Empathy for Trump Voters?

There’s a lot of talk about how elites aren’t fair to Trump voters. That what we see as an attraction to his racism, xenophobia, and, well, stupidity, is in fact a much more reasonable anger at elites who have promised prosperity while working class Americans have seen their prospects decline. Or anger at a culture war that has moved too quickly, its victors too dismissive of its losers. Or anger that it’s not politically correct to say negative things about blacks, or women, or gays, but that it’s perfectly fine–applauded, even–to crack wise about middle America.

I appreciate that line of thought, and, as I’ve written elsewhere, think elites suffer from a genuine lack of empathy for the working class and the struggles it faces in a modernizing economy.

But here’s the problem with it: No matter how deep and real the problems Trump supporters are angry about, their response–embracing Trump–remains contemptible.  Set aside the fact that Trump’s proposed policies, such as we can make sense of them, would not actually make things better for working class Americans. Most Americans, across ideologies, lack much understanding of the outcomes of public policy. No, by embracing Trump, I mean embracing the stuff that’s ugly and vicious, no matter one’s perspective on economic cause and effect. I’m talking about his calls to murder the innocent families of terror suspects. I’m talking about his insane plan to deport poor immigrants and prevent entry into the country. I’m talking about his threats to use the office of the president to attack anyone who’s spoken out against him, and to “open up” libel laws because he’s a coward who can’t take criticism.

Cheering Trump as a result of legitimate grievances is like deciding that, because your boss fired you unfairly, you’re going to murder his children. We can say that, yes, you’re right to be mad, and we should empathize with the unjust hardship, but that empathy doesn’t–shouldn’t, can’t, if we believe in basic morality–extend to your reaction to it. America’s elites are often arrogant and ignorant and treat the working class poorly and need to stop. But that in no way excuses the embrace of a man rotten to his core.

Immigrants Did Not Take Your Job

Immigrants did not take well-paying American jobs.

Rather, the amount employers can afford to pay someone to do that job (i.e., the amount of return that job produces for the employer) fell—for a variety of reasons, many the result of technological growth. It fell to the point where native-born Americans were demanding more than the employers could justify. The only people willing to work at the lower wages that would still allow the employer stay in the black are immigrants.

So, yes, immigrants have many jobs that used to be done by native-born Americans, but they did not take them. And kicking out the immigrants will not get those jobs back.

The Tech World’s Weirdly Myopic View of Government

Whenever the government gets involved in something they understand, techies turn quite libertarian. “We need to stop the FBI from creating dangerous precedent by forcing Apple to unlock an iPhone.” Or, “Regulators will just screw up Uber and Airbnb, because they don’t understand what they’re doing and, anyway, they’re just going to regulate in favor of the dinosaur firms.”

But the moment we talk about something outside the domain knowledge of techies, they settle back into progressive shibboleths. “Government ought to run the health care industry.” Or, “Of course the state should be able to take away everyone’s guns. What could go wrong?”

A good rule of thumb: If you notice that the government works remarkably poorly whenever it gets involved with an issue you know a ton about, you should probably assume it’ll work just as poorly — with just as many errors and bad incentives — when it gets involved in an issue you’re largely ignorant of.

The Meaninglessness of the Clone Wars

I can’t get into Star Wars: The Clone Wars. It’s sat in my Netflix queue for literally years, and I’ve only made it six episodes into season three, and most of that has come half an episode here, half an episode there. I don’t think I’ve ever watched more than two episodes at a time. The show completely fails to engage me.

I’ve been thinking about why that might be, given my enthusiasm for pretty much all things Star Wars. And it comes down to stakes. This is a show about a single, galactic conflict, and none of it matters. Not just because we know how it ends. I love Star Wars Rebels, and I know how that conflict ends. The Clone Wars are different. For one, because we know Palpatine’s basically in charge of both sides, the “war” is like watching one guy play chess against himself. No matter what happens, he wins, and so the individual conflicts within it aren’t part of something bigger.

