Radicals Disguised as Conservatives

My wife and I are re-watching The West Wing for the first time since Trump took office. It’s been…revelatory, to see those people and those controversies again, after the last four years. To imagine (again) a White House whose biggest scandal might be some harsh words said to a fundamentalist on television, a White House where a single lie to the Press Core can occupy a character’s arc for a whole episode.

A White House that might hire Ainsley Hayes.

If you’re not familiar with the show, Hayes is a young Republican that out-debates a high-level member of the President’s staff on a political talk show. When the President finds out, he decides to hire her to work in the White House Counsel’s office. She refuses, at first, to come work for a Democrat. But after seeing them working in the White House (as part of being there to turn the job down) the Chief of Staff summons her sense of duty, and she accepts.

I love the Ainsley Hayes character. She’s an excellent counter-weight to the arrogance of the other staff members, she’s smart and witty and optimistic amidst the daily hustle and bustle of the administration. And she faithfully represents the Republican position on issues circa 2000, right down to her objections to the Equal Rights Amendment.

It’s during an episode where she has a casual debate with another staffer on the ERA that she articulates the Republican governing philosophy:

I believe that every time the federal government hands down a new law, it leaves for the rest of us a little less freedom. So I say, let’s just stick to the ones we absolutely need to have water come out of the faucet and our cars not stolen.

This is an absolutely accurate summation of what Republicans believed (and many still believe).

The problem is, it’s not a conservative stance. It’s a libertarian one.

Libertarians want to roll back the role of government to what it was in the pre-industrial period: foreign defense, a little bit of property law, and that’s it. That’s why the Libertarian Party wants to legalize all drugs: the War on Drugs is not in service of either of those goals.

Which is all well and good, but neither is Social Security. Or the fire department. Or public schools.

If you believe that more law means less freedom, then you have no interest in making good laws. Because the only good law is the law that never gets passed.

This stance has been masquerading as conservatism in the United States for the last few decades, but it is not conservative.

To try to recover the conservative position, let’s turn to the writer considered the progenitor of the movement, Edmund Burke:

Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.

Hmm. Doesn’t sound like he thinks fewer laws means more freedom.

Nothing turns out to be so oppressive and unjust as a feeble government.

Oh? He doesn’t want to make government so small he can “drown it in the bathtub”?

Two more quotes, both of which, I believe, sum up the actual conservative position:

A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.

And:

The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse.

In other words: Modern Conservatism is opposition to radical change

That may sound like a small philosophy, but it turns out to be a big one. Burke was writing (from the safety of England) during the French Revolution, forming his philosophy out of opposition to the Terror.

He opposed both the refusal of the French aristocracy to change and the radical changes being made by Robespierre et al.

The conservatism of Burke fully believes in the power of government to do good. But it acknowledges the potential for government — like any powerful organization — to do evil.

It’s a combination of a skeptical view of the nature of people — government being necessary, in part, to protect us from our worse instincts — and a skeptical view of power wielded without check.

So while Burke might have opposed something like the ERA in his own time, someone like Burke dropped into the US of the 1970s, where women had been voting and going to college and having careers for decades, would have seen no issue with enshrining their equal status in law. In fact, he would have (rightly) seen it as a preservation of liberty against backsliding by the state.

Okay, one more quote:

The people never give up their liberties but under some delusion.

For a true conservative, one of the purposes of law is to firmly entrench the rights and liberties of the people. Thus more law can and does mean more freedom, if those laws are written correctly.

Also note that for Burke, liberty is not the freedom to do as we please. Burke believed that we could not be free unless we tamed our passions; that only a people with their emotions in check could be said to be free.

To take a more modern example, freedom does not mean the freedom to go without wearing a mask. Public health fits squarely in the realm of government, and those who defy laws written to preserve public health are not exercising their liberty, but inciting anarchy. That’s a true conservative viewpoint.

It’s difficult to see, after decades of the Republican party trying to put their stance into practice, but they are not conservatives. They’re radicals, shading into libertarians, wrapping themselves in a tradition they no longer follow.

Biden Defeats Trump

You love to see it.

Jesus, we actually fucking did it.

