whataboutism
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The actual dangers of Trump-style false equivalence

This week, Donald Trump, when asked why he could respect Vladimir Putin when he’s a war criminal and killer, said this:

“There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think — our country’s so innocent?”

And it struck a nerve.

Democrats, of course, immediately attacked this quote as ridiculous false equivalence. But the more important thing was that Republicans chimed in too. Senators McCain, Sasse, Collins, McConnell, and other notable Republicans came out in force to immediately state that there was no “moral equivalence” between the U.S. and Putin’s administration of Russia.

But the more telling reaction from many ordinary American citizens was, “So what? What’s the big deal?”

Well, let me answer that question for you.

Danger #1: This is actually a Russian tactic, being used against us in a new way

It’s called “whataboutism”, and it was a popular tactic during the Cold War. To sum it up:

Any criticism of the Soviet Union (Afghanistan, martial law in Poland, imprisonment of dissidents, censorship) was met with a “What about…” (apartheid South Africa, jailed trade-unionists, the Contras in Nicaragua, and so forth).

Essentially, it’s an argument against morality. Everyone is guilty of something at some point so no one can judge. Therefore every dictator, despot, and tyrant should be free to exercise their villainy.

Let me put this insidious logic in another, more provocative way: You shouldn’t try to stop a rape from happening because you beat your wife.

This tactic fell out of favor for a while in Russia because it didn’t make any sense. During the worst of the Cold War in the Soviet Union, when you could be shot for trying to leave the country and political dissidents were literally banished to Siberia, whataboutism didn’t quite sink in for the average comrade. The West really didn’t seem that bad, despite the propaganda, and many tried to escape to the West despite the dangers (see East Berlin).

But whataboutism is back with a vengeance in modern Russia. Putin and his cronies brought it back. And it’s working. Many Russians seem to actually believe that there is no moral difference between their rulers and those of other countries. It helps when you have the impressive media capabilities of today’s technology, and it’s all state-controlled by former KGB agents and current FSB agents.

But here’s the devious aspect of Trump’s version of this tactic: he’s not using it to vilify Russia and prop up his own immoral policies in comparison. He’s elevating Russia’s despot and putting us down. The President of the United States is trying to demean and diminish our presence in the world to make a hated world leader look better.

This is borderline treason.

Danger #2: This diminishes our ability to act domestically, and our influence internationally

America is not perfect. We fuck up all the time. But we acknowledge those mistakes, adjust, and try to do better. Trump himself was in large part elected because of this phenomenon; his claim that he was always against the massive clusterfuck that was the Iraq war was built on a national awareness that we made a mistake, and our next leader would need the wisdom to not repeat that mistake. We strive for freedom and improvement of our systems. We fall short, but we keep trying.

If you’re American, you should never, ever ever take those things for granted. Because others are wishing for what we have.

And the statements of the American President are key for those people. They need to see that there is something better, that things don’t have to be the way they are in their country. But whataboutism weakens the resolve of the Russian citizen trying to change things in their homeland. “What’s the point?”, the thinking goes. “Even America can’t do it. Balanced laws, REAL elections, a free and critical media – that’s all just fiction. In the end they’re the same as us. THEIR PRESIDENT SAID SO.”

This destroys hope, and without hope there cannot be change.

This whataboutism also hurts us when it comes to domestic issues. As Jake Sullivan recently wrote at Foreign Policy

Remember what Trump defenders said when faced with overwhelming, conclusive evidence that Russia interfered in our election. You guessed it: we spy, too! The American president should do something about Russia interference in America’s elections because he is the American president. Full stop. But whataboutism takes away the responsibility to do the right thing.

Danger #3: It hurts the people fighting Russia on the front lines

Let’s play pretend for a moment. Imagine you’re a member of the US intelligence community. You’ve spent years, maybe decades fighting against Russia’s attempts to destabilize and weaken America in every way they can. You’re doing this because you believe in the cause. You’ve seen firsthand what happens to political dissidents in Russia, or journalists trying to expose government corruption, or protesters fighting for equal rights. Then the President of the United States comes out and says, essentially, “Yeah we’re actually no better than they are.”

Imagine how that would make you feel.

Now imagine how much harder your job is going to get when you need ordinary Russian citizens to give you information, or you’re trying to enlist their help to undermine a dangerous politician in their area. Why should they help an American? You’re just as bad.

