pretty rare as pets, at least in the U.S. So, this might be the only one you encounter. Suppose it bites you. That will again be your first impression of this pet, but what will counter it? You may never see another pet rat again.

The same thing can happen in people who only live around others that are similar to themselves. If you live in a suburb, you might be in a neighborhood where, demographically at least, everyone is a lot like you. Maybe your suburb is filled with white, affluent people. But when you watch the news, you see persons of color. What are they doing? This will be your impression of them, most likely, because you won’t have much to counter it. For years and years, African Americans were shown in a bad light in the U.S. They were servants in films, and white actors dressed in blackface to portray stereotypes. Many were featured in racist ad campaigns.

Of course, that’s all in the past, right? Not really. The segregation of America is still happening, and what’s worse (for Nazis, not decent people) is that now there are many more groups of people that have gotten rights that they never had before. This outrages white supremacists who associate American exceptionalism with white people of European ancestry. Some of these people even become members of Congress! Others march in protests like the ones happening right now.

There were analysts that warned that Trump’s victory would be used as a signal to racist organizations that they could now come into the light, and openly say what they once only thought in secret. And here we are. This would be a good time to see how our still relatively new President will deal with the situation. Something must be done. So far, I haven’t been impressed. His first speech, which just happened a few minutes ago (as I write this), indicated the violence issues come “from all sides”, which is basically another false equivalence.

Are there examples of violence from the left? Of course, there are. This isn’t one of them, however, and I don’t recall conservatives trotting out the ‘both sides do this’ language when they were complaining about riots in Ferguson. In fact, here’s what Trump said at the time: “They’re going to riot in Ferguson no matter what”. Perhaps he believes the people of Ferguson are just inherently violent. He did not, however, point out that other people are just as violent, and he has not, yet, called the Nazis in Charlottesville ‘thugs’ as he did the people in Ferguson (and Baltimore, and Oakland….).

But maybe this open violence will finally change something; maybe as a nation we can come together to condemn literal Nazis. Is that too much to ask? LITERAL. NAZIS. Surely we can agree that they should be stopped.

Will Distrust of Colleges Increase Our Economic and Political Divide?

(photo courtesy of Nathaniel Givens…I think)

Since the 2016 Election, a lot of effort has been devoted to understanding why different groups voted the way they did and what it says about our society. That analysis is interesting, but incredibly complex, since so many factors play a part in why someone votes a particular way. For example, the key Midwest states that helped swing the election could have been decided based on a desire to bring back coal jobs, a general distrust of Clinton, or resentment that Obama didn’t do enough to address their concerns. Who knows?

What we can see is growing social divide in how people view themselves and the respective parties. This effect, known as polarization, can lead to extreme positions, which aren’t always good for making sound decisions. Polarization is created when a group of like-minded people find themselves isolated from external positions and drive the members of the group into a more extreme version of the mindset that caused them to enter the group in the first place. For example, if you took a room full of new mothers, some of whom believe that breast feeding is the best way to nurture a baby and others of whom believe using formula is fine, and separated them into groups based on their viewpoints, you would find the members of each group will push the group as a whole to more vehement versions of the initial viewpoints.

 

I want to focus on a particular version of this polarization that is manifesting in the U.S. right now, based on political affiliation. According to a recent survey, people who self-identify as Republicans are becoming more and more convinced that colleges and universities are having a negative effect on the country. Here is the chart of this shift:

Note the years. Up until late 2015, Republicans saw colleges as mostly a positive in American life. They were more suspicious (as a group) than Democrats, but seemed to acknowledge that higher education was a good thing, overall. A vocal minority, of course, has accused colleges of liberal indoctrination for at least as long as talk radio has been a thing, but only in the last couple of years has this mistrust surged.

What has changed? I’m not sure, and I’m guessing there are lots of theories. While there is some evidence that conservatives in the U.S. (again, not all, but a certain strain…this is the last time I’ll qualify this, but assume it in other cases) have intentionally undermined the very notion of science for largely political reasons. There is also a tendency to associate higher education with elitism, an idea that was certainly in play during President George W. Bush’s terms. Again, though, the chart above shows a dramatic shift in recent years; so we need to look at something more recent.