We’re kicking the Giant Orange Baby out of the White House.

This is an historic victory, for so many reasons.

First Black woman elected VP.

First South Asian VP.

First woman VP, period.

A record 74 million votes and counting for the winning candidate. In the midst of a global pandemic. And while the incumbent spent months casting doubt on the entire election process.

Biden’s also the most experienced President-elect we’ve had in a long time.

Obama was a one-term senator. Bush II had been a state governor, but hadn’t served in the federal government at all. Same for Clinton.

And we all know Trump hadn’t worked in government at all, not even at the level of parking attendant.

You have to go all the way back to George H.W. Bush to find a President with anything like Biden’s experience. Bush I had been VP to Reagan for eight years, and before that he’d been a Congressional Representative, the US’ Ambassador to the UN, and CIA Director.

It’s a good precedent. Bush I was a steady hand at the wheel, avoiding the quagmire in Iraq that his son would jump into feet-first, and navigating the end of the Cold War with grace.

But maybe a better parallel for Biden is even further back, nearly sixty years back, with LBJ.

Like Biden, LBJ served for decades in the US Senate before becoming VP to a younger, less experienced, but more charismatic President. And when he took office, he was seen as carrying the burden of finishing what the previous President had started. Just we look to Biden to consolidate and extend Obama’s legacy.

Thankfully, LBJ was a master at getting legislation passed, which is how a Texan ended up signing both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act.

Biden’s going to need some of that skill to work with Congress, especially if the Republicans hold onto the Senate and McConnell decides to continue his role as Majority Roadblock.

We can only hope the parallel holds that far. Goodness knows we could use some good luck, here in the States, after four years of being cursed with the worst administration in over a hundred years.

Please Vote

The Washington Post has a comprehensive run-down of everything the Trump regime has broken over the last four years. The list is long, and it starts from the very first day of their time in office.

We need to roll it all back.

But more than that, we need to fix the broken parts of American democracy, that have allowed a minority government to stall progress and enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us.

We need to reform the Supreme Court. Justices should have term limits. And the power the justices have arrogated to themselves of deciding the constitutionality of laws passed by Congress should be removed, and placed in a completely separate, explicitly bi-partisan, Constitutional Court.

We need to abolish the Electoral College. We elect governors and mayors directly. We should elect the President directly, too.

We need to admit both Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico as states. They deserve the full rights (and responsibilities!) of citizenship.

Finally, we need to address the balance of power between Congress and the Executive. Congress should take back powers it’s given away, like the ability to declare a state of emergency.

And it should reduce the powers of the executive branch where they have been delegated. For example, border patrol agents should have no special powers to search and seize, no matter how close to the border we are. Federal police should not be able to deploy military weapons against citizens who have peacefully assembled. And moving funds between agencies or programs (when Congress has explicitly earmarked them) should be labeled a crime, and thus an impeachable offense.

All this, in addition to specific policy shifts, like stopping the provision of military gear to police departments, ending the abuse of refugees and migrants, and rebuilding the State Department as the primary driver of foreign policy.

It’s a lot. But it’s not impossible. We can do it, but it’s going to take all of us.

So please, vote. Vote not as the end, but as the beginning, of building a better country together.

Because none of us are free, unless we are all free.

The End of Policing, by Alex S. Vitale

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve always been afraid of the police.

Not that I have any negative experience to make me afraid. No, I grew up White and privileged, shielded from the things they did to others.

Yet I was afraid. And I was right to be.

Because if the police can pull you over for a broken taillight, insist on a search of your car, and choke you to death when you resist said illegal search, you never want to be pulled over.

If the police can raid your house on an anonymous tip and kill your dog when it tries to protect you from the armed intruders violating your home, then leave without even an apology when they learn it’s the wrong home, you never want to have them pay you a visit.

And if they have the power to insist that the only way you’re going to get help with your heroin addiction is to plead guilty to a crime that hurt no one but yourself, you never want to ask them for help.

But that’s where we are, in the United States. We’ve expanded the role and powers of police so much, that the often the only hand being held out for those who are homeless, or addicts, or mentally disturbed, is the one holding a gun.

