Incompetence and Invulnerability

When viewing the bumbling of the Trump administration, and how it seems to almost be bragging about things it should be covering up, it is tempting to think, “What kind of idiots are these people?”

But what if they’re not really all that stupid, but simply don’t *care* that people know about whatever they did. What if they’re simply confident that no matter what they did that was morally dubious or actually illegal, nothing will be done about it?

What if they’re right?

Science Works

What’s really going on with those claims that scientists ‘manipulated’ climate data to fake global warming:

“Ships have been measuring water temperatures for a long time and are generally used as standards. So the scientists decided to recalibrate the buoy data up to match them. Remember, if you’re measuring absolute temperatures then that gives you the wrong numbers, but not if you’re measuring relative changes. If you add to the cooler temperatures or subtract from the warmer ones you get the same relative change. So it doesn’t matter which way you do it.”

Basically, the scientists are trying to measure change in temperature from a baseline in the mid-20th century, not absolute temperature now. That baseline temperature was measured using water pumped into the ships. It’s not as accurate a measurement of ocean temperature as measuring from a buoy outside the ship, but we don’t need the absolute temperature for this purpose. We want to know how much the temperature has changed, so we have to use the same sort of measurement as the original numbers. It’s just an adjustment of scale, not a falsification of data.

This is what happens when people don’t understand science. They think that scientists are lying for political reasons, rather than politicians lying for political reasons.

Who Is The Country

“Merely a politician’s trick–a high-sounding phrase, a blood-stirring phrase which turned their uncritical heads: Our Country, right or wrong! An empty phrase, a silly phrase. It was shouted by every newspaper, it was thundered from the pulpit, the Superintendent of Public Instruction placarded it in every schoolhouse in the land, the War Department inscribed it upon the flag. And every man who failed to shout it or who was silent, was proclaimed a traitor–none but those others were patriots. To be a patriot, one had to say, and keep on saying, “Our Country, right or wrong,” and urge on the little war. Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation?

“For in a republic, who is “the Country”? Is it the Government which is for the moment in the saddle? Why, the Government is merely a servant–merely a temporary servant; it cannot be its prerogative to determine what is right and what is wrong, and decide who is a patriot and who isn’t. Its function is to obey orders, not originate them. Who, then, is “the Country”? Is it the newspaper? is it the pulpit? is it the school superintendent? Why, these are mere parts of the country, not the whole of it; they have not command, they have only their little share in the command. They are but one in the thousand; it is in the thousand that command is lodged; they must determine what is right and what is wrong; they must decide who is a patriot and who isn’t.

“Who are the thousand–that is to say, who are “the Country”? In a monarchy, the king and his family are the country; in a republic it is the common voice of the people. Each of you, for himself, by himself and on his own responsibility, must speak. And it is a solemn and weighty responsibility, and not lightly to be flung aside at the bullying of pulpit, press, government, or the empty catch-phrases of politicians. Each must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, and which course is patriotic and which isn’t. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide it against your convictions is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country, let men label you as they may. If you alone of all the nation shall decide one way, and that way be the right way according to your convictions of the right, you have done your duty by yourself and by your country–hold up your head! You have nothing to be ashamed of”. — Mark Twain

“Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.

“This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — “No, YOU move.”” — Captain America

Lies, Damn Lies, and Government Lies

Absurd and obvious lies by government mouthpieces are no laughing matter. Such lies serve two very important purposes for a repressive–or would-be repressive–regime.

First, they create an official reality, a government-approved version of events that is the only officially acceptable version.

Second, it creates an opportunity for loyalists and the disloyal to identify themselves. People who repeat the ‘official’ version of events, who spread the lie, are the party loyalists who can be counted on. Those who call out the lie mark themselves as disloyal, enemies of the state.

The loyal and disloyal quickly come to live in two different worlds, with very different views of what has happened. Not just why, or by whom, but the actual events themselves. This further divides the population.

