Saturday, March 03, 2007

Coulter and the rest of us

by Dave

Ho hum. Another year, another CPAC conference, another contrived Ann Coulter Controversy, just like last year. Once again, we get a kabuki dance from movement conservatives who denounce the remarks themselves but neglect to go any farther.

As I noted last year:
Across the board, would-be mainstream conservatives behave the same: they invite her onto their talk shows, book her for their conferences, and buy (and promote) her books by the bushel. Then, when she says something outrageous, either simply pretend it didn't happen or sniff that no one takes her seriously.

Conservatives, in fact, have been happily swimming in the Coulter cesspool for a long time and have not only failed to notice the stink, they've positively extolled its virtues.

The extent to which conservatives willingly turn a blind eye to what Coulter represents is reflected in their abject unwillingness to confront it.

Perhaps part of the reason for this is what happens to conservatives -- like, say, Dan Borcherd -- who actually do: they get roughed up by Coulter's goons -- another incremental step in the right's thuggishness. Now they're tossing out genuine Republicans who were actually invited to their events. (Recall, if you will, Coulter's call for students to behave as goons on her behalf at a campus appearance last year.)

Unsurprisingly, the talk as usual has focused on Coulter's rather naked bigotry. But it's also worth observing the context in which she placed it:
Oh, and I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards. But it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word "faggot," so I'm -- so I'm kind of at an impasse, can't really talk about Edwards. So I think I'll just conclude here and take your questions.

The reason Coulter is worth watching is that she serves as a kind of advance bellwether -- watch how she forms her argument, because it will become a template for the rest of the right in the coming months and years. She made her bones promoting the Myth of the Clenis in the '90s, and her "treasonous liberals" meme is now a ceaseless favorite of her fellow movement ideologues. The underlying tenets of last year's "raghead" remark -- that Muslims themselves are not merely "the problem" but The Enemy, and that they deserve not just our everlasting contempt but persecution -- are now being eagerly bandied about on cable TV by the likes of Glenn Beck.

Watch what comes out of Coulter's mouth now, because you'll be hearing variations on it for the next several years. All slightly less noxiously, of course, but the underlying logic (or rather, the lack thereof) is the same.

Coulter's mockery in this case is aimed, of course, at the "political correctness" that conservatives love to inflate as a sign of liberal hypocrisy and stupidity, and perhaps overweening authoritarianism. In Coulter's world, calling someone a "faggot" requires rehabilitation or "reeducation." Pity the poor schlubs, she's telling us, who just want to call a faggot a faggot.

In the real world, of course, calling someone a faggot isn't cause for forced rehab -- though it is the kind of ugly, hateful remark that may indicate a deeper problem (such as, say, substance abuse) that does require rehab. Coulter herself may want to look into this. She can ask her pal Rush for pointers, though I don't think he'll be much help.

Deeper issues or not, what it does indicate is that the person wielding it is a thoughtless bigot whose opinions and beliefs are forever tainted by that bigotry. It is the kind of remark that should, in the real world, permanently discredit whatever that person says.

But not in Wingnuttia. As Glenn Greenwald adroitly observes:
Anyone who went to this event -- and that includes Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, and Dick Cheney -- knew exactly what they would be getting. Coulter's face was prominently plastered on the promotional material. The right-wing political candidates who accepted the invitations to speak there knew exactly the type of people would be there -- namely, the type who continously cheer on Ann Coulter's bigoted and nakedly hateful screeds. Anyone who makes themselves a part of that event is purposely associating themselves with those sentiments. That is what this Conference is for.

The right has been feasting at Coulter's Diner for several years now and just loving the shit sandwiches she serves up regularly. They may cough and choke a little, but they all settle back and let her be the face of the movement, because it serves them well. After all, Coulter can trot out the latest bullshit, take all the lightning hits because that's what she does, and it just promotes her image in the media.

The "edgy" hate talk that she has been pushing for some time now especially appeals to the frat-boy level of sophistication that is her intended audience, and this latest iteration is all about justifying the new bigotry. Coulter's underlying logic is simple: Bigots are just people with different ideas, not hateful misanthropes whose beliefs are innately poisonous.

Expect to hear a lot of iterations of this. Already you can see it having an effect on the campus level, where right-wing acolytes of the Coulter School of Pseudo Fascism have been holding "Find the Illegal Immigrant" games or "South of the Border" parties, and mock MLK Day parties, and the like. Bigotry, with this crowd, is "edgy."

Greenwald also remarks on a related point:
But we should, at the very least, be able to have a moratorium on all of the scandals driven by their claims to be so offended and upset when anonymous commenters on a blog say mean things, or when bloggers use curse words, or when Senators transparently botch a joke. The ugliest and most obscene sentiments are openly expressed not by their blog commenters or even bloggers -- though that is true -- but by their most admired and successful political leaders, the ones whom their presidential candidates desperately seek to embrace and for whom their most committed throngs cheer wildly.

Unfortunately, I think Greenwald misses an important nuance to the dynamic at work here: The endless accusations of ugliness and "unhinged" behavior on the left are actually part of the right's general projection strategy, of which Coulter, Limbaugh, and Malkin are the chief heralds. These accusations are not only flung in the face of reality, their very purpose is to obscure and distort it -- and to justify the right's own behavior.

After all, since liberals are so clearly unhinged -- as Howard Kurtz will happily parrot for you -- it's only natural that they get their faces slapped a little in return, right?

Pretty soon, of course, we'll be hearing all about left-wingers' supposed desire to do away with, and inflict violence upon, conservatives -- that is, after all, an important subtext of Coulter's latest controversial jibe. That should be the warning sign that they're justifying their own future actions. With Coulter, no doubt, leading the charge.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Mr. Robinson Speaks

by Sara

Mr. Robinson was, in fact, our original family blogger. His Mischievous Ramblings actually probably pre-date Orcinus, which is getting back there pretty far in blog years. He doesn't post often, and his readership mostly consists of fellow geeks who really care about arcane computer hacks and techno-toys and software engineering and management issues (oh, and Kipling: Mr R. will Kipple at considerable length if you ask -- and too often, if you don't); and his readership is generally low except for those rare occasions when he gets Slashdotted.

Last night, though, he put up one that I thought belonged here.