As we re-examine the place of police in our society, Vitale’s book is essential reading. It’s not a screed, and not wishful thinking about how everything would be peaceful if the police went away.

Instead, it takes a hard look at what the police are for, and then dares to ask the question: Are they successful at it?

As it turns out, they’re not. They’re not any good at solving homelessness, or making sex work safe, or getting addicts into recovery, or reducing gang violence, or helping the mentally ill get treatment, or disciplining school children, or even something as mundane as actually preventing crime.

Police, in a word, are a failure. They’re an experiment that we need to end.

Because the problems we’ve asked them to address can be, just by different means.

We can get the homeless into homes, and use that as a foundation to get them standing on their own again.

We can invest in businesses in and around gang-troubled neighborhoods, to give the people who might join those gangs the opportunity to do something better.

We can find other ways to discipline children than having them handcuffed and marched out of school.

The End of Police is both a passionate plea for us to find a better way, and a dispassionate look at how badly our approaches to these problems have gone wrong.

It’s not too late to try something else. We just need to make the choice.

Which Country Has the World’s Best Health Care? by Ezekiel J Emanuel

Today, the US healthcare system occupies a place very like US beer did in the 1990s.

See back then, US beer was a joke to liberals, or anyone that took beer seriously, and a point of patriotic pride to conservatives.

These days, after decades of shifting regulations that allowed the market for craft beer to first find a foothold, then blossom, US craft beer is world-renowned. Numerous pubs in other countries proclaim they serve “American-style craft beer.” People across the political spectrum can take pride in their local brewers, no snobbery or jingoism required.

Our healthcare system has not experienced anything close to that kind of renaissance. Conservatives refuse to countenance any critique of the system, while liberals use it as a tired punching bag. We’re warned of the dangers of “socialist medicine,” all the while my mother-in-law is constantly harassed about a $4,000 bill she doesn’t owe (the hospital filed it wrong with her insurance), doctors and nurses are overworked, and millions go without any sort of insurance.

And, frankly, Medicare for All sounds great, but it scares the bejeezus out of anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders. Not to mention it’s sort of vague on details, and seems to require a rather large leap to get from here to there.

So I was primed for a retread of the old arguments in Which Country Has the World’s Best Healthcare?. US healthcare is terrible, Canada’s is great, etc etc.

Thankfully, that’s not what I got at all. Instead, I found the missing manual, a way to evaluate different healthcare systems around the globe. Along with a proper sense of the history and workings of eleven of them.

Emanuel describes a set of axes along which to measure a healthcare system. Things like patient wait times, or costs at the point of service, or choice of doctors. Then he proceeds to examine each country’s system in turn, looking at the things it does well, the challenges it faces, and — most importantly — how and why it does those things well or badly.

True, the US performs terribly on basically every axis. That’s not news. What is news is that multiple countries manage to provide better coverage, better care, and cheaper care, without giving up private practices, or even — in some cases — letting go of private insurance!

Reading this, I felt both relieved and angry.

Relieved, because with so many different systems out there, no one’s got a monopoly on the “right” way to do things.

Angry, because for so long the debate in the US has been framed as single payer or status quo. When the truth is that we can do a lot to improve our system without letting go of the basic free market nature of it.

How much further would we liberals have gotten, if we’d argued for a regulation of drug prices, instead of single-payer? Or insisted that insurance coverage for children be provided for free, as part of any policy, like it is in other countries with well-regulated markets?

We don’t have to have the government take over as the single payer for everyone. We don’t need to radically overhaul the system. We need to properly regulate it, to get the outcomes we want: patients being able to choose their doctor, use their insurance to help pay for their care, and not go broke obtaining the prescriptions they need.

Framed as the proper regulation of a free market, what could the conservative response have been? I suppose they could argue that Greed is Good, and everyone that has to choose between paying the rent and buying their blood pressure meds deserves it, so the CEO of some corp can enjoy a multi-million dollar bonus.

But that doesn’t have quite the same ring as “death panels,” does it?

So ultimately, I’m grateful that Emanuel and his team chose to write this book, and publish it now. It’s high time we brought a more nuanced, useful debate, to the argument over healthcare.

