Saturday, February 22, 2020

Why Biden is Down and Sanders is Up

A theory:

A year ago, Biden was polling nationally in first place. But a significant amount of his support was coming from people who supported him because of a belief in his “electability.” As soon as the myth of Biden’s electability was punctured, the bubble burst, and Biden’s polling numbers collapsed.

Sanders is the opposite phenomenon. For substantive reasons, a lot of people wanted to support Sanders, but hesitated because they were afraid he wasn’t sufficiently electable. And as Sanders began to raise unprecedented amounts of money from small-dollar donations, rise in the polls, perform strongly in debates, and win the popular vote in Iowa and then in New Hampshire, people who previously doubted his electability began to support him.

If I’m right about this phenomenon, Sanders is only at the beginning of a virtuous cycle. His massive win in Nevada—despite all establishment attempts to stop him—is going to draw even more supporters who had previously hesitated because of electability concerns. And as electability concerns are increasingly replaced by a belief that “Sanders could actually win this,” and as “Sanders could actually win this” is replaced by “Sanders is going to win this,” he is going to become unstoppable, no matter how much the Democratic establishment and the establishment media throws at him.

Of course I could be wrong; having watched innumerable television “experts” humiliate themselves prognosticating, it’s best to be humble about how much one might be missing.

But at this point, this is how I see it.

By the way, I got some of the idea for this post by a fascinating business book I read years ago—Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling Disruptive Products to Mainstream Customers—about how a new technology first attracts early adopters before crossing over to mass-market appeal.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Eminent Monsters

Last night I attended a screening of the documentary Eminent Monsters: A Manual for Modern Torture. This is a horrifying account of how various western psychologists devised the “mind-control” techniques of MKUltra, and how those techniques were then deployed against the “Hooded Men” in the UK, and revived yet again in America’s torture of prisoners at Guantanamo.

I’ve been writing about torture for 16 years. My initial attempt to grapple with the issue was, I realize now, emotional and ignorant. What I’ve learned since then is that the impulse to torture is a product of emotional urges: the rush of utter dominance over another human being; the satisfaction of instilling fear into a population; the comfort of a talisman. It’s also an outstanding way to produce false confessions. And because we humans are so superbly designed to provide intellectual rationalizations for actions that are in fact driven by emotion, we invent fantasy scenarios like “ticking time bombs” to explain actions we could never honestly justify.


Consider these quotes:

Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy. We have noted that self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings. It is the tribute which morality pays to immorality.
  —Reinhold Neibuhr

From pacifist to terrorist, each person condemns violence—and then adds one cherished case in which it may be justified.
  —Gloria Steinem

What makes torture eternally tempting isn’t that it “works.” It’s that humans are drawn to it for emotional reasons, and are extraordinarily adept at rationalizing.

(For more, consider the long and horrifying history of unwitting human experimentation in America. This isn’t a topic on any school curriculum I’m aware of. Which in one sense is unsurprising, because what society wants to look in the mirror and see something so hideous staring back? But which in another sense is both tragic and dangerous, because to pretend that atrocities are a product of culture and not of human nature—that is, to pretend that we good people could of course could never do such thingsis the best way to guarantee their return.)

Which is why President Reagan’s signing of the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment—and the Senate’s ratification, which by Article VI of the Constitution made the UNCAT the law of the land in America—was such a remarkable achievement. The treaty is a triumph of logic and morality over powerful and ever-present base emotional impulses. It’s also why the bipartisan conversion of torture from a crime to be prosecuted to a policy choice to be argued about is such a setback.

In the face of that setback, I fear our last line of defense against a torture recrudescence is to try to raise consciousness by telling the truth about torture. Eminent Monsters is a worthy contribution in that fight.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Not long ago I wrote a blog post about how the best way to talk about socialism was to not talk about socialism. This Nathan Robinson article from Current Affairs is a good example. Rather than cheering for Socialism! or Capitalism! (words that, in my experience, are so charged in America that they tend to prevent rather than foster meaningful thought and discussion), it simply poses a question. Which is:

Why are publicly financed fire departments good, while publicly financed health insurance is bad?

Of course there may be excellent reasons for why one is good and the other is bad! But in my opinion, this is the right way to approach questions of policy. Declaring Socialism! and Capitalism! is about as substantively meaningful as cheering for your favorite football team.

So please…if you want to comment on this link, don
t offer definitions, dont shout Venezuela!…just try to consider how publicly financed fire departments and publicly financed health insurance might be similar, how they might be different, and what those similarities and differences might suggest for policy.

No society has ever, or will ever, be built on agreement about substantive conclusions. But there are better ways to reach disagreement, and worse ones. Ways that leave the disagreeing people respecting each other and open to further discussion. And ways that degenerate into pathological antagonism and tribal warfare.

I think the Robinson article is one of the better ways. Here’s hoping it will provide an example…and some inspiration, too.