There Are No Allies Without Alliances

This article makes some good points, but in doing so it misses a larger point.

So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know
by Jamie Utt

The following are my thoughts on the matter

* * * *

I would particularly add something to the sixth point: You Can’t Be an Ally in Isolation.

Being an ally is a two-way street. There is no such thing as an isolated ally. Allies can only exist in a mutual alliance (of interests, of worldviews, of values, of respect, of understanding, of compassion). If you seek to be an ally with someone who doesn’t want to be an ally with you, then there is no alliance. You can only ally with those who ally with you.

If you seek to emphasize even the smallest of differences instead of even greater similarities/commonalities in order to attack potential allies, then you suffer what Freud called the “narcissism of small differences.” This is a failure of so many militant and adversarial activists who undermine rather than strengthen alliances, and so undermine rather than strengthen their own activism.

It is self-destructive behavior typically fueled by dogmatic righteousness where being right (at least in their own mind) becomes more important than promoting what is right. Such dogmatic righteousness just leads to becoming isolated in self-certain arrogance and lockstep groupthink.

Allies work together. They don’t attack each other. This requires an attitude of caring and understanding, the only worthy motivation of any activism.

* * * *

If you find yourself regularly attacking potential allies, you might want to see if you are the problem. 

If you find yourself constantly attacking people and looking for what’s wrong with them, you might want to consider that you are likely at best being nitpicky and at worse projecting. 

If you constantly wait for people to ally with you while not extending yourself to ally with others, you might want to rethink this behavior when it undermines your activism.

Remember, activism isn’t about you. It isn’t about being right. What it is or should be about is making the world a better place for all involved.

* * * *

I’m making a larger political point. 

There are no isolated issues and problems. There are diverse areas of marginalization, victimization, oppression, suffering, etc. I see it as disempowering when people separate their issues and problems from everyone else’s issues and problems. Everyone wants people to ally with them, but not enough people are willing to go to the effort of allying with others. This is the failure of so much advocacy and activism.

Most of us are ‘victims’ of some kind of marginalization/oppression or other, for those who hold most of the power in this world are few. The lack of functioning democracy in most countries, the US included, doesn’t only impact minorities or other small demographics. If everyone fights for their separate identity politics and sees themselves in competition with everyone else, then divide and conquer will always win.

My point is that the article is missing a larger point that too often is ignored, forgotten, or misunderstood. I’m talking about the practical methods of actually making the world a better place, not just about winning rhetorical battles but real victories in the real world.

* * * *

There is a problem that has faced humanity for a long time.

The problem is less the overt issues and problems we focus on, but rather our inability to cooperatively and collectively deal with such issues and problems. If we were able to solve our problems, we wouldn’t have problems. The first problem to face is our (with emphasis on ‘our’) inability to find and implement effective solutions.

Such a simple, yet empowering, insight.

When we fight with one another instead of allying with one another, we create a world of conflict, divisiveness, and violence. How we act toward others is the world we create. The means is as important as the ends for the means is the foundation upon which the desired ends is built.

* * * *

The ten points in the article can be generalized and universalized to apply to all moral, constructive behavior for all humans. By doing so, they become more important and meaningful, touching upon wisdom that applies to all of us, not just the other  person.

So, let me rephrase them:

1. Being a Human is About Listening (and Hearing and Understanding)
2. Stop Thinking of ‘Ally’ as a Noun that Only applies to Others
3. ‘Victim’ is Not (or Should Not Be) a Self-Proclaimed Identity
4. Two-Way Aliances Don’t Take Breaks on Either End
5. Moral and Humble People Educate Themselves Constantly
6. You Can’t Be an Ally in Isolation and Without Mutual Support, Respect, and Understanding
7. Allies, Advocates, and Activists Don’t Need to Be in the Spotlight
8. Those Seeking Alliances Focus on Those Who Share Their Identity
9. When Criticized or Called Out, Moral and Compassionate People Listen, Apologize, Act Accountably, and Act Differently Going Forward
10. Humble People Never Monopolize the Emotional Energy When They Prioritize What is Right Over Being Right

Now, that’s an improvement.

* * * *

My viewpoint is exemplified by Martin Luther King.

He didn’t just seek allies, but sought to ally with others. He didn’t see himself as a victim who had to wait for people with more power to save him, to help and assist him, to advocate for him. No, he sought out a vision of shared humanity and proactively took the steps to manifest that vision. 

He wasn’t just fighting for the civil rights of his group, but for all people. The movement he most wanted to form was a movement to fight for the poor of all races/ethnicities, not just blacks, not just minorities, but everyone working together to make the world a better place and solving practical problems.

When you see yourself as a powerless victim, then your only recourse is to demand that others ally with you. But if you see yourself as a powerful agent of change, you realize you have the power to choose to create alliances that are greater than just your personal problems, issues, and interests. 

The highest form of power comes from relationships of equality. A one-way ally with power and influence to offer help is good and necessary sometimes, but an alliance of mutually-reinforcing power and equality is even better.