Late to the Party

"Forgive. Sounds Good.
Forget. I'm Not Sure I Could."

The experience of the Dixie Chicks says a lot about America. Not only are they a rags-to-riches story in the best country-western music tradition, they're also a great example of "sticking to your guns" in the face of tremendous pressure to change fundamental beliefs.

"I've paid a price, and I'll keep payin' "

Natalie Maines never tried to blame anyone else for the firestorm of criticism that hit the band after her off-the-cuff remark in London. Her partners (Emily Robison and Martie Maguire) never blamed Natalie for their being booted from country radio. The Chicks accepted responsibility for Natalie's remark, clarified their support of the troops (just not of Mr. Bush) and moved on.

In contrast, all of their detractors blamed the Chicks for everything from supporting al-Qaida to how badly the war in Iraq was going. And as the war news worsened, it seems as though the "country right" blamed the girls more and more. Even now, when the dismal results of Bush's policy of preemptive war are obvious, country music can't acknowledge that Natalie was right: George Bush is an embarrassment to the State of Texas and to the United States of America.

Instead, country music is claiming that the Grammys don't represent country music, that the Chicks aren't country anymore, and that the intelligentsia of the left have subverted the awards process.

The contrast is overwhelming. The Chicks accepted responsibility for their actions and worked hard to find themselves another (more tolerant of freethinking) audience. Country music pushed responsibility for failure in Iraq onto the shoulders of three "Chicks" from Texas instead of back onto the slumping shoulders of Mr. Bush.

Natalie was magnanimous at the Grammys when she said "I'm ready to make nice." She was remarkably adult about it, considering that the country right acted like six-year olds throughout the ordeal.

"It's a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her
daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger"

"that they'd write me a letter sayin' I better
shut up and sing or my life will be over"

The eliminationist Right stood up and said that the Chicks should be killed for expressing their opinion about the pResident. The country music establishment backed dollars over free speech, and if country listeners had a tenth of the patriotism they claim to, they'd boycott every company advertising on a radio station that stopped playing the Chicks.

But it's not a surprise that country listeners didn't. Country listeners are overwhelmingly rural and largely Southern. According to [David Hackett Fischer's book] Albion's Seed, the American South (and much of the rural west) was largely settled by the Cavalier and Borderer waves of English immigration. The Cavalier concept of freedom is a bit different from the rest of us. Specifically, freedom is something that depends upon your social class (higher classes have more freedom).

Yeah, that's right. Freedom is not something everybody gets -- it's something of which the lowest classes have a little (at the sufferance of their "betters") and of which the upper classes (the wealthy, members of the legislature, lawyers, etc.) have a great deal.

Kinda puts that whole slavery thing into perspective, doesn't it? Reinforced by the natural xenophobia of the Borderers, the classism of the Cavaliers has descended from the 1600s to the present day south lock, stock, barrel, racism, and "y'all ain't from around heah?"

As women the Chicks are automatically lower on the class order. As economically lower class women (as they all were before they hit big), they're even lower on the class order. As such, their freedom of speech is less important to the country listeners and establishment. And to the Right in general.

"I'm not ready to make nice. I'm not ready to back down.
I'm still mad as hell and I don't have time to go round and round and round."

This song isn't just the Chicks talking about their experience. It's not just a source of strength for everyone who's ever been domestically abused (as part of that group, I find it incredibly powerful). It's not just a liberal anthem, or a Democratic anthem against the war or the Right. It's a small-d democratic anthem reminding us that the south and the Right were both late to the democracy and freedom parties.

If we want to keep those parties going, we have to outnumber the south and the Right, and work hard to bring as many of them as possible to the democracy party.

I've been reading Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America over the past couple weeks, and we've been having some lively discussions around the house about it. Fischer's research illuminates the ways in which the Yankee North and Dixie came to have very different cultural beliefs about freedom, rights, class, power, and tolerance -- some of which have their roots in English history going all the way back to the Middle Ages -- and how those attitudes clashed and blended to create the nation we ultimately became. I'm going to to blog at greater length on the book's premises and their implications for American authoritarianism over the next several days; but the saga of the Chicks is, as Mr. R. notes, yet another shouting match in an ancient and ongoing dialogue.

I can't recall the last time I left the house and got back without hearing Not Ready To Make Nice playing somewhere. And I take it as a good sign. We're due for a liberal anthem -- one that reminds us (every 20 minutes on the radio) that, after all the extremist right has put us all through over the past 25 years, we have well and truly earned the fury we feel. We are nowhere near being ready to make nice, and probably won't be for a long time to come.

Apologies first. Restitution next. And then, perhaps, we'll be ready to discuss forgiveness.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Kauffman's Rules, 15-21

by Sara

The next installment of Kauffman's Rules: more stuff to think about, and more to talk about.

15. High morality depends on accurate prophecy. You cannot judge the morality of an action unless you have some idea of what the consequences of the action will be. According to this point of view, an action cannot be good if it has evil results, and everyone has a moral obligation to try to foresee, as well as possible, what the results of various decisions will be.

Another of my favorites. We tend not to consider good foresight essential morality -- but foresight is nothing more than forward-looking judgment; and we know that real- world morality (as opposed to the synthetic fundamentalist product) has everything to do with sound judgment.

This explains why double-highs (people who are high in social dominance, and also in right-wing authoritarian traits) are unfit to hold positions of political or cultural leadership. Double highs don't look much farther ahead than their next conquest; and morality has no place in their worldview at all. You might as well put your future in the hands of a Class V hurricane rather than hand it over to people who are constitutionally incapable of assessing or accepting the results of their own decisions. (Oh….right. Never mind.)

16. If you can't make people self-sufficient, your aid does more harm than good. This usually comes up in discussing problems of poverty or hunger, where temporary relief often postpones the disaster at the cost of making it much worse when it comes. It is not really an argument against helping, but an argument against half-way measures. Ghandi said the same thing in a more positive way: "If you give me a fish, I eat for a day; if you teach me to fish, I eat for a lifetime."

Or, as another beloved freedom-fighting guru of a later generation put it: Do or do not. There is no try.

