Thursday, May 19, 2016

Offensive mascots again

The mascot question has become much more acute since I wrote about it here 7 years ago (Offensive mascots, 11/27/09).  The NCAA has imposed penalties on teams with Native American nicknames and mascots, and the pressure on the Washington Redskins has become much greater, including many networks that will not say the name on air.

A new poll highlights the stupidity of the whole effort:  Native Americans overwhelmingly don't care.  They either aren't offended or actually like the names.  Which should be obvious, since team names are taken not to mock a culture, but to hold it up as a symbol of pride.

I doubt this will shame any of the people campaigning against Native American names into minding their own business, because they do not have a normal sense of shame when it comes to their touchstone issues.  You're either right, or you're a racist/fascist/sexist.  I don't know what they would say to Native Americans in this case; perhaps they would argue that they just don't understand.  In other words, progressives know better what to be sensitive about than the people do themselves.

When this kind of condescension comes from conservatives, progressives call it racism.

Immigration: My View

Having devoted the last two posts to the issue of illegal immigration, I thought I should offer my opinion lest people think the arguments in those posts cover my views exactly.  I have mixed feelings about immigration, which seems to make me unique in the country, everyone else being strongly for or against it.

First, I am convinced that illegal immigration is bad and should be punished.  It makes a mockery of a country to have its laws flouted with impunity.  If people think the law is bad, they should repeal it.  As long as it is on the books, and that includes up to the present, it should be enforced.

But is it a good law, or not?  In principle, I see the value to increasing population.  This is the classic measure of a successful state, and perhaps no country in history has been more successful at attracting voluntary immigrants than the U.S.  (Ironic, I suppose, since the U.S. also had one of the larger populations of involuntary immigrants, but that's another matter.)  It would be naive to think that all immigration is a net benefit, however; so, setting aside the moral question for a moment, let's consider the advantages and disadvantages of immigration.

Most people are chiefly concerned with the economics of immigration.  Libertarians (and liberals, when they're not talking about overpopulation) like to point out that people contribute to growth.  The economy is not a static pie, to be divided up among a larger or smaller population, but a dynamic value that typically grows with the number of people participating in it.  Immigrants bring labour, skills, and ideas that can help an economy grow faster than it would otherwise.  There is a particularly sharp debate about the need of immigrants with particular technical skills that are not found in sufficient numbers in the United States already.

On one hand, the law of supply and demand tells that, in the short run, the price of labour is bound to decrease if the supply is increased.  This affects people on all parts of the spectrum, from low-skill workers to engineers and scientists.

On the other hand, in the long run labour is paid based on the value it contributes, so demand will expand or contract to accommodate whatever supply is available.  That isn't necessarily good:  we don't want the high-skilled labour to be scarce and therefore earn extremely high wages if it means that companies have to forego creating skilled jobs because they can't afford to hire people at going rates.  But this, too, is relative.  In almost any economy, there would be more high-skilled jobs if they paid less.  It's impossible to say precisely where we want to draw the line, even if we had the power to draw it anywhere we wanted to.  One thing I think we can agree on is that a massive influx of labouring adults would cause short-term dislocations, which may not be fair to people already living here.  The country as a whole would probably not face such an influx, but for the states closest to the border, such as Texas and California, it is a real concern.

Then there is the moral question of whether we have any right to keep out imimigrants who want to make a better life for themselves.  I hold the traditional view that every sovereign state has such a right.  I also believe it is reasonable to show compassion to other people who are suffering, which is why the U.S. has a provision for accepting refugees from particularly troubled areas.

The vast bulk of our illegal immigration does not qualify for refugee status.  If you think they should, because they are from a poor country, consider that Mexico is in the top half of GDP per capita in the world.  It falls behind Turkey and Malaysia, but ahead of Belarus, Bulgaria, China, and a long list of other countries.  Do we have a moral obligation to accept all immigrants from countries poorer than the U.S.?  Do we care whether the individuals themselves are poor, and, if so, are we going to screen them to determine their wealth first?  Any amount of screening -- whether for wealth, country of origin, communicable diseases, or terrorist plans -- imply that we have some right to control who comes into our country, and consequently that anyone who comes here except through the established paths is doing wrong.

