Sunday, December 30, 2018

Changes in Sexism

Some women, at least, are complaining about advertising the movie about Ruth Bader Ginsburg with the promise of a shopping spree. Maybe not many.  I don't know.

I do recall that when the Berlin wall came down and people were allowed to come across east to west one weekend that Gloria Steinem said "It was the first women's revolution: no one got hurt, and everyone went shopping."  So even Gloria isn't woke enough anymore.

Four Great-Grandmothers

I started one of the books I got for Christmas, about the Indo-Europeans, which challenged in the first chapter that we all have four great-grandmothers, but we seldom know their maiden names or even their first names at times, nor anything about them.  His point is how quickly we will all be forgotten, and suggested that nothing may be known of us sooner than we think. As things stand on the latter, my children will all have many stories of my wife and I, should their own grandchildren ever ask. Yet it is a rare grandchild who does that,  More often, there are forty-year-olds who say "I wish I had asked Nana more about her parents, and Aunt Bessie doesn't focus that well anymore." I knew one grandmother well, yet she never talked about her own parents or early life much. She talked about her children and other grandchildren, and to a lesser extent her siblings and their descendants. What little I know about her mother is from other sources, and it is sparse. She died when my mother was six, and I don't recall she was ever mentioned.  We will get to her in her turn. I have four granddaughters. One is two and would never remember me on the basis of current contact. She would only hear rumors from her father, who came into our family when he was sixteen and doesn't pay much attention to things that don't concern him this week. He is not a nostalgic person (for good reason). Her older sister, now seven, might retain some memory of me when she is old, if she is that sort of person. At the moment, I think the full extent of my identity would be "We took walks when he came up to Nome. He taught me to play Sleeping Queens. He used to send me postcards." The other two granddaughters know me better, and they might conceivably have many things to say to their own children.  If they ever have children. If the subject of great-grandparents ever comes up. If they don't get worn out talking about the other three grandparents first. Other grandchildren may still appear.

So, point taken.

As to my own knowledge, I do know the full name of all four great-grandmothers, but very little about any of them. So even I who pays attention to such things am good evidence of his point. I technically refute it by my bare genealogical knowledge, but again, point taken. I will write down what I know about all of them just to have it down in record in case my descendants ever care to stretch their knowledge farther back. I know more about grandparents, but mostly only the one, my mother's mother. I may get to them sometime as well. The rest of you may be mildly interested.

Mabel Eaton, from the Fitchburg-Leominster area. She married the irresponsible William Neat and had a daughter, Ruth Irene. Ruth died in 1952, William seemed to be married to someone else when he visited us for a half hour in Manchester in 1960 or so. I could likely discover more by searching Social Security records or something.

Clara Crowell, from Lower East Pubnico, Nova Scotia, married Charlie Wyman and had five sons. She had two poems published in newspapers, but we don't even have titles. A house down and across the road, which one of her sons had lived in until he was divorced, she called "The House of Broken Dreams," which sounds like the sort of thing a poetess would say. When there was an epidemic, she got word to her two youngest sons, who were out on a hunting trip, not to return to town, but to go stay with their brother in Massachusetts, around 1922. Except that can't be her, because she died in 1918.  So the record is wrong or the story is wrong. Perhaps my grandfather came here at 15, not 19, and she died in the epidemic. Just guessing now.

Nellie Louise Wallace, from Londonderry, NH, married Charles Smith, who abandoned her when the children were 11, 9, and 4.  Nana Smith. She taught at a one-room schoolhouse in Londonderry right on the Manchester line starting at age 16, and then in East Manchester (Hallsville). She lived to 92, dying in 1954 just after I was born. She visited at her daughter's camp at the narrows on Suncook Pond - we have a picture of it, and my Aunt Cynthia remembered her best from there.  Londonderry had few people, and as she was also a teacher she likely knew Robert Frost, who taught her son Freshman English in 1910 at Pinkerton Academy, but I never heard a word of it. I had heard from my uncle that that side of the family was a little stern and difficult, but a woman at church contradicted this directly, referring to her first: "Well, Nellie wasn't at all alarming!" She is buried at Pine Grove Cemetery in Manchester. My mother would have known her but I don't recall her mentioning her. She was related to Gen. John Stark, and reportedly to Ocean-Born Mary, though we have never been able to confirm the latter.  I have other info from the genealogical notes we have, that was not in my memory, recorded below.*