Partial fixes that are focused one part of the system alone almost always make the situation worse. They're usually just big enough to throw the system out of balance, forcing it to adjust elsewhere to compensate. And that adjustment, more often than not, creates a bigger problem than the one your tweak was trying to solve. In other words, the road to unintended consequences is paved with quick patches.

17. There are no final answers. As Ken Boulding put it, "If all environments were stable, the well-adapted would simply take over the earth and the evolutionary process would stop. In a period of environmental change, however, it is the adaptable, not the well-adapted who survive." This applies to social systems as well as natural ones. In a time of rapid change, like the present, the best "solution" to a problem is often one that just keeps the problem under control while keeping as many options for the future as possible.

I'm constantly amazed at the number of people who think that the way things are now is the way they're always going to be. (Again, it's probably a more common conservative habit of mind -- was it only a year ago that the GOP was gloating they'd be running the show for the next generation?) But the fact is that change is the only constant -- and there are a lot of serious people who think we're going to keep seeing more and more of it in the decades ahead.

The future belongs to those who stay open to constant adaptation. But people who allow themselved to be seduced into thinking that it's all settled, and they can relax now, are setting themselves up for disappointment. It's never been true, and never will be. Life is flux. Get over it.

18. Every solution creates new problems. The auto solved the horse-manure pollution problem and created an air pollution problem. Modern medicine brought us longer, healthier lives--and a population explosion that threatens to produce a global famine. Television brings us instant access to vital information and world events--and a mind-numbing barrage of banality and violence. And so on. The important thing is to try to anticipate the new problems and decide whether we prefer them to the problem we are currently trying to solve. Sometimes the "best" solution to one problem just creates a worse problem. There may even be no solution to the new problem. On the other hand, an apparently "inferior" solution to the original problem may be much better for the whole system in the long run.

Kauffman is foreshadowing Smart's Second Law of Technology here: All new technologies are inherently dehumanizing in their first iteration. Whenever we step beyond the limits of our current experience and understanding, we're forced to guess. We're doing something that's never been done before; we have no idea what the consequences will be; and so there's no real way to prepare ourselves. All we can do is take the best precautions we can, test small before going big, and remain open to the option of turning back if it proves too dangerous to continue.

19. Sloppy systems are often better. Diverse, decentralized systems often seem disorganized and wasteful, but they are almost always more stable, flexible, and efficient than "neater" systems. In Boulding's terms (#17), highly adaptable systems look sloppy compared to systems that are well-adapted to a specific situation, but the sloppy-looking systems are the ones that will survive. In addition, systems which are loose enough to tolerate moderate fluctuations in things like population levels, food supply, or prices, are more efficient than systems which waste energy and resources on tighter controls.

This is why central planning usually fails; and why small distributed networks are a much better environment for almost everything from moving data to moving food to ensuring economic risks are shared rather than concentrated. It's also the ultimate indictment of monopolies.

20. Don't be fooled by system cycles. All negative feedback loops create oscillations--some large, some small. For some reason, many people are unable to deal with or believe in cyclical patterns, especially if the cycles are more than two or three years in length. If the economy has been growing steadily for the last four years, nearly everyone will be optimistic. They simply project their recent experience ahead into the future, forgetting that a recession becomes more likely the longer the boom continues. Similarly, everyone is gloomiest at the bottom of a recession, just when rapid growth is most likely.

Another example of that common fallacy: It's no different now than it's ever been. Yes, it is. The question is: is the current situation within the normal parameters of past cycles -- or are we headed into uncharted territory here? You may recognize this frame as a favorite of global warming skeptics, who still don't think there's anything at all out of the ordinary about the fact that it's the first of March and I'm writing this in a snowstorm.

21. Remember the Golden Mean. When people face a serious problem, they tend to overvalue anything that helps solve it. They mobilize their energies and fight hard to solve the problem, and often keep right on going after the problem is solved and the solution is becoming a new problem. When most children died before their tenth birthdays, a high birth rate was essential for survival and societies developed powerful ways to encourage people to have large families. When the death rate is reduced, a high birth rate becomes a liability, but all those strong cultural forces keep right on encouraging large families, and it can take generations for people's attitudes to change. Like the man who eats himself' to death as an adult because he was always hungry as a child, people tend to forget that too much of something can be as bad as too little. They assume that if more of something is good a lot more must be better--but it often isn't. The trick is to recognize these situations and try to swing the pendulum back to the middle whenever it swings toward either extreme.

I consider this a restatement of #20, but from a different angle. The main caution here is: just because a tool always worked before, don't expect it will continue to deliver the same results in the future. Every situation's different, and deserves its own unique response.

All right: that's the third set. Stand by for the fourth and last set. And thanks to those of you who've grabbed on to this and are playing with it. These rules are delightfully simple stuff; but once I started working with them, I found they made a sweet little shift in how I approached people and problems that used to just drive me to despair or annoyance. I found I could forego being annoyed at foolish people (who usually can't be changed), and instead focus my energy on foolish systems (which often can be).

And in these rough days, anything that gets us out of our stuck places is worth looking in to.


I'm back from the Yucatan but am exhausted today. So in lieu of actually writing something, thought I'd toss you this image and see if anyone can correctly identify where it's from. Have fun. Now, back to my previously scheduled nap.

UPDATE: For those interested, these sculptures are from the relatively recently excavated pyramid at Ek Balam. [More here.]

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Go Ahead and Die

by SaraThe greatest shame of 12-year-old Deamonte Driver's well-publicized death from a dental abscess is this: In any other industrial nation in the world, it never would have happened.

You've no doubt read the details of Deamonte's demise by now, so I don't have to go into them. But, as so often happens in American medicine, the bureaucratic particulars are at least as important as the biological ones. A editorial illustrates the yawning chasm ("hole in the safety net" doesn't begin to describe it) that the Driver family fell into:
Alyce Driver is a working mother, but her low-wage jobs did not provide health insurance. Her children were eligible for Medicaid, but dental care under Medicaid, as the Post story documents, is particularly problematic. Fewer than one in three children enrolled in Medicaid receive preventative dental care in Maryland, and only 900 of the state’s 5,500 dentists accept Medicaid because of the low reimbursement rates. But Maryland children are better off than those in Virginia, where only one in four Medicaid children receive preventative dental care.