We should consider a third concern about immigration, alongside economic and moral; what we might call social concerns, or whether America will remain America in the face of immigration.  This can range from overtly racist fears that anglo-whites will become a minority, to concerns about balkanization of American politics, to more abstract anxieties about the nature of American society.  Balkanization is a more legitimate concern now than ever before as we have become increasingly judged not as individuals but as members of a particular group, whether sex, race, or national origin.  The same gerrymandering that led to the creation of majority black districts in Congress could be extended to other relatively homogeneous groups, and that could lead to calls for special treatment.  The fear is that we could end up something like Lebanon, whose top government posts are each reserved for a member of a different religion, and where numerous officially recognized religious groups have their own courts for many purposes.

Obviously, we are a long way from becoming Lebanon, but a lot of people talk as though that kind of "diversity" would help our country.  I'm all in favour of diversity of individuals, but having our legal system treat people as anything other than individuals is a formula for disaster.  This is a structural concern that has to do with how immigrants integrate into society, and it is something that can be crudely observed.  Most second-generation Americans that I have met seem at least as comfortable in our culture as I do, but there are places where immigrants live in more-or-less isolated islands and have interaction chiefly with each other.  Then again, the same thing could have been said about New York City for much of the 19th century, so it is not necessarily a problem if that happens.  The one thing I would insist upon is that all official business of the national government be conducted in English.  I don't care what people speak to each other, and I don't care if states want to accept official documents in other languages; I don't even mind providing all reasonable assistance to help non-English speakers use the government to the full extent of their rights.  I do think, however, that having a common language is perhaps the most fundamental element of a unified society, and, since we already have one, it would be rash to throw this away to accommodate people who don't want to learn it.

I admit that I'm not too worried about structural balkanization in America.  It's a big country, and modern media is a powerful solvent helping to integrate everyone into a single culture.  What I fear more than anything else is the abstract issue of the retention of American values, by which I mean things like equality before the law, freedom of speech and the press, and representative government.  Again, this is not in any immediate danger; peaceful immigration rarely poses such a danger.  However, I think it remarkably shortsighted of some proponents of free immigration to assume that America will always continue being "America" in the sense that they have come to know it.

And yes, I know that American values have changed over 200+ years, and that's fine.  I'm also aware that every society absorbs two kinds of immigrants each generation:  one, the smaller group, from outside its borders; the other, larger group in the form of new people born there that have to be integrated into the prevailing culture.  (I read this originally in Newt Gingrich's "To Renew America," but I can't remember if it was original with him or came from somewhere else.  It is a very powerful image, in any case.)  So a country can change radically in a space of 25 or 50 years without a single foreigner coming to settle there.

Still, I think foreign immigration is a much more powerful means of introducing new and different ideas, because the people who come here have grown up in a different society -- often a radically different society -- and so have different assumptions about the way it should work.  Most immigrants I have met have been as American as I am in their ideas, and I think that tends to be the case for legal immigration, although I can't prove it.  But certainly some people come here and don't share the same assumptions.  Some think homosexuals should be put to death.  Some think democracy is a bad form of government.  Some think that we should base our laws around an entirely different principle from individual responsibility; for example, those who believe in sharia law.  That may seem a distant threat now, and I grant that it is, but I don't think one should ignore threats just because they take a century to manifest themselves.  If you think it's too far off to worry about, just ask yourself what kind of society you want your grandchildren or great-grandchildren to be living under.

I offer these ideas not as a policy prescription, but as food for thought about immigration in general.  I can't think of any policy that could guarantee that the United States will not become like Afghanistan in a century or two, but I do think voters should consider how immigration is affecting society when they think about immigration policy.  The one specific policy that I would recommend is one we already have, the American system (which I assume is similar in other countries) of making immigrants learn about our government before becoming a citizen.  They may not agree with it; they may even lie when they swear the oath of allegiance; but at least they go through the process, learn about it, and are around others who support it.  I have no problem allowing in immigrants who have some different values, but there is no reason to allow in anyone who hates our society.  I wouldn't check too closely at this point, but if America came to be populated by a significant minority of people who wanted to change the country in a radical way, I would certainly want to examine immigrants more closely before I exacerbated a potential problem.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Illegal immigration and Trump's appeal