Perhaps it’s the Climate Change Denialist movement, which has presented science as a monolithic, agenda-based movement that is somehow involved in a vast conspiracy to kill coal jobs (for reasons unknown….big money from somewhere is the usual claim). Scientists are associated with universities, and so universities are bad? Or maybe it’s the fact that professors lean to the left, despite the fact that there is little evidence that this results in indoctrinating students. Still, even the perception could be the problem here.

Ultimately, the reasons don’t matter, because the view is what is important. The U.S. has a growing inequality problem. Wages have been in stagnation since the 1980s, though this story is a bit complicated. What is less in doubt is that there is an economic divide between rich and poor that is not improving. What we also know is that while college is no longer a guarantee of a well-paying, fulfilling job, it is still most often a necessary step to receiving such a job. Put in logic terms, it is necessary, but not sufficient for getting a job for the average person.

If Republican parents discourage their children from going to college in fear of some sort of liberal indoctrination, this will be a huge detriment to those children. I do not mean to suggest that college is a panacea for society’s ills. I could write a series of articles on problems with Higher Education and the ways in which it needs reform. However, it is still the best way to get ahead in life, especially if you come from a lower class background. That degree opens doors for you.

Many of the states that tend to vote Republican are among the lowest in the country in terms of education levels, quality of education, and percentage of higher education. A sharp rise in skepticism toward education will only exacerbate this issue, creating a deeper divide in the political tribalism that exists in the U.S.

So, how do we avoid this? I’m not sure. The best way, ironically, would be through education! Unfortunately, the current President does not seem to value universal education policies. The appointment of Betsy Devos doesn’t help. Her policies in Michigan were disastrous for the lower classes, and really the state in general. She is a proponent of privatizing colleges and universities, and even K-12 schooling, which tends to favor the wealthy who can afford the fees associated with privatization.

I would usually say that parents should encourage their children to get a college degree. Mine certainly did, and I was raised in a family where a secondary education was pretty much assumed. But if the only parents doing this are liberal parents, we will end up with a country in which conservatives are less educated and perhaps continue to resent those who are more educated. That’s not a good recipe for working together in the future.

Unfortunately, this article is based mostly on pointing out the potential for future problems in this area. If I had better solutions, I would offer them. If you have some, I’d like to hear them!

Healthcare Revisited- a new bill emerges

(image from readthebill.gop)

After the failure to repeal the Affordable Care Act in the early days of the Trump Presidency, the Senate is now considering a bill that will roll back many of the protections and regulations of the ACA. The LA Times has a nice comparison article that shows the differences being proposed. Here is a key quote from the article:

“The Congressional Budget Office score on the Senate version is expected in the next several days. The CBO’s score on the House version estimated 23 million fewer people would have insurance over the next decade. The report stated the hardest hit in the long run would be lower-income, older and sicker Americans.”

One thing to note is that the Republican proposal (which has no bipartisan support and as of today lacks unanimous support among Conservatives as well) does not literally keep these millions of Americans from having healthcare. It stops providing the means for them to have such care. For the “lower-income, older and sicker Americans” this will effectively mean the same thing. They will be unable to afford the healthcare they need, and they will not receive help in receiving such care. However, many of the people who will “lose” healthcare will do so because they have opted out of purchasing it, mostly by gambling that their current health status will remain the same. In other words, these will be younger, healthier Americans who decide that the cost of such care is not worth it for them.

While some of these people will lose this gamble, most will not. From their own perspective, it will be a rational choice to make. However, from the perspective of those who need health insurance in order to cover their bills, it will create higher premiums, and likely higher deductibles. The reasons are simple. When you remove the low risk members of an insurance pool, the insurance companies do not have income to offset their expenses from payments made to less healthy customers. In order to stay in business, they must raise premiums, deductibles, or both. This is pretty simple financing.

Republicans know this, of course, but they believe that the negative liberty  of allowing Americans to choose whether to insure themselves outweighs the need to keep rates lower for sicker Americans.

Politics is always a matter of trade-offs. The ACA traded liberty for security by forcing Americans to purchase healthcare or pay fines for not doing so. The new plan would trade security for liberty. In a vacuum, the values of liberty and security are roughly equal. You need a bit of both in order to have a good life. However, in a political system, these trades are made between groups, rather than being distributed equally. What does that mean, exactly?

