Cherrypicking the past and related thoughts

Whenever I hear people complain about society these days, as opposed to in the past when things were better, I’m skeptical. I get this skepticism even when the complaint is one I share, such as “the kids don’t look up from their phones” or some such thing.

Why am I skeptical? Because whenever a complaint like this comes up, there’s always someone who actually knows their history who comes around and shows us how history wasn’t how we assume it was, and how the rosy picture of the past we have in our minds was in reality much crazier, and makes the present seem mild. Don’t like that kids these days won’t look up from their phones? Well (and I’m making this up, but this is the kind of thing I’ve grown accustomed to hearing) in late 19th century England, kids used to huff ether all day long and bury their noses in pornographic drawings of anthropomorphised cats, and then play a game where they’d go around with hot pokers and burn the eyeballs of any kid who didn’t have the latest smutty cat drawings.

On the other hand, I start to doubt whether these examples are worthwhile arguments against complaints about the current state of things. There is a lot more of the past than the present, so it’s possible to cherrypick examples of all kinds of things from the past to show how mild the present is. Although I’m accustomed to seeing these examples trotted out to make the present seem mild, I don’t recall seeing anyone show how the examples captured society-wide long-term trends.

On the other other hand, maybe the whole point isn’t to show that present conditions are tame, but that present conditions are always dynamic. The horrible state of things you lament now is a passing phase, on its way to something else. Similar to what they say about the weather in Cleveland: if you don’t like it, wait five minutes.


“If you don’t like it, leave!”

I don’t like this thing people say in response to protests. I’ll get into why, but first let me explain why I think I at least understand why people say it: it’s not so much a desire to see protesters leave as a frustration at the binary signalling of the protest. If for example Colin Kapernick really has so big a problem with an integral part of the US government (the police) that he won’t stand for the National Anthem, the logic goes, then what is he doing living here, earning money here, enjoying the police’s protection here, etc.? Of course, Kapernick would probably explain that he in fact loves this country but does not support certain things the government does. The problem is, this is a relatively nuanced explanation, whereas most forms of protest, including his, cannot convey nuance. Kneeling for the Anthem could just as easily signal a sweeping anti-Americanism, as I’m sure it has in many instances.

But here are some reasons why I think “If you don’t like it, leave!” is a poor rejoinder to protesters:

  1. It fails to consider the (likely) nuance of the protesters’ actual views. As I said above, protesting necessarily hides nuance so this is somewhat understandable, but it also isn’t really that hard to figure out there is likely more nuance than is immediately obvious. Adults should be able to realize that.
  2. It implies lack of support for the very existence of dissenting views. To me that’s not very American; even if people often forget to uphold it, I still think the free exchange of ideas is a core American value.
  3. Let’s say everyone protesting the Anthem did leave. What do we have left? Probably something a little closer to totalitarianism.
  4. What if there was a football player who kneeled during the Anthem in protest of laws that permit abortion? Or gay marriage? After all, those are actual policies supported by the highest levels of US government, that are hugely controversial and offensive to half the country. Should those protesters leave too?

Journalists: actors, writers, drop-outs

If there was a list of the 100 most famous journalists from the last 100 years, what percentage of them actually have formal expertise in anything relevant to what they reported on, rather than just in the craft of reporting? I’m guessing less than 5%.

Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, and Brian Williams were all college dropouts. (So was Tom Brokaw, although he eventually got a degree in poli-sci.) Ted Koppel has a degree in mass communication. Dan Rather and Bill Moyers just got journalism degrees. Barbara Walters majored in English, as did Jane Kramer and Bob Woodward. Edward R. Murrow had a degree in speech (I haven’t looked into it closely but I think this means something like oratory). Walter Lippman got his degree in philosophy and languages.

Just a sampling, but these people, most of whose only real knowledge about the world is whatever they picked up by making up news stories about it, Made Journalism the Serious and Legitimate Institution that it is today.

How to keep your black friends when you’re a racist

I have had the unpleasant experience of having hurt someone close to me by revealing some of my views — by the way, never ever revealing your views to people close to you is, in my opinion, not healthy or feasible — and this caused me to reexamine those views or at least the way I express them. This person wasn’t just being hypersensitive, and this wasn’t a stupid person or a someone who refuses to acknowledge statistics and facts. I realized I needed more than clever arguments, statistics, and facts to inform my viewpoint, as mushy as that might sound. I’m not sure how I’d describe what I thought was missing, but maybe it’s something like “other people’s subjective experiences count for something, and sometimes for a lot.” My views became more agnostic and nuanced afterward.