At this point, in the United States, the new regime is just testing the waters. Over the next four years we may well see loyalists encouraged to take note of those who are disloyal. They could be turned into an arm of their Party, turning in the disloyal, counter-marching at protests, providing enthusiastic crowds at The Leader’s rallies.

The disloyal could find themselves excluded from certain jobs. It could start with government jobs, where an unofficial loyalty test becomes a condition of employment. Then some private sector organizations will take up the trend. Or perhaps, with a few words of encouragement from the regime, the private sector will take the lead. In either case, the loyal will be rewarded and the disloyal punished.

I hope we do not make it to the next stage, where the disloyal begin to disappear, but that is up to us. Be aware. Be vigilant. Do not let the absurdity of what the regime’s mouthpieces say distract you from the very serious purpose that underlies those absurdities.

Trust Busting

My one hope for something good coming out of a Trump Presidency is that Americans will finally wake up and realize how weak our institutions are. Many of the protections we count on are maintained only by tradition, not actual law. We trust, when we should rightly mistrust.

We don’t have strong laws to protect journalists because we trust the government to not attack them. We’ve walked away from Unions because we trust corporations to not exploit us. We have no police oversight because we trust the police not to abuse their power.

Trump does not care about those traditions, and we are going to find out the value of strong laws over blind faith.

A Bad Moon Rising

Democracy is in crisis, all around the world.

I remember the morning of 9/11/2001, talking to a friend on the phone while watching the World Trade Center crash over and over again into a cloud of dust and rubble. I said to my friend, “Well that’s the end of the Republic.”

Fifteen years later, I see no reason to retract that statement. The United States is in the last stages of the democratic republic we’ve had for more than 200 years. The institutions still exist in name, but the function has largely changed. We’re at that awkward stage where one form government has passed, but the new one hasn’t settled in yet. We’re still working out what kind of country we’re going to be next.

This shouldn’t shock anyone. In the ten thousand or so years that we’ve had governments there hasn’t been one yet that lasted forever without changing. The US has already changed governmental structure once.

The most interesting thing about that particular study to me is the bit about how about 1 in 6 Americans are now okay with the Army running the country. Only 19% of millennials think it would be illegitimate if the Army were to take over from a dysfunctional civilian government.

This, I suppose, is supposed to shock us, but to me it’s about the most blindingly obvious political development in ages. We’ve spend decades telling everyone that every soldier is a hero, that soldiers are good, virtuous, and capable, and at the same time telling everyone that politicians are evil, corrupt, and incompetent. Of course a lot of people are okay with the Army kicking out the politicians and taking over.

People in Egypt a few years ago thought the same thing. It did not, unfortunately, work out as they’d hoped.

Divide et Impera

The way we’ve cut the lines of communication gives me more concern than anything else about the future of this country. It used to be that if you disagreed with someone’s politics you could still be friends with them. The things we had in common were greater than the things that pulled us apart. Not anymore.

Now we have to watch what we say, because we might make someone mad, lose a friend or a family member, even a spouse, or a job. Dropping a friendship because of disagreement over political candidates is considered such a no-brainer that it’s now considered weird if you stay friends with someone who holds different political views. This only widens the gulf between us. Since few people anymore even know anyone on the other side of politics we become less human to each other, and someone who isn’t fully human is more easily disagreed with…or disposed of. I am already seeing calls for simply killing people of different political views, often as a first resort.

That rarely ends well.

Blood On The Streets

So, here we are again. Last night here in Dallas someone ambushed police officers who were providing security at a peaceful demonstration, killing five and wounding seven more.

This is a predictable reaction to repeated instances of police killing black men on what, at best, seems to often be the flimsiest of pretexts. It was inevitable that, at some point, some black people would decide to hit back. Predictable, but unfortunate. Shooting random police officers is definitely counter-productive if you want to try and reduce the violence in America’s cities.