In this case, it means that the wealthiest Americans will see a huge tax cut, just as they would have under the House’s proposed plan. The Atlantic covered this pretty well back in March. Basically, the ACA was funded in large part by higher taxes on the wealthy, especially capital gains taxes. Republicans believe that this is an unfair redistribution of wealth, where wealthier citizens are forced to finance those who are poor. That’s basically correct, too. I personally don’t see this as a problem. I think it’s part of living in a society with a social contract. However, many people disagree and do not see supporting the poor as their responsibility at all. Others do think they should help the poor, but not via government interference.

Wherever you fall on this debate over how to provide healthcare for the poor, the fact is that the proposed bill would deny healthcare to millions of Americans who have been given such care through the ACA. This removal will cause a great deal of suffering. I’ve noted before that I think there are many flaws in the ACA, especially with regard to how the marketplace works, who gets funding, how it gets distributed, etc. However, I do not think this is a good way to fix the problem.

The bill as it currently stands would freeze funding for Planned Parenthood for one year. PP is a kind of bogeyman for the GOP. They like to pain it as basically an abortion mill, even though abortions are a very small part of what Planned Parenthood does, and by law, those cannot be funded by federal funding anyway. Instead, a lot of people (especially poor women) will not be able to get needed services. These include birth control, which would help prevent the birth of more children who need healthcare and welfare services. But the Republicans have backed themselves into a corner on this issue due to strong rhetoric against the organization.

More critically, in the long run, the bill would reduce funding for Medicaid over time. This is the part that will save tax dollars. It’s also the part that will remove medical care for millions of Americans who saw Medicaid coverage expanded from the ACA. I personally know people who will lose coverage if this happens, and they are terrified. Some of them need that coverage for life saving medications. Others just want the security of knowing it is available. In both cases, the loss will produce more than just physical health issues. The added stress and anxiety will cause a ripple throughout society.

As the President noted, healthcare is very complicated. Assessing all the things this bill would or would not do can be difficult. That’s what Nancy Pelosi meant when she said that the ACA had to be passed before we would be able to determine all of its effects. Many of the effects of such legislation cannot be foreseen, and no doubt some of the more alarmist predictions will prove false as well. Still, the parts we can foresee, which include loss of coverage, looser regulations on what insurance companies must cover, and lessened protection against rising healthcare costs all seem scary enough to me!

At this point, though, Congress doesn’t have a lot of options. For years they’ve talked about how terrible the ACA is; how it is un—American and must be overturned. Now that the Republicans have all the power, they almost have to do something with it, even if they aren’t entirely sure whether their new plan will be good for healthcare in America. I just hope they slow down a bit and get it right.

The Importance of Travel

When I was around 12 years old, I was given an opportunity to travel to Europe as part of a trip sponsored by my school. I was taking French at the time, and it seemed like it could be fun. Unfortunately, there were some terrorist activities around that time, and I got scared and didn’t want to go anymore. While I travelled a great deal in the U.S., I would not leave the country until nearly 30 years later. In hindsight, I regret this. Traveling outside of one’s own country is essential for understanding the world. It broadens the mind, increases overall empathy, and enforces one’s own identity, while simultaneously offering perspective, both historic and geographic.

I will soon be going back to Italy, a country that became one of my favorite places almost as soon as I arrived. Walking through the winding streets of Florence (Firenze in Italian) takes you back in time to a world where art was less utilitarian and more grandiose. You get a sense of the awe that the artists felt towards the universe and our place within it. Also, like many other European cities, Florence has the ability to leave you dumbstruck as you turn around a corner and suddenly come face to face with one of humankind’s greatest creations.

My first full experience of this in Italy was coming upon The Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore). I’d seen it in pictures; I’d climbed it in a video game (Assassin’s Creed 2). Coming face to face with such a monument, however, is an entirely different experience. It reminds me of a concept I first encountered through the aesthetic musings of Immanuel Kant, a philosopher more famous for his views on ethics than art. Kant describes the feeling that he calls ‘the sublime’. While hard to summarize in a blog post, the basic idea is this: sometimes we experience the vastness of the universe and the insignificance of ourselves within it. At the same time, we can derive a kind of comfort from feeling safe while in the presence of something truly awesome (I mean that in the original sense of the term—something that leaves us speechless and unable to fully communicate our experience). The Duomo does that to me. As I stand before it, I understand the significance of a word like ‘magnificent’, which etymologically means ‘a great making’. Humans built this edifice. Someone conceived it part of this structure, and someone built it. It inspired others to do great things, and now it is inspiring me.