“Big Tent” Conservative Movement?

I’m always looking for new books. It’s an addiction. Because of this, I love book reviews. I’ll even spend an afternoon reading book reviews of a book I’m unlikely ever to read, just out of curiosity.

I was looking at some recently released books, about politics and history. One book that is a collection of essays caught my attention, simply because of the title. It is Big Tent: The Story of the Conservative Revolution–As Told by the Thinkers and Doers Who Made It Happen by Mallory Factor and Elizabeth Factor. That is an intriguing premise.

It is intriguing because I suspect few people, maybe especially among conservatives, would identify the conservative movement as “Big Tent”. The problem of “Big Tent” movements for conservatives is that they necessitate compromise and cooperation among people who disagree and sometimes have opposing views, purposes, and interests. Conservatives, at least in mainstream politics and punditry, regularly claim to hate or be wary of this kind of compromise and cooperation. What these leaders of the conservative movement want instead seems to be ideological purity.

It makes me wonder if some of these leaders or the activists who had been following them are beginning to question this tactic of ideological purity. The purveyors of the “Small Tent” view has been the Tea Party movement, which hasn’t wanted to claim that it is identical with the conservative movement. But the Tea Party has lost a favor, even among conservatives and Republicans. Maybe some people, such as the authors of this book, hope to redirect the conservative movement in a whole new direction. All of a sudden, those on the right are realizing that they can’t have a future by focusing merely on the demographic of old white people.

One reviewer, in his conclusion, seems to voice some doubts about whether those on the right will want to buy  what the authors’ are selling (The Conservative Movement vs. the Friars Club of Beverly Hills, Stan Greer):

Whether or not conservative/libertarian readers ultimately concur that they do belong (and want to belong!) to a club that has both Donald Rumsfeld and Rand Paul as members, Big Tent, which Factor edited and coauthored with the assistance of his wife Elizabeth, will surely help them come to a better understanding of how they came to their own beliefs.”

Yes, whether or not, maybe with probability leaning toward the ‘not’. The apparent argument of the book seems counter-intuitive.

A part of me finds something appealing about “Big Tent” politics. It used to be, earlier last century, that both parties had a right-wing and a left-wing. As such, there was less right-left polarization between the parties, although obviously other things distinguished the parties. According to Pew data (Beyond Red vs Blue), the Democratic Party is still a “Big Tent” party with an almost equal division between liberals, moderates, and conservatives (about a third of Democrats self-identifying with each of the three labels). The same Pew data doesn’t show such a self-identified spectrum in the Republican Party.

However, parties and movements aren’t necessarily the same thing. It is possible that the conservative movement is “Big Tent”, even if the GOP isn’t. Part of the problem is how to define “Big Tent” and how to objectively measure it. Who is supposed to be part of this “Big Tent” conservative movement? Why would those who don’t identify as conservative. such as libertarians, want to be part of any conservative movement? Libertarians are among the biggest critics of conservatism, especially in mainstream politics.

Does the author offer any demographic or polling data to give evidence for his claim that the conservative movement is a “Big Tent”? Having a wide range of conservative-to-rightwing members/supporters isn’t necessarily the same thing as “Big Tent”. What evidence is there that most Americans ascribe to these views? It is possible that supposed “Big Tent” conservatism is broad in some ways while also being shallow in other ways.

An important confusion is the difference between symbolic and operational forms of ideologies. 

Most Americans, when given a forced choice, choose to self-identify as ‘conservative’. But when given an unforced choice, most Americans choose ‘moderate’. Also, many more Americans will choose to self-identify as ‘progressive’ than will choose to self-identify as ‘liberal’, but even more interesting is the fact that also more self-identify as ‘progressive’ than as ‘conservative’. This goes against the assumption that Americans see progressivism and liberalism as the same and it undercuts the conclusion that most Americans are truly conservative… or else it implies that most Americans are generally confused/uncertain about the meaning of labels (and if that is the case, all these polling about self-identified labels may be less than useful and accurate in telling us much of anything about the general public’s view on politics and ideologies). 

This issues is more complex than it gets presented in the mainstream media and by partisan politics.

I wonder about the author’s argument, as I see lots of evidence to the contrary or else evidence that complicates simple assessments and straightforward conclusions. But I always listen to opposing arguments and take them on their merits. The only way I can judge the merits of this particular argument is to see what objective evidence can be offered, either by the author or others who agree with the authors, but I’m not feeling motivated to buy and read this book. I see the premise for this argument as more of a hope than a reality. Even so, if these authors and those who agree with them want to try to make it a reality, I give them my full support.

In terms of present reality, for those making this argument for a “Big Tent” conservative movement, the following is the evidence one has to somehow counter, explain, reinterpret, and/or disprove:

“More Americans have a positive opinion of progressivism, significantly more than their opinion of conservatism. As many have noted, progressivism has basically become the label for those who like liberalism but are afraid of the negative connotations of the word itself. There isn’t a vast difference between what liberals support and what progressives support.

