The shallowness of symbols

Kaepernick kneel

The culture war has gotten plenty of new kindling to burn in the form of a protest by a black man. In a totally non-violent, passive way, Kaepernick kneeled during the playing of the National Anthem. It went unnoticed for a while, but eventually got picked up and became a huge controversy. Things got even more heated this weekend after President Trump tweeted things about the kneeling (note, well after Kaepernick stopped playing), and players and owners responded. Even those who supported Trump in the past were bothered by his tweets, and stood with kneeling players to show their support for their players. Of all the things that are fascinating (and deeply troubling) about the whole thing, what I find most telling might be the deep importance of a symbol from the self-declared patriots. It’s a flag, it’s a song. And it’s not like he’s burning the flag (which itself shouldn’t be all that upsetting; the consequences for burning a flag aren’t like burning a building, right?). It’s not like he’s pissing on it, or spitting on it. He’s simply kneeling, quietly. But some are outraged (not hyperbole) by this disrespect for a symbol of America. This got me thinking if there was some symbol that I felt so strongly about, seemingly more so than the thing the symbol represents.

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The ultimate symbol of privilege

The idea of white privilege made its way into common culture over the last few years. I’ve gotten into several FaceBook spats about whether or not there’s a certain privilege associated with being white. I think the word “privilege” might put people off, and make them defensive, but when you get to the heart of the matter, it’s really about a sense that the world revolves around white americans. It’s common here in the United States to hear people say that we don’t have accents. Of course some do, but when somebody speaks and you can’t tell if they’re from the north or south or midwest of the United States, they are said to not have an accent. But they DO have an accent, and it’s easy to tell that they are from the US (or Canada). It’s that, in our self-centered world, sounding like “us” means being “normal” and not having an accent. We don’t talk about people having an American accent, like we talk about Australian or British or Hispanic accents. We see it in how we talk about food in terms of “ethnic” and “non-ethnic” also. Restaurants are classified as chinese, ethiopian, mexican, burmese, indian…and then there’s the others. Not “american,” just unclassified. All of this makes it clear that our culture, specifically white American culture, acts as if we are the “norm” and everything else is different. Not bad, but not the norm. But these are small potatoes compared to the biggest of all…

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The problem with prayer

Atheists are becoming more open about their atheism. I am, by definition, an atheist, but I think of myself more as a nontheist, mostly because there’s some baggage that comes with the word atheist, and I don’t like baggage. I think what separates me from some (certainly not all) atheists and from some (but certainly not all) believers is that I honestly don’t care what somebody else believes, and I’m not the least bit interested in trying to make believers reject their belief, nor am I the least bit upset or disappointed if an atheist starts believing in God. I honestly don’t think we have much of a choice about it, and none of it is based in fact (either way), so, from where I sit, it’s not like arguing over whether or not gravity is real, it’s like arguing over whether or not dark chocolate is better than milk chocolate. I certainly have a very strong opinion on that, but I’m not comfortable telling somebody they’re wrong if they like milk chocolate better. So what’s my problem with prayer?

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Are we at a turning point in history?

None of us has the ability to perfectly predict what current event will be meaningful one hundred years from now. Some things are easy (the attacks on 9/11 for instance), but others are much harder to predict. It’s starting to feel possible, maybe not yet likely though, that we’re witnessing a real split in the republican party. In a simplified version of reality, the party has two groups. It has the classic republicans who feel strongly about free-markets, deregulation, private solutions over government involvement, individual responsibility, low taxes, and those kinds of things. These are the fiscal conservatives who are more likely to be socially liberal, or at least agnostic on social issues. The party also has the social conservatives. This group is where the white nationalists thrive. This is the group that is anti-immigration, feels the “fabric of America” is slipping away (which I can’t explain other than America becoming a more diverse pool of ethnicities), they have, or at least had, strong opinions about morality and decency, and this helps fuel their dislike of “gay culture” that they see as flamboyant, gratuitous, and indecent. At the same time, they balked at the way the government made them be fair to minorities. They way the government had anything to say about the way of life (that was great for them, even if less so for others). People who felt that we were once the base of the democratic party, but found themselves without a satisfying political home when the democrats became the party of civil rights, and stopped being the party of the KKK. That’s when the adoption of the southern strategy and the inclusion of the Reagan Democrats paid off, and brought a big win for Reagan. His characterization of government as something to be feared hit home, and his attacks on the welfare queen driving a Cadillac fit well with their feeling that they were being pushed out of the society they once dominated. And the party has balanced these two groups ever since, and somehow managed them well. The fiscal conservatives seemed to become more socially conservative and the social conservatives became more fiscally conservative. They had a comfortable balance. Trump is disrupting that.