Are Job Degree Requirements Racist?

Since reading Ibram X Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist, I’m starting to re-examine certain policies I’ve taken for granted. What I’ve previously thought of as meritocratic or race-neutral might be neither; it might instead be part of the problem.

In that book, he gives a clear criteria for whether a policy or idea is a racist one: Does it establish or reinforce racial inequality?

With that in mind, I thought I’d look at my own house — the tech industry — and at our very real tendency to run companies composed mostly of white males.

There are many reasons why this happens, but I’d like to drill into just one: The university degree requirement.

Most “good jobs” these days require some sort of university degree. Tech goes one step further, and asks for a degree specifically in computer science or another STEM field.

The degree isn’t enough to get the job, of course. Most interview processes still test skill level at some point. But the field of candidates is narrowed, deliberately, via this requirement.

The question is: Does requiring this technical degree bias the selection process towards White people?

Criteria

Before diving into the statistics, let’s back up and talk about the criteria here. How can we tell if the degree requirement biases selection?

In order to do that, we need to know what an unbiased selection process would look like.

And here is where it’s important to note the composition of the general US population (and why the Census being accurate is so very very important). If all things are equal between racial groups, then the composition of Congress, company boards, and job candidates will reflect their percentages in the population.

Anything else is inequality between the races, and can only be explained in one of two ways: either you believe there are fundamental differences between people in different racial groups (which, I will point out, is a racist idea), or there are policies in place which are creating the different outcomes.

With that criteria established, we can examine the possible racial bias of requiring university degrees by looking at two numbers:

  • How many people of each racial group obtain STEM degrees in the United States?
  • How does that compare to their level in the general population?

Who Has a Degree, Anyway?

According to 2018 data from the US Census, approximately 52 million people (out of a total US population of 350 million) have a bachelor’s degree in the US.

Of those 51 million, 40.8 million are White.

Only 4.7 million are Black.

That means White people hold 79% of all the bachelor degrees, while Black people hold only 9%.

Their shares of the general population? 76.3% White, 13.4% Black.

So Whites are overrepresented in the group of people with bachelor degrees, and Blacks are underrepresented.

So by requiring any university degree, at all, we’ve already tilted the scales against Black candidates.

Who is Getting Degrees?

But what about new graduates? Maybe the above numbers are skewed by previous racial biases in university admissions (which definitely happened), and if we look at new grads — those entering the workforce — the percentages are better?

I’m sorry, but nope. If anything, it’s worse.

Let’s drill down to just those getting STEM degrees (since those are the degrees that would qualify you for most tech jobs). In 2015, according to the NSF, 60.5% of STEM degrees were awarded to White people, and only 8.7% of them went to Black people.

The same report notes that the percentage of degrees awarded to Black people (~9%) has been constant for the last twenty years.

So universities, far from leveling the racial playing field, actually reinforce inequality.

Conclusion

Simply by asking for a university degree, then, we’re narrowing our field of candidates, and skewing the talent pool we draw from so that White people are overrepresented.

Thus, we’re more likely to select a White candidate, simply because more White people are able to apply.

That reinforces racial inequality, and makes requiring a university degree for a job — any job — a racist policy.

What can we do instead? To be honest, if your current interview process can’t tell candidates who have the right skills from candidates who don’t, then requiring a college degree won’t fix it.

If your interview process leans heavily on discovering a candidate’s background, instead of their skills, re-balance it. Come up with ways to measure the skills of a candidate that do not require disclosure of their background.

In programming, we have all sorts of possible skill-measuring techniques: Asking for code samples, having candidates think through a problem solution during the interview, inviting essay answers to questions that are open-ended but can only be completed by someone with engineering chops.

By asking for a demonstration of skill, rather than personal history, we’d both make our interviews better — because we’d be filtering for candidates who have shown they can do the job — and less biased.

And if we’re serious about increasing diversity in our workplaces, we’ll drop the degree requirement.

How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi

Powerfully written.

Kendi lays out a set of definitions for racism, racist, and antiracist, then shows how those rules apply across different areas: culture, sexuality, gender, class, etc.