But, second, even setting that aside, I don’t feel the weight of the non-secret stakes, either. With the Rebellion, you had an obviously evil empire oppressing people, and a band of freedom fighters fighting for, well, freedom. It mattered who won. But why is the Republic fighting the Clone Wars in the first place? Is it because its existence is threatened by an outside foe? No. It’s because a bunch of worlds, disatisfied with its rule, want to … leave. They don’t want to destroy the Republic or enslave its citizens. They don’t even want to enslave their citizens. They just want to do their own thing. And this is bad. So bad that the Republic needs to mobilize all its forces and fight a costly war to stop it. But … why? I know the writers think the war’s important. George Lucas thinks the war’s important. But that doesn’t mean it is important. It just isn’t. And the secret stuff doesn’t make it any more important, because of the whole “chess against himself” thing.

I’ll still probably finish the show. It may just take me another several years.

Political Disagreement over Facts vs. Morals

Too often in political debate, we assume the absolute veracity of our empirical beliefs. There’s no possibility that we might not have enough information to justify our views or that our interpretive framework might have imperfections. Furthermore, because our views are both correct and seem obviously correct to us, they must also be obviously correct to others.
From that bedrock of certainty, we then evaluate policy proposals different from our own to be a product not of differing, but good faith, empirical views or interpretive frameworks, held by reasonable people, but as explicit desires to work against the goals of our preferred policies. Thus if we believe that Policy A will lead to Result X, then anyone who prefers Policy B does so not because they believe in good faith and after reasonable study that Policy B is a better way to get to Result X, but that they instead know or by any reasonable standard ought to know that Policy B will undermine the achievement of X—or more likely specifically desire to undermine X.

This leads to serious problems, because it means that our empirical beliefs aren’t open to critique, unless that critique comes from someone who already shares our policy preferences. Because if our interlocutor doesn’t share our policy preferences, then before the conversation can get off the ground, we’ve already decided he is either stupid or immoral. But, of course, if our empirical priors or interpretive framework are wrong, then someone with the right (or at least more right) priors will likely come to a different policy conclusion.

The result is politics not as an attempt to improve the state of the world but instead as moral posturing. We believe that certain policy preferences signal moral worth, and so adopt our policy preferences based on how the people we want to appear moral to will judge us.

Rectifying this does not mean abandoning morality in politics or ceasing to judge the moral character of our political opponents in any capacity. Because there are policy preferences that are immoral and reflect poorly on the moral quality of those who hold them. We should call those out when we see them.

The difference between that sort of moral judgment, however, and the kind I outlined above is where morals enter. We can begin with moral judgements and derive our politics from there. We can say, for example, that locking people in cages because they exhibit non-violent behavior we find off-putting is morally wrong, and so policies based on the belief that such thing is acceptable are wrong, and that people who prefer those policies are open to moral critique. Likewise with policies motivated by other immoralities, such as collectivism and nationalism.

That’s the kind of moral judgment we ought to be making in politics. Unfortunately, too much of what passes for moral judgment is just feather ruffling and an attempt to inoculate one’s ill-considered beliefs against reasonable critique. The line between the two can be difficult—and personally painful—to draw, but it’s safe to say that most of what passes for morality in political discourse falls on the wrong side of it.

Thoughts on THE FORCE AWAKENS

Star Wars: The Force Awakens did what it needed to. It restarted the franchise after Lucas’s disastrous prequel turn. It stamped Star Wars as Disney’s in the same way Iron Man did with Marvel. We weren’t just picking up where we left off, but rebooting a bit, too–and that’s fine. It’s what had to happen.

I enjoyed the movie immensely, and not just because I got to take my six year old daughter for her first experience of Star Wars on the big screen. (She loved it.)

What follows isn’t a composed review. I’ll need to see it a few more times for that. Instead, it’s more a random set of things that occurred to me during the movie and after. I’ve avoided spoilers, too.

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My daughter’s a Star Wars Rebels fan and her favorite character is Sabine. Still is. But Rey’s edging in. I never really understood how bad the movie business (and the publishing business and the television business) is at giving girls action heroes to root for until I had a daughter. Now I can’t escape it. It’s a constant struggle finding something to show her or read to her that has a female protagonist who isn’t a princess or school girl obsessed with boys or isn’t focused on teaching how to be nice or how to get along with friends.

