As the Trump Turns: The Attacker has Become the Attacked

It’s long been observed (and recently much more eloquently than I could explain it) that Trump is a sort of champion of Americans who are upset by and weary of the direction the United States has been going.  Specifically, many rural white folks and working class people (much of my family falls into these categories) for whom economic circumstances haven’t been nearly so pleasant as progressive claims about the immensity of their white privilege might suggest.

They need someone to express their legitimate concerns and even their not-so-legitimate concerns about Hillary Clinton as a candidate for President.  And Donald J. Trump is the consummate attack dog, going after Hillary Clinton with a will in all three of the Presidential debates.  He was so successful in prosecuting the case against Hillary Clinton that his supporters are often convinced (just as Trump says) that the polling data is rigged against him and that in reality he’s winning.

This is completely wrong, of course.  There’s no rigging worth the name, and the evidence show’s that he’s losing pretty badly.  Even moreso than Mitt Romney did.  But if you feel strongly enough to absolutely refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton (and I do too), then this might not make any sense to you.  How could the great attack dog Trump fail to convince a majority of people when he’s convinced his supporters?

Well, it may have to do with the fact that he’s been attacked himself.  Mostly by his own words.  The most effective attack dog against Donald J. Trump has been…Donald J. Trump.  One problem with being a person who can attack anyone (and also a person who can compliment anyone) is that it’s very easy to end up attacking someone you previously complimented.

For example, Trump has praised Hillary Clinton in the past for her work as Secretary of State.  More recently, he suggested that she was the worst SoS to ever have the job.  This attack might play well with those who are still outraged by the Benghazi incident, but it won’t play well with anyone who likes honesty and consistency.  Nor does it play well with Trump’s progressive opponents.

He’s not wrong to think that he’s being attacked frequently.  He’s been the target of many sneering attacks from progressives, serious critiques from progressives, and more serious and earnest critiques from conservatives.  These attacks have not infrequently been international in scope and incredibly caustic.

This is hardly unexpected.  When you attack people, they tend to respond with attacks on you.  And so the attacker has become the attacked, perpetuating the cycle of outrage with each new zinger that rouses his supporters.

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Luke Cage: Love Your Enemies


By Source, Fair use,

At this point, I’ve watched the first 11 episodes of Luke Cage.  This is the first Marvel television series (based on the comics) I’ve felt interested enough about to actually sit down and watch, so I went to the trouble of getting a Netflix account.  So far, I’m generally quite enjoying it, but I don’t always enjoy every aspect of it.

My first general observation is that the series is very well-written in terms of the overall narrative structure.  I really like how the writer/director (Cheo Hodari Coker) is tying all of these various plotlines and characters back into a narrative tapestry that functions as a whole rather than a set of coincidentally parallel threads.

My second general observation is that the acting is excellent.  The characters are believable as real people with the kind of real and complex motivations and thought processes and emotions that we experience in our own lives.  It’s not just the heroes who are depicted as having sympathetic motivations; the villains and bystanders who get involved (intentionally or accidentally) in the contests between the heroes and villains also have sympathetic motivations.  It’s easy for villains and bystanders to become only one-dimensional characters in a television series, but the Luke Cage series doesn’t fall into that trap often.

[SPOILER ALERT:  Major plot points will be discussed below.]

My third general observation is that the show has a really tough job in front of it with regard to navigating the political, racial, and sexual issues.  Those are extremely fraught topics right now, and there’s no way to make everyone in the audience happy with how the show handles them, primarily because many people prefer to watch shows that present those issues according to their point of view and doesn’t challenge their political beliefs.

For example, early in the series, Luke Cage makes it clear that he doesn’t appreciate it when other black folks address him as “nigger” or “nigga” in any context.  The debate among anti-racists over whether that word is appropriate to use and, if so, in what contexts it’s appropriate, has been had many times.  I remember people still having that debate when I was younger in the 90s and 00s.  Unfortunately, that debate doesn’t happen in the show (at least not in the episodes I’ve seen so far).

I think it would be valuable for some of the characters to articulate the reasons for their positions on the use of those words and give voice to their respective concerns, both because I think black folks need to have their voices heard in such a way that they can’t all be lumped into simple stereotypes and because it would be good for white folks in particular to see the complexity of that debate.  That said, I recognize that it might be very difficult to shoehorn such an extended dialogue into the show’s running time.

In other areas of racial/political concern, I was pleased to see that a variety of black voices are given space in the show’s dialogue.  For example, when police officers start stopping and frisking young black and Latino men and questioning them about Luke Cage after he beats up two police officers (one white and one black), this results in hearing many of the kinds of reactions about biased policing that we are currently hearing in our own lives.