These moments dissolve us into the universal, allowing us to transcend our individual lives and become one with humanity itself. Time ceases to stream; the moment stretches into infinity.

Put simply, you almost never experience this in your home city, regardless of where you were raised. I grew up in Hunstville, Alabama. It is the home of the Space and Rocket Center, a museum dedicated to U.S. space exploration. As you drive past it, you can see a Saturn V rocket, one of the greatest accomplishments of the 20th Century. Visitors are often fascinated by this scene, but I grew up with it. The main affect it has on me is to remind me that I’m back home, but it’s certainly not the transcendent feeling I get with The Duomo or the Pantheon or any other number of famous monuments or works of art.

Only through travel can we have these moments. And it doesn’t end with the monuments. When you visit a country where people speak a different language and live very different lives, you begin to see how petty most of your concerns are. The world becomes both much larger and much smaller at the same time. You recognize a vast variety of different cultures, values, and priorities, but at the same time you realize that many of them exist only hours apart from each other. Europe is particularly good for this experience, since we tend to think of England, France, Italy, Germany, etc. as different worlds. Yet, they sit right next to each other, in areas about the size of U.S. states.

I believe that everyone should experience this at least once in life, but ideally more than that. We should all be given the time and opportunity to experience different cultures. Once there, take a moment to immerse yourself in a different point of view. Don’t be an American in another country, forcing it to accede to your demands. Be a guest, ready to be accepted into another person’s home.

If you take this attitude, you will find yourself welcome practically anywhere. When we visited France, we had been told that the French people are not particularly accommodating. They do not like when you try to speak their language, and they are quick to dismiss Americans in particular. That was not my experience at all! The French people were very friendly to us, and most were very patient with my terrible accent and sparse vocabulary when trying to speak their language.

Granted, Italy offers a whole different level of hospitality. At our first stop to eat in Florence, the waiter called me ‘Generalissimo’ and my partner ‘Principessa’. I was the general, and she was my princess. It was cute, friendly, practically flirtatious, and very welcoming. There was nothing condescending about it. When we visited another restaurant, we were asked to become members of the club. After filling out the paperwork, our hostess said (in Italian, which my partner translated) “This is now your home, too!”

Such experiences remind us that we part of a huge world, but one united by common needs and values. You cannot gain this knowledge through reading, or watching videos of people in other places, or even from reading this blog. You have to go to these places and have them become a part of your phenomenological being. They will then live in you and you will live in them for the rest of your life.

So, the next time, you are given an opportunity to travel abroud, whether you are 12, 42, or 72, take it. Do not wait. Take it, and when the next opportunity arrives, take it again. As the famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson notes, “Life only avails, not the having lived.” Travel is life, so go live already!

Bioware Is Trying to Make Romance More Diverse, but Has a Long Way to Go

(Image from Afterellen.com-credit to them)

Mass Effect: Andromeda is out, and early reviews are mixed, as one would expect in a game that is continuing a series that many people love. The original trilogy was…well, a trilogy. It had an ending (which many people hated!). I didn’t play ME3, and I haven’t played the new game either. I very much enjoyed the second installment, but I didn’t have the console to play 3 when it was released, and then the negative feedback hit concerning the ending. I mistook it for an overall criticism of the game; or perhaps I was afraid the (allegedly) awful ending would ruin my memories of the series. In any case, I rarely finish a game, so I’m not sure why that deterred me.

But I don’t want to talk about whether the new game is good or not. I want to talk about the idea of Mass Effect, which allows you to choose between playing a male or female character (affectionately truncated to ManShep vs. FemShep in the video game community). Both choices have been excellently voice acted, though many people prefer Jennifer Hale’s rendition of the character, at least among my friends. She does do an amazing job, but I’ve tended to play as ManShep.

Ok, brief history time: Bioware has had an interesting relationship with gamers that have wanted to have more diverse (sexually) characters in their games. In the first Mass Effect, you could sort of have a same sex relationship, if you played FemShep, but only because of how Asari work (see below). In the second game, they played it safer, basically making everything hetero-normative. Then, in the third, they tried to open it up more, allowing a male-male pairing, but it was pretty lackluster by most counts. The latest in the series, Andromeda, has included more same sex pairings, to mixed reviews.