Illegal immigration is a hot-button issue for a lot of reasons, but one of the most important is that progressives refuse to support their position honestly. Libertarians can and do argue that border controls are immoral and should be abolished, and the legalization of existing immigrants is a logical consequence of this position. But progressives don't like to admit that they oppose controlling immigration on principle (and indeed many of them may not). Therefore, they can't come out and say that we should grant amnesty to illegal immigrants because all immigration control is wrong. Instead, they have to erect artificial reasons for their position:

  • it's not fair to separate families. But no one is trying to stop children from returning to their parents' native country, of course; why should we grant amnesty to the parents on behalf of the children who were, after all, born here only because their parents were in the country illegally to begin with? (This is not even to go into the curious American policy of birthright citizenship, which practically invites foreigners to come here and have children -- and granting the parents citizenship on the grounds that their children are also citizens would enhance this effect, effectively giving citizenship to any couple who can sneak in and give birth to a child.)
  • it's impossible to deport 10 million immigrants. This may or may not be true. It seems presumptious to say we can't do it, and it is no argument at all to say that we don't know where all the illegal immigrants are, since that is not a reason to refrain from deporting those we do identify. No one argues that police are 100% effective at catching criminals -- far from it! -- but that's not a reason to stop trying. A return to Mexico is a pretty mild penalty to suffer, but for those debating the expense and danger of crossing the border, it would certainly convince some not to take the risk.
  • the progressive argument par excellence: people who oppose illegal immigration are racists. Never mind that a significant portion of Hispanics, along with Blacks, Asians, and other minorities also oppose illegal immigration; never mind that legal immigrants are among the strongest opponents; and never mind that there is a perfectly good reason readily at hand why anyone would oppose illegal immigration -- namely, it is illegal. This debate is never over how many immigrants we should allow in the country, or from what countries, but over how to deal with those who have already entered our country illegally. If it's racist to oppose legalizing 10 million illegals, mostly from Latin American countries, how can anyone justify setting legal limits to immigration from anywhere? Apart from libertarians, I have never heard anyone argue that we should drop all immigration restrictions, but this would seem to be the only logical solution if it were racist to oppose anyone here illegally.
Of course, this is the same argument that progressives use to browbeat their opponents on any issue where they can apply it. It is, frankly, slanderous, but it is even more insidious because no mainstream politician or analyst makes the argument that we should expel illegal Mexicans because they are polluting our race. A hundred years ago, this sort of argument would have been common -- chiefly by the early progressives after which today's progressives model themselves. Now, no one makes it, but progressives pretend that they can see into the secret heart of their opponents and know that they must be racist to hold the views they do. It is impossible to rebut this argument, since opponents of illegal immigration never said anything to cause it and no amount of protesting will cause progressives to stop their bulldog-like hold on the one accusation that can make their support of illegal activity seem legitimate.

I say their support of illegal activity, because it seems intuitively obvious that breaking a law should bring about some punishment. If the law is bad, it should be repealed, but I haven't heard many voices calling for the repeal of immigration restrictions. It is so intuitive that progressives will not call the thing by its plain name, "illegal immigration," but instead resort to the Orwellian term "undocumented immigration." So instead of having to admit frankly that they think there should be unlimited immigration and that we should not punish those who have broken the law by coming here in the past, instead progressives say that they support "a path to citizenship" (i.e., citizenship) for "undocumented immigrants," while those on the other side of the issue are racists.

And then they wonder why Americans get angry about politics.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Trump's appeal

So Trump is all but certain to be the Republic presidential nominee this year. Why is that? He's an outsider, obviously, but that doesn't explain it completely. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina were also outsiders, as have been Herman Cain and Steve Forbes in the past. Trump is more willing to be blunt and offensive than any of these, but I don't think voters are just looking for someone who violates social norms.

What does Trump stand for, in a positive sense? What particular policies has he advocated? You could, no doubt, list quite a number of issues where Trump has weighed in, but I doubt the average person would be aware of most of them. Nor would these issues distinguish Trump from the rest of the Republican candidates, even in aggregate. He has propounded chiefly conservative views, very incoherently at times, but not views much different from Cruz, Rubio, or any of the other candidates.