“Even most Republicans give a positive response toward progressivism. This probably relates as well to why many people who self-identify as conservatives will support many traditionally liberal positions. These positions back in the Progressive Era used to be called progressive. Americans strongly support them. That is the true Silent Majority or rather Silenced Majority.

“Now, prepare to have your mind blown… or else your stereotypes dismantled.

“More Democrats have a positive view of of libertarianism than Republicans. And fewer Democrats have a negative view of libertarianism than Republicans. This shouldn’t be as surprising as would be suggested by watching the MSM. Libertarianism is a direct political competitor with the Republican Party, but Libertarians socially have more in common with liberals and progressives.”

“The media villagers lazily recite the Gallup polling to assert that America is a center-right country ideologically.
Political scientists, however, know better. The old classifications of liberal, conservative and moderate have long since lost their meaning.The decades long far-right media assault to demonize “liberals” has caused many liberals to defensively identify themseleves as “progressives.” The “liberal” brand of the Democratic Party has been watered down by conservative corporatist Democratic organizations like the Democratic Leadership Council, New Democrats, Third Way, Boll Weevils and Blue Dogs, etc. Today’s Democratic Party is not the party of FDR and Truman, or LBJ.

“I have said many times that conservatives today “are not your father’s GOP.” Conservatives today are the John Birchers whom Republican conservatives like William F. Buckley kicked out of the GOP for being too extremist, and the theocratic Christian Right whom “the father of movement conservatism,” Arizona’s Sen. Barry Goldwater, rejected as being too extremist. Think about the irony in that for a moment. This is the man who famously said that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”

“The media villagers collectively suffer from amnesia and cannot recall that the Republican Party once had a liberal wing and many moderates. They have since been purged from the Republican Party by its extemist fringe, but they are still out there in the electorate.

“When respondents are given more options from which to identify their political beliefs and, more importantly, when polled on specific issues, a surprising and seemingly contradictory result emerges (only because of media mislabeling). Americans are far more left-of-center in their beliefs on specific issues, even self-identified conservatives. These “liberal” beliefs are in fact the “centrist” or “moderate” position of large majorities of Americans.”

“”According to a working paper from two political scientists who interviewed 2,000 state legislative candidates last year, politicians all think Americans are more conservative than they actually are. Unsurprisingly, Republicans think voters are way more right-wing than they actually are.”

“It’s unsurprising that right-wingers are clueless about the average American. That is the nature of being a right-winger, often not even realizing one is right-wing, instead thinking one is a normal mainstream American

“”Liberal politicians, meanwhile, don’t imagine that their constituents are super-liberal. A majority of them also believe that their constituents are more conservative than they actually are. Which, well, that explains your Democratic Party since the Clinton administration. They weren’t polled, but I’m pretty sure “nonpartisan” political elites in the media share the exact same misperception. (“It’s a center-right country,” we hear all the time, which it turns out is both meaningless and untrue.)”

[ . . . ]

“”Left-liberals who actually pay attention to surveys of popular opinion on things like raising taxes on rich people and expanding Medicare instead of raising the eligibility age are frequently a bit annoyed when they watch, say, the Sunday shows, and these ideas are either dismissed as radical or simply not brought up to begin with, but all of Washington is still pretty sure that Nixon’s Silent Majority is still out there, quietly raging against the longhairs and pinkos. In fact the new Silent Majority is basically made up of a bunch of social democrats, wondering why Congress can’t do serious, sensible, bipartisan things like lock up all the bankers and redistribute their loot to the masses.””

“Richard Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan’s chief strategist for the 1980 and 1984 elections , writes in The Greatest Communicator about what he discovered when he went to work for Reagan in 1980. Wirthlin , a Berkeley-trained economist, had been educated in the rationalist tradition to think that voters voted on the basis of whether they agreed with a candidate’s positions on the issues. Wirthlin discovered that voters tended not to agree with Reagan’s positions on the issues, yet they liked Reagan. Wirthlin set out to find out why.”


“Since the time of the pioneering work of Free & Cantril (1967), scholars of public opinion have distinguished between symbolic and operational aspects of political ideology (Page & Shapiro 1992, Stimson 2004). According to this terminology, “symbolic” refers to general, abstract ideological labels, images, and categories, including acts of self-identification with the left or right. “Operational” ideology, by contrast, refers to more specific, concrete, issue-based opinions that may also be classified by observers as either left or right. Although this distinction may seem purely academic, evidence suggests that symbolic and operational forms of ideology do not coincide for many citizens of mass democracies. For example, Free & Cantril (1967) observed that many Americans were simultaneously “philosophical conservatives” and “operational liberals,” opposing “big government” in the abstract but supporting the individual programs comprising the New Deal welfare and regulatory state. More recent studies have obtained impressively similar results; Stimson (2004) found that more than two-thirds of American respondents who identify as symbolic conservatives are operational liberals with respect to the issues (see also Page & Shapiro 1992, Zaller 1992). However, rather than demonstrating that ideological belief systems are multidimensional in the sense of being irreducible to a single left-right continuum, these results indicate that, in the United States at least, leftist/liberal ideas are more popular when they are manifested in specific, concrete policy solutions than when they are offered as ideological abstractions. The notion that most people like to think of themselves as conservative despite the fact that they hold a number of liberal opinions on specific issues is broadly consistent with system-justification theory, which suggests that most people are motivated to look favorably upon the status quo in general and to reject major challenges to it (Jost et al. 2004a).”