Rey’s exactly what Star Wars needed. A girl who kicks ass and isn’t a princesses and–unlike Sabine–gets top billing. When we left the theater, Nora said, “I want to be Rey for Halloween.”

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I was always optimistic about this movie. Leading up to it, all the signs pointed in the right direction, and all the new Star Wars stuff Disney gave us was pretty damn good. Star Wars Rebels was easily the best new Star Wars on a screen since Return of the Jedi. The new comics capture the feel of the good Star Wars movies. It was clear Disney saw the Rebellion Era as the “default,” and would use it to inform the look and feel of future material.

And we were going to see a return to practical effects. Which goddamn did we need, after the bad (and not just dated) CGI of the prequels. For the most part, The Force Awakens succeeds here. The aliens in its version of the Cantina sequence look great.

But–and here’s my turn toward complaining–the large creature work failed. The creatures moved like stage productions, where you admire the artistry while still seeing clearly that it’s a few guys in a suit. None lived up to the standard Jabba set 30 years ago. You could watch the costumes crinkle around the knees, and the stilts inside as they walked. In fact, I’d say that both the big creatures (the one Rey runs across in the desert when she finds BB-8 and the one Finn shares a watering hole with) are far less convincing as living animals than, say, Jurassic Park two decades ago.

Maybe in the era of computer imagery for everything, large-scale practical creature effects is a lost art.

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Now the oddest thing about the movie, and something that bugged me from the opening scene. Nearly ever shot with people in it felt compressed. Like everything happening was in a small area in the middle of empty space. Especially when the action took place outside, I got a distinct impression of watching a filmed stage production. Everything felt crisp, and constructed, and right there in front of you, because, unlike with the prequels, it all was.

The original trilogy, this made come off as a lived in universe. The Force Awakens too frequently looked like a built universe. Almost as if it were a very high budget fan film.

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Which leads to my biggest complaint about the movie. As bad as they were, the prequels gave a strong sense of a universe. What we saw in the camera’s frame was but a piece of a much larger place, with events happening we weren’t being shown. It felt like stuff was happening off frame.

The Force Awakens (consciously?) returned to the style of A New Hope, with little indication that there was a universe out there. This worked for the first Star Wars. But I think it did because that movie oriented us. We could extrapolate from the little it gave us. There’s a galactic empire that controls basically everything. So what we’re not seeing is probably controlled by them. There’s a Rebellion that’s small and scrappy. What we see of it is close to all there is.

The Force Awakens plays the same game. Except, shouldn’t the roles be reversed? The Rebellion won and we’re told there’s a Republic now. But all we see of that Republic is a small and scrappy band of freedom fighters, with only a handful of X-Wings, and a single shot of people standing on a balcony in a city on an unknown world. The First Order, on the other hand, is supposed to be a remnant of the Empire, because we’re told it is. But what we see is a dominant organization with access to countless ships and soldiers, an organization that certainly appears to have near total control over the area of space the movie happens in. So while A New Hope showed us only a tiny portion of its universe, we had not trouble imagining the rest. The Force Awakens shows us only a tiny portion of its universe, but what we see conflicts with what we’re lead to believe about the rest.

I know the details will get filled in by novels and comics, but sitting in the theater, I found myself thinking more than once, “I don’t get this setting.”

Note: After writing this, I came across a post at Vox that helps clear things up quite a bit. Short version: The First Order is a sovereign nation outside the borders of the New Republic. The Republic is sponsoring and supplying an insurgency within the First Order’s territory. That’s the Resistance.

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I loved the color. No orange and teal. The effect was to make the movie feel older than it is, like a throwback. Which I’m sure was intentional. Though in ten years, it’ll make the movie feel more contemporary than contemporary movies now, as the orange and teal look will make those films look dated.

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The movie was too short. Important events–or important explanations for important events–were very clearly cut in post. I hope that someday we’ll get a Peter Jackson style extended cut, adding an hour or more of footage. It’ll be a better movie for it.