Of all the dangers of Trump-style “whataboutism”, this is perhaps the most damaging – the undermining of the efforts of those who are fighting on the front lines and know exactly what the real score is. They know the enemy, they have done battle with them, and they have found the opposition’s tactics unacceptable, inhuman, and decidedly un-American. To have a President who denies all of that is demoralizing and crippling for people who already sacrifice so much for the safety not just of Americans, but other world citizens stuck in Russia’s path of destruction.

This is dangerous.

Robots are takin' the jobs!
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Blue-collar workers are doomed. The robots are taking their jobs.

Corporations are moving to automation as soon as they possibly can. Not just because American workers eat into profits, but because ALL workers eat into profits. And everyone, regardless of political affiliation, should be able to see that corporate profit chasing has gotten worse, not better in the past 20 years. It’s not going to change.

The jobs are going away, and they’re not coming back. I can throw a lot of statistics, studies, and surveys at you, but the best way to put this is probably through three simple statements:

  • US manufacturing jobs are down, but productivity is up significantly. How do you be more productive with fewer people? Automation and increased efficiency.
  • The most common job in 28 US states is truck driver. But most truck driving companies in the country are considering automating their fleets with self-driving trucks. Self-driving vehicles in general threaten 3.4 million freight, taxi, bus, and delivery truck jobs. And the tech is coming faster than people realize.
  • Amazon just announced Amazon Go, an automated convenience store that requires no cashiers at all. This trend had started already with the advent of self-checkout. Fast food restaurants are already introducing automated kiosks. Chances are you’ve already ordered from one. There are now 200,000 of the machines in stores around the world. And that number is expected to reach more than 335,000 by 2020, according to figures from London-based research and consulting group RBR. In 20 years, service and retail jobs will be decimated.

Now, let’s get into the nitty gritty and I’ll explain just how boned blue-collar folks are:

Manufacturing jobs are an endangered species

An old staple of American politics in the Midwest is “bringing back manufacturing jobs.” But this is just lip service. Politicians know those types of jobs aren’t coming back. Employment in manufacturing peaked in the U.S. in June 1979, at almost 19.6 million jobs. The trend line has been trending down ever since and this September that number was down to 12.3 million (these numbers are seasonally adjusted). According to the Census Bureau, the real median household income of an American householder who has completed four years of high school peaked in 1973 at $56,395 in constant 2013 dollars. By 2013, it was down to $40,701. That is a drop of $15,694–or 27.8 percent. Good paying jobs for people without higher education have been leaving for a long time, across both Republican and Democrat Presidential tenures, and it’s not going to change.

But current manufacturing output is 41% higher than it was in 1997 (the last year manufacturing jobs ticked up). Here’s the catch though: about half of the total growth in U.S. manufacturing output since 1997 has been in just one sector – computer and electronics manufacturing.

And most of that work is done by machines doing tasks no human could ever hope to do efficiently. The robots have already taken over manufacturing, and since they never take sick days, vacation, maternity leave, or need lunch breaks, they will always be more cost effective for companies.

The use of robots and other manufacturing efficiencies were responsible for 88 percent of the 7 million factory jobs the US has lost since peak employment in 1979, according to a study by Ball State University’s Center for Business and Economic Research.

Millions of people make their living through driving, but that’s about to be done by robots too

Few people realize that truck driving is a huge source of jobs in this country. This image illustrates it nicely:

Truck driver is the most common job in 28 states

Truck driver is the most common job in 28 states

Let me make a couple of key points here:

US truck transport, says freight company Flexport, can double its output for less than half the cost just with partial automation.

That’s just with partial automation! Imagine the profits with 75% automation. That’s the brass ring for companies in the trucking business. But the trucker community still feels like this takeover is a long ways away. The past decade alone should have taught us how amazingly fast technology shifts can occur. Case in point:

A convoy of self-driving trucks drove themselves across Europe in April, and the first driverless delivery in the US dropped off 21,000 cases of Budweiser in Colorado Springs, Colorado this October.

And driverless car projects by tech titans like Google, Apple, and Tesla are going to threaten every driving job from chauffeur to Bus driver.

Service and retail jobs are on the chopping block too

In 2010, the cost of checking in a passenger at the airport was about $3 with a staffed desk, according to a report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation entitled Embracing the Self-Service Economy.

But when customers use electronic terminals to check in? That cost dropped to 14 cents.

With those numbers, moving to a fully automated check-in and boarding process could save the airline industry $1.6 billion a year, the International Air Transport Association says. And as automation becomes better and the technology becomes cheaper, the pure numbers argument is going to get more appealing.