“Actually, the GOP could dominate the region more completely- much more completely. In 1944, the Republican nominee for president, Thomas E. Dewey, received less than 5 percent of South Carolinians ‘ votes (making John Kerry’s 41 percent in 2004, his worst showing in the South, sound quite a bit less anemic). That was a solid South. The real story of Southern politics since the 1960s is not the rise to domination of Republicanism but the emergence of genuine two-party competition for the first time in the region’s history. Democrats in Dixie have been read their last rites with numbing regularity since 1964, and there is no question that the region has become devilish terrain for Democrats running for “Washington” offices (president, Senate, Congress). But the widespread notion that the South is one-party territory ignores some powerful evidence to the contrary. For one thing, more Southerners identify as Democrats than Republicans. For another: more Democrats win state and local elections in the South than Republicans. The parity between the parties was neatly symbolized by the total numbers of state legislators in the former Confederate states after the 2004 elections: 891 Republicans, 891 Democrats. The South is many things, not all of them flattering. But it is not politically “solid.””

Moral Accounting Versus Shared Suffering

There is a game humans play. It is about counting wrongdoings and measuring suffering. Whoever has had the worst experience, whoever has suffered the most wins. You get extra points for being a victim.

This is something all people do, left and right, women and men, young and old. Everyone has something that has hurt them or something they fear will hurt them. Some of these ’causes’ seem more objectively valid than others, but they all are real within the person’s experience.

This is the game of moral accounting. I don’t mean to judge this game as wrong. I’m one to do moral accounting when it comes to social problems. And I’ve been known to do it on a personal level. My long-term severe depression is the cross I bear. Through it, my understanding of the world feels justified. I have suffered. I know suffering. But so have almost everyone, one way or another. We all need to remind ourselves that we aren’t special, that our suffering isn’t unique.

How can I say my suffering is greater or less? There is no way to compare suffering. Suffering is suffering is suffering, the great equalizer. Obviously, in this life, suffering hits some people far worse than others. Yet we are incapable of being objective about it. Our own suffering is always worse, in our own experience.

Too easily, suffering can shut us down, close us off, isolate us from the world and from other people. Suffering, sadly, often divides us from the larger experience of shared human suffering, an experience that would lead us to compassion, even when we can never truly understand the suffering of another.

Why is this embracing of compassion so difficult? Why do we nurse our wounds as if from them we could shape weapons and armor to defend ourselves with? What do we fear would happen if others discovered our secret pain, if we just let our suffering be?


Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration, Race, & Data

I’ve been feeling a strong draw to get back into my unfinished blogging project about violence and inequality, specifically in the United States, in relation to race and racism. It is a daunting task, and for the moment I must focus elsewhere, but let me for a brief moment revisit this topic.

The most interesting book I’ve read about the American racial order is The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. The reason my mind has been brought back to this is because of another book I picked up a short while ago. It is Invisible Men by Becky Pettit.

The reason this book caught my attention is simple. Pettit, like Alexander, focuses closely on the data. It is a struggle trying to grasp what all the data means, and it is nice having books like these as guides. Invisible Men has the added value of looking not just at the data but also what data is collected (or not) and how it is collected, which gives us a rare opportunity to glimpse some blindspots.

I have just started the book and so can’t speak of it in detail at the moment. Let me just offer a passage to give you a taste of it (Kindle Locations 198-216):

“The intensive press coverage of America’s criminals and the extensive supervision of inmates by correctional authorities belie the invisibility of inmates, parolees, probationers, and others involved in the criminal justice system to the outside world. Inmates are a social group isolated socially, physically, and statistically from much of the rest of society. The vast majority of our nation’s inmates come from very few jurisdictions, and the facilities in which they are housed are even fewer in number (Heyer and Wagner 2004). Even our national data systems, as well as the social facts they produce, are structured around a normative kind of economic, political, and domestic life that commonly eludes those under the supervision of the criminal justice system.

“Inmates and former inmates are less likely than otherwise similarly disadvantaged men to hold down steady legitimate jobs, to participate in civic life, and to live in settled households. Even their institutionalization involves a segment of the state cut off from the usual methods of social accounting. We categorically exclude inmates and former inmates from the social surveys routinely used to gauge the condition of the U.S. population, and we systematically undercount them in the U.S. Census and social surveys.