Augusta Lindquist, born Liared, Sweden and came to America when very young, growing up in Pontiac, RI (pronounced "Poont-yak" if you have a Swedish accent, and my Aunt Sal grew up thinking it was a Swedish word), then moving to Manchester. She must have arrived by 1882, as she was one of the original members of Gethsemane Svenska Evangelisk Kirkan Forsamingans. She was one of many children - at least eight, but I'd have to look it up. She married in 1894 - we have her husband's brass wedding band with the date, and a picture of them hangs in our hall - and bore nine children, plus a stillbirth. Twin boys died in childhood, around eight, I think. She had most of her children on a farm in Bedford, but the farm or the farmer failed and her husband took a job in a tea house after 1903.  He died in 1910, leaving her with seven children from 3-16. The two oldest left school and took jobs, and she worked cleaning houses. She mentioned to one of her daughters that she resented when people asked if she could recommend any other nice Swedish ladies to clean. "You'd think we couldn't do anything else." She lost a 19-year-old daughter in 1925 to scarlet fever, and a 26 y/o daughter who had moved to New York in 1927. She herself died in 1936 and is buried with them. We visit that grave every year. I don't know why it is far from the Swedish section where her husband is buried. A woman we knew from church in 1979 thought our infant son looked like her, with a cheerful, round face. She lived in a small apartment on Penacook St with the five daughters until they left, one by one.

*Little, skinny, stoic, quiet, so afraid of thunderstorms that she would get sick. She made bread on top of the stove at camp and some other food called "widdows," or perhaps "widders." She kept a chamberpot under her bed. She lived on Harrison St near Elm in Manchester.


I just got a spam email offering sex.  It says I have to fill out a form.

Bureaucracy is taking over everything these days.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Friday, December 28, 2018

Why Not Facebook?

An old friend who noticed I was no longer on Facebook wondered briefly if it was because of privacy concerns. She was interested in my reply that I had multiple reasons for leaving, and asked that I expand on that sometime. She respectfully predicted that I might be more nuanced in my response than others.

Brevity is supposed to be the soul of wit.  Or maybe brevity is the handmaiden of clarity, or at least its sardonic sidekick or something. I have gotten better at that over the years. But this time, not so much. I have had to step back, step back, then step back again to get around this one. I got a lot out of Facebook, its value is not illusory, but leaving it was easy, so that deserves some analysis. I will do this in two parts.

Part One - Comedians.  No, really, this is connected.  Hang in there.

A lot has been written  over the last decade that comedy and comedians are no longer funny. I know this mostly indirectly, because I only catch the bits of popular culture that drift by me, as if I were a limpet. But it certainly seems that way. Being outrageous was always a possible path to humor, but now now the humor seems secondary, outrageousness primary.  This is part of a long trend. I thoroughly get it.  I laughed until it hurt at "Borat" precisely because it was I-can't-believe-what-I'm-seeing outrageous.

Humor is fragile, certainly, and nothing ruins a joke more than standing outside of it. Yet even I have noticed at my distance that the trend among TV comics, decade over decade, is toward a witty, or at least supercilious meanness. This is not mere cynicism on my part. The trick is not to show that someone is ridiculous, but to cleverly insult the one about whom the joke is already assumed to have been made.  The repetitive banality of jokes about Trump is not at all new – I have known it since grade school, and was pretty good at it myself for many years. The measure of how easy it is is to note how many high school students are good at it. Comedians complained that it was hard to exercise their craft about Obama because there just wasn't anything to make fun of. His mother-in-law lived in the White House.  He thought he was good at basketball. His wife tried to take control of school lunches.  None of these things would be vicious attacks on a person to mention, they would just be mild joshing.  Yet somehow it couldn't happen. A decade of comedians came up empty.