And when a black officer (whose white training officer was killed, ostensibly by Luke Cage) hits a young black kid in the interrogation room because he won’t talk about Luke Cage, his mother expresses the view that because the black officers are blue, they might as well be white in terms of how they perceive things and behave.  Though I think that perspective gets some things wrong about black police officers, I think it’s valuable to show someone articulating that perspective under circumstances in which the whole audience might be able to understand the emotional weight of it.

I also thought it was valuable to show (in the context of Detective Misty Knight’s interrogation by a senior officer), how women can be extremely emotional but also strong in those moments of emotionality; it functions as a nice counterpoint to other cartoonish television depictions of women as either being weak and emotional or strong and callous.  I also liked the fact that her one-night stand with Luke Cage early in the series wasn’t just gratuitous titillation for the audience, but was actually an important part of creating conflict in the plot.

Luke’s respect for women was also an important thing to see in the series.  When Misty initially turned down Luke’s overtures, he acknowledged her choice and calmly walked away.  And he didn’t try to impress her with his super-strength or brag about his super-stamina.  His quiet confidence is something young men need modeled for them, especially young men who are inclined to brag about themselves.

Another powerful theme in the Luke Cage series is fatherhood.  Luke and Pop very much had the adopted father and son dynamic in their relationship, and Pop is a critical father-figure for many young men in the neighborhood.  The issue of so many fatherless young men is explicitly mentioned more than once in the series, though the debate over what to do about it wasn’t shown in any depth.

Fatherhood as a theme carries over into the relationship between Luke Cage and Diamondback (the major villain thus far).  Diamondback is Luke’s half-brother by way of having the same biological father, but their father never treated Willis (Diamondback’s real name) as a father should.  Their father was a charismatic preacher, and Diamondback still carries one of his father’s Bibles and quotes from it regularly.

In the Bible, there is an important passage about loving one’s enemies, and we see that lived out by Luke quite beautifully in his apologies to and compassion for Diamondback even while Diamondback is attacking him.  Luke owns the fact that he is his brother’s keeper even as Diamondback sees the Cain and Abel story as one that should be re-enacted with himself as the killing brother.

This kind of masculine compassion isn’t something that comes out in Luke as a surprise.  Earlier in the series, Luke tries very hard to avoid killing some people who are trying very hard to kill him on more than one occasion, whether they were police officers or members of an organized crime syndicate.  Luke is not presented as a one-dimensional perfect man, but his virtuous restraint of his strength and his use of that strength in the service of those who are weak and vulnerable shows us what healthy masculinity looks like.

There are many things to like about the Luke Cage series, but perhaps the most important is that it shows us that it is both possible and good to love your enemies.

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The Limits of Psychology: Artificial Intelligence Edition

Recently on BigThink, Steven Pinker proposed a very interesting explanation for the cases of “alpha males” expressing fear or apprehension about the rise of artificial intelligence.  As someone who is often viewed as an alpha male and has repeatedly expressed concerns about artificial intelligence and how poorly equipped we might be to handle it effectively, this video piqued my interest.

Especially because I’ve made the argument before that the existence of artificial superintelligence poses a serious psychological problem for us, I wanted to know what a famous psychologist like Steven Pinker might think of as the psychological genesis of our fears about a machine revolution that would end our evolution.

Apparently, he thinks that we manly men just have this fear because we think, rather egocentrically, that an artificial intelligence would be just like us manly men: aggressive and dominating, power-hungry and drunk with greed for more resources.  A few men might object that this is sexist.  But my question, regardless of any sexist assumptions, is this: is it true?

It seems intuitively plausible that men who are domineering and aggressive might assume that an artificial intelligence would share their traits, because we human beings naturally engage in egocentrically interpreting the psychological motivations of other beings.  So it does make some sense that what Pinker calls an “alpha male” might project his own traits onto an artificial intelligence incorrectly.

What seems odd to me about Pinker’s explanation isn’t that it’s implausible for the men he’s describing, but rather that it’s implausible because most of the men I know who are concerned or fearful of an artificial intelligence wiping out our species are nerdy “beta males” rather than muscle-bound “alpha males”.  The men who seem most concerned about this are very unlikely to have aggressive or domineering personalities, even if they might be high-achieving within their field of study or business.

A psychologist might propose in reply to my point that it would make sense for beta males to fear the domination and aggression of their alpha male antagonists, projecting the psychological motivations of the alpha males onto the artificial intelligence.  But this just seems like obvious motivated reasoning by a psychologist who seems to not understand the limits of psychology as applied to artificial intelligence.