Fast food restaurants are doing it too. As increases in the minimum wage cut into profits, the automation of the food industry just increases at a more rapid pace. This isn’t just limited to fast food. Amazon just announced its first grocery store pilot, Amazon Go. It’s a store where you just walk in, scan your phone, grab all the stuff you want, and walk out. Everything gets calculated and charged automatically through computer vision and sensor systems (ironically these systems were derived from self-driving car systems).

Britt Beamer, president of America’s Research Group, a consumer-behavior research and consulting firm, estimated that Amazon’s cutting-edge technology had the potential to wipe out 75 percent of typical grocery-store staff.

Now at this point, some astute readers will assert that automation doesn’t always equal a decline in jobs. You could bring up the 19th century textile industry, where almost all of the work was automated, yet the number of weavers continued to grow for decades. More automation meant the price of cotton cloth fell, and people used more of it. You could bring up the bank teller profession, which didn’t end up extinct despite fears when the ATM was first introduced. And those are certainly valid examples of how technology can actually enhance and improve human opportunities, but they are very specific and depended a lot on the circumstances of the time.

The textile industry in the 19th century had not reached anything near market saturation and the technology wasn’t advanced enough as it is today. Once those factors changed, textile jobs evaporated (steam and water powered looms needed people, electronic systems didn’t need nearly as many). ATMs actually DID reduce the average number of bank tellers per urban branch (from 21 to 13), but bank deregulation in the 90s and the cheaper cost of running a branch with fewer humans meant banks could increase the number of branch offices. As a result, demand for bank tellers increased. But now that the banks have reached market saturation, the situation is changing. According to the Labor Department, employment of tellers is projected to decline 8% over the next decade. The number of bank branches is now declining rather than increasing “because of industry consolidation and technological change”, including things like mobile banking. Technology eventually wins, every time.

Okay, so the jobs are going to be gone, but the people aren’t going anywhere (in fact, with a rising population we’re quickly getting MORE working age adults). And while we can shift some of them to other professions (some of which would involve building and maintaining the very automation systems in question), we can’t retrain everybody. A 35-year-old steel worker today is not very likely to shift careers and become a computer engineer in 20 years. So how do we keep these guys eating, housed, and comfortable with no decent paying work for them to do?

That is going to be the major economic question we have to answer in the near future. It’s not about limiting immigration, or outsourcing, or free trade. Cheaper labor done by other groups, if anything, has just helped to slow down the takeover by the machines. But even that isn’t enough to stop the inevitable decimation of unskilled and low-skilled labor in industrial nations.

Will the solution be a huge higher education push to educate the public for premium jobs that can’t be automated? Will it be implementation of Universal Basic Income? Or, ironically, free trade agreements that allow American workers to become a migratory class hopping from country to country to grab work where they can? To some degree this is already happening with UK citizens in the EU with “free movement of workers” rules allowing them to move around freely in Europe. But the Brexit vote threatens that, which is part of why 18-24 year olds, according to a YouGov poll, voted 75% to stay in the EU – their employment future is at stake.

The answers won’t come easy, and the facts are hard to deny. But our workforce can adapt. We’ve done it every time technology shook things up. But the first step is accurately assessing the issue, and blaming regulations or immigrants or free trade helps no one but the politicians trying to win elections.

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The 1828 election was nastier than anything you’ve ever seen.

People often think that the American political arena today is nastier and more irrational than it has ever been. This is not true. Once the Founding Fathers left the picture, practically all our elections have always been dirty, irrational, full of blatant lies, and in general batshit crazy.

I’ve previously talked about the 2004 election which used gay marriage as a wedge issue to re-elect an unpopular President leading an unpopular war, and the 1968 election where we had a pro-segregation racist win a bunch of states in the Deep South and Bobby Kennedy got fatally shot on the night he won the California primary. Today I’m gonna go waaaaay back and talk about the insane in the membrane tactics of the 1828 election.

This particular election is often noted in history as the first dirty campaign. Most of the previous 10 elections were pretty straightforward and involved mythical Founding Father heroes: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc. The exception was the 1824 election when John Q. Adams, son of our 2nd President John Adams, won against Andrew Jackson, founder of the Democratic Party. The 1824 election by itself was batshit crazy because although Jackson got more electoral votes, NEITHER candidate actually won the necessary number of electoral votes. So the decision of who would be President went to the House of Representatives (this is how the rules are laid out in the 12th amendment), and they picked John Q. Adams. The main reason this happened was that Henry Clay, who came in fourth place in that election, was Speaker of the House and he hated Jackson so he formed a coalition to make sure Adams would win even though Jackson had the higher electoral number.