I think Bioware is trying to allow people to engage in a variety of sexual orientations, but they aren’t totally sure how to pull it off properly (maybe hire more writers that actually experience these feelings?). Whether you play as ManShep or FemShep, you can romance crew members of either gender, and each iteration has tried to be more inclusive in this regard. I’m going to set aside the troubling notion of romancing subordinates (though that would also be interesting to examine!) and focus on what Bioware is doing right here and what misses the mark.

Let’s start with the right: I like the idea of allowing players to decide whom they wish to romance and what sexual orientation their character has. In theory, it allows players to experiment with different roles, which is what a roleplaying game is all about. More importantly, it might increase representation among groups that have been grossly unrepresented in gaming: members of the LGBTQ+ community (note: I do not mean to exclude any of the groups that have since been included in this acronym…I use + to indicate them).

Furthermore, I think there can be value in presenting the choice of romantic partners as if gender were irrelevant, if only to get people to consider that as a possibility. Perhaps the world would be a better place if this were how things worked, and maybe in the Mass Effect universe, gender is no longer a barrier to romance. Cool.

However, if that’s what Bioware is trying to achieve, it misses the mark in several important ways. Let’s start with the most common complaint on this front: The Asari. The Asari are a race of aliens that have only one gender…which just happens to have the appearance of attractive human women (but with blue or gray skin!).

Mass Effect has tried to correct this a bit, with the most recent game in the series adding the notion that some Asari identify as masculine. As the linked article notes, such Asari do not actually appear in any of the games, but good for Bioware to at least acknowledge the issue. I think they are sincerely trying here, and I give them a lot of credit for that. Maybe they shouldn’t have started with the idea of “space babes” in the first place! Anyway, I’ll let this go now…

As for the number of options of characters to romance, one might argue that in the real world, people who are gay have less options for romantic partners too (statistically speaking), but then, this isn’t a real world. It’s a game. So, the realist argument may not hold water here. Bioware could simply allow people to romance anyone, and treat all romances the same, regardless of whether you are playing ManShep or FemShep. Romance whomever you wish, and have the scenes play out the same.

That could be very interesting, if the goal is to look at the future in a certain way, but it certainly would not capture what it’s like in today’s world to be a member of the LGBTQ+ community. Their romances are often not the same, precisely because of social conventions. The essential love is close enough to the same and deserves the same respect. But living as a transgender or homosexual or bisexual person is likely not the same as living as a heterosexual, cisgendered person, and treating these relationships as if they would be just like choosing what clothes to wear probably misses the point and would not actually help represent the views of players who are transgender. As a hetero-cis person myself, I’m not going to pretend to know how best to represent these differences. I’m just saying that ignoring them is probably not the best approach.

Beyond these issues, it would probably minimize sexual identity to present romances in such terms. Making every gender choice interchangeable suggests that there are no differences among us, but as feminists like Catharine MacKinnon have noted, the “treat the same the same and treat differences differently” approach doesn’t work well in practice. There are too many differences in people, and this approach tends to make sexism and other issues pretty easy to defend. Instead, MacKinnon suggests that we look for power imbalances, which we all recognize as being exploitative when not appropriate.

Of course, this suggestion gets us back to the original issue that I decided to set aside…why is a military commander romancing his/her/their crew, when an obvious power differential makes this very problematic?? Guess I never fully set that aside after all….

Anyway, Bioware is in a tough position, trying to represent all viewpoints while also trying to tell a particular story about a particular character. Hopefully, they find a way to get it right….eventually.

Blondie has a new song out. Is that OK?

On my Twitter feed today, I saw a link from NPR that said Blondie has a new song, and it’s great. Click Here to see that article and listen to the song. I have to agree. It’s catchy; it’s poppy; it’s Blondie. Sure, Debbie (I think she prefers Deborah now?) Harry sounds a bit older, but it’s a great raspy effect. She still sounds amazing. The band sounds good, too. The effects are a bit more than I prefer in my music, but again, they are classic Blondie. They’ve always used a lot of chorus, layering, synth sounds, and the like. That’s their thing.