Compounding the problem was that Driver lost her Medicaid coverage during a period when she had to stay in a homeless shelter. She apparently missed some paperwork that had been sent to her. Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs, said that people losing their coverage as they slip in or out of homelessness is not uncommon.
Bear the Kafkaesque stupidity of the Driver family's nightmare in mind. And then consider how it would have happened in Canada.

Here on the civilized side of the border, Deamonte and his family -- like every other Canadian -- would have had basic health coverage that covered them all from birth onward. While most families pay a small monthly premium for this policy (ours is $108 for a family of four), this fee would have either been covered as a benefit by Alyce's employer, or waived automatically when she applied for public assistance. The policy would remain intact regardless of Alyce's employment status, without any vigilance on her part required. That's what it looks like with health care is considered a fundamental human right.

Alyce could take her boy to see any doctor, or show up at any hospital, and receive free, thorough, and timely care -- the same care, from the same doctors and in the same hospitals, enjoyed by the richest people in the province. This plan would also have covered Deamonte's abscessed tooth, because the basic plan provides dental care for children up through the age of 14. Again -- not just from the rare dentist that takes Medicare, but any dentist of her choosing. And so Deamonte's abscess would have been discovered and treated long before it became a mortal issue.

However, even if Deamonte had been 15 instead of 12, the odds are overwhelmingly good he'd have been covered by private dental insurance. Because insurance companies aren't in the business of covering high-ticket hospitals stays and surgeries, low-cost supplemental policies that cover extras like physical therapy, vision care, drugs, and dental treatment are very cheap -- so cheap, in fact, that even small employers can easily afford to offer them as a standard benefit. So the vast majority working Canadians have dental insurance, regardless of their age.

It's also noteworthy that before Saskatchewan premier ("premier" is Canadianese for "provincial governor") Tommy Douglas created the country's first single-payer health care plan in 1965, the country was treated to a brief but heartbreaking series of stories like this one. The press told the country about stoic prairie farm wives locking themselves in attics to die horrible cancer deaths alone without palliative medications, out of sight of their children; and families losing businesses built up over generations because their breadwinner was crippled. To their credit, Canadians grasped very quickly that allowing people to die for lack of care was beneath the aspirations of a civilized nation -- and got to work creating a health care system that would help every ailing citizen keep health, family, and fortune intact.

Poland manages this. Costa Rica manages this. Even Sri Lanka and Cuba manage this -- and Mexico and Thailand are on the way. But the United States can't be bothered. And so the deaths will continue, as our current farce of a health care system creates 18,000 Deamonte Drivers every single year. Fifty a day, two an hour, from sea to shining sea.

From now on, that's the only response we need to make to those who still insist we don't need universal health care. Eighteen thousand a year. Fifty a day. Two an hour. Every hour, around the clock. That's nearly a week's worth of 9/11s -- or 24 years of GWOT casualties -- killed by our own negligence every single year.

Perhaps, like our Canadian neighbors 40 years ago, we won't wake up until we start hearing about every single one of them, every day, for as long as it takes to shame us into making damn sure there will never be one more.

The Eliminationist Minority

by Sara
Bob Altemeyer is writing a book. And, happily for those of us who have been intrigued by his ideas ever since John Dean introduced him to us in Conservatives Without Conscience, he's posting the chapters online as he gets them done.

There's a lot in the book that touches on the stuff we discuss here at Orcinus -- but the most striking discussion I found was his dissection (you'll find it in Chapter 5) of the psychology of prejudice and hate crimes within authoritarian groups. If you've read either John Dean's book or my two series (Cracks In the Wall and Tunnels And Bridges, both linked in the left margin) that riffed on it, you'll recall that authoritarians are wired differently than the rest of us; and that this wiring takes two distinct forms.

To recap: Authoritarian followers tend to be highly conforming, deeply invested in their own righteousness, absolutely trusting in their authorities, and extremely aggressive when they believe those authorities are threatened. Altemeyer developed a scale to assess people's tendency toward right-wing authoritarianism; he calls those with high scores "high RWA." There's also a very distinct -- and fortunately, much smaller -- group of authoritarians who are driven by their high need for social dominance. This group tends to be manipulative, amoral, mean, and driven by their unquenchable thirst for power. Altemeyer calls these "high-social-dominance (or "high SDO") types. And, finally, a very small percentage of the population are "double highs" -- people who manage to combine the worst traits of both. The thesis of Dean's book was that the Bush Administration is staffed, almost top to bottom, with double highs -- and that this fact has profound implications for our future as a democracy.

Altemeyer says that racial, ethnic, and gender prejudice -- and the will to act violently on these feelings -- is built right into both the high-RWA and high-SDO trait sets. But, he explains, both the roots and the expression of their eliminationist impulses are different:
[The] difference between authoritarian leaders and followers comes into view when you untangle the roots of their hostility. Social dominators show greater prejudice against minorities and women than high RWAs do, but the followers are much more hostile toward homosexuals. Why should this be the case?

…High RWAs are especially likely to aggress when they feel established authority approves of the aggression, when they are afraid, and because they are self-righteous. Since the Bible condemns homosexuality in several places, and “giving” rights to homosexuals seems to right-wing authoritarians yet another nail in the coffin of moral society, aggression against homosexuals is aroused and blessed. Similarly, high RWAs are more likely than social dominators to impose stiff sentences….and more likely to help the government persecute radicals when it’s time to round up a “posse.”

However, when it comes to racial and ethnic minorities, right-wing authoritarians will still aggress--overtly or sneakily, physically or verbally--but such attacks are less clearly supported by religious and civic authorities than they used to be. So their prejudice in these cases has dropped some. But not that of social dominators.
So authoritarian followers hate who their authorities tell them to hate; and will usually let off the brakes and act on that hatred only when their authorities give them permission to. Because they rely on external authority to guide their actions, and fear the loss of social order, social and legal sanctions are often effective at curbing their tendencies toward violence. And, left on their own, they will generally remain fairly benign.

On the other hand…
Why are social dominators hostile? Well, unlike high RWAs who fear an explosion of lawlessness, they already live in the jungle that authoritarian followers fear is coming, and they’re going to do the eating. They do not ask themselves, when they meet someone, “Is there any reason why I should try to control this person?” so much as they ask, “Is there any reason why I should not try to gain the upper hand with him right now?” Dominance is the first order of business with them in a relationship, like dogs encountering each other in a school yard, and vulnerable minorities provide easy targets for exerting power, for being mean, for domination.