I started asking myself, “What end am I actually after?” I paid more attention to what facts, taken as sets or by themselves, might imply about how the world should be. If this was different from the kind of world that would be both realistic and desirable (e.g. one where I get to stay close to the people I love and care about without having to take a bunch of secretly held views to my grave), then it’s a sign that some other thing aside from those facts is also relevant and should basically always be mentally paired with them.

We live in a world in which there’s a lot of denial of facts, so it’s tempting to spend all of one’s energy just highlighting facts and making a big deal out of how others are denying them, but what we do or would like done based on those facts is extremely important, much more than just having those facts acknowledged.

(In case it wasn’t obvious, the title of this blog post is intended to be tongue-in-cheek.)


Eff the war on drugs

I work for a company that sponsors happy hours, open bar. On my company’s dime I could, if I was so inclined, order drink after drink until I was blackout drunk. I went to such a happy hour last night. (I did not get blackout drunk.) Then tomorrow I have to go get drug tested to make sure I haven’t smoked any marijuana.

OK smartypants, so how would YOU deal with the immigration problem?

What’s the most humane way to deal with an enormous influx of people trying to enter the United States along our southern border?

The most humane thing might seem to be “let them all in” although I think that isn’t necessarily the most humane thing for the migrants themselves — although it might be; I could be wrong — and it certainly isn’t the most humane thing for Americans. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that nations have the right to control movement across their own borders. So, that option isn’t realistic.

The next most humane thing might be “get them processed”. The ones trying to enter illegally can thus be detained and sent home, and the ones who are trying to enter either by standard legal channels or for asylum-seeking reasons can get that process underway.

At scale, this process takes time. Meanwhile these people have to be housed and fed somewhere they can be kept track of, because otherwise they are pretty obviously a “flight risk”: they have a strong incentive to just run and disappear inside the US.

OK, so now how are you going to house and feed them in a reasonably affordable way? Remember, these are people who have not paid into any kind of system and whose eventual contribution back to our system is unknown and not guaranteed. Many of them don’t have anything but the clothes on their backs. Many of them are children who can’t work or be away from their parents. What do you do? Whose pocket are you going to take from to do it?

Setting up big tents with cots and providing water and basic food, then controlling the perimeter around these areas and making sure nothing horrendous is going on inside seems like the most feasible solution. Yes, this unfortunately has the looks of a concentration camp, and maybe that’s even what it technically is, but what’s a better option? If you were in a position to make the call and were constrained by everything going on in reality, what do you expect you’d be able to do that’s better?

One problem with journalism is it often follows the pattern of “this thing going on here is technically like this other really bad thing that went on there, and will become more like it over time” which induces panic, hysteria, tribal rage, etc. But you don’t get people to click on your headline by saying “this thing going on here is sad and it sucks, but it’s probably the least worst way to deal with a bad situation.”

Remember, journalists are just failed English and Acting majors who put on a show where they pretend to be experts; they don’t actually have the solutions to anything or even know where to find them. All they’re good at is recording what strangers say and writing stories that get your attention. Your attention is worth more than that.

Do people really know what’s best for themselves?

A rallying cry for libertarians is the notion that people should, as much as possible, be allowed to make their own consumer choices. The reasoning for this is that people know better than central authorities what is best for themselves. Personally, I can think of instances in which this is usually true, and instances in which it maybe usually isn’t.

It’s probably most true when feedback loops between decisions and outcomes are shortest: for example, when you decide to buy an ink pen, you can click it on, write a few sentences, and immediately tell by the quality of the mark and the comfort of holding the pen whether it’s delivered its value. So, maybe the government has no business getting involved in the consumer end of the ink pen business.

In some cases, the feedback loop seems short, but is actually longer. The piece of fruit you bought this morning might taste just fine when you eat it for lunch, but by dinner you might be feeling sick if the fruit contained some contaminants that an organization like the USDA or FDA would have otherwise kept out of it.

Taking it one step further, cookies and ice cream seem pretty appealing, and even if they’re free of contaminants, eating too much of them will likely produce pretty severe negative health effects later in life. Yes, most people are aware of this and understand they should tend to avoid these foods, but relatively few people seem able to consistently control their urges. This is a contributing factor to our high rate of obesity, which no doubt cost healthcare premium-payers a lot of money — even more, perhaps, than we’d spend on an authoritarian regulatory body that decides and enforces what we may and may not eat.

This logic applies similarly to things like how we raise our kids, what line of work we choose to pursue, and what technologies we choose to adopt. It might even apply to what values and ideologies we internalize. I’m most sympathetic to the libertarian view on these kinds of things, but observation and experience give me doubts as well.