“More than one hundred years ago, Émile Durkheim (1895/ 1982, 54) coined the term “social fact” to describe phenomena that both characterize and explain features of society: social facts are “the beliefs, tendencies and practices of the group taken collectively.” In his own research , Durkheim commonly relied on statistics such as rates of births, marriages, or suicides to isolate and examine social facts.

“This book documents how our collective blindness hinders the establishment of social facts, conceals inequality, and undermines the foundation of social science research, including that used in the design and evaluation of social policy. The decades-long expansion of the criminal justice system has led to the acute and rapid disappearance of young, low-skill African American men from portraits of the American economic, political, and social condition . While the expansion of the criminal justice system reinforces race and class inequalities in the United States, the full impact of the criminal justice system on American inequality is obscured by the continued use of data collection strategies and estimation methods that predate prison expansion.”

And then a little further on, the author sums it up and points out its relevance for us (Kindle Locations 222-225):

“The promise of the civil rights era has been undercut by a new form of invisibility manufactured by mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex. Yet the invisibility of large segments of the American population and the inequality it conceals is not a natural or inevitable product of prison growth.”

That gets the gears of my mind going. How can we understand something and discuss it when it is invisible to our collective sight? This makes for quite the challenge. We need to be very careful about the data upon which we base interpretations, speculations, theories, and conclusions. What is left out?

Communication Failure, Again

I was in another debate with a feminist about rape. My last such discussion was a few months ago. It was equally frustrating this time. I really don’t like ideologues and I really don’t like political correctness, either from the left or the right.

It isn’t even about whether I agree with someone or not. In this case, I think I may have been more in agreement. But it is pointless because such a person wants to hide behind their beliefs and opinions, hide behind their righteousness indignation, and I suppose hide behind their sense of suffering and victimization.

Life sucks and there plenty of reasons to be angry. I understand that. It is easy to get defensive and polarized into a position. I also understand that. But all my attempts at understanding came to nothing, so it seemed.

It sure can be frustrating trying to talk to someone who is stuck in that mentality. The person I was dealing with never came around to understanding that we were probably completely in agreement, at least about the central issues at hand. She so much wanted to make me into an enemy that divisiveness and heated argument was the near inevitable endpoint.

I wish I was better at communicating in such situations.

Failed Democracy and the Demand for Justice

I just now finished watching the HBO movie Recount. It awoke some old anger.

In 2000, I was in my mid-20s and not yet fully cynical. Maybe I was naive at the time, but I assumed that American democracy was a real thing. I had been apolitical up to that point in my life. The 2000 election was the first time I voted.

I should add that my anger had nothing to do with Gore losing, as I didn’t vote for Gore. Instead, I voted for Nader because he was the first politician I ever felt wasn’t lying to me (and don’t get me started with the bullshit scapegoating of Nader). Some of my anger in response to the movie was how easy it let Gore off the hook for his having given up the fight. Bush didn’t win. Rather, Gore conceded. He put ‘nation’ before party. But whose nation was it that trumped democracy? It obviously wasn’t the nation of “We the People”.

I couldn’t care less about Gore. What I cared about then and what I care about now is democracy. The movie barely touched upon the issue of the voter purge, one of the greatest civil rights infringements in modern American history. Democracy failed or rather we failed democracy. I still remain unconvinced that our country has recovered from that failure or ever will recover. Democracy is more easily destroyed than rebuilt.

But maybe that is a good thing. There is power in losing hope. It is only when we lose hope in the system that we can seek a justice that is greater than the system, that we can seek a new and better system. Our democracy was already broken or else the 2000 fiasco never could have happened. The recent Princeton study adds further proof that we no longer live in a democracy, assuming we ever did. If we can collectively acknowledge this, then and only then we could move toward creating an actual democracy.

It is only in losing false hope that we can gain a something more genuine. We don’t need hope. What we need is a righteous demand for justice. Democracy won’t be given to us. We the people must take it. Democracy isn’t the power of the vote. Etymologically and fundamentally, democracy is power of the people.

That realization should be taken very seriously. Power is something that only exists in its being used. Imagine if we were to take back our power from politicians and from Washington. Imagine if we let outrage move us to action. Anything would be possible, even democracy.

Disturbed Areas

“To be honest, the phrase “disturbed areas” had always bothered me in my occasional searches regarding plant habitat—I really didn’t know what it meant—and yet last night that ambiguity seemed suddenly strange, almost ominous. I could easily imagine the other landscapes offered by the field guide: “moist pinelands,” “meadows,” “thickets,” even the more poetic “rich woods.” And I could see the “ditches” and “roadsides” that some species favored. But the phrase “disturbed areas” was so abstract. If it didn’t include marred ground such as “ditches”—if it meant something more—then I could envision only horribly dug-up places, unearthed and scarred.”

~ Brent Hendricks, A Long Day at the End of the World

Happy News: Lack of Democracy & Excess of Carbon Dioxide

If you were already paying attention and being honest with yourself, none of this should surprise you. Still, it is sad.

Princeton Concludes What Kind of Government America Really Has, and It’s Not a Democracy
By Tom McKay

“As Gilens and Page write, “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” In other words, their statistics say your opinion literally does not matter.”