I found that I could name exactly one specific policy that I knew Trump stood for, and I'll bet it's the same one you and most other Americans know: building a wall to keep illiegal immigrants out. I have a strong suspicion that this stance, more than any other, has propelled Trump's success. The majority of Americans may or may not be for stopping illegal immigration; I suspect most are, but many are embarrassed to admit it for fear of appearing racist or mean. But I am pretty sure that there is a large section of the country that is very committed to stopping illegal immigration, and these people are tired of the country's continual failure to do something about it.

In addition to building a wall, you probably also know that Trump has promised to make Mexico pay for it. This seems unlikely to actually happen, but I think this second aspect of his immigration policy is central to Trump's appeal. It's not that people care about the money, which I have seen estimated at $8 billion. We spend that much on the military every few days, and only slightly less on things like unemployment, welfare, and medicare. The more expensive aircraft carriers cost nearly as much. If you asked people if they would be willing to forego one aircraft carrier for the price of a wall, I have no doubt that at least 80% would agree.

It's not the monetary savings that makes this such an important part of Trump's message, but the signal that he is serious about it. For one thing, politicians bicker about money all the time. How are we going to pay for this massive expense? Trump has made it front and center that he is not going to pay for it, the Mexicans will. That forecloses one major potential barrier -- perhaps the major barrier once Trump is president -- immediately. It also makes the wall, and Mexico's payment for it, Trump's one unique contribution to public policy. It is not one idea in the midst of many that he might back out of, but rather his central plank. "Trump" means "a wall on the border." If he doesn't push that as hard as he can, he will end up looking like...

Well, what? George Bush when he promised no new taxes? Barack Obama when he said he would close Guantanamo Bay? Marco Rubio when he said repeatedly that he opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants? Politicians are politicians, and when they get in office they often find the perspective is quite a bit different from the outside. Things that seemed desirable and practical before suddenly look like insurmountable obstacles. They want to be popular, not the person who rammed a policy through to fulfill a campaign promise that only a portion of their constituency cares about. In short: flip-flopping is, I'm afraid, endemic to the profession of politics, both those who make a career of it and those who serve Cincinnatus-like terms when their country needs them.

Nevertheless, Trump sounds more credible on this issue than any of the alternatives. No Democrat that I am aware of supports enforcing immigration law, but even Republicans have been tainted with dithering and compromise to the point that no one believes that they will do anything about the issue. None of the existing candidates, that is. As an outsider who has made illegal immigration the centerpoint of his campaign, Trump seems the most credible alternative to voters who care about this issue, and there are more than a lot of people want to admit.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Spinoza's Ethics

I was lost from the very beginning of Spinoza's Ethics. Consider the third definition, on page one: " By substance, I mean that which is in itself, and is conceived through itself: in other words, that of which a conception can be formed independently of any other conception." I have no idea what that means. I consider "substance" something with physical reality; Spinoza's defintion appears, as far as I can tell, totally different. Or definition six: "By God, I mean a being absolutely infinite—that is, a substance consisting in infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality." I can understand a definition of God that includes that he is infinite in some way. But an infinite number of attributes? I do not understand what that is supposed to signify.

Fortunately, the rest of the book is not so obscure. Unfortunately, unless you have a firm grasp on these obscure definitions, most of what Spinoza says will make little sense. Some things are clear. For Spinoza, God is equivalent to what we call nature. Although Spinoza asserts that "thought is an attribute of God, or God is a thinking thing," he also says that "neither intellect nor will appertain to God's nature." This makes sense to a certain degree, for, as Spinoza writes, "if God acts for an object, he necessarily desires something which he lacks." This is something that troubled me growing up, because we were taught in church that God created man in order to worship Him. But why does He need somebody to worship Him? Is He insecure? That question did not go over well in Sunday School, but I am glad to see Spinoza taking it up. The flip side of this is that, according to Spinoza, "strictly speaking, God does not love or hate anyone." However, he later says that "God loves himself with an infinite intellectual love." Maybe this is logical if you parse Spinoza's language closely enough, which I am not inspired to attempt.