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Setting aside what I said about the confused world-building, I don’t mind at all the in medias res nature of the story. It enunciated the clean break from Lucas’s Star Wars. This is Disney’s franchise now. They’ll go good places with it.

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Yes, it repeated many of A New Hope’s story beats. Some worked, others didn’t, and still others could’ve been taken away entirely and not missed at all. This shared skeleton seems to be the biggest gripe people have with the new movie. But I guess it didn’t bother me. I took it as Disney building a new franchise out of the corpse of the old, and doing it by going back to where this all started. Star Wars has always been packed with repeated beats. The ones in The Force Awakens worked fine.

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I still can’t believe we’re going to get new Star Wars every Christmas.

Star Wars: Lost Stars – A terrific Star Wars story dragged down by unfortunate YA-ness

Claudia Gray’s Star Wars: Lost Stars caps off my reading of the five novels in the Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens series. On the whole, they’ve been quite good—and much better than the old EU stuff. Part of that, I’m sure, is their canon-ness. These books—and I know this is silly—are about what actually happened in the Star Wars universe. The EU, on the other hand, always had a whiff of fan fiction.

Gray’s novel is, on the one hand, a terrific look at the events of the three movies (plus a few years more) from a different and fun direction. But, I really wish it hadn’t been YA. Or rather, I wish it hadn’t been YA romance.

This is, I’ll admit, the first YA “boy-and-girl-fall-for-each-other-and-run-into-troubles” book I’ve read. Though I take it that genre’s kind of a thing among a pretty big set of readers. (Twilight and all the other supernatural romances fall into this category, I guess?) But, so far as I can tell, what it meant in practice is that we got basically a war story with a bunch of teen drama and teen romance shoehorned in, both of which were at best boring.

And, while the events of the novel were a ton of fun to read about, the two main characters, Thane and Ciena, were so totally flat, so totally without interesting features, that I didn’t care a jot about their budding love or tortured loyalties. Maybe that’s a romance thing. That you want the readers to be able to imagine themselves as one of the two leads, as so you have to make them sort of empty vessels and totally non-threatening, so there’s nothing where the reader’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to imagine myself as thatguy or girl.” For someone who didn’t find the drama/romance compelling, though, the flatness leaves the characters feeling, well, flat.

But, anyway, that aside, I quite enjoyed Lost Stars. Seeing how Imperials reacted to things like the destruction of Alderaan and then of the first Death Star was pretty neat. As was the Battle of Jakku.

I just wish it hadn’t been a novel about kids acting and talking like really bland kids.

Top 40 Music, Kids These Days, and the Bland Middle

Is popular music today worse than it was when I was a teen in the 90s and was more aware of popular music? Of course! Generational decline is an ironclad law. Millennials are the worst!

On her blog, Libby Jacobson has a nice analysis of this, comparing a Top 40 list from 1996 from one today. She notes that in the 1996 list, “only Alanis Morissette had two songs in the Top 40,” while in today’s list,

Taylor Swift has two songs in the Top 5. Meghan Trainor has two songs in the top 10. Maroon 5: Two songs in Top 20. Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, Sam Smith, Sia, and Ed Sheeran appear twice in the list. When you include collaborations, Drake, John Newman, Tove Lo and Juicy J also appear multiple times on the list. Not only does pop music all sound the same these days, the mainstream-successful stuff is largely being made by the same people.

She concludes that “pop music is converging both in terms of style/sound and in terms of the talent & personalities producing it” and asks young people to “put down the Taylor Swift and go exploring.”

The thing is, I’m not sure she’s reading the data correctly. Let me offer an alternative take, while admitting that I could be totally off.

I bet if you look at the percent of the music-listening public who listed to/heard/recognized each of the songs on the top 40 lists, you’d fine that it’s declined dramatically between 1996 and today. In other words, the most popular music today isn’t as popular as the most popular music in 1996.

Music has always had call it a “bland middle.” There’s always been a set of bands that are both popular and kind of all sound the same. (I say this as someone who chiefly listens to 90s punk rock, which is quite often utterly interchangeable.) There are people whose taste runs to that bland middle, but there area  great deal of people whose tastes don’t.