And it really works here. As the article notes, there are hints of “Heart of Glass” in the song, which can sometimes indicate a band trying to recapture a particular high point of their own history. But while I agree that it’s self-referential, the song elevates beyond a simple echo of the past. I think it stands alongside many of their hits.

Sadly, it almost certainly won’t be a hit song, and that’s what I want to discuss. There have been many articles about why the public seems unable to continue to fully support bands that have faded from the spotlight and attempted to return. I’m partial to the theory that the problem is one of zeitgeist, a word that roughly refers to the spirit of culture. You can see this theory (indirectly) in this Forbes article, which is actually about the loss of the Rockstar. As the article notes (about halfway through, if you aren’t interested in all the talk about how new bands will never be like Led Zeppelin), many of the big bands of yesteryears either reflected or created cultural movements.

So bands like The Rolling Stones are associated with the late 60s through early 70s, even though they continued to produce hits into the 80s to some degree. But they are a band from the era of Altamont. They represent the era of free love, where sex and drugs went hand in hand and were considered equally cool. A band like Def Leppard, technically part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (or NWOBHM in short, awkward acronym form) are associated mostly with the late 80s, thanks to the monstrous status of the Hysteria album. Despite continuing to make some good music, they and other bands of the day like Motley Crue, were relegated to the 80s once the Grunge movement hit, which itself is a zeitgeist for people like me, who graduated high school in the early 90s.

A few bands have continued to remain relevant over time, notably bands like Metallica, though even they are still remembered more for their earlier work (up through the Black Album) than anything recent, despite decent success with newer music.

However, bands like Blondie find themselves relegated to a particular time period, perhaps in part because they were effectively the pop music of their day. Radio saturated them into the public consciousness to such a degree that anyone who was alive in their heyday cannot help but associate those songs with those years. In fact, a whole nostalgia driven music scene has popped up in the last couple of decades, fueled by people in their 30s-60s trying to recapture a moment in time for a few hours as they watch one of the bands they loved in their youth.

But new music? They don’t want to hear it. It doesn’t transport them back to a familiar time, where things were simpler (if only in our memories) and certain songs became entwined with special events in our lives.

There is nothing wrong with this, at least from the fan’s perspective. You do not owe an artist your loyalty or your money. They provide a product, and you may take it or leave it. However, as a musician myself (though not famous), I can only imagine how disappointing this must be to the artists. They rightly see themselves as better musicians than they were in their 20s, and yet no one wants to hear it. Instead of thrilled anticipation and praise, their new music is received with the same level of enthusiasm as the person who gets out an acoustic guitar at a party when the stereo is already playing what everyone wants to hear. At best, they might be tolerated. At worst, they might be asked to leave. In most cases, people will simply roll their eyes and wonder why they are offering a substandard interpretation of a classic sound.

This is totally unfair, of course, but it’s also natural. Our past belongs in the past, except when we wish to revisit it for a momentary escape. We don’t invite it into our present, and with good reason. We aren’t that person anymore. We may wistfully dip our minds into a momentary glimpse of who we were (or try to), but we don’t want to be that person anymore, and we expect our idols to respect that.

But here they are anyway, with a great new song.

Is Trump Rambling? Or just trying to say too much at once?

Apologies for the long period between blog updates. I’m in the middle of moving houses. I thought that taking a month off would not be a big deal. What could happen in a month?? Well, a lot has happened since Trump was inaugurated—far too much to deal with in a single blog post. So, I want to focus on just one thing: Why does Trump ramble so much when he talks to the press?

Let’s start with some examples of what I mean. I’m not going to focus on specific things that Trump has said that are questionable, such as asking a black reporter if she could put him in touch with Congress’s Black Caucus (a group of African American Congressional representatives). Yes, the belief that all black people know each other is a sign of casual racism, and yes there are many examples of similar slips (or even intentional ones, such as leaving out the word ‘Jew’ when talking about the Holocaust). These are easy to evaluate for anyone who notices them.

I want to focus on phrases like this, which are definitely made up of words, but not words that fit together into coherent thoughts. This is from his recent press conference:

“Now, again, maybe I’m not going to be able to do a deal with Russia, but at least I will have tried. And if I don’t, does anybody really think that Hillary Clinton would be tougher on Russia than Donald Trump? Does anybody in this room really believe that? OK?