Along the way, he tells stories from his own life, using his personal growth to illustrate how following the principles of antiracism leads to also being a feminist, an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community, and an anticapitalist.

Because Kendi is so willing to be vulnerable here, to admit to his previous homophobia, his sexism, his snobbery towards other Black people, his hatred of White people, he takes us along the journey with him. And he makes it okay if you’re still only part way along the journey, because he gives you a path forward.

What could easily have been a sermon, then, becomes a conversation. A directed conversation, to be sure, one with a purpose, but one where both parties admit they’ve made and will make mistakes. It made me want to be better, to think more clearly, than simply laying out his current perspective would.

And his anchoring of racism vs antiracism in power, and the way power is distributed among (invented) racial groups, is empowering. By targeting power’s self-interest, we can push for lasting changes, not just momentary victories.

We don’t wait for racism to fade away. We don’t wait for my family to become less afraid of Black people. We first remove the laws and policies keeping the races unequal, then people’s fears will go away.

It’s a serious responsibility, but it gives me hope. Because it makes the work more concrete: Not asking people to hold hands and sing together, but winding down the police state. Investing more in schools, and less in prisons. Breaking up monopolies and pushing power and money into communities that have neither.

So I recommend this book to anyone, of any race or caste. It offers clarity and hope in equal measure, because we have to see how racist power works — and how pervasive racist ideas are, in all groups — if we are to dismantle it.

What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron

This is turning into a month of listening, for me.

After the controversy erupted over J.K. Rowling’s statements on trans people, I realized how little I actually know about that side of human experience. Where did these new pronouns come from? What’s the difference between transsexual (which has been around since I was a kid) and transgender? Why nonbinary?

So I decided to start with digging into pronouns. Because a) I’m a grammar nerd, and b) Getting more comfortable using new or different pronouns is a concrete action I can take, right now.

And I’m glad I did! This book is a delight, a quick read that doesn’t skimp on the details.

For example, I had no idea of the controversy over generic he that raged in the US and UK over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Suffragettes like Susan B Anthony argued that if he covered women when it came to paying taxes and being arrested for crimes, then it covered them when it came to voting, too.

This passage, in particular, struck me as completely bad-ass:

If, for instance, in a penal law there are no feminine pronouns, women should be exempt from the penalties imposed. And if men are to represent woman in voting, let them represent her in all. If a wife commits murder let the husband be hung for it.

She (and suffragettes throughout the nineteenth century) lost that argument, and the argument that the fourteenth amendment covered women, since it used not he but persons and citizens.

Which is why the current discussion over the ERA — where detractors insist the fourteenth amendment already covers women — is so specious. There’s hundreds of years of American jurisprudence that says otherwise. We absolutely need an explicit amendment that grants women full and equal rights.

As even this one example, shows, arguments over pronouns go back a long way.

Calls for a new “gender-neutral” pronoun go back three hundred years (!).

Use of the singular they in just that manner go back seven-hundred years! It was never accepted by grammarians, but it was used in print and daily speech all the time.

Baron traces all of this history — the legalities of the generic he, the rise of new pronouns, etc — and links it together, showing how the current debates about pronouns and trans rights echo debates we’ve had down the centuries. Every time, the side of “existing usage” is really on the side of weaponizing grammar to suppress certain populations.

That’s a side I don’t want to be on.

If you’re at all curious about where the “new” pronouns have come from, and why using the right pronouns is so important, I highly encourage you to read this book.

Or if you’re already onboard with explicitly asking for people’s pronouns (and sharing your own), and just like language, I’d still recommend it, as a fantastic and informative read.

So: What’s your pronoun? I’m he/him/his 🙂

Defund the Police: A Skit (with apologies to Letterkenny)

Daryl: About the protests the other day–

Wayne: Assholes with authority are assaulting folks for asinine reasons.

Daryl: But–

Wayne: Beating bystanders with billy clubs and then bleating for bills is bully talk.

Daryl: Can’t we just–

Wayne: Cancel the cops.

Daryl: Do you mean…?

Wayne: Defund the detectives. Defang the dildo-wielding degenerates who deal damage and destruction wherever they descend.