Henry Clay became Adams’ Secretary of State shortly after.

Let me stop for a second to really drive this point home: Jackson WON the popular vote 43% to 30%. He had 15 MORE Electoral Votes. And the House picked Adams.

This dirty dealing came to be known as the “Corrupt Bargain” by Jackson supporters, and the brutal campaign for 1828 practically began before Adams even took office.

But in 1828, we had an EPIC rematch.

But first, let me tell you a little about Andrew Jackson because…woooo, child. He was a character. Jackson was a warrior, to the bone. He was a courier in the Revolutionary War at age thirteen. When he was taken prisoner by the Redcoats, a British officer demanded that young Mr. Jackson polish his boots. I imagine that Andrew, in the language of the time, said something along the lines of “kiss my pale white ass” (maybe a bit of revisionist history here but let’s go with it). The officer slashed young Andrew across the face, and he wore that scar proudly for the rest of his life.

As an adult, Jackson was a famed general and politician. But many people thought that Jackson was, quite frankly, an asshole. He had a famous temper and was quick to draw a gun. In 1806 he KILLED a man in a duel for insulting his wife and accusing him of cheating on a horse race. Dude was straight up gangsta.

But that’s also why a lot of politicians didn’t like him. Thus, his odd “loss” in the 1824 election even though he won by every reasonable metric. Even back then, “likeability” mattered.

But Jackson would not be stopped. He ran with a vengeance in 1828 against the then incumbent Adams. But Adams supporters bet that since Jackson was skilled but famously unpleasant, they could pretty much say anything about him and get away with it. So they did.

First, they attacked his wife.

See, waaaaay back in like 1789, Jackson met the love of his life, Rachel Donelson Robards. There was only one problem: Rachel was already married. She was separated from her husband Lewis due to what she claimed was essentially domestic abuse. Rachel ran off to live with her mother, and by the time Lewis found her she was dating Andrew. Lewis applied for divorce in 1790, claiming that Rachel had committed adultery with Andrew. Andrew and Rachel ran off and got married in 1791.

There was only one problem: due to some weird lazy ass paperwork filing, the divorce wasn’t finalized until 1793. So, under the law, Andrew Jackson was married to another man’s wife.

Andrew and Rachel found out about this and re-said their vows in 1794, and that was the end of the story for THREE GODDAMN DECADES until the 1828 election when Jackson’s political opponents decided to dredge this shit up. They labeled Jackson’s poor wife as an adulteress and a bigamist.

That alone would have been dirty as hell. But the Adams camp didn’t stop there. They next went after Jackson’s long-dead mother.

This is an actual, verbatim, quote from a pro-Adams newspaper, the Cincinnati Gazette:

“General Jackson’s mother was a COMMON PROSTITUTE brought to this country by the British soldiers! She afterward married a MULATTO MAN, with whom she had several children, of which number General JACKSON IS ONE!!!”

Yes, exclamation points and caps and everything. That is not a Facebook post. That is not a YouTube comment. That is not a tweet. That is not from InfoWars or Breitbart. That is an actual quote from a publication printed almost 200 years ago.

A newspaper called Andrew Jackson’s dead mother a whore.

Of course, Jackson and his supporters fought back with their own claims. Some of them said that President John Q. Adams had lived in sin with his wife before they got married, and that she was born out of wedlock. It was bad, man. Really bad.

Long story made slightly shorter: Jackson won in 1828. And this time it was a landslide. But the cost was high. His wife Rachel died just weeks after the election. The doctors said it was a heart attack, but Jackson blamed Adams and his crew for putting her through a nightmare. When Jackson arrived in Washington, D.C. to claim his new position, he refused to meet outgoing President Adams. Adams had left town anyway, which was probably a good thing because Jackson probably would have shot him had he seen him.

So, before you think an election has gotten crazy and out of hand, ask yourself this: has anyone accused anyone’s mother of being a whore?

Side-note: I’m sending a treatment to Lin-Manuel Miranda for an Andrew Jackson play because Hamilton ain’t got nothin’ on this.

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We all look past what others focus on

Sunday thoughts again. No analysis, just pondering. This time, what’s on my mind is the concept of “I’m willing to look past that.”

I think one of the most interesting traits you can learn about a person is what they’re willing to look past as long as the subject in question fulfills other needs.