The news media is full now of stories with the traditional ‘who, what, where, and how.’ Who shot who with what and when. The hard question, though, the question that must be asked if we want to break this cycle of violence, is ‘why.’ As with any seemingly senseless act of violence, you can’t prevent future acts if you don’t understand why they’re happening.

Let us be clear that the problem starts with policing. Not the police necessarily, the individual men and women wearing the uniform. I’m certainly not saying that the officers shot last night had it coming, or anything like that. I mean the institution of policing in the United States, how we do it, and what it’s for.

There are basically ways of looking at policing. First, policing can be about protecting the people in the area being policed, preventing crime, making those people’s lives safer and better. This is what policing is in many countries, and what we say it is here in the US–‘Protect and Serve’–but in many communities it really isn’t. It’s the other kind of policing: Police as an occupying force, which sees the people being policed not as a group to be protected, but as a group that other people must be protected from.

This is a huge difference in attitude, and it touches on every interaction between police and policed. And, unfortunately, for a variety of reasons going back decades, most of the people in the areas most conspicuously ‘occupied’ (vs. ‘protected’) have dark skin. Dark skin thus becomes a marker, an indicator that that person is a ‘them,’ one of the people who is not to be protected, but protected against. The cop on the street is likely to see a white person with a gun as an ‘us.’ Probably not a threat, and maybe even a potential ally (especially if the white person is well-dressed, driving a nice car or truck, or shows other signs of the proper tribal allegiance). A white concealed handgun license holder who is pulled over in a traffic stop is much more likely to be let off with a warning than to find himself face-down on the pavement with guns pointed at him.

A black person with a gun, though, is very likely to be classed on sight as a ‘them,’ an outsider, a threat. If the black person also doesn’t show the ‘proper’ middle class symbols in terms of clothes, car, and speech, that likelihood goes way up. A white person with a gun might be seen as a possible ally, but a black person with a gun will almost certainly be seen as an immediate threat, and treated accordingly. Recent shootings by police have highlighted this dramatically.

The black person, of course, knows all this, and knows how police have treated black people for, well, as long as there have been police in this country. He or she is also going to be nervous and fearful. Both sides, then, are coming into the encounter with fear and mistrust of the other. It doesn’t take much to escalate such a situation to violence.

This article is an excellent look at the problem of racism within police forces. The problem isn’t that all police are out to immediately shoot all minorities they encounter. The problem is that they are much more likely to treat a minority person as a threat, an other, and that they are likely to get away with mistreating that person. The presumption is that any minority person killed or injured by the police had it coming somehow. White America, protected and served by its police, sees them as heroes who wouldn’t hurt anyone without a really good reason. Occupied, brown, America, sees it differently.

As Hudson says in the above-linked article, the problem is institutional. He says that about 15% of police will always do the right thing, about 15% will abuse their authority whenever possible, and about 70% will go along with the environment they find themselves in. We can quibble over the exact proportions, but I see little to argue with in the general idea. Some cops are good, some are bad, and most are just people trying to get through a crappy day at work, like everyone else.

A good system could handle that, weed out the bad officers and encourage the good ones. Unfortunately, the system we have, the us-vs-them mentality of many police departments, protects the abusive cops. Police departments are tasked with policing themselves, and almost always find that they did nothing wrong. Even if the cops really did behave properly (not every shooting is a bad shooting), the questionable impartiality of the oversight process makes it hard for outsiders to trust it.

In short, then, the problem seems to be an ‘occupying force’ mentality that permeates many police departments, at least regarding certain areas of their city, which creates an atmosphere of racism, fear, and hostility. (You could argue that the racism came first, and I wouldn’t disagree.) Poor oversight, and a general attitude that the police are usually, if not always, in the right keeps bad cops from being punished, for the most part, which leads naturally to incredible frustration on the part of the people in Occupied America, who feel that the rest of the country doesn’t care what happens to them. (There is, unfortunately, some truth to this. White America doesn’t care about violence as long as it stays in ‘those’ neighborhoods. Only when white people in ‘good’ parts of town are killed do people get upset and start demanding that Something Be Done.) This leads to the sort of thing we had in Dallas last night, which will lead to even more fear and violence from the police, and so on.