….Dominators aren’t usually afraid that civilization might collapse and lawlessness ensue. Laws, they think, are not something you should necessarily obey in the first place, so much as things you should not get caught disobeying. And as for self-righteousness, it’s pretty irrelevant to people as amoral as most social dominators tend to be. They may speak of the righteousness of their cause, but that’s usually just to assure and motivate their followers. Might makes right for social dominators.

…. It doesn’t bother the social dominator that masses of people are poor. That’s their tough luck. And some racial groups are just naturally inferior to others, he says. Justice should not be applied equally to all. The rich and powerful should have advantages in court, even if that completely violates the concept of justice. Who cares if prejudice plays a role in the justice system? He certainly doesn’t. The “right people” should have more votes than everybody else in elections. And so on.

If you stare deeply into the souls of social dominators, they believe “equality” is a sucker word. Only fools believe in it, they say. And if people took equality seriously, if society did try to provide equal opportunity for all, and if the playing field really were made level so that bootstraps could be pulled up and multitudes of lives bettered, the social dominator knows he would get less. And he very much dislikes that notion. He says so.
Separately, neither group is a particular social threat. (Obnoxious and annoying, perhaps, but not a threat.) But together, Dr. Bob says, they're toxic.
[RWA's] image of themselves as the good people leaves no room for believing they are cold-blooded, ruthless, immoral manipulators after power at almost any cost. So social dominators might incite authoritarian followers to commit a hate crime, but the dominators and followers probably launch the attack for different reasons: the dominator out of meanness, as an act of intimidation and control; the follower out of fear and self-righteousness in the name of authority.

…This is now called the “lethal union” in this field of research. When social dominators are in the driver’s seat, and right-wing authoritarians stand at their beck and call, unethical things appear much more likely to happen. True, sufficiently skilled social dominators served by dedicated followers can make the trains run on time. But you have to worry about what the trains may be hauling when dominators call the shots and high RWAs do the shooting. The trains may be loaded with people crammed into boxcars heading for death camps.

And of course this lethal union is likely to develop in the real world. Authoritarian followers don’t usually try to become leaders. Instead they happily play subservient roles, and can be expected to especially enjoy working for social dominators, who will (you can bet your bottom dollar) take firm control of things, and who share many of the followers’ values and attitudes. The “connection” connects between these two opposites because they attract each other like the north and south poles of two magnets. The two can then become locked in a cyclonic death spiral that can take a whole nation down with them.
Altemeyer tested this theory by running a three-hour Risk-type global simulation game with various combinations of high and low RWAs, high and low SDOs and double highs. The results confirmed his earlier observations: double-highs will always put their own prestige and power over every other concern, even if the fate of the world is at stake. They're more interested in wheeling and dealing and driving the other guy to the wall -- fine if you're in business, but not so fine if you're trying to establish programs or institutions aimed at solving large-scale problems like overpopulation, pollution, or global warming. They're also far more interested in military might and bullying than they are in diplomacy or compromise (if you're a double high, you can't count it as a win until the other guy is writhing on the ground in front of you, begging for his life. Any other outcome is a loss.) In these simulations, their prejudices translated in a predictable ethocentrism that often blinded them to their own best interests. Predictably -- and chillingly -- putting double-highs in charge guaranteed ecological catastrophe, mass starvation, and global nuclear war.

In summary, then:

-- Yes, Virginia, there really is a "them." Most of us are genuinely not predisposed toward eliminationist violence; and even the large minority that is won't indulge in it without permission and a push. But prejudice and the use of force are foundational to the double-high character; and much of the discrimination and violence that we do see occurs at the instigation of this toxic one to two percent of the population.

-- Because they have absolutely no concept of the common good (or any good that doesn't relate to their own pursuit of power), double-high leaders are constitutionally incapable of thinking of the future in ways that any of the rest of us are likely to find acceptable. In fact, they will almost certainly try to dismantle the existing common infrastructure if they believe it threatens their own quest for glory.

-- The more of this authoritarian minority we allow in power -- particularly the double-highs -- the higher the risk of inequality, discrimination, and eliminationist violence; and the bleaker our odds of doing anything constructive about our common future. Unfortunately, these people are far and away the most likely of us all to seek out leadership positions.

We're looking ahead into a new century in humanity will, increasingly, be operating closer to the margins of our planet's carrying capacity. Whether or not we survive this transition will almost certainly depend on ability to move past prejudice and eliminationist violence, and build bonds of trust that enable us to solve our problems cooperatively.

After reading Altemeyer, it's probably not hyperbole to say that our entire human future depends on getting whole lot better at seeing these guys (and yes, they are almost exclusively guys) early on for what they are, and keeping them far, far away from the levers of power.

Update: Driftglass says pretty much the same thing, only a hell of a lot more poetically.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Kauffman's Rules, 8-14

by Sara

Well, y'all seem to be having a lot of fun with the first seven -- so let's move on to the next group.

8. Look for high leverage points. Nearly every feedback system has weak spots. These are almost always the control points which measure the system's behavior and determine its response to change. The best way to change a system's behavior is either to change the "setting" of the control unit or to change the information which the control unit receives. If you want to make a cold house warmer, turn the thermostat up or stick an ice pack on it, but don't build a fire in an inefficient fireplace--it will do little if any good.

One of the assumptions behind the Why Protests Don't Work post was that your garden variety street protest is a big, blunt, soft instrument that's ineffective against most political and cultural leverage points. If you want to change the physics, you need to find the exact lever hinge, stick just the right sharp, strong tool in there, and then yank for all you're worth. Modern protests aren't designed to have that kind of surgical focus, and that's why they fail.

Another lesson implicit in this is the old rule attributed to Lord Kelvin: You can't control what you can't measure. The corollary to this is that you only tend to value what you do measure. Corporations measure profit, and work to optimize it. Most still don't measure their environmental and social effects, so these factors get ignored in decision-making. So changing how the system's metrics are reckoned is often key to changing its entire structure and outcome.