No area exemplifies this more in today’s world than our politics. Trump voters who are not extremists (and there are many) were willing to look past his prejudice (“He’s Mexican!”), his pandering to the extremists, his thin skin, and his complete lack of actual political experience. Those voters looked past all that to achieve some other personal goal. For some it was simply a protest vote, for others it was a “We need SOMETHING different” vote, and for many it was simply not caring because they didn’t fit in one of the groups targeted by Trump’s rhetoric.

But, regardless of the exact reason, they were willing to look past the worst of him.

This was true for Hillary voters too, and I think it’s important for Democrats to understand this and come to terms with it. As someone who once had Top Secret clearance, I knew Hillary’s email scandals were going to grind a lot of gears within governmental circles and make her vulnerable to attacks, both fair and otherwise. We can’t deny the truth: she screwed up and should have known better.

But I was willing to look past it.

I knew that Bill Clinton’s “coincidental” meeting with Attorney General Lynch was bad optics at best, and complete corrupt cronyism at worst. I was willing to look past it. I knew that Hillary’s campaign slogan, “I’m with Her”, was characteristic of the unbridled ambition and hubris of the Clinton machine and her inability to connect with the needs and desires of the people she supposedly wanted to serve. I knew Hillary’s “basket of deplorables” comment was insensitive, and un-Presidential. I remembered Hillary’s infuriating (to me) support for the Iraq War and her insufficient explanations for it. I was willing to look past all that.

I knew that people who knew her, and endorsed her publicly, despised her privately (just read those leaked emails, Colin Powell’s in particular). I still filled in her bubble on the ballot. I did not do it with the glee and confidence I felt when I voted for Obama in 2008. Instead, I felt I’d made the responsible choice, albeit an imperfect one.

But disappointing Democrat turnout on Election Day showed that millions of Obama voters couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary, and while I am disappointed in them for putting principles over practicality, I can’t fault their reasons for feeling that way. I just wish, perhaps selfishly, that they could have compromised in the same way we all do every day.

Human beings are complex, and no one is perfect. We are all criminals and liars. If you’ve ever fibbed on your taxes, or bought an illegal drug, or driven too fast, or pirated a movie, or gotten behind the wheel when you knew you’d probably had a bit too much to drink, you have consciously broken the law. If you’ve ever believed something about a person simply because of a group they’re in, you are guilty of prejudice. None of us is innocent.

The people closest to us are flawed too. Your parents may have cringe-worthy views, but you still love them. Your spouse or your kids or your best friend may have that one really bad trait or done that really bad thing that truly tested your relationship. You may despise the people who run the place where you work, but you still show up to work and put money in their pockets. You look past it. You choose the lens you want to view a person through, and everything else falls out of focus.

In my mind, the biggest factor in this election was this: generally speaking, one group could look past a lot of shit, and one group couldn’t. I can’t say that one is better than the other, or smarter than the other, or more righteous. I can only say that one group’s willingness to look the other way won them the day. Only time will tell if putting party, or politics, over principle was a good move for them.

But it’s also important to keep in mind that we just had an election with the two most hated candidates in history. As we navigate this latest fork in our path and try to keep the heavy wheels of progress moving forward, our collective challenge as Americans may be to demand more of our representatives, so that we can all see our future clearly without blurring the parts we want to ignore.

1968 Election
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2016 ain’t got nothin’ on 1968

To all my friends who are stressing about this election:

Our country has been through worse in relatively recent times.

I know it seems like the gates to hell are opening and the barbarians are storming the castle. I know it seems like our institutions, and even our fellow citizens, have failed us. I know it seems like ignorance and fear are winning out.

But the key word in all that is “seems”.

History has many lessons to teach us, and it is often said that the affairs of humankind are cyclical. If you think this is the worst election ever, or if you think our politics have never been so divisive, or if you think things have never looked so bleak, allow me to point out a very important bit of history: the 1968 Presidential election.

The vast majority of people reading this (myself included) were not alive during the election of ’68, and the few who were alive were too young to really understand the politics involved. But let’s go back and reflect on how BATSHIT CRAZY that election was, and I’m sure you’ll see that 2016 pales in comparison.

’68 was a tumultuous time in US and world history. A brief summary of events.

The War:

The US was embroiled in the Vietnam War, a bloody, incredibly unpopular, extremely expensive military movement that served as a dark cloud over everything going on domestically in the US.

Keep in mind that the US Military draft was still in effect. If you were a young man, you had to worry about getting pulled into this awful conflict against your will. During this year, the Johnson administration called for a ceiling of 549,500 American soldiers in Vietnam. Let me put that in perspective: The most troops we ever had in Iraq in 2003 was around 145,000.