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Abortion, abortion, abortion…

[Somewhat rushed piece…overwhelmed with work, but trying to stay in the habit of writing, and it’s been a long time. I’m sure it’s full of typos and other problems, but at this point, it will have to do]

I’ve spent a bit of time talking about abortion and abortion rights since Hitting Bregma started (notably here and here). I’m fascinated by it as a topic because it’s so meaningful to so many people, that I honestly see it as the number one guiding issue in our politics today. I don’t have any scientific evidence for this at all, and I would enjoy being shown that it’s not true, but I think the abortion question actually drives many people in one direction or another, and then the other partisan issues take hold. It’s easy for me to imagine somebody being appalled by abortion, leaning toward a particular political identity because of that, and then slowing assimilating with all the other beliefs of that political party. It seems like a key reason, for instance, why a deeply religious Christian would so predictably care about small government, about maintaining strong borders, about a super powerful national defense, about implementing the death penalty, about low taxes (especially for the wealthy). On the flip side, it’s puzzling to me that advocacy of abortion rights does such a good job at predicting where somebody stands on raising taxes on the wealthy, on being against the death penalty, about working hard for minority rights and environmentalism, and about government services for the poor. Of course, there are plenty of folks out there who don’t fall into those more predictable positions. I know plenty who are deeply religious, and guided by this to be sickened by abortion, but put this aside to otherwise favor liberal politicians who are anti-death penalty, pro-helping the poor, pro-helping immigrants, and willing to tax people to make that possible. It would be a silly straw man fallacy to say that I’m implying that this applies to everybody equally, but I find it interesting to see how many people seem to find their political identity by following the pro-choice or anti-abortion trail to the rest of the stuff.

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How often do we see ourselves in others?

I’ve used this blog in several different ways since it started. Mostly as an outlet for whatever random thing that might have crossed my mind that day or morning or evening or in the depth of night. I find myself more excited to write about things that defend a move by government with which I agree, and less excited about criticising moves that I don’t like, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody who has read anything else I’ve written that I’ve been less excited about writing lately. This shows up in what’s come out of me on this page lately. An article about our priorities, about the flaw in word usage that might have hurt women’s rights, a jobs policy that sounds good to me. All of this while there are a million ways I could express my dissatisfaction with the current government, and complain about the moves they are or aren’t making. But that clearly doesn’t make me want to write as much as other times. In fact, I’ve been uninspired, actively seeking things to write about, and have been mulling this idea for a while. Some of it is obvious, and some might only be a partial explanation, but as a scientist, I’ve learned to live with partial explanations, and fully recognize that the whole explanation is often too complicated, so we make do with parts. So this is the “part” that I’m thinking about this morning, as I’ve thought out for several mornings over the past couple of weeks:

Can we infer somebody’s inner sense of the world by attributes they ascribe to others? In other words, how deep does the psychological construct of projection go?

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What would Bartlet do?

I have a tendency to think of the world in a two-type model. Of course I know this isn’t true, and I’ve spent plenty of time explaining false dichotomies to people, both in my personal and professional lives, but in a non-literal, knowingly unrealistic way, I like to do it anyway. My wife and I have a long-standing view, for instance, that there are two types of people in the world: people who would lick the plate if it were socially acceptable, and people who wouldn’t. “Lick the plate” is, in many ways, a statement of passion for food, but also for life. The “plate-licker” gestalt reveals a person with a zest not just for food, but for life. Somebody who wants to get every last drop out of the good stuff, and lick the plate. We’ve recognized this (false) dichotomy since early in our life together (we’ve been together for almost a quarter of a century, married for a fifth of a century), although it seems to have become an unspoken thing in the last few years.
I’m certainly not alone in my dichotomization of the world. Others have different splits, cat people and dog people, organized inbox people and those like me with thousands of unread emails, Coke vs Pepsi…we’ve seen these all.
So here’s my false dichotomy of the day: there are people who seek a label, and people who shun them. I’m one who seeks a label, and I think one has finally dawned on me. I’m a “Bartlet Democrat,” and proud of it.

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