9. Nothing grows forever. The exponential growth curves produced by positive feedback keep on growing only in mathematics. In the real world, growth always stops sooner or later and the faster the growth, the sooner it will stop. If the Earth's human population could continue to grow at its current rate for another 7 centuries, we would be the only living things on the planet. After just ten more centuries, the mass of human bodies would outweigh the entire rest of the planet--an obvious impossibility. If energy use continued to grow at its current rate for another 400 years, the surface of the earth would be hotter than the sun. And at current rates of growth in food consumption, we would have to eat every living thing on the planet in a single year only 5 centuries from now. Obviously, these projections are ridiculous and the growth of population, energy use, and food consumption will stop long before such extremes are reached. The question is, how soon and in what way?

The fact that this was still news to most people 25 years ago gives you some idea of the uphill battle we're facing when it comes to sustainability. It's more general knowledge now; but getting people to understand a principle is one thing, and getting them to act on it is another. Even Americans who intellectually know better still believe, at heart and against all reason, that our lives are going to continue pretty much as they have for the past 50 years. (And, worse, they're staking their futures on this belief.) They won't believe the limits exist until they see them with their own eyes -- and won't act for change until they feel them closing in around their own lifestyles.

10. Don't fight positive feedback, support negative feedback instead. Don't poison pests, support their predators. Don't order people to have fewer children, make it more profitable for them to have small families instead. Don't ration energy, raise the price instead (and give the money back by cutting taxes somewhere else, like the social security tax). And so on. England used a version of this rule for centuries in European politics. Whenever one nation or group got too strong, England would throw its support to the weaker side. Don't try to weaken your enemy, strengthen your enemy's enemies instead.

Rule 1 talked about how exhausting direct conflict can be. This is one alternative way of changing a system without having to throw all your resources into a head-to-head pitched battle.

11. Don't try to control the players, just change the rules. When the National Football League wanted to make football games a bit more exciting, it didn't order quarterbacks to throw more passes. Instead, it changed the rules slightly so that pass plays would have a better chance of working. If the, league had gone the first route, teams would have looked for ways to evade the order, perhaps by throwing a few more short, safe passes, and the game would still have been dull. In the actual case, however, teams were aggressive about taking advantage of the new opportunities to pass. The same principle applies in economics, politics, science, education, and many other areas. If the system tries to make choices for people, the people will try to outwit the system. It is much more effective to change the "rules of the" game" so that it is to most people's advantage to make the choices that are good for the whole system.

This is one of my personal favorites. One of the usual ways we separate the moderates from the true radicals is that moderates "want to work from within the system" and radicals are quite clear that it's the system itself that's the problem. System theory sides with the radicals on this one.

I stand on middle ground, which says that it's often possible to change systems from the inside -- hard (there's always that immune reaction mentioned in Rule 7), but not impossible. Being inside gives you your best shot at the leverage points, and also allows you to take things at an evolutionary rather than revolutionary pace that will allow related systems to adapt slowly, creating less breakage. If the system's near failure anyway, though, go ahead and break the sucker. No point in prolonging the agony.

Rule 8 explains why workers who keenly understood the day-to-day problems seem to get lobotomies a year or two after being promoted to management. They're in a new place in the system now; and that position demands that they prioritize things in a different way. It's also why throwing the old city hall bastards out usually results in nothing more than fresh city hall bastards; and why corporate housecleanings that bring in new executive staff usually result in more of the same. Changing the players changes absolutely nothing. You have to change the system in ways that change the players' behavior.

12. Don't make rules that can't be enforced. If many people want to disobey a law and nearly all of them are able to get away with it, then the law will not be obeyed. But this gets people used to disobeying laws, and it reduces respect for laws in general. It also creates ideal opportunities for corruption, blackmail, and the acceptance of organized crime. A society that really gets serious about enforcing unenforceable laws can tear itself apart. (See, for example, the tremendous damage done by witchhunts, inquisitions, and civil wars that result from enforcing laws against thinking certain kinds of religious or political thoughts.) The same problem arises in business, government, and many other kinds of systems, where a higher system is weakened by trying to overcontrol lower subsystems.

People who try to enforce unforceable rules are typically either authoritarians, utopians, or both. Invariably, when respect for the law and its makers has broken down, they resort to force to maintain order. On a larger level, if it's chaos you're after, there's nothing like demanding that a system behave in ways contrary to its own internal intelligence and performance capacity.

A corollary to this is that all legitimate authority springs from mutual respect between the leader and the led.

13.There are no simple solutions. Real-life systems are big, messy, complicated things, with problems to match. Genuine solutions require careful thought for their effect on the whole system. Anyone who tries to sell you a simple answer--"All we have to do is. . . .and everything will be perfect! "--is either honestly dumb, dishonest, or running for office.

We'll just show up, and they'll throw flowers. It'll be that easy -- a cakewalk, really. Three weeks, and we're on our way home, mission accomplished…

14. Good intentions are not enough. Few things are more painful than trying to do good and finding out that you've done a great deal of harm instead. Simple compassion and simple morality are inadequate in a complex world. The bumbling missionary causes tragedy because he follows his heart without using his head to try to understand the whole situation.

If you don't have a thoughtful plan that's based on a thorough understanding of the system -- and which has been subjected to critique by the affected parties, and shaken out in a couple of proof-of-concept test runs -- then do us all a favor and just keep your damn fingers out of the system entirely. Sometimes (more often than not, in fact), it's best just to leave even not-quite-well-enough alone.

There'll be seven more tomorrow. See you then.

A Big Fat Smooch for Michelle

by Sara
Howie Kurtz did a lovely little upbeat Valentine's Day tribute to the WaPo's apparent new sweetheart, Michelle Malkin -- and Eric Boehlertis over at Media Matters today with a pointed, scathing, and altogether furious piece that takes off on that event to examine the big fat wet kiss-up that the mainstream media is snogging on rightwing bloggers.