The War was so unpopular that the Democrat party was fracturing. Lyndon Johnson, President at the time, announced in March that he would not run for re-election. This was on MARCH 31, just over 7 months out from the freaking election. The race for President got way more interesting (in other words, chaos).

The Candidates:

LBJ stepped out because people were tired of the damn war, but also because he worried he might actually die in office if he won (ironically he did die just 2 days after his 2nd elected term would have ended). His departure opened the door for other Democrats to step up. Two heavy hitters emerged from the fracturing party: LBJ’s Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy’s brother, Attorney General/Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Humphrey was in the lead early but a decisive Kennedy win in the California primary made the race much closer.

On the Republican side you had Richard Nixon, who used the Civil Rights strife to run on a “law and order” platform (sound familiar?)

And, running as an Independent, Alabama Governor George C. Wallace. He LITERALLY ran on a racist platform. In his 1963 Inaugural Address as Governor he said that he stood for “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Wallace wanted to pull out of Vietnam within 90 days of taking office and said foreign aid was money “poured down a rat hole” and demanded that European and Asian allies pay more for their defense.

Wallace chose a former general as his VP running mate, and here’s an awesome quote from him regarding NUCLEAR WEAPONS: “I think most military men think it’s just another weapon in the arsenal… I think there are many times when it would be most efficient to use nuclear weapons. … I don’t believe the world would end if we exploded a nuclear weapon.”

Sound familiar? I mean, the similarities to Trump stuff are uncanny, right? But wait…there’s more. A crapton more.

The Civil Rights movement:

It wasn’t just the War that influenced the election, it was the huge Civil Rights movement, led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Black citizens were fighting for their right to vote, fighting to end segregation, fighting to have a fair place in American life in general. And it was causing a huge rift in the nation, particularly between the North and the South. This was also the point that racist Southern Democrats left the party (George Wallace himself was a Democrat before he went Indie).

If you think Black Lives Matter is a big deal, it doesn’t even hold a candle to what was going on in ’68.

Europe was batshit crazy in ’68 too:

In March of ’68 in Czechoslovakia (yes, that used to be a country), Antonin Novotny, a communist of the Stalinist variety, resigns the Czech presidency, setting off a crisis as a reformer takes over and the Soviet Union (and its allies) try to stop it. There are rumblings of war, and then there’s actual war. The Soviets and their allies send 200,000 troops to end the “Prague Spring”.

In France, student and worker revolts lead to chaos in the country. As many as ELEVEN MILLION workers go on strike. People seriously wonder if the country is about to head to civil war.

Everybody gets shot:

In April, Martin Luther King is assassinated: one of the most pivotal points of American History.

In June, Andy Warhol is shot (but lives) by Valerie Solanis, a struggling actress, and writer (who was also batshit crazy).

TWO DAYS LATER, Robert F. Kennedy is shot while doing press for his California victory. He dies.

Let that sink in: one of the leading Democrat candidates, the hope of millions of people, who just won the primary of the largest state in the country, killed just five months before the election.

The effect was particularly crushing for African Americans. Their two greatest champions were both violently killed in rapid succession. Tensions ran high.

Democrat turmoil continues (and there were still issues with police):

The Progressive Left looked about ready to split wide open. The Democratic National Convention was in Chicago that year. On that Monday night, demonstrations and anti-war protests were widespread, but generally peaceful. The next two days, however, brought increasing tension and violence to the situation.

By most accounts, on Wednesday evening Chicago police took action against crowds of demonstrators without provocation. The police beat some marchers unconscious and sent at least 100 to emergency rooms while arresting 175.

The Election:

Yes, America voted for Nixon that year. But keep in mind that he wasn’t that particularly scary at the time, and with the unpopularity of the war, Democrats were not looked upon fondly, and reasonable people weren’t going to vote for Wallace so that left Nixon as the only option. Some people even speculated that outgoing President Johnson actually preferred Nixon over his Democrat challenger (who was Johnson’s own VP, though the two did have disagreements about the war). It was only later that Nixon proved to be batshit crazy.

The bigger takeaway from that election was this: racist ass, crazy ass George Wallace only won 13.5% of the popular vote in a time that was pretty racist and pretty crazy overall. Now, to be fair, he did win five states (all in the Deep South), and proved that racist tactics could get votes – but not ENOUGH votes. He couldn’t even win all of the South (Wallace even lost South Carolina). And it’s been 50 years since we’ve had someone run on a platform as openly racist as his and get all the way to Election Day (hello Mr. Trump).