Carbon Dioxide Levels Just Hit Their Highest Point In 800,000 Years
By Kiley Kroh

“And this uncharted territory is something humans will have to navigate for quite some time because once its emitted, carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere. In fact, Andrew Freedman explains, “a single molecule of carbon dioxide can remain aloft for hundreds of years, which means that the effects of today’s industrial activities will be felt for the next several centuries, if not thousands of years.””


A Divide in Justice, a Divide in the Mind

I got sidetracked into reading some of Matt Taibbi’s just released new book, The Divide. A review of it in the Wall Street Journal of all places caught my attention. It was a surprisingly good, although short, review by Matt Welch. The reviewer ended with this damning conclusion:

“Though Mr. Taibbi doesn’t couch it in these terms, his warning is all about moral hazard, in two senses of the phrase. When swindlers know that their risks will be subsidized, and their potential crimes will be punishable only through negotiated corporate settlements, they will surely commit more crimes. And when most of the population either does not know or does not care that the lowest socioeconomic classes live in something akin to a police state, we should be greatly concerned for the moral health of our society.”

If that conclusion is correct and the Wall Street Journal was doing its job, that should have been front page news. Instead, I found it printed in a small corner of a back page of the newspaper. I guess one should be thankful that a review like this gets published at all in the mainstream media, however hidden away it remains.

This hiding in plain sight demonstrates a point made by Taibbi, maybe the central point of the entire book. His conclusion is that wealth disparities are causing unequal and unfair end results in the US justice system. But that is more just the ‘what’ of his argument, the evidence in support of a more probing insight. It is the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ that is the real issue of concern.

Taibbi speaks of implicit knowledge, that anyone who is paying attention knows all of this and yet it remains in the background. This is the key to understanding his argument. He introduces and emphasizes this perspective of implicit knowledge in his introduction. It appears he offers it as the foundation for building his analysis throughout the rest of the book. It is the sad fact that this knowledge is implicit, rather than explicit, that allows and encourages the growth of this divide.

Near the beginning of the introduction, he presents his case and puts it into context (Kindle Locations 67-75):

“The other thing here is an idea that being that poor means you should naturally give up any ideas you might have about privacy or dignity. The welfare applicant is less of a person for being financially dependent (and a generally unwelcome immigrant from a poor country to boot), so she naturally has fewer rights.

“No matter how offensive the image is, it has a weird logic that’s irresistible to many if not most Americans . Even if we don’t agree with it, we all get it.

“And that’s the interesting part, the part where we all get it. More and more often, we all make silent calculations about who is entitled to what rights, and who is not. It’s not as simple as saying everyone is the same under the law anymore. We all know there’s another layer to it now.”

Taibbi doesn’t pull his punches. He goes straight to the tender weak point in American pride by making a comparison to Soviet Russia (Kindle Locations 76-86):

“As a very young man, I studied the Russian language in Leningrad, in the waning days of the Soviet empire. One of the first things I noticed about that dysfunctional wreck of a lunatic country was that it had two sets of laws, one written and one unwritten. The written laws were meaningless, unless you violated one of the unwritten laws, at which point they became all-important.

“So, for instance, possessing dollars or any kind of hard currency was technically forbidden , yet I never met a Soviet citizen who didn’t have them. The state just happened to be very selective about enforcing its anticommerce laws. So the teenage farsovshik (black market trader) who sold rabbit hats in exchange for blue jeans outside my dorm could be arrested for having three dollars in his pocket, but a city official could openly walk down Nevsky Avenue with a brand-new Savile Row suit on his back, and nothing would happen.

“Everyone understood this hypocrisy implicitly, almost at a cellular level, far beneath thought. For a Russian in Soviet times, navigating every moment of citizenship involved countless silent calculations of this type. But the instant people were permitted to think about all this and question the unwritten rules out loud, it was like the whole country woke up from a dream , and the system fell apart in a matter of months . That happened before my eyes in 1990 and 1991, and I never forgot it.

“Now I feel like I’m living that process in reverse, watching my own country fall into a delusion in the same way the Soviets once woke up from one. People are beginning to become disturbingly comfortable with a kind of official hypocrisy. Bizarrely, for instance, we’ve become numb to the idea that rights aren’t absolute but are enjoyed on a kind of sliding scale.”

The example of Russia is an apt comparison. Like the Soviet Russia, the United States is in a precarious situation. We have immense power (or rather our government does) while at the same time having a population that is immensely deluded. Many American citizens have become disconnected from certain realities. Most Americans simply aren’t paying attention to what matters or not paying attention at all. But some Americans do notice, as the author acknowledges (Kindle Locations 95-101):

“This is obviously an outrage, and the few Americans who paid close attention to news stories like the deferred prosecution of HSBC for laundering drug money, or the nonprosecution of the Swiss bank UBS for fixing interest rates, were beside themselves with anger over the unfairness of it all.