The other problem is that the arguments being made by serious intellectuals about the dangers of artificial intelligence are not based on assumptions that it will be like us, but rather the very strong evidence that we are terrible at being perfect programmers.  And we have a very mixed record when it comes to safeguards in software.  How long did it take to have effective safeguards against data loss on PCs?

Pinker is happy to dismiss the idea that our safeguards will be insufficient with a wave of his hand, but I’ve worked in the computing and technology fields long enough to learn that even very skilled teams of programmers with lots of resources make really big mistakes on a regular basis.  There is no reason to think that the teams of skilled programmers working on artificial intelligence will have no blind spots and magically find a way to safeguard from any major problems.

On the other hand, we have lots of reason to think that blind spots will be consequential in developing artificial superintelligence in a way they would not be in developing a touchscreen interface.  An artificial intelligence, Pinker rightly points out, is unlikely to be malicious.  That lack of an unhealthy psychological motivation just doesn’t matter to how dangerous it would be, as I’ve explained before at length.

A shark doesn’t have to possess malicious psychological motivations to kill me.  Nor does a frightened bear trying to protect its cubs.  Nor does a copperhead snake when I’m intruding on its territory.  That doesn’t change the fact that I might well end up dead in those situations.  And that’s an important limitation of psychology to understand.

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Can Suicide Squad get DC to back away from the ledge?

I watched the Suicide Squad movie last weekend with a group of friends.  I was hoping we would settle on a different movie to watch, but I tried to keep an open mind about seeing something else.

I’ve been deeply underwhelmed by DC’s movie offerings lately.  The Batman trilogy that Christopher Nolan directed was quite enjoyable, but the Superman and Green Lantern offerings were just unappealing.  Their trailers effectively sold me on not watching them at all.  And then Batman v. Superman came out.  Even though I love the basic idea of pitting Batman against Superman as a lead-up to the establishment of the Justice League, the trailer and the plot synopsis I read wasn’t appealing enough to get me to make a concerted effort to see it.

I really enjoyed those comic book characters as a child and would naturally be drawn to movies featuring those characters.  Unfortunately, DC seems committed to having mediocre writing and a director who doesn’t seem to have a basic understanding of the characters he’s working with on the Superman films.  I had basically given up on DC managing a decent film offering without Christopher Nolan directing it.

And then I watched Suicide Squad.  It felt a little patchy in places, as if someone had done some sewing to put a new piece of cloth on an old garment.  Occasionally the humor flopped.  Some of the character development could have been better.  The political intrigue should have been written a bit better.

But on the whole, the movie was actually enjoyable.  The acting was excellent, on the whole.  The ways in which the movie helped me to care about the characters were sometimes ham-fisted, but it worked.  Some of the action sequences were a bit dull, but many of them were quite good.  It wasn’t a technically flawless film, but it was fun and exciting and the characters worked well together.

I’m hoping that this is the beginning of DC stepping away from the film-making ledge it has been perched on, staring into the abyss of movies that just don’t live up to the hype and the hopes of people who just want to see their favorite heroes (or villains) win the day.

Don’t jump off the ledge, DC.  We all want you to live and thrive, and the Suicide Squad film can help point you in a better direction.

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Little Bang Theory: The jokes are not The Joke

Recently, I finally sat down to watch the 3rd season of The Big Bang Theory (the only season of which I was given a DVD), a comedy that numerous friends have recommended to me.  Many of them had told me that the science and geek humor was great and I would really like it, but I didn’t actually enjoy those jokes very much.

They were the kind of jokes that seemed not to come from a genuine nerdy and quirky sense of humor, but rather a contrived sense of what a non-nerdy person would think of as nerdy humor.  Even when the jokes were technically correct, it somehow wasn’t the best kind of correct.  It took me slightly over a quarter of the season to figure out why.

What I realized is that the little nerdy puns, geeky references, and quirky comments aren’t actually the jokes of the show.  What gets the laughs is the social situations that seem so awkward to those of us watching and also to the characters in the show in many cases.  What we are laughing about is the lack of understanding that the men exhibit with women, the lack of understanding that the women exhibit with the men, and the general lack of social skills that the 4 nerdy male main characters exhibit over and over.

And that makes some sense.  After all, it’s perfectly understandable that we would do with socially inept nerds what we do with lots of other people who don’t have our talents.  Many people laugh at those who are academically inept, or physically inept, or inept when it comes to fashion, et cetera.  Laughing at others’ weaknesses is a perfectly normal human thing to do.  I’ve done it myself, though much less in the past few years, and that’s because I realize it’s not a morally good thing to do.