Spinoza was obviously heavily influenced by Descartes, but he differs on one essential point: for Spinoza, there is no distinction between mind and body. The mind and body are the same thing, only perceived as an extended object or as a thinking object. He actually takes this to some extremes, saying that anything that helps the power of activity in the body helps the power of thought in our mind. One wonders how he would reconcile the idea of a handicapped genius such as Stephen Hawking with his theory. The principle seems so counter-intuitive that I suspect Spinoza has something different in mind than his plain words would indicate, but I never saw an explanation. Because the body and the mind are the same, the mind can't cause the body to act, or the body cause the mind to think; these concepts make no sense when they are really the same entity.

Ideas are how the mind understands external things, including its own body in the aspect of extension. There are no wrong ideas, only ideas that are not accurate representations of the things they are supposed to comprehend. This is kind of a postivist system in which there is an absolute right (understanding God) but not an absolute wrong. What is odd about it is Spinoza's faith in the ability to get things right. Not only does he obviously repose infinite confidence in reason (not only explicitly in this work, but implicitly through the "Tractatus Religio-Politicus"), he also seems to think that there is a special state of being right. "He, who has a true idea," he writes, "simultaneously knows that he has a true idea, and cannot doubt of the truth of the thing perceived." Spinoza spends some time defending this counterintuitive notion. There may be some sense in which he is right, but I don't see how it could be a meaningful sense. People who are right doubt themselves anyway, and people who are wrong are often most convinced of their own correctness; since we lack any signs to tell us which is which, the fact that the right person somehow "knows" that he is right doesn't seem to be of much practical use even if one could make a theoretical argument demonstrating that it is true.

Much of the book centers around explaining what emotions are, how they affect us, and what we can do about them. A human, like any other entity, exists to perpetuate itself. That is its essence. Anything that tends to destroy it, or even limit its power of action, is bad; anything that increases its power of action is good. This is a remarkably materialist conception of the world, and seems to point to Darwin and evolution insofar as it identifies self-preservation as the major goal of life. Spinoza, however, carries it further to establish a moral right to do what things would do naturally, i.e. to perpetuate themselves: "the first and only foundation of virtue, or the rule of right living is (IV. xxii. Coroll. and xxiv.) seeking one's own true interest."

A body desires to perpetuate itself and increase its power; anything that promotes that causes pleasure, and anything that counters it causes pain. We accordingly love that which causes pleasure and hate that which causes pain. Spinoza elaborates a whole list of emotions based around these two ideas. Naturally, "love" comes down to things causing us pleasure; there is nothing romantic or irrational in the emotion for him. Ultimately, Spinoza argues that if we only act rationally, we can overcome our emotions and achieve true blessedness.

Spinoza claims that our rational self-interest will lead us to want to live in harmony with other people, but his evidence is scanty. You have to take a very particular view of self-interest to arrive at the peaceful world that he creates. The fact that he wrote this book like Euclid's Elements, with postulates, axioms, propositions, and corollaries, doesn't make it in the least more convincing. Geometry might lend itself to such abstract definitions, but human behaviour does not, and much of what Spinoza tries to prove seems to come down to empirical questions. Consider, for example, the following proposition and its "proof":

PROP. XVIII. A man is as much affected pleasurably or painfully by the image of a thing past or future as by the image of a thing present.

Proof.—So long as a man is affected by the image of anything, he will regard that thing as present, even though it be non—existent (II. xvii. and Coroll.), he will not conceive it as past or future, except in so far as its image is joined to the image of time past or future (II. xliv. note). Wherefore the image of a thing, regarded in itself alone, is identical, whether it be referred to time past, time future, or time present; that is (II. xvi. Coroll.), the disposition or emotion of the body is identical, whether the image be of a thing past, future, or present. Thus the emotion of pleasure or pain is the same, whether the image be of a thing past or future. Q.E.D.

I don't find it convincing, and I don't see how a proof in this form could ever be very convincing -- and I am a stronger believer in the power of a priori reasoning that most other people I know. (For instance, I was much influenced by Ludwig von Mises's "Human Action.") Spinoza obviously went to an enormous amount of effort to construct this tight logical system, yet it is beyond me how he ever expected anyone to be convinced by it. And plainly they aren't convinced, in the same way that they are convinced by mathematical proofs, because people take the trouble to prove or disprove the latter, but no one has tried to refute Spinoza on his own terms as far as I am aware. It is the ultimate form of disbelief not to bother to disprove someone's reasoning.