“But the truly dark thing about those stories is that somewhere far beneath the intellect, on a gut level, those who were paying attention understood why those stories panned out the way they did. Just as we very quickly learned to accept the idea that America now tortures and assassinates certain foreigners (and perhaps the odd American or three) as a matter of routine, and have stopped marching on Washington to protest the fact that these things are done in our names, we’ve also learned to accept the implicit idea that some people have simply more rights than others. Some people go to jail, and others just don’t. And we all get it.”

This systemic and institutionalized injustice has become normal to us. We rarely think to even question it. Even when we do give it more than a passing thought, we typically accept it as the way the world operates, maybe inevitably. There are just those on the bottom of society as there are those at the top.

We see these problems and yet we don’t really see them. We never look at them head on. We never think about them carefully and talk about them openly. We live in social isolation and our minds are trapped within media bubbles. We don’t see the larger view (Kindle Locations 154-160):

“Most people understand this on some level, but they don’t really know how bad it has gotten, because they live entirely on one side of the equation. If you grew up well off, you probably don’t know how easy it is for poor people to end up in jail, often for the same dumb things you yourself did as a kid.

“And if you’re broke and have limited experience in the world, you probably have no idea of the sheer scale of the awesome criminal capers that the powerful and politically connected can get away with, right under the noses of the rich-people police.

“This is a story that doesn’t need to be argued . You just need to see it, and it speaks for itself. Only we’ve arranged things so that the problem is basically invisible to most people, unless you go looking for it.”

In our society, there is an implicit knowledge that is rarely ever overtly discussed publicly. I came across this same idea of implicit knowledge in a number of other books (and have written about this previously). The phrasing I kept coming across was to “know and don’t know”, a truth so dangerous that even to acknowledge it is frightening. What are we to do with such information? It makes us uncomfortable because it puts the lie to so many of our shared beliefs and assumptions, our collective self-image.

To know and not know. It is, at a fundamental level, a psychological dissociation, a splitting of the self based on a splintering of awareness. What we know in one context is separate from what we know in another context. We know and yet the full knowledge never gets our full attention, the different truths never quite connecting to help us see a greater truth that threatens our contentment and certainty.

There is a direct link between a disconnection of awareness and the social disparity of justice and wealth. The class and racial divide is part of the divide of ideological rhetoric, of political narrative, of media reporting, of public debate. There is a disconnection between what so many of us know on some level and what gets spoken in public forums and what gets implemented in public policy.

Reading a book like The Divide can be depressing. That was my initial response. The author, however, ends on a note of optimism. The divide was created and so can be changed. Going by the last examples in the book, it appears that changes are happening. “As this book goes to press,” Taibbi writes at the end of his concluding chapter (Kindle Locations 6405-6422),

“the Justice Department is sending signals that it’s beginning to realize its mistakes. Eric Holder is reportedly thinking of nominating a tough prosecutor, Leslie Caldwell, to permanently fill Lanny Breuer’s vacated post. Holder also talked about raising the statute of limitations on Wall Street cases, to give themselves another shot at all the crimes they ignored in the last five years, warning that those who committed crimes are “not out of the woods yet.” Hedge fund villain Stevie Cohen is being put out of business. As this book goes to press, criminal cases are reportedly coming against the megabank Chase for the “London Whale” episode and perhaps other misdeeds, including some related to its status as Bernie Madoff’s banker.

“At the very least, on the federal level, officials seem to recognize the political necessity of saying these things out loud, and this has to be in very large part due to the public outrage over the lack of Wall Street prosecutions. Decisions like the HSBC settlement were blunt bureaucratic calculations , where the risk of losing and/ or disrupting the economy was weighed against the benefit of receiving $ 1.9 billion in settlement money. But these new moves by Holder & Co. show that public outrage sometimes can change the calculus.

Exactly! Public outrage can make a difference. But public outrage requires public awareness. We are at an interesting moment in history that resonates with that moment when Russian society was awakening. With the rise of alternative media, Americans are becoming better informed in a way not seen before in my life.

Also, a large part of this shift comes from books like this written by Taibbi. It isn’t just the general public that is starting to question and doubt. More importantly, comfortably well-off mainstream media types such as Taibbi are beginning to look to new information and perspectives. And Taibbi isn’t alone. Many books like this one have been coming out recently and they are being read by all Americans, all across the economic spectrum:

“At the same time that Eric Holder was experimenting with a public change of mind, a federal judge named Shira Scheindlin handed down a ruling against New York’s stop-and-frisk policies. This was late in the summer of 2013. Scheindlin , among other things, cited a popular new book, The New Jim Crow, in her ruling and noted that since 2004 more blacks and Latinos have been accosted by police than actually live in the city. The ruling came at the end of a long and well-coordinated campaign by groups like the Center for Constitutional Rights and the NAACP.”

I liked the mention of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. That is another important book. It is surprising that Taibbi only mentions it right at the end and doesn’t even include the author’s name.  Alexander’s book goes into great detail about the data of inequality and injustice. The case made in The Divide could have been strengthened by Alexander’s analysis of data.