But I tell you one thing, she tried to make a deal. She had the reset. She gave all that valuable uranium away. She did other things. You know, they say I’m close to Russia. Hillary Clinton gave away 20 percent of the uranium in the United States. She’s close to Russia.”

Ok, let’s try to figure this out. Trump is saying that he’d like to make a deal with Russia, because we are better as allies. Sounds good. Maybe he has a point. Russia is a powerful country, and certainly tensions with them haven’t been a great deal for either side, right? Then he adds that if he can’t make a deal, then he would be tougher on Russia than Clinton would have. Ummm….OK. Why is that good? You just said it’s better not to antagonize them. He continues that Clinton wanted to make a deal; she’s close to Russia. But he just said that getting closer with Russia is a good thing; so why is he attacking Clinton on this? Ah, I think I see.

I’m a college professor. That means that I deal with a lot of students who don’t know the answer to a particular question. This is especially problematic for in-class essays, where the student then has the option of leaving it blank (thus leaving half of their test points on the table and guaranteeing a failing grade for the exam), or trying to put down enough bullshit that I might be fooled into thinking they do know something.

One common technique when you don’t know what answer your audience might want is to try to play both sides. Suppose I ask a student whether we should be closer to Russia, but he’s not sure what he should think about this. So he says, “Well, I think we should be closer to Russia, as long as being closer to Russia is a good thing. And it probably is. But then, if it isn’t a good thing, then I definitely wouldn’t want us to be closer to Russia, and the people who would want us to be closer to Russia are very wrong about that!”

You would fail that answer, right? It’s incoherent gibberish. But let’s try to be super generous with Trump here. Maybe he’s saying he would try to make a deal with Russia, but if they would not agree to the deal, he would be super harsh with them. Ok, but then why attack Clinton for trying to make a deal? Perhaps it’s because she gave away uranium, which is basically just nukes, right?? Not really. Uranium can be used for lots of things, including power plants. But whatever. I think he’s trying to deflect here by saying that Clinton was both NOT tough enough on Russia, but also unable to broker a deal with Russia. I think. Maybe I’m being too hard on Trump, though.

So let’s look at a further set of claims in the same press conference (transcript linked again)

“Mike Flynn is a fine person, and I asked for his resignation. He respectfully gave it. He is a man who there was a certain amount of information given to Vice President Pence, who is with us today. And I was not happy with the way that information was given.

He didn’t have to do that, because what he did wasn’t wrong — what he did in terms of the information he saw. What was wrong was the way that other people, including yourselves in this room, were given that information, because that was classified information that was given illegally. That’s the real problem.

And, you know, you can talk all you want about Russia, which was all a, you know, fake news, fabricated deal, to try and make up for the loss of the Democrats and the press plays right into it. In fact, I saw a couple of the people that were supposedly involved with all of this — that they know nothing about it; they weren’t in Russia; they never made a phone call to Russia; they never received a phone call.

It’s all fake news. It’s all fake news. The nice thing is, I see it starting to turn, where people are now looking at the illegal — I think it’s very important — the illegal, giving out classified information. It was — and let me just tell you, it was given out like so much.

[some talk about Mexico and Australia phone calls.] The same thing happened with respect to General Flynn. Everybody saw this. And I’m saying — the first thing I thought of when I heard about it is: How does the press get this information that’s classified? How do they do it?

You know why? Because it’s an illegal process and the press should be ashamed of themselves. But more importantly, the people that gave out the information to the press should be ashamed of themselves, really ashamed.”

Those are Trump’s words. So let’s look at them. He starts by saying Flynn did nothing wrong. It’s fake news. There was no contact with Russia. Then, he repeats the claim that the news is fake. Then he complains that what the media reported came from classified calls. In other words, he’s upset that the media got access to the information about Flynn’s calls. Why is he upset about them receiving information he just said doesn’t really exist?

This is a classic case of someone being caught in a lie because he can’t stop talking. If you are a parent, you have probably seen this a few times. If you can get a child to talk enough, they’ll say something so inconsistent that the lie becomes obvious. Trump is saying that the media is making up all these terrible things about him, like Flynn’s call to Russia, or Trump’s own embarrassing dressing down of one of our own allies in Australia. But then he says those calls were classified, again implying that they happened in just the way the media is reporting.