Boehlert asks:
Where, in the last two years, has the Post's Style section run a feature on Markos "Kos" Moulitsas Zuniga, whose is the most popular political blog in the world? Where was the feature on progressive wunderkind organizer Matt Stoller, one of the forces behind the widely read MyDD website? Or pioneers like Eric Alterman (a Media Matters for America senior fellow) and Josh Marshall, who were among the first to establish progressive outposts online? Or John Amato, who revolutionized political blogging by posting video clips on his Crooks and Liars website, which, according to one recent survey, was the 10th most-linked-to political website in the world? Or Jane Hamsher, who founded influential, and who's been leading a team live-blogging the Scooter Libby trial? Or Duncan Black (a Media Matters senior fellow), whose hugely popular blog, Eschaton, remains an online must-read? Or John Aravosis, the progressive activist who runs AMERICAblog and just a few weeks ago forced the candy giant Mars to yank online Snickers ads after Aravosis and others tagged them as anti-gay? (Full disclosure: I know most of those bloggers on a personal basis.)

Here's a for-instance. Progressive blogger Glenn Greenwald last year wrote a New York Times bestselling book, How Would a Patriot Act?, critiquing the Bush administration's abuse of executive privilege. His popular and insightful political blog, Unclaimed Territory, just recently moved over to, where its influence continues to grow. Let's start the clock ticking and see how long it takes (if ever) for the Post to invite Glenn Greenwald out to lunch in order to write up a flattering profile of the rising progressive blogger. I doubt it will ever happen, in part because over the last two years Greenwald has been mentioned in grand total of two articles in the Post, compared to the 12 articles that have mentioned Malkin over the same time period.

Bottom line: At the Post, Bush bloggers matter, liberal ones do not. (Arianna Huffington, who last year launched The Huffington Post, stands out as lone exception to the Post rule. Of course, Huffington was an established media star before she started up her hugely successful website that's helped transform the political landscape.)

The one lengthy Post feature of a liberal blogger that I can find from the last 24 months was a page-one piece from April 2006 when the Post shadowed lesser-known blogger Maryscott O'Connor, who writes at My Left Wing. The Post portrayed O'Connor as a Bush-hating lunatic. Key phrases from the article: "angry," "rage," "fury," "angriest," "outrage," "crude," "loud," "crass," "inflammatory," "attack."
Bohlert goes on to cite, chapter and verse, Malkin's own recent history of miscues and bad calls. There's Michelle on MSNBC, telling America that the Swiftboat Veterans were claiming John Kerry shot himself on purpose in Vietnam. (They never said that, but she stuck to her guns for several days.) There's Michelle ranting endlessly for weeks about Terry Schiavo, hitting hard on a GOP talking points memo that she insisted was fabricated by the WaPo. (The accusation fell apart when a Republican senator copped to writing the memo.) There's Michelle accusing a Pulitzer Prize-winning AP photographer of conspiring with Iraqi insurgents to stage a photo-op assassination of a Baghdad election worker. (Wrong again.) And, oh, look!, here's Michelle accusing a mentally ill University of Oklahoma engineering student who turned himself into a human bomb of being in league with Al Qaeda (an overhyped claim that was refuted by every law enforcement agency associated with the case).

Boehlert goes on, covering Malkin's crusade againt the NYT last summer for printing photos of Cheney and Rumsfeld's summer homes on the Maryland shore -- a controversy that Rumsfeld even found puzzling. And then, just last month, there was the humiliation of the Captain Jamil Hussein conspiracy, which blew up under her like an IED. Dan Rather's distinguished four-decade career was vaporized in a far lesser disaster; but somehow, Malkin managed to walk away from this one -- and straight from there onto the Style pages of the Washington Post, without mussing a single strand of blow-dried hair along the way.

None of this is news to longtime readers of this blog. Dave worked with Michelle long before she hit the national scene, and can testify that, even as a baby ideologue, she was never one to let facts get in the way of an incendiary tale. He's also given much time and page space to debunking In Defense of Internment, a one-book history distortion field that invites us to unlearn some of the hardest and most important lessons America learned about itself in the last century.

Building on these observations, Boehlert caps the piece with the central question that that we need to force the mainstream media to answer:
Let's face it -- if a liberal blogger ever stitched together a record of sloppy, Keystone Kops-style obfuscation the way Malkin has, Post editors wouldn't even know how to spell the blogger's name, let alone be interested in profiling them. And who would blame them? Any overexcited dolt can randomly make stuff up on the Internet, or link to others who do. Apparently, the fact that Malkin does that like clockwork and that it, in turn, gets people upset is newsworthy in the eyes of Washington Post editors.
The answer, of course, is that we no longer have journalists. What we have instead is a theater troupe of court entertainers, larger-than-life personalities whose job it is to stage amusing little melodramas for the pleasure of the elite and the distraction of the masses. The media as a "profession" is just a pretense; their real job is to lend star quality to parties, flatter the egos of the powerful, keep their secrets, and faithfully disseminate gossip when called upon to do so. It's a job that requires a pretty face, a knack for finding and igniting pointless controversies that jack up the ratings but don't threaten the status quo, and a willingness to suck up to America's new princely class. These are, of course, the only qualifications Malkin can muster in any measure.

Anybody with a clear grasp of factual truth and a commtment to tell it is patently unqualified to step onto this stage, and need not apply. Those people are why Blogger exists.

Updated with corrections -- h/t Sinister Eyebrow

Kauffman's Rules, 1-7

by Sara

My apologies for the two days of quiet -- I've had one hell of a winter cold since Friday, and then completely lost my network connection all day Monday. But I'm starting to pull out of the cold, and the network problem seems to be fixed, so I'm back. (And Dave will be, too, come Thursday or so.)

One of the first things futures studies faculty try to pound into the little puddin' heads of budding futurists is that the world isn't built of separate pieces and parts; and history can't ever be reduced to a list of Great Men and Great Events. Rather, they tell us, the world is a vast interlocking matrix of complex systems -- and one of the biggest keys to cultivating good foresight lies not in examining the specific properties of each part, but rather in examining the relationships between the parts, and the way they function together as a whole to create a given situation. Look at it this way, and it becomes much easier to see what's working, what's breaking, what's likely to happen next, and what needs to change for a better outcome to occur.

This is the basic idea behind systems theory, which been around since the early 70s, when Jay Forrester founded the Systems Lab at MIT (and where three of his proteges soon produced the landmark World 3 computer model, and with it a best-selling book called Limits to Growth that was one of the earliest warnings of a global ecological crisis). Since then, a wide variety of disciplines have realized that systems thinking offers some singular tools for getting ahold of the complexities of our ever-more-chaotic universe, helping us find the proper focus on things, and distilling unwieldy problems down to their essence so that the right solutions can emerge.