In a pinch, eye rolls, eyebrows, and tones of voice will suffice. These work better on TV or in small comedy venues than they do for main stage. Large stage solo comedy is more difficult, which is why most live performances now are actually filmed in from of smaller audiences. The SNL studio holds about 200 people – as Malcolm Gladwell notes, it’s relatively easy to get a small group of drunk people who already like you to laugh. If you are making fun of things they already think are funny, so much the easier.

When one takes away those advantages – when the comedian is not quite from your tribe, and you are sitting by yourself quite sober it suddenly hits you: This isn’t actually that funny.  It’s just mean. This audience merely hates the same things. Comedians are now criticizing college audiences, who they claim get offended about everything.  There is some justice in that. It is at least true that those who are offended have more power now.  Still, I don’t know if there are actually more of them in this generation. I will also slyly note there is a flip side to that. The comedians are now working without the easy advantages they have enjoyed for their careers. That decade when there was nothing funny about Obama...They now believe they know what people should and shouldn’t be offended by. Some collegians disagree, so of course all the blame is on them.  This is new territory for many comedians. I saw a Jay Leno interview in the 80s where he shook his head over so many who had never faced a hostile audience and gotten them to laugh. “I had a job at a strip club trying to tell jokes while the girls were changing between acts. You learn to be funny fast or your sport coat gets ruined from live cigarettes flicked at you.”

In front of their own audiences, however, they still get – hmm, not laughs, exactly, but chuckles, snorts, nods. It is like church conference audiences who try to laugh as they would be laughed for. It's weak, insipid.  There is the tendency for comedians to get more bitter as they age. Chris Rock is still funny, but it’s different, and I can see how one day it will just fall flat.  Garrison Keillor became dramatically more bitter and insulting. Part of his audience was never happier, as he was bitter about the right people. Even Eddie Izzard shows some of it.  I’m not a John Oliver expert, but I did some homework and I see it in his work as well. More bitter, less funny. And increasingly, bitterness is the entire point. Kathy Griffin. Hannah Gadsby.

It’s an unstable situation, because people want to laugh, and they will find ways to laugh. Audiences will split in two directions: they will increasingly laugh, even uproariously, at meanness if it is directed at the proper targets*. The ability to laugh at oneself and one’s own tribe erodes in such circumstances. Most people are healthy enough that this does not vanish entirely, though it does seem in darker moments that it has gone out of the American character.  As the ability to laugh at ourselves is one of the great distinctives of Americans (Really. Listen to other tribes and nations talk about themselves.  Belgians, Swiss, Koreans see nothing funny about themselves, only others), both as a whole and as subgroups. This is a terrible sign of unhealth.  

(Part Two: Twitter and Facebook are funny.)

*I have a book The Good Old Days, about the humor of perpetrators and bystanders in Nazi Germany. You might see our current political discourse in mild form there.

Why Not Facebook? - Part Two

Part Two - Twitter

Yet others will seek humor in new places.  Enter social media. Twitter is funny. BSKing had sent me research that this was what kept people hooked, but I can't find it.  The test-it-yourself evidence of this is how much anger and crap people will wade through in order to finally get a laugh to share, like one of those pigeons pecking at the bar 75 times until it gets a pellet. Half the funny stuff I have seen in the last year is a tweet someone has passed on. The medium forces people to be brief.  Those who want to tell extended stories with successive tweets quickly learn the art of keeping the readers involved, because they are otherwise going away. (Which is still not as bad as having lit cigarettes flicked at your sport coat.) I only follow two of my sons on twitter, largely because they are funny themselves and have found an array of funny others that they scour and retweet. I get it that there is this entire unhealthy world out there ready to denounce you if you try to tweet anything serious, but I don’t live in that part of the city. If I did, I would quickly take the bait and become involved in stupid arguments with the neighbors. And the shopkeepers, customers, and people walking their dogs, too. 
Part Three - Facebook

Facebook has much more of all of this this than people credit.  Lots of funny stuff.  Not as much as Twitter, but there’s plenty of little videos of kids saying cute things or puppies spilling milk on sleeping owners. People post wry comments, or relate frustrations in at least semi-good humor about traffic or minor illnesses. This is one of the big reasons why we come back.  Pigeon.  Bar. Pellet.