So although I can appreciate that the show features some good acting, some good character development, and some good writing, those bits and pieces of goodness are not enough to offset the fact that The Joke of this comedy is that the people we consider the smart people are often profoundly socially inept in ways that endanger their chances of having healthy relationships.

The Joke of The Big Bang Theory is true, but it’s not a truth that sets us free unless our acknowledgement of that truth leads us to help others who are struggling rather than laughing at them.

Posted in Current Events, Education, Relationships | 1 Comment

Fair Questions: Did Tim Kaine discard his beliefs about abortion to gain power?

There have been quite a few people in the Catholic segment of the blogosphere upset about Tim Kaine’s recent position on abortion.  In an op-ed published by CNN, Carter Snead points out that Kaine has recently changed his position on abortion.  The policies previously advocated by Kaine were essentially of the “safe, legal, and rare” variety of abortion policies that don’t try to overturn Rose V. Wade while they do try to reduce the overall amount of baby-killing.

Now, he has taken a stand in line with the Clinton campaign and is for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment along with co-sponsoring a bill to nullify any other legal restrictions on funding for, regulation of, or access to abortion.  Kaine is smart enough to know, and his friends in the Democratic Party smart enough to tell him, that the general consensus of the party has shifted on abortion…in the direction of loosening any restrictions on it.

Now, it’s certainly possible that Kaine is conveniently changing his position on the issue because the consensus of the Democratic Party has changed and he wants to be in line with the party as their Vice Presidential candidate.  It’s also possible that his current position was the position he held all along, and he was finally able to put himself in a political position in which it made sense to reveal his genuine policy beliefs.

Given that Kaine has stated that his progressive political ideology stemmed from his exposure to the Jesuits, and given his being of a particular progressive age, it would not surprise me at all if he had been in favor of loosening all restrictions on abortion for a long time.  That said, his argument that he is personally opposed to abortion but in favor of keeping it legal may not be dishonest.

It is definitely rationally incoherent, as Snead pointed out.  But as someone who used to make that same argument Kaine is making (along with almost half of the American electorate), I’m aware that the folks who make that argument are generally making it in good faith.  It’s not that they’re being cynical; they truly believe that even though they would never personally choose an abortion, the government’s role isn’t to intervene in such a complex moral dilemma.

Sure, I used motivated reasoning to reach my policy prescription of keeping abortion legal (and on such an emotionally-charged issue it’s difficult to avoid motivated reasoning), but my bad reasoning did not come from having bad intentions or a desire to gain political power.  Just as I truly believed it, the current crop of Pro-choice activists truly believe that the most compassionate thing we can do for women is to make abortion readily available and as comfortable as possible.

I don’t know that there is any way we can determine whether Tim Kaine is finally putting forward the policies that have matches his views all along or finally setting his personal views aside for political gain.  It could well be either one.  I just hope that he comes to a point at which he can stand firm on his actual principles, whatever those are.  Personal integrity is too important to sacrifice for something as small as temporary political power and great book deals.

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The Importance of Being Vulnerable

Recently, I read another article over at The Good Men Project, and this one was written by a woman who is imploring men to listen to their concerns rather than dismissing them as irrational or overly sensitive.

It’s easy for us men, especially those like me who are of above average height and musculature, to think that the fears and worries women express to us are groundless.  I suspect that the article’s author is correct that this is in part because we are generally not as vulnerable as women are and do not experience regular or constant attempts by others to appropriate our bodies.

And on the occasions when we do experience that (and I have on occasion experienced it), we are generally more confident in asserting our self-ownership and setting appropriate boundaries without being worried that we might be overpowered and our bodies appropriated without our consent.  Outside of a war zone, men are less likely to have lives which are shot through with bodily vulnerability in the same way that women generally do.

Perhaps it would help if more men did see combat, fight against larger opponents, work in an extremely dangerous job or engage in extreme sports in which bodily danger is a constant risk.  And perhaps it would help if  men were generally raised to understand that life is generally experienced differently for women so that when women express concerns about their vulnerability, more of us men can really listen to them instead of dismissing them.

This is of course not to say that every single concern a woman expresses is necessarily based on good evidence or good reasoning, or that we should never ask women to do self-examination and think critically about it.  It’s quite healthy to engage in self-examination to identify our insecurities and seek to overcome them.  But it is to say that we should not merely assume that a woman’s concerns aren’t based on good evidence or good reasoning.

Instead, we should understand our own vulnerability and let that be the stepping stone to listening to one another with an open mind and an open heart full of compassion.  But if we are never particularly vulnerable, this is unlikely to be something we can do well.

The importance of being vulnerable is that we can learn from that experience in order to become more compassionate to those who are the most vulnerable and in need of our strength.

Posted in Education, Relationships | 2 Comments