One of the cool things about studying the behavior of systems that all of them -- economic, ecological, biological, political, cultural, or mechanical -- consistently behave in ways that cause them to succeed or fail in much the same way. This observation greatly simplifies our ability to understand of the world, once we learn to look for the common recurring patterns. As a quick way of teaching this awareness, an early systems teacher named Draper Kauffman set down 28 rules that seem to apply to the behavior of all kinds of systems. (It's kind of like those little "101 Life Lessons" books you get at Borders, only this one encapsulates the life philosophy of a bunch of systems geeks at MIT.)

They're not scientific laws, exactly, but a list of rules-of-thumb that should be kept in mind by anybody who's trying to suss out how any kind of system works, and how you're gonna make it change so it's more to your liking. And since that's pretty much everybody who reads this blog and wonders how we can restore a political and social system that's obviously in tremendous flux, I thought I'd offer y'all a set for your own cognitive toolkit.

Twenty-eight rules is a lot, so I'll start with the first seven tonight, and add the rest in future posts. The rule is in bold; Kauffman's original commentary follows in italics; and the plain text after each one is mine. Here we go:

1. Everything is connected to everything else. Real life is lived in a complex world system where all the subsystems overlap and affect each other. The common mistake is to deal with one subsystem in isolation, as if it didn't connect with anything else. This almost always backfires as other subsystems respond in unanticipated ways.

This is something that most educated Americans understood intuitively as we approached Iraq: there were interrelationships here that the White House hadn't accounted for, and pulling one string (removing Saddam) was going to create a cascade of effects that nobody could foresee -- though many of us knew it wouldn't be good. This was a triumph of foresight on the part of the American left, and a catastrophic failure of it on the right.

2. You can never do just one thing. This follows from rule #1: in addition to the immediate effects of an action, there will always be other consequences of it which ripple through the system.

Never follow a leader who can't explain at least four possible scenarios about what the second- and third-order effects of a proposed change will be. Not just one best-case scenario: you want to see a worst-case, a most-likely-case, and an off-the-wall case, too. If they haven't done these "what-if" thought exercises, they're not the person to be leading the change.

3. There is no "away." Another corollary of #1. In natural ecosystems, in particular, you can move something from one place to another, you can transform it into something else, but you can't get rid of it. As long as it is on the Earth, it is part of the global ecosystem. The industrial poisons, pollutants, insecticides, and radioactive materials that we've tried to "throw away" in the past have all too often come back to haunt us because people didn't understand this rule.

A lot of the people and problems Dave writes about came about because people haven’t yet given up on the naive fantasy that there is, in fact, an "away." We can send the brown and black folks "away," and that'll fix it. We can put criminals "away" in jail, and the things they learn there will never touch us. We can send our pollution "away" down the stream, where only the orcas will choke on it. We get in a lot of trouble when we overestimate the size of this tiny blue ball, and start to thinking that there's anywhere on it that's far enough "away" to hide our crimes against nature and each other.

4. TANSTAAFL: There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. Years ago, bars used to offer a "free lunch" as a way to draw customers. Of course, the drinks in those bars cost twice as much, so the lunches weren't really "free" at all. Similarly, in complex systems, what looks like the cheapest solution to a problem often turns out to be the most expensive one in the long run. TANSTAAFL is a way of saying, "Don't expect something for nothing -- there's always a hidden cost somewhere."

Fossil fuels have been a big free lunch, until we found out that there was no "away" with those, either. And now we're going to get to spend the next 50 years trying to pay for that long lunch. There are a couple lunches that look considerably cheaper right now -- biofuels and nukes among them -- but anybody who thinks those are going to be free is kidding themselves, too.

5. Nature knows best. Natural ecosystems have evolved over millions of years, and everything in them has a role to play. Be very suspicious of any proposal to alter or eliminate an apparently "useless" part of the system. If it looks useless, that just means that you don't understand its function, and the risk of doing harm is that much greater. When in doubt, be careful, and always try to find a "natural" solution to a problem if at all possible.

This rule is expressed in terms of biological systems, but it applies to mechanical, economic, and political systems, too. Consider the fate of the American financial system in the 80s when New Deal-era regulations were repealed; or the state of our media since the original FCC laws were gutted.

People forgot those laws were there for a damned good reason, and let themselves get talked out of them. And now we may never get them back. In this case, it wasn't nature that knew best -- but older governments that had a much clearer grasp of the public good than our present ones do. (And isn't it a conservative value to start from the assumption that the traditional order is the way it is for very good reasons, and shouldn't be tampered with unless you're very sure about what you're doing?)

6. It ain't what you don't know that hurts you; it's what you DO know that ain't so. Beware of false assumptions about system behavior. When we are sure of something, we usually don't bother to look for proof that it is true and we may be blind to evidence that it is false. We are much more likely to make really big blunders when we act on false assumptions than when we are uncertain and aware of our own uncertainty.

Journalists wince when we hear this one; most of us are caught up by the wrong stuff we know on an all-too-regular basis. But the Bush adventure in Iraq is the ultimate morality play here, too.

7. "Obvious solutions" do more harm than good. All complex systems use negative feedback to negate external changes in the system. If you try to change something in the direct, "obvious" way, the system is going to treat your efforts like any other outside influences and do its best to neutralize them. The more energy you waste fighting the system head on, the more energy it will waste fighting back, and any gains you make will be only temporary at best. Finally, if you try hard enough and long enough, you will exhaust the system's ability to fight back--at which point the system will break down completely.

This lesson applies to almost every battle we're fighting these days. Implicit in this is that viral assaults (like the netroots) will be met by strong immune reactions; but the battle will go to the side that adapts fastest and can divert less energy toward the struggle. It also suggests that change (like, say, with global warming) isn't going to really start happening until the rationalizations, solutions, and chances for limited change within the current system have been completely exhausted.

OK: Kauffman's Rules, one thru seven. If you're intrigued by systems thinking and want to know more, one good place to start is The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge, who applies these principles to organizations in one of the more remarkable management books I've ever read.