If 1968 showed us anything, it was this: a lot of good things can happen after a short period of unadulterated shit. The year after ’68, we put human beings on the moon and had Woodstock, starting the weird cultural revolution of the 70s. We had the excess of the 80s, the irreverent, colorful 90s, the technology boom of the 2000s. We’ve had our first black President and probably almost had our first woman President too. Europe settled down, communism turned out to be nothing to worry about, the Soviet Union fell apart and the Cold War ended. We still have much to do, but we’ve accomplished a lot too.


So guys, really. REALLY. Calm your nerves a bit. This year is bad, yes, but it isn’t THAT bad. Don’t let one odd year distract you from the more important work of making progress.

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Cultural Appropriation vs. Celebration

Recently Twitter has been abuzz with the beef between white rapper Iggy Azalia and black hip hop artists Azealia Banks, who accuses Iggy of being oblivious of hip hop’s roots and exploiting black culture. Others have come to Iggy’s defense and said that culture can’t be “owned” by any one group. This particular argument is an old one, going all the way back to the Elvis days, but it got me thinking about what people don’t think about before they wrap themselves in a cultural cloth they weren’t cut from. I won’t take a side in this, because both sides have valid points and it’s more enlightening for us to find ground we can agree on instead of dispute. I think a key way to do that is to discuss cultural celebration vs. appropriation. Celebration is inclusive; appropriation is exploitative. Sometimes it’s obvious which is which, and sometimes it’s hard.

Is Wu-Tang Clan paying homage to Chinese cultural history, or appropriating it?

When RZA, a black man, stars in Man with the Iron Fists, which is full of Asian themes, is that appropriation or celebration of culture?

When Hollywood remakes Asian movies/TV series with all white casts, is that exploitation or celebration?

When Americans get Chinese/Japanese tattoos of characters they don’t even understand, is that appropriation or idolatry?

When Nicki Minaj wears a kimono in a video full of Asian themes (“Your Love”), is that appropriation or homage?

When Japanese manga/anime creators make a franchise called Afro Samurai, starring a black lead character (who much later ended up being voiced by Samuel L. Jackson in the English dub) inclusive or exploitative?

When Korean hip-pop and dance is basically just a copy of African American music, is that a cultural movement helping young people to defuse South Korea’s racism against blacks, or just appropriation to help Korea’s otherwise bland music scene?

In all of these cases I specifically used Asian examples because it’s important to realize this is not just a Black-White thing, and it doesn’t just happen in America. As the world has become more globalized, we all borrow from each other. But “borrow” is the key word. When you borrow, you give something back. When you steal, however, you’re just taking and you’re not giving back. We should all be happy when a culture has elements borrowed and they get benefit from it. We should all feel the injustice when culture is stolen. When a people’s culture is used by others and then those same people are excluded from the benefits of that use, that is a horrible thing.

Case in point: Avatar: The Last Airbender. The original cartoon was created by two white guys, but it is deeply rooted in Asian culture and history, and most of the cast is portrayed with darker skin. It’s pretty obvious that the vast majority of the cast are meant to be non-white. The cartoon was a celebration of Chinese history, culture, and martial arts, even including Asian voice actors. The animated series exposed American children to wonderful themes rooted in another culture, and even though the creators didn’t come from that culture they respected and portrayed it genuinely. The series gave back by showing that yes, you can have a non-European cast and setting and still sell to American kids. The movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan, however, was a tragic whitewashing of the lead cast (except the bad guys) and insult to all the good will and education the cartoon brought. It was not inclusive, it was not fair, and it was not done in good spirit. The cartoon was a celebration, the movie was appropriation. One borrowed, one stole. In all of these cases that raise questions, simply ask a basic question: What are they giving back?

Your personal data is not safe; but it never really was.

The hot topic in US politics today is the use of a federal “dragnet” used to take a peek at pretty much every digital communication a modern American creates. Many federal organizations are reportedly in on it, including the FBI, DOJ, DOD, and NSA, making many people go WTF.

But, as an engineer and a former employee of one of those arcane three-letter organizations, I have a different perspective than most.

There are real reasons to be concerned about big government encroaching too much into our lives, and there are real reasons to be concerned about potential abuses of overreaching powers. Government should not be trusted blindly. But there’s also a lot of fake and/or misguided outrage here.