One thing rather dramatically different about music today from when I was a kid is how easy–and cheap!–it is to access both a lot of it, and a lot of variety. Used to be, I had to save up for a CD, which was around ten or fifteen bucks, and then listen the hell out of it until I had money for another. With Spotify, I can pay that much on a monthly basis to have unlimited access to basically any song there is. This has the effect of dropping the marginal cost of music exploration to zero and making such exploration very easy. Just click around and listen.

Let’s say that among the audience for music, there are 100 “tastes.” There are 100 kinds of music people prefer, with different people ranking those tastes differently. If music is expensive, you’re less likely to try all 100 tastes. Instead, you’ll stick with the ones that you know you like. And if exploration is difficult, you’ll be less likely to even know about all 100 possible tastes, and even within your preferred tastes, you’re likely to only know about the most popular bands because those are the ones everyone else knows about and so are the ones you’ve heard of.

But if music is cheap, you’ll try out more, if not all, of the 100. And within each, you’ll try more bands. (This is made even easier by services like Pandora or Spotify Radio, which let you in effect say, “Here’s my particular taste. Find me things within it I don’t know about.”)

What does this all have to do with the makeup of the Top 40 list? Well, the Top 40 list is a relative ranking of popularity. It’s the most popular stuff at any given time, but it doesn’t tell you how popular that stuff is compared to the most popular stuff from yesterday or years ago.

So my hypothesis is that in 1996, the average number of tastes that had a sizable share of the listening public’s attention and the average number of bands each person listened to within those tastes was lower than today. Today, individual people’s tastes likely diverge more, and within those tastes they likely listen to more variety.

Thus what looks like more variety in the Top 40 in 1996 is actually representative of less variety among the public as a whole. More of those 100 tastes are popular enough to make the Top 40 because people have converged more on a subset of those 100. And what looks like a lack of variety in the Top 40 today is actually representative of more variety among the public as a whole. People are more divergent in their tastes and they’re listening to more bands within those tastes, which means the taste/band combinations that make the Top 40 are those that only slightly edge out all the others people dig. And those are likely to reside in the bland middle.

Nobody Likes the Star Wars Prequels and Disney Knows It

One of the striking features of what Disney’s done so far with Star Wars since they took over is the near complete abandoning of the prequel era as not only the default era—as it has been for years—but even as coequal with the Original Trilogy.

Disney appears to recognize what Star Wars fans long have, but Lucas never did: the prequels were failures not just as films and as stories, but as collections of characters and as world-building as well. For people who love Star Wars, the prequels just aren’t Star Wars. Not really, not deep down. And the characters who populate them aren’t interesting enough to carry the franchise—even acknowledging that the Clone Wars wasn’t terrible.

Which is why it’s so freshening to see Disney say—with the new films, with the comics, and the books, and Star Wars Rebels—“We hear you, we get it, too. Star Wars is the Rebellion Era and always has been.”

Real Violence, Simulated Violence, and Thinking War is Awesome

Most of us enjoy violence. The top movies each year largely come from genres dependent on scenes of people getting hurt, whether comic book action, crime thrillers, horror, or sci-fi and fantasy epics. We play violent video games, shooting and punching and blowing up imaginary people or the avatars of other players.

But the violence we enjoy is fake. That’s important. I’m happy to watch a movie about people getting beaten up and murdered. I love crime fiction and shooting people in Grand Theft Auto. Yet show me the same stuff in real life–hell, ask me to imagine the same stuff in real life–and it’s not at all the same. In fact, I hate it. Violence–real violence–repels me, as it does most other people.

Things weren’t always like this, of course. Historically, we have countless instances of real violence as entertainment–think gladiators and public hangings–as well as the kind of common, everyday slaughter that indicates a lack of widespread aversion to violent acts. In fact, the growing distaste for violence, which eventually became disgust and outright horror, was necessary to us growing morally, as people and as civilizations. Good people do not commit violent acts–except perhaps in extreme instances of defense of self or others. Much less do they enjoy violent acts, actual violent acts, with real people suffering real pain.