The truth here is simple. Trump is doing these things. He’s upset that America is watching. The media’s entire job is to do this sort of thing. Many people today are too young to remember that it was the media that exposed the Watergate scandal. It was the media who gave us reports on the horrors of Vietnam. And yes, I’m too young to remember these things too. The media, with people like Walter Kronkite and Dan Rather, used to do real, investigative journalism. Go look it up. It’s great stuff!

Today, if the media isn’t on your side, you just accuse it of being fake news, or too biased to take seriously. This is a version of the circumstantial ad hominem fallacy (also sometimes known as the genitive fallacy), which basically says that you can’t trust any argument that a particular person makes if that person is in a certain circumstance. If you say that all conservatives are automatically wrong, because they are conservatives, then you are committing this fallacy. Similarly, if you say that anyone who works for a particular news channel is biased, you have the same problem. Now, you might be able to prove that a particular website, or even news channel, has a particular political agenda. But even if you could do that, it would not in itself invalidate every argument made by that source. At best, it would lead you to be extra cautious when evaluating the merits of the argument.

In any case, Trump has literally said that any poll that shows him in an unfavorable light is automatically fake. That’s a self-sealing fallacy. It can’t be wrong, because you’ve built the conditions in such a way that he wins either way. It’s like saying heads I win, tails you lose. It’s rigged.

This is not normal Presidential behavior, and that has nothing to do with my own views on Trump or his party. W Bush, who wasn’t overly Presidential at times, at least maintained the basic dignity of the position in most cases. Trump doesn’t care. He thinks he’s the CEO of America, and that he can simply fire anyone who disagrees with him. That’s the most dangerous kind of authoritarian thinking. It’s OK for a CEO, who is running a business. It’s unacceptable from a leading government official.

My Favorite MLK, jr. Quote

In today’s blog article, which I am writing on Martin Luther King, jr. Day of 2017, I’d like to take a moment to discuss my favorite MLK quote, which comes from the letter he wrote while serving time in a Birmingham jail for civil disobedience. Here’s the quote:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.””

Full disclosure: I am one of the white moderates that Dr. King is targeting here. At various points in my life, I have considered myself to be post-racial (“I don’t see race!”), fully supportive of efforts to fight racism (while doing nothing active to help the cause), and even judgmental towards those that I saw as fighting racism the “wrong way”.

The quote speaks to me because I recognize myself in it, and I am ashamed by it. When Dr. King wrote this letter, he addressed it to the white ministers in the southern churches that saw themselves as allies in the fight for civil rights, but disagreed with the way that MLK was conducting the fight. They would scold him when he used civil disobedience, pointing out that it made African Americans appear to be lawless or disrespectful toward the social order. They promised that a time would come (eventually), when all races were treated as equals, but that it could not be rushed.

It’s a message we see again and again when people are fighting for civil rights. Just wait until the bigots are gone, and things will get better. We can create change by appealing to the youth, and once they are in charge, things will improve. Such messages are well intentioned but dangerously out of touch. First, there is evidence that racism does not go away, so much as it changes in various ways.  Certainly, today’s generations are less likely to be openly racist than people were in the 1960s, but that’s because people like Dr. King made it unacceptable to be blatantly bigoted. That’s a good thing, but it is far from the end goal of an equitable society.

But even if time could eventually solve such social injustices, the people who are living right now do not have the time to wait. At the time when Dr. King wrote his letter, many of the laws preventing interracial marriages were still on the books. That’s right—fifty years ago, when your parents or grandparents were of an age to be married, they would not have been allowed to do so if their partner had been born with different color skin. How long would you have people wait for the basic right to marry someone they love? How long should they wait to be able to attend good schools, or receive services at restaurants.

Waiting is a terrible response to injustice. We cannot sit out the fight for equality. We cannot pretend to support a cause by passive approval of its goals.

Dr. King was right, and he is still right. Those who openly hate people for how they were born are relatively easy to spot. The KKK still marches through the streets, often without their hoods, openly calling for racial purity. In some cases, they have come up with new names, like the “Alt-Right”, but the message is the same, and it disgusts the moral people in our society who see it as an anachronism from darker times. But what are we going to do  about it?