Now that we have, I hope, some insight into the root of the problem, what can we do about it?

The obvious long-term solution is to fix the poverty and crime that keeps Occupied America occupied. That’s a difficult problem, though (particularly since White America doesn’t want those people in the workforce, competing for a piece of an ever-shrinking economic pie, but that’s another topic) and outside the scope of this particular essay.

In the more immediate term, we need some sort of impartial body–a group that can be seen as impartial–to investigate complaints against the police. I see this as an absolutely critical step. I think that people could handle a police officer being cleared of wrongdoing in a questionable shooting if the body that clears him is seen as trustworthy. Each state should set up its own review commission, with any current or former law enforcement officers barred from serving on it. The UK’s Independent Police Complaints Commission would make a good model.

An impartial review process, besides its primary goal of ensuring fair treatment by the police, would also be more fair for the police. It is unreasonable to expect them to impartially oversee themselves.

In addition to independent oversight, police departments themselves need an overhaul. The attitude that they are an occupying force there to contain certain neighborhoods, and protect the surrounding areas from those people, must be weeded out. The idea must be impressed on the police that they are there to protect and serve everyone.

Doing that will take time and money. The average police officer in the United States receives about 19 weeks of training. Police officers in Germany receive at least 130 weeks of training. That is a huge investment of time, effort, and money in each police officer, but it pays off for the Germans. The police there are highly trusted, even by minorities. They also shoot people at about only 1% the rate that US policemen do.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to take those new, highly trained, more thoughtful and understanding, police and throw them in dribs and drabs into the existing police culture. They would quickly be overwhelmed, absorbed into the prevailing culture or quitting in disgust. This is where it gets hard. While this new generation of police officers is being trained we must work on breaking up the culture of the existing departments, weeding out the bad officers and encouraging a less confrontational style of policing. It would probably be worthwhile to send some current officers through the new training process. (Or at least an abbreviated version.) This could be the first task of the new police oversight commissions; sifting through the officers’ records and recommending terminations, promotions, demotions, and retraining.

Even with that, it would probably be best to clump the new officers together as much as possible, to build a new culture. Reassign officers in existing precincts to free up space so that the new officers make up a majority in that neighborhood. We could even take the radical step of recruiting promising high school kids from occupied neighborhoods and on graduation sending them to a police academy and then back to serve and protect their old neighborhood. Who better to understand and help the people there? It might be necessary in some cases to completely disband a department and rebuild it from the ground up.

All of this, of course, would be met with absolutely ferocious resistance from the police. It would also cost a lot of money, and getting the new generation of highly trained police into the field would take years. (It would probably take years just to set up the training process, much less complete more than two years of training.) The oversight commissions, at least, would provide relatively immediate relief, if they could be created in the face of police resistance.

If we really want things to change, though, that’s what it’s going to take.

The question is, do we want things to change?

Know When To Fold ‘Em

The people whining about Obama using diplomacy instead of military force to face down Russia over the Ukraine don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. From Truman on down no US President has dared take on Russia directly. The US only threatens smaller countries, that can’t really hurt us. It’s only practical. When North Korea invaded South Korea 1950, we were all over that. The same in Vietnam, 15 years later. When Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in 1948 and Hungary in 1956 and Afghanistan in 1978, we didn’t do shit.

Russia can fight back, on approximately equal terms. We aren’t going to do squat about anything they decide to do along their own borders, no matter who’s president.

Ban ‘Em

23 killed, 109 injured in a knife attack. It’s a good thing this can’t have happened, because only guns can kill that many people. It would be terrible if that many people had really been killed and injured.