Except, I’ve come to believe, some of us, at some level, still do. My supposition–and it must remain one because I’m not sure how to research its veracity–is that a great deal of foreign policy hawkishness, support for CIA torture, cheering on of brutal police behavior, and so on, is the result of people not possessing an instinctive recognition of the distinction between legitimately-exciting-but-pretend violence and the horror of real violence. In other words, there are people out there who get just the sort of pleasure in carrying out–or, most often, witnessing or thinking about–actual violent acts that you or I get from playing a first-person shooter or watching a terrific action scene. These are the people who, for example, talk about war as if it’s awesome. They get excited at the prospect of another bombing campaign. They love military hardware and can’t wait to see it put to use. Their first reaction to any problem overseas is to call for blowing people up.

This likely results from one or both of two particular failures, one of character, the other of reasoning. The first is a devaluing of the humanity of others, particularly others of different nations, religions, cultures, or colors. This is an outright moral failing. A morally good person will recognize the humanity of others and see violence against them as repugnant. A bad person will think some people are less worthy of basic dignity and so will be less concerned by violence against them.

The second failure doesn’t necessarily reflect on the person’s character so much as it does on the person’s wisdom in putting his moral motivations into practice. Here, the person doesn’t explicitly believe unsimulated violence is okay. Instead, he has a difficult time recognizing recognizing it. His mind treats real violence, especially real violence depected in media such as in news reports, as if it were simulated violence. Of course, if asked about this directly, the person won’t admit to thinking the violence in the news is fake. He’s not stupid. But in the moment, when watching it, or when thinking about a bombing campaign or the brutality of cops busting heads, he’ll subconsciously fool himself and approach it the same way the rest of us do simulated violence.

There’s an interesting difference in how progressives and conservatives go wrong in thinking about violence. By and large, progressives are more concerned about direct violence done by the state than conservatives. They tend to be more wary of war and lament civilian casualties. (Though partisanship complicates this, obviously, causing Democrats to show more support for state violence when it’s perpetrated by a Democratic president.) Progressives also tend to decry police violence against minorities and marginalized groups. But they also overlook a great deal of state violence. Every law and regulation they clamor for, after all, is backed by force and ultimately only carries weight as a law or regulation if there are men with guns prepared to shoot people who don’t comply. So progressives think real violence isn’t okay–or at least pay lip service to being turned off by it–but at the same time fail to recognize the violence baked into their vision for a well-functioning, well-covered, and largely state-run society.

Conservatives, on the other hand, seem more likely to recognize the pervasiveness of state violence, but care less about violence itself. They’re the ones–again, I’m dealing in broad generalties here–who champion bombing compaigns and respond to police bruality with, “Well, he/they had it coming.” Unlike progressives, they appear not to care about the harm. Or, worse, they see the violence as righteous and just. As deserved.

As I write this, it occurs to me that these opposed attitudes to real violence get sometimes flipped when the subject is simulated violence. By and large, cultural progressives don’t mind violence on television, in the movies, or in video games. They may not want their children watching or playing particularly violent media, but they don’t see it as the downfall of society or even much of a threat to their own kids’ wellbeing, and so don’t call for its censorship. Cultural conservatives, on the other hand, are frequently among the first to blame video games after a school shooting and say how Grant Theft Auto leads to more crime. Much of their ire at the media is, of course, more about displays of sex and alternative sexualities, but a good portion of it is reserved for violence. To risk too much of a generalization, progressives hate violence when it’s real and conservatives hate it when it’s fake.

I’m not quite sure what to make of any of this. And, like I said, it’s all based on general impressions on my part. I don’t know how one would set about proving or disproving that neoconservatives champion war in part because they get excited at the prospect of bombing people. Certainly, none of them would admit to it. But if I’m right, even a little, then it raises serious concerns about governing the country. It’s one thing to disagree about the data on which policy produces better results. Reasonable people can have rather divergent opinions. Likewise, we can have meaningful conversations about the proper distribution of state power versus personal freedom. But there’s no rational or moral groundwork for the view that violence engaging each other via violence is okay. It’s just not, full stop. And if there are people out there who don’t only think it’s okay, but at some level think it’s fun, then we’ve got problems. Big ones. We can, and must, be better than that.