In his very last thoughts, Taibbi makes clear the power of public pressure and the necessity of more of it:

“Of course, a federal judge striking down stop-and-frisk as unconstitutional doesn’t mean the practice will end anytime soon. “You’re not going to see any change in tactics overnight,” promised Mayor Mike Bloomberg. But the fact that Bloomberg was put in the position of having to fight back— and that his successor, Bill de Blasio, won in part by running against those tactics— shows that public pressure can work . Just trying to do the right thing legitimizes the entire system. We don’t do it often enough.”

That is where the author leaves us.

A book is just a book. A writer can’t cause change merely through the act of being published. The only influence a book has is through those who read it and by what they choose to do with what a book offers. This may just be yet another book or it may be the start of a public discussion that we’ve needed for far too long.

We are on the edge of a historical shift. No one knows where this shift might take us or how it will happen. No one knows precisely when it will happen. But, one way or another, it will happen. We are close to the tipping point. Almost anything might push our society over the edge.

Identically Different: A Scientist Changes His Mind

Another book I picked up from the public library is Identically Different by Tim Spector.

I read the introduction and skimmed the rest of the book. It is about genetic and environmental influences, about the interaction between them, and about heritability and epigenetics. I already have a bunch of books about all of this, and so it is mostly data and ideas I’ve come across before. Still, it is always interesting to read about this subject.

What makes this book somewhat unique is the author himself. He is a research scientist who has been heavily involved in the popularizing of this field. According to the book, he has changed his views in recent years. A revolutionary paradigm shift is happening right now, largely because of new research that is challenging old theories. It’s nice to see that established scientists can and do change their minds, rather than merely old scientists dying and younger scientists replacing them with new perspectives.

Here is from the introduction to this book:

“Until three years ago I was one of the many scientists who took the gene-centric view of the universe for granted. I had spent the last 17 years producing hundreds of twin studies trying to convince a sceptical public and scientific world that virtually every trait and disease had a major genetic influence. My colleagues and I around the world were largely successful in this, and the prospect of finding the genes underlying most diseases looked increasingly certain. But I had a nagging doubt that we were missing something. [ . . . ]

“However, despite the extensive list of successes, a few signs were emerging that the paradigm was wrong. Most of the gene discoveries for common diseases turned out to be interesting in terms of biology, but the more we discovered the less useful each new gene became in accounting for the disease, since each gene is of tiny individual effect. For example, the 30 or so genes discovered for obesity, even when combined, account for only 2 per cent of the disease.

“This was frustrating to all of us working in the field, as it meant that each common disease was contolled not by one gene but by hundreds or even thousands of genes. This would require teams from many countries to combine forces and perform studies of tens, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, of subjects in order to find these tiny effects. Another consequence was that for common diseases (unlike rare monogenic diseases) these gene tests were pretty useless for prediction [ . . . ]

“While hundreds of recent gene discoveries have given us great insights into new disease mechanisms and possible drug targets, the common genes found to date usually account only for less than 5 per cent of the genetic influence. Exactly where the missing 95 per cent comes from is a mystery that is perplexing the field. Most scientists agree that we simply aren’t smart enough to realize what we don’t know. [ . . . ]

“There are few if any examples of environmental factors without a genetic component, and conversely genes don’t work alone and are usually dependent on the cells they live in and their environments. So in a world where hundreds of genes are working together to influence a trait or disease, the old distinction between nature and nurture is simply no longer relevant.”

The introduction is worthy of being read on its own. It could easily be read as a stand-alone essay.

The rest of the book deals with specific issues about traits and diseases. It is all standard analysis for this type of book, but it is useful as a fairly recent review of the research as it was published in 2012. The research is constantly changing which means books quickly become less relevant. As the author points out, “Most scientists agree that we simply aren’t smart enough to realize what we don’t know.” There are more questions than answers at this point. So, any theory is largely speculation, to varying degrees of probability not easily calculated.

I did have one problem with the book. The author seems to still be trapped within the terminological constraints of the old paradigm of nature versus nurture. He constantly refers to percentages of influences being genetic or environmental. Such claims are meaningless. The author speaks of the problem, but doesn’t get to the core issue.

He argues that the research shows that only a tiny percentage of influence is genetics alone and that only a tiny percentage is environment alone. I suspect, to be most accurate, absolutely zero percent of genetics and environment ever acts alone. They are inseparable. Genetics never exists or acts outside of an environment. And an environment that exists without genetics would be an environment that is irrelevant to human biology and behavior.

As David Shenk explains, in The Genius in All of Us, “heritability estimates are statistical phantoms; they detect something in populations that simply does not exist in actual biology.” The larger context of that quote can be found in a previous post of mine, along with quoted material from a bunch of other books. Also, scientific commentary can be found in another of my posts as well.

The paradigm that needs to change isn’t just about data and theory, but also about the terminological and conceptual framework we use to discuss data and theory.