Daryl: Even if they–

Wayne: Evict those eager eagles from their erroneously elevated nest.

Daryl: For how long?

Wayne: Until fascist fuck-ups who would fancy frisking a black fish if they found one finally confess.

Daryl: Golly

Wayne: Granted god-like powers to grab goods and grandstand on greatness, they gotta go.

Daryl: Have you thought about–

Wayne: Heave ho to the hot-headed hitmen with hearts of hate and habits of heavy fists.

Daryl: Just–

Wayne: Justice doesn’t jump out and jack-boot a juggler in the jiggles just for laughs.

Daryl: ‘Kay.

Wayne: Keep the keystone kleptocracy kilometers away from kids, is all I’m saying.

Daryl: Likely.

Wayne: Laying into little Leopolds and Lillys without legal legitimacy is for losers.

Daryl: Maybe they–

Wayne: Mashing moppets every month for making messes is monstrous.

Daryl: Not if they–

Wayne: Noting the narcs neglect of their neighbors in favor of nightly numbers.

Daryl: Ouch.

Wayne: Overlooking obvious offenders in their offbeat overstretch creates opposition.

Daryl: Proof.

Wayne: Punching protestors is poor protection of the public.

Daryl: Quotas.

Wayne: Quenching their quixotic quest for quotidian quiet.

Daryl: Right?

Wayne: Radical rascals who reject right-thinking and responsibility.

Daryl: Sounds like–

Wayne: Shifty seneschals who shit on any semblance of sanity.

Daryl: Talking about–

Wayne: Tiny totalitarians who top out thinking tanks make them trustworthy.

Daryl: Unbelievable.

Wayne: Utterly unsatisfactory and unscrupulous usage of ubiquitous umbrellas of immunity.

Daryl: Verily.

Wayne: Vanquish the vicars of vicious vicissitude and vampires of verification.

Daryl: What you mean is–

Wayne: Walk over to those wankers with their whale-like wads of cash, wax their ears, and wash ’em off our way-fares.

Daryl: Extreme.

Wayne: Exactly.

Daryl: You really think–

Wayne: Yes.

Daryl: Zounds.

Wayne: Zip ’em up, and zero out their budgets.

Daryl: All righty then.

Wayne: Black Lives Matter, bud.

Juneteenth

Growing up in Texas, we didn’t talk about Juneteenth in school.

We talked about the Civil War, of course. Of the “brave” and “fearsome” soldiers that Texas sent to fight for the Confederacy. But not about slavery, other than it being a “bad thing” that “was over now.”

We talked about Texas’ War of Independence from Mexico. That war was also motivated by slavery, by the desire for white Texans to have and import slaves. But we didn’t talk about that either. Only the Alamo, and Santa Anna, and again, the “brave” soldiers who fell.

But we never mentioned the brave slaves who ran away from home, in a desperate flight to freedom. Knowing they would be beaten if caught, and possibly killed.

We never talked about the black soldiers that served in the Union army, knowing the whites in that army still thought of them as “lesser men,” and that if captured by the Confederates they’d be made into slaves, even if they’d been raised free.

We didn’t talk about that kind of bravery.

So we didn’t talk about Juneteenth, and how its origins were Texan. How white Texans were so desperate to hold onto their human property that it took a Union Army arriving on the Gulf shore to force them to give them up.

Because our history was written and taught by white Southerners, who, being racist themselves, can’t see anything but shame in such a holiday. They identify too strongly with the losing side.

But having learned about the holiday as an adult — too late, true, but better than never — I can see pride in it, mixed in with the shame.

Not white pride, mind you, but American pride. Pride that the Civil War was fought and won by the side of justice. Pride that the slaves were freed, that we set off on a path to give all Americans the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The path is long and stony, and we’ve still a long way to go. But we can celebrate the progress we’ve made, even while pushing forward into the future.

I’m spending this Juneteenth catching up on more of the history that I missed in school. And thinking on how I can do my part to move us further down the path to becoming a truly free country.

Justice for Breonna’s killers.

Defund the Police.

Black Lives Matter.