Nearly everyone claims that they don’t put up political stuff, or not very much – they just like to keep in touch with family at a distance or friends far away. Facebook has been amazingly good at reconnecting people you would have had to stalk and cold contact if you wanted to find out about otherwise. On FB, a friend from long ago comments on a third friend’s post and you are off and running. I enjoyed and used this aspect when I was on Facebook. It also gives you an advance warning system of whether you want  to be connected. You can click over and read the clues about who they have become over the years.

So, they don’t think they are being political, but they have to tell everyone after a shooting how terrible it is that the NRA has bought off congress, preventing common sense gun control; or they tell you how proud they are to be an American, and it’s not Fourth of July or Memorial Day and it seems to have a truculent, not joyful tone to it, so that you wonder Am I are overreading, oversensitive, or is there some issue here?; or they keep putting up posts about being a conscience vegan – bright, shiny, friendly posts with flowers and cartoon animals; or they have Jesus posts that might be just light and joyful and grateful for a cancer-free diagnosis for a relative, but maybe some what-is-it edge of preening or accusation. That’s not even counting the people who have to pull an example from the news about the ignorant thing some state legislator from Missouri just said, with the clear intention of suggestion that most people of the opposing party are like that at least secretly – or bemoaning/congratulating their state for having done the obviously correct/horribly stupid thing about a controversial issue - or blaming/crediting Obama/Trump for the economy or price of gas; or posting some very poor journalism about new research that says women are pretty obviously oppressed or Danes are much happier* or how no one can name even three of the Ten Commandments anymore. We are forcing each other to read the Letters To The Editor page by surprising people we theoretically don't want to hurt. Except the evidence says we don't really care if we insult them.  If challenged, we'll just say "Oh I didn't mean you, Jim!  You're one of the good niggers."  Or something. We're just announcing what we care about. Before they have a chance to turn the page.

No, you don’t post much about politics or religion or controversial culture at all Jimmy (it’s hard to pick a generic name there without looking like I am thinking of a specific person).  Just enough to piss off half your friends once a week so they have to sigh and make an effort to just put it aside. You picked a declarative medium that makes even mild pushback look like a personal attack, so you can get away with saying very insulting things about others who have little recourse. And if even a measured response takes more than three sentences to do it justice, Facebook is nearly useless. When you hit the third sentence of even a polite reply you already look like a fanatic on Facebook. I found it was infuriating to people if I even wrote  Don’t jump to conclusions. None of us has the whole story yet.  Wait for more to come out, never mind any actual disagreement.  Absolutely do not point out that one side of the argument did the identical thing or worse three months ago, so please don’t engage in such blanket condemnation everyone. 

There are lots and lots of people who actually are nonpolitical, noncontroversial on Facebook, because their goal really is to see pictures of dance recitals and engagements and graduations. But Facebook is the perfect cover for deluding yourself that you aren’t really being difficult about these things, just because 90% of your posts are about having lunch with your niece or thanking the electrical crews for their hard work getting the power back on - so that when you offend people it has taken them completely by surprise. Yeah, great. 

I don't think people actually read what they write and think about who is reading.

I never unfriended anyone on FB, but I unfollowed more and more people – some within hours of accepting them as friends.  Eventually, not enough was funny, and too few people were reliable. I had wavered long.  When all the privacy scandals and dishonesty about political bias came out, confirming what I had claimed two years earlier and been sneered at for – that was a good final push out the door. Facebook is a medium that allows people to shamelessly cheat on social rules that we have developed over thousands of years, and congratulate themselves what fine folks they are.