There are two major components of the leak-fest of late: One, the government has accessed logs of which phone number called which other number and for how long. These logs contained data from all of Verizon’s customers, and perhaps those on other networks. Let me address this one first. This kind of system has existed for a long time, and it’s called a pen register. Pen registers log the very basics of a phone call; the original systems only recorded the numbers involved, but newer ones can record the duration and location of the numbers as well. There have been laws governing the use of pen registers since the late 60s, but in the past 30 years or so the laws have been revisited to account for new technology. Still, the Supreme Court ruled way back in 1979 that pen registers do not pass the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test. I usually don’t quote WikiPedia, but the wiki on pen registers is quite accurate here:

[The Supreme Court] overturned Olmstead v. United States and held that wiretaps were unconstitutional searches, because there was a reasonable expectation that the communication would be private. The government was then required to get a warrant to execute a wiretap.

Ten years later the Supreme Court held that a pen register is not a search because the “petitioner voluntarily conveyed numerical information to the telephone company.” Smith v. Maryland, 442 U.S. 735, 744 (1979). Since the defendant had disclosed the dialed numbers to the telephone company so they could connect his call, he did not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the numbers he dialed. The court did not distinguish between disclosing the numbers to a human operator or just the automatic equipment used by the telephone company.

So, there you have it. Wiretaps need warrants, but just looking at the call logs does not. This is not new. This ruling happened before I was even born. But there’s a key factor to latch on to here: a “reasonable expectation of privacy”. We as a society have forgotten what that means, or perhaps never fully understood it in the first place.

There is a deep-rooted and understandable personal fear at the core of all this. It’s not about having “nothing to hide”, and it’s not about distrusting government, or thinking Bush or Obama is the anti-christ. It’s about privacy, and how we often take it for granted.

There’s a subtle but important difference between secrecy and privacy. Here’s an example of that difference: We all poop. Everyone knows we poop. It’s not a secret matter, but it is a private matter, and we’d all bitch up a storm if some “authority” said that even one person was allowed to see us pooping at work or at home.

But, if you poop in the alley, well…there’s no reason to expect total privacy. Using GMail, Hotmail, Yahoo, Facebook, etc…it’s all the equivalent of pooping in the alley. Any assumptions of true privacy here are misguided. It’s not likely that anyone will see you doing your dirty business in that alley, but it is quite possible that someone might, and you can’t blame someone for invading your privacy if you do that.

That leads me to the second aspect of this leak-fest: Google, Microsoft, and other email providers/social networks have been providing the government with data. To me, this should not come as a surprise, nor should it be particularly scary. The truth is that pretty much all this stuff the government has access to is already accessible by employees or contractors of the corporations who operate our favorite things, and these companies have even less oversight and responsibility than the government. You might be surprised if you knew how many average salary guys could access your Facebook, Google, or Microsoft data at any given time. Not too long ago, two Google engineers were fired for abusing their awesome technology superpowers, but you should seriously consider how many of them do less egregious things and get away it.

Facebook knows who your friends are, where you’ve been, what you like to eat, what your friends like to do, and hundreds of other data points. You willingly gave a huge corporation access to your life, just so they could send you some ads.

And then there was this little quote from a Microsoft employee blasting Google for their un-private email practices, while inadvertently revealing some of Microsoft’s own issues (emphasis mine):

“Like many email providers, Outlook.com scans the content of your email to help protect you and prevent spam, gray mail, phishing scams, viruses, malware, and other dangers and annoyances. It is just like how the postal service sorts and scans mail and packages for dangerous explosive and biohazards”

See, they’re just looking through email for your protection. To keep you safe from harm. Sound familiar?

You already have corporations running programs through your emails for their own purposes. Sometimes, as in GMail’s case, it’s purely to show you ads based on your email messages. This so-called invasion of your privacy has been happening for some time, with your consent (you agreed to the terms and conditions, folks!). Does the situation really change when it’s Uncle Sam doing it instead of “Don’t Be Evil” Google? One could argue that at least the government can do some good things with that data in some cases (e.g, stopping people who blow up things).

Governments, corporations, and regular citizens must all adapt to the rapidly-changing digital world where we so freely and gratefully use products controlled by multi-billion dollar organizations, and create laws and processes to keep a healthy balance between security and spying on the very people we’re trying to protect. But don’t expect privacy unless you work to keep things private (encryption is good, so is taking your info out of “the cloud”). In our real homes we close the doors, draw the window shades, and keep our dirty laundry hidden from view. For some reason we’ve lost that common sense when it comes to our digital homes. Maybe we shouldn’t vilify the politicians or the CEOs for this kind of stuff. Maybe we should simply realize that we’ve been exposing too much of ourselves for too long.