I don't want to say that there aren't many interesting ideas in here. I like the parts better where Spinoza allows himself to digress and engage with those whom he thinks will not follow his logic. In the first long digression, he takes to task those who find fault with God: if God is perfect, they ask, "why are there so many imperfections in nature?" One often hears this kind of argument in regard to evolution: why would God create this type of creature with such obvious imperfections, such as the superfluous appendix on humans? But this logic comes from people who are predisposed to see a design in everything, and "when they behold something in Nature, which does not wholly conform to the preconceived type which they have formed of the thing in question, they say that Nature has fallen short or has blundered, and has left her work incomplete. Thus we see that men are wont to style natural phenomena perfect or imperfect rather from their own prejudices, than from true knowledge of what they pronounce upon." This is another of my particular irritations with atheists, that they hold God to human standards, as though God should need to create things according to what humans think would make the most sense.

Spinoza seems to foreshadow a number of later developments in philosophy and even science. For instance, he states clearly that a body in motion remains in motion until it is impinged upon by another body, an idea that I had previously associated exclusively with Newton. His idea of perception seems to anticipate the idealists of the following century, when he says that "the ideas, which we have of external bodies, indicate rather the constitution of our own body than the nature of external bodies."

The most extraordinary thing about this book is perhaps its title and purported subject matter, ethics. Spinoza argues that self-preservation is the essence of humans (and everything else as well) and says that self-interest is "the first and only principle" of virtue. What is the point of an ethics that tells you to do what you would have done without it? True, Spinoza proposes that an enlightened self-interest will lead us to get along, but those who fail to follow this principle are only damaging themselves. I suppose it could be an ethics of a certain sort to instruct people to "be true to themselves," but not in the traditional sense.

Also, although Spinoza argues that our true interest lies in getting along with one another, he makes no allowances for genuine self-sacrifice. He does make some attempt to argue that the mind continues after the body's death -- a feeble attempt, in my opinion, after he has invested so much effort into convincing us that the mind and the body are two aspects of the same thing. In any case, even this extension of the mind in time gives him no cause to argue that we could ever give our own lives for the sake of another person. Since that would be against self-preservation, it must, in Spinoza's view, be unethical. He does not even allow that we may wish to stay alive for the sake of someone else. "No one wishes to preserve his being for the sake of anything else," he writes, thereby seeming to deny the feeling that many parents have that they have a responsibility to keep themselves alive in order to raise and protect their children.

Even if one ignores this curious approach to ethics, Spinoza's book is still extraordinarily curious in light of his completely deterministic view of activity. Everything follows strictly from its cause in an unending chain back to God; humans, he stresses, do not really make choices. So what could be the point of a book on the right way to behave? Anything that happens will happen inevitably without any moral choice on our part. I suppose Spinoza might argue that he wrote the book because of the same inevitabiliity that everything happens, but, like every other strict predestination/predeterminationist thinker ever, he still writes as though he believes that people are making choices. It is true that the last section of the book talks about how reason can overcome the emotions, and even uses the phrase "of human freedom" in its title, but I can't imagine that Spinoza is using the word freedom in the same sense that other people use it. For he has not only attempted to show that all actions are inevitable, but has even argued that the mind can never cause the body to act, so his discussion of the uses of reason sound hollow.

Prepare to be Disappointed

I will not be voting for Trump in November. As I've seen more and more Republican politicians fall in line behind Trump, I've come to the realization that this guy might actually get elected. Although that is a scary thought, part of me hopes he does win. Why? Because the alternative is Hillary Clinton. Now, just for what Clinton could do in four years, I wouldn't mind having her as president. The president is not a legislator, and she's not so popular that she would be able to ram legislation through Congress the way Obama did with the ironically-named "Affordable Care Act." The problem is that the president selects members of the highest legislative body in the U.S.: the Supreme Court.

You may think I made a mistake by saying the Supreme Court is a legislative body, but I did not. The court has shown a willingness to rule anything it doesn't like "unconstitutional." And while it is theoretically acceptable for the court to make such rulings on laws, this one has taken it to such an extent that it has completely usurped the power of Congress. Who needs a legislature to rule on the divisive issues of the day when the Supreme Court can make a decision with much less fuss? And the court's ruling is final, barring a Constitutional amendment, which is so rare as to be virtually impossible. The thought that Clinton might appoint two or even three judges in the next four years frightens me in the extreme.