My wife is still on. She A) cares more about updates on graduations, illness, and family travel photos and B) is better able to just ignore people writing inflammatory things. For me the cost is now too high for the reward.

*I have had it up to here with happiness research.  The research itself is usually flawed, and the reporting on it is worse. If you want to learn how to see through misleading research in the news, happiness studies would be a great way to start. First hint: Scandinavians consider it a point of honor to make their country look as good as possible, and they see through the questions right away, being smart people. So despite their high suicide rates, they score well on happiness measures. It doesn’t mean they are actually happy.  They might be, but we don’t have much way of knowing.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

For Eddy

You are unlikely to have heard the song. My college roommate had unearthed it somewhere and we frequently sang it in concert. I still hum it from time to time.

Key Question

New Hampshire usually competes year over year with Vermont and Maine as the least-churched states in the union.  Our weekly attendance rate is at approximately European levels.  So it is interesting that even here, when I go to the Saturday food charity, or the meal for the homeless on Christmas Day people who are striking up a conversation with a stranger ask "So what church do you come from?"

We know our own, without even noticing. If I pointed it out these people would be embarrassed that they might have unintentionally insulted someone.

Apparently not to worry. 

Proxy Preference

Bethany brought up a new term over at Graph Paper Diaries, proxy preference. She created it in reference to surveys in which people claim to want to move to a rural area, but actually don’t do this. She wonders what “I want to move to the country” is a proxy for, speculating that it may be yearning for a simpler lifestyle.  As my wife and I originally wanted to move to the country decades ago but never did, I wondered what that idea was a proxy for in our case, perhaps illuminating others. BS King’s post is recommended. She was up visiting her family and came over to have tea with my wife yesterday.  I doubt strenuously they discussed this.

For me, it was first a proxy for self-sufficiency, at minimum. I have always had a streak of not being beholden to others.  The idea of growing one’s own food, cutting one’s own fuel, being able to hunker down in an emergency and survive loomed large in my imagination.  Apocalypse was in the air in the 1970's, but it was also part of my personality to prove I could succeed at the sort of thing not expected of a soft-hands humanities person and his librarian wife. Most especially, to prove that I did not in any way need my parents and so would not be beholden to them in any way.

When one reads about preppers, they echo some if not all of those sentiments. Strategies of being able to live off the land for days, weeks, months are prominent. In the city, one is dependent on elevators and heating working; food supplies are just-in-time, not long-term storage, and even boiling water is impossible with the power out; armed people who might hurt you are right nearby. For that type of emergency, the city dweller is vulnerable, the rural person comparatively safe. Yet for everyday emergencies, the situation is reversed.  If you make your living in a rural setting selling vegetables, beef cattle, or your skill as a carpenter, you are enormously dependent on your customers. Even if you have multiple jobs, as rural people sometimes do (at least in NH), a car that breaks down, a town on hard times, a mere bad season rather than a natural disaster – these are not easily solvable.  In the city, if you lose your job you have more opportunity to hustle for another nearby.  You can walk to a job in a pinch. Or walk to do simple errands which would be very difficult to accomplish in the country. As a practical matter, people find they can’t move to a rural area because they can’t find a job there, or only one of a couple can find a job there, or more subtly, there is an insecurity about getting stuck far from an alternative job if the one you landed lays people off or cuts back your hours.

I think it is also common that people want to move to rural settings “so that the kids will have room.” When one gets down to it, however, kids have plenty of room to run in small towns and even small cities, and certainly in suburbs. Folks start finding that there is even too much room to run, as children have to be driven to play with others well into their school years. If there aren’t a few children within a year or two of your child in a two-acre zoned district they often choose to just stay home. Neighborhood life is not often exciting.  Rural settings only increase this problem. Rural life is better if you are trying to limit the number of people in contact. It can be a project.