The problem is that Trump might be worse. He probably won't be worse at Supreme Court picks, but I can't be sure of that because no one knows what Trump stands for except that he stands for himself. He is a lot like Barack Obama in that respect. Obama got elected with a paper-thin record and some stirring speeches. It's easy to say the right things, but difficult to make the right choices. People were able to project their hopes onto Obama because he hadn't done much to show he would be different from whatever they thought he would be. It is not surprising, then, if many of them have been disappointed with his Presidency, everyone from Bill Maher ("I thought we elected a real black president") to Bernie Sanders to, well, just about everybody who supported him ("The Disappointment of Barack Obama"
, "Barack Obama, disappointer in chief", "Obama has become a figure of American disappointment").

Trump is much the same way. He has literally no political record, so people can convince themselves that he will do what they want. All he has to do is to position himself as the person who is not like all the politicians that have been disappointing them since forever. He poses especially well as an anti-establishment candidate: never having been in the political establishment, he makes a more credible opponent of it than any career politician can. Unfortunately, people have misunderstood the reason that politicians are always disappointing us. They think that politicians, as a class, are corrupt and/or unprincipled, so the only way to get things done is to elect a non-politician. Obama was a non-politician in the sense that he had only a short political record. Trump is the ultimate non-politician: not only has he never run for office, he also completely lacks the tact considered essential to political success. His willingness to say things that no other politician would is, for his supporters, a crucial part of what makes him popular.

It is a mistake, however, to think Trump is blunt because he is more honest. In reality, he simply lacks the skill and experience to triangulate. Under normal circumstances, politicians can't say certain things and get elected; they know this, and behave accordingly. Trump either doesn't know this or doesn't care, which endears him to people who want to hear something different, and he happens to be running at a strange time when these people constitute a large section of the electorate.

But don't think that going beyond the political pale is a sign of innate honesty. Trump has changed his positions many times in the past, and he has contradicted himself even during this campaign. If you think Trump is going to be the kind of president that you want, ask yourself what evidence you have that he believes strongly in any given position -- not just passionately, but strongly as in his core beliefs dictate that his position is the right one regardless of opposition. If he becomes president, he will face a lot of resistance to just about anything he does. He's the kind of person that, I believe, would continue stubbornly in a position out of spite rather than moral certainty if he finds himself contradicted unexpectedly. But I think he could just as well be convinced that his stance is wrong. He hasn't thought much about political issues in his life, so he hasn't considered a lot of the implications of his beliefs. When some smart person is able to show some of these implications -- whether or not they are correct -- Trump will realize the shallowness of his own views and may convert with even more fervour than he had for the older, contrary position. I would not be in the least surprised if a President Trump announced after a few months in office, "Building a wall along the Mexican border is totally impractical! I don't know what I was thinking. We should instead grant amnesty to all immigrants in this country illegally."

Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm not. But I feel confident that no one can present any evidence that I am wrong, because Trump has not demonstrated any consistency on matters of principle other than his cardinal principle: self-promotion.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Vexillology and Helmets

I was interested to find this TED talk on vexillology (the study of flags), not only because I find flags interest -- although I can't imagine making a career of studying them -- but also because it made many of the same points that I made in my blog posts on college and professional football helmets.  The speaker recounted some general rules for flag design created by the North American Vexillological Association, almost all of which I would agree with:
  1. Keep it simple
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism
  3. Use Two to Three Basic Colours
  4. No Lettering or Seals
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related
I harped particularly on the first one of these.  The vexillological principle is that a flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory.  Flags apparently appear about 1" x 1.5" when viewed from a normal distance, so excessive detail gets lost (in addition to being distracting).  I would say that football helmets have at least the same problem with detail when viewed from a distance.

The other rules for flags are less of a problem for football helmets.  Almost all of them depict the team mascot in some form or other (meaningful symbolism), and teams almost universally have two main colours.  I complained about excessive lettering on some helmets, but I am more lenient about the idea that one to three letters (which serve as initials) make sense on a helmet more than on a flag.