“Room for the kids” then, may be a proxy for safety in one type of bad situation – of bullies, or thugs, or bad influences you can keep your children away from. As with the safety divide above, however, the more common safety problems, the non-emergency ones, are worse in rural areas. Children have to be a little older to go next door when next door is a quarter mile away. Getting to home or hospital if one gets hurt takes longer.

Lastly, I think desiring rural life is a proxy for wanting to be on vacation, especially on the vacations of childhood. While there are people who do truly love wilderness, with all its difficulty of movement and lack of visibility, most people – including most environmentalists – want a more managed, aesthetic wilderness, that you can drive most of the way to and have clear waterways for boats and the spreading trees of parks. Rural places are more like the places you went on vacation as a child, so the vision is not only beautiful scenery and some peace and quiet, it is also a place of no work.  In the imagination, that is.  Even people who haven’t lived the life are aware that “no work” is not one of the realistic expectations for rural living – that is, when they think it through for a minute rather than just dream about it.  I eventually decided that even if we could afford a vacation home we would not use our money that way, so all subsequent changes to the house would be in the direction of making it feel and look like a vacation home. It’s about 25% so – it feels rather nice.

I mentioned this to my wife.  She had a fourth, very accurate answer I had neglected.  I will come back to it after we have had a nice drive in the car to discuss it.

A feeling of self-sufficiency; a sense of both moving freely and safety, especially for the children; to have vacation right nearby.

Uncertain Spiritual Lesson

I had a challenging - that is, rude, mind-reading of how evil conservatives are, accusing - comment on an answer I gave in Quora on IQ research. My blood boiled, but I have recently been hit repeatedly with evidence that my responses to such things, while not terrible, and certainly not as bad as I have written previously, are not really kind, or helpful, or even 100% true.  More like "everything is technically true but I left out some bits that would undermine my point" true. So I decided with white knuckles not to answer last night, expecting joy to come in the morning, as the psalmist says.

Irritation came in the morning, but this is a week I am working, so I did not have time to respond.  I held the insult at arm's length today, drawing deep breaths, stepping back farther, and then farther, and then farther again to wonder what Jesus would have me say. Because "blessed are you when men shall reproach you, and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely for My sake." Even though this wasn't about Jesus, but about "what I think is true" which is like third cousin to Jesus. Still, it was a tough day, but joy came after lunch - I am spiritually slow - and I had an answer to my accuser that I thought would not be an embarrassment to read off the page, even at the gates of heaven. I could be both honest and kind, teaching without haranguing, acknowledging good in my accuser. Repeated very deep breaths throughout the day.

So I came home, prepared to write my response, but Quora had deleted the entire conversation as not up to its standards of respectful discourse.  No, no, Quora!  This time I could have brought it back!  I could have brought this discussion into the realm of decent discourse!  Not like last time when I made things worse! 

 It is not to be. We move on.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Sepia Tone

It's an interesting post on its own, but the part at the end about the sepia tone of photographs strikes me as mild evidence for my long-standing theory that we have too-strongly associated the concept of color photography with cultural and even moral improvement.  Perhaps this is clearer in the reverse: we associate the technological primitiveness of black-and-white photography with black-and-white morality (boo, hiss), and cultural primitiveness.

We must be superior now, right?  Just look how much better we look in the photos. 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Related Phenomena of Gratitude

I have offered as a general rule that the more you give people, the less grateful they are. (There are certainly exceptions, but I find that I am not always one of them.)

The better life is for people, the more they question the goodness of God. That is the history of prosperity for nations, isn't it?

I think these twin streams come from adjusting to a New Normal. We start to believe that what we have been living in the last year is what normal is.  If that takes a downward turn in any way, we believe we have been cheated somehow. Rich countries think prosperity is normal, and in the back of their minds, that it should sustain itself on their behalf.

It is probably good for all of us to have had a period of poverty in our lives.  One or two obstacles in life make us more aware of how things can go wrong.  It is true that this makes some people more selfish, and others more compassionate and generous, but that's what free will is. Multiplying obstacles is a different matter. Sometimes that is too much for any but the most exceptional individuals to overcome.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Overlooking the Obvious

This is why we need Assistant Village Idiots, to notice what has been in plain sight for thousands of years.

Solzhenitsyn Revisited

Cathy Young, writing in Quillette, has caused me to rethink Aleksandr. Solzhenitsyn: The Fall of a Prophet. I have long been an admirer, and even when his nationalism seemed a misplaced traditionalism based on a romanticised view of Russian history, I thought of that as quaint more than dangerous.  She was already making a powerful case that we should be grateful for his actions up until the Gulag Archipelago and his subsequent exile, but after that, no so much.  In addition to his anti-semitism (weakly defended by Sharansky and Wiesel), this caught me up short:
But to many of Solzhenitsyn’s former admirers, his wholehearted embrace of Vladimir Putin and Putin’s neo-authoritarianism in the 2000s was even more dismaying than his views of ethnic conflicts.
I hadn't know that. It gives one pause.

Thursday, December 20, 2018


I spoke to a friend from before we were born this morning, and got a list of people we both knew who had died. Lots of athletes.  Some of the best athletes from my high school.  and tonight a friend who was a runner at school had a heart attack.  It's unjust.  It should be me, who smoked for many years and also got fat.

Wexford Carol

Bitter Clingers

People cling to their guns and religion because they know that those are among the first things that dictators try to get rid of. (Venezuela and China are only individual examples.)

I give tyrants credit for knowing their business. They don't come to power by accident. They know where the threats against them lie.

Simpler Princesses

Amy Alkon has a piece about Disney Princesses and the wisdom of fairy tales over at Quillette. Recommended.  Some of the comments are valuable, but it is surprising that the site does not yet attract a better slate of commenters.

I have long heard the standard criticisms of Disney's princesses, and some have merit.  In particular, the stories often don't have the frightening and uncomfortable bits enough, not compared to older versions of the stories. Folk tales, like folk songs, have lots of homicide and disfigurement, betrayal, uncanny creatures, and powerful figures of evil intent. Disney tamps that down some.  There is also now a standard formula that each one is a friend of animals and a Spunky Gal. Yet the other usual complaints about how terrible this all is for male/female relationships and girls' image of them selves are no longer convincing to me. There's just too much going in all of these movies, all the way back to Snow White, that runs the other way.

Yet there is one bit about princesses in general, even more than the pretty dresses and things to wear in your hair, that doesn't get enough mention.  They get to tell everyone else what to do*. If you listen to actual girls playing, who gets to be the princess and who is relegated to being the prince, or the talking animal, or the magical helper is significant. This is a big part of what girls are playing at, and why they admire princesses so much. I can see why folks might object to the focus on beauty and clothes, but these have always been what poor girls desired. Isn't it more the wealthy and educated girls who can afford to have disdain?  So too with the dolls and coloring, perhaps.  But the movies also focus on courage, cleverness, kindness, and other virtues. I have written similarly on fairy tales before with other branchings - the post includes links to some of the things that Lewis and Tolkien said on the subject.

*Similarly, one of the draws for Barbie was that she gets to do whatever she wants. She buys whatever clothes she wants and no mother tells her not to; she buys sports cars, gets credit for working at any of a dozen jobs without actually doing anything, has a boyfriend that can be picked up and put down at will.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Thought Experiment

Thought experiments can be powerful, or they can mislead. Einstein came to his Special and General theories of relativity* by considering such questions as "What if you were traveling at the speed of light and looked in a mirror?" or "What if you were traveling at the speed of light and looked sideways at a beam of light?" As seeing is dependent on light bouncing off the object and hitting your eyes, what does it even mean?  Of such impossible what-ifs a lot of science is generated, but also a lot of history, sociology, business management, mathematics - even the arts. Okay, in the arts it can get seriously crazy.** Yet these reimaginings can also be illuminating and useful.  Science fiction and other speculative fiction is built off such ideas as "What if these robots started developing some group identification, or ethics?" "What if our concepts of fairness were introduced to a planet where 90% of everyone is dies before the age of five?"

With that in mind, consider the following.  In the English common law tradition, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty.  This derives from Biblical, Greek, Norse, and Roman sources, and is not universal to mankind.  It is not even universal in those lands it descends from, as it goes against the grain of human response to injustice.  Our natural tendency is to avenge, not to wait, and even in places where there are procedures for gathering evidence there are mobs, secret societies for revenge, and social destruction in the court of public opinion. As Americans (and Englishmen, Canadians, etc) we have internalised the idea of innocence, of starting from zero even when there is obvious evidence to the contrary, but even we are not that good at it.  Witness, for example, our political discourse.  There is not a lot of wait-and-see, partly because we know that the first theory that gets to the imagination has an anchor effect on what people will believe forever. Life ain't fair, and the percentage of people who believe the NPR/TPM/HuffPo myth about Jared Loughner and Sarah Palin's website is depressingly high.

I have had a theory passed along to me - from a person who doesn't accept it but thinks it worth noting - that in regards to sexual crimes there is even more division on this. The energy is higher, tempers are shorter, the leaps to conclusions are longer. Other traditions could easily have weakend this idea, and in particular, centuries of societies in which women had more power might well have concluded that punishing dangerous sexual behavior was just as important as the presumption of innocence. That would seem at present an insult, that women just don't get the abstract idea of presumption of innocence the way men do, the silly things.  However, had that been the case we as a society would likely not feel as strongly about that particular abstract point. We might well accept that errors on both sides would always be with us, but group comity was important.  As I noted above, we already do feel that way much of the time, men and women both.  String 'em up.

Presumption of innocence has worked well for African-Americans and other minority groups over the years, enough that Thurgood Marshall believed that the Civil Rights protests were needless endangerment of you blacks.  Until there is victory in the courts there is no victory at all, and he believed the court victories were proceeding nicely, with nobody getting hurt. The insistence on abstract principle has guaranteed freedoms and safety that would likely never be won at the ballot box.  Yet the cost of so many criminals, from rapists to petty thieves, getting away with crimes is not negligible. It is a horrible thing for an innocent man to be put in jail, but it is also a horrible thing for an innocent girl to be unavenged. I think our principle is correct, but it does come at a cost.

Campus accusations of sexual crime illustrate this separation.  In this societal subgroup where women now have more power, the preference for punishment of perpetrators against women over the protection of the accused has shifted.  It has also bled over into whether people should be able to say things in public that upset other people.  I don't lay this entirely at the feet of women - there is a sort of male who sides with women on these issues (perhaps in hopes of getting laid - oops, did I actually write that?), and they have been powerful on this score as well.

Let me add in two offsetting things to contemplate, as a thought experiment or three.  Our current system has the added benefit of restraining the police and the powerful from just accusing whoever they like and being able to put them away, because the standard of proof would be so low. In the short run that is always a high cost - the police are often very aware of exactly who is guilty - but in the long run it is a gain. The police and the powerful, just like all of us, quickly fall prey to temptations, and quickly start doing whatever the hell they please. On the other hand, the presumption of innocence also has a cost.  All of us, especially criminals and those who have weak internal controls, adapt to the environment that says people will seldom be caught, and this encourages all of us to behave more badly. We respond hugely to incentives and disincentives. Most criminals aren't that smart, yet get away with many crimes before they are caught. Serial killers tend to be more crafty, and can go on for a long time. They don't get caught, so they risk more.

Before you think I am wrong, consider the posted speed limits. Or following less than four seconds behind the vehicle in front. Or about twenty other things that we mostly do just because we want to and believe we hardly ever get caught.

Genetics and Incentives explain just about everything.

*You would think the General Theory would be the easy one to understand and the Special Theory to be harder.  It's the opposite.

** I saw this when I was two years out from being a theater major and was amazed that someone had dared expose this idiocy, in a movie right out in front of everybody. It was only a slight exaggeration of people I had known from 1971-75. I don't think you could have a scene making fun of that idea nowadays.