Why Not Bernie?

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Elizabeth Warren was my first choice to get the Democratic nomination and run for president. I explained some of my reasons in a post called Why Warren? There were other candidates that intrigued me, Kamala Harris and Julian Castro come to mind. I could see myself voting for either one of them if they were still in it, but Warren separated herself early in the race. Most of the other twenty-odd candidates, I would consider myself neutral on. I think Andrew Yang was trying to start an important conversation that we need to have, but I never got the sense that he would make a good president. Then, there were three whom I actively disliked: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, and Mike Bloomberg. I don’t think they would be good presidents, nor do I think they have added any substance to our national debate. I wish they hadn’t run at all.

Of course, the only two serious candidates left are Bernie and Biden. I don’t know which one I’m going to vote for (or, more likely, which one I’m going to vote against), so I thought I’d try reasoning it through in public. I’m starting with Bernie because his supporters are incredibly vocal and loudly claim that, as a Warren supporter, Bernie is a no brainer.

I believe the reason the Bernie supporters think Warren supporters are natural allies is because of their policy similarities. They both talk about Medicare for All and college debt forgiveness and things like that. That argument doesn’t go very far with me. Part of that is that while Warren has legitimate policy ideas, Sanders sticks pretty strictly to hopes and dreams. Warren not only told us what she wanted to do, she told us how she was going to do it. Bernie either doesn’t know, or can’t communicate the plans. Either of those options is bad. Another part of the problem with comparing policy is that where Warren and Bernie diverge, Warren is better every time. Heck, Bloomberg would be better on guns and the environment, and he’s basically a Republican. But the real problem, for me, with comparing their policy ideas is that I don’t judge political candidates based on policy. As I wrote four years ago, I don’t have the epistemic confidence nor the relevant information to judge most policies. I’m forced to judge based on what kind of people I think they are, and Bernie doesn’t strike me as a good person for the presidency.

I know Bernie has the reputation of being a decent guy. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the relevant personality traits to be president. First, he doesn’t strike me as particularly intelligent. That’s not to say he’s stupid, it’s just that I want to be able to trust that the president will always understand his briefings and advisors. The job takes someone who is legitimately smart. Look what happens when they’re not, like with our current president or with Bush Jr. I’m not confident in Bernie’s ability to be better.

A second personality trait that Bernie seems to lack is curiosity. He’s strangely confident in his views and doesn’t want to hear opposing viewpoints. One of Warren’s most appealing qualities is her curiosity, her willingness to learn. She listens, absorbs, and evolves. Bernie just yells at or complains about people who disagree with him.

Related to that, Bernie is awfully close-minded. I feel like he set all of his opinions when he was eighteen and hasn’t budged since. The world has changed quite a bit in the last sixty years. My own views change all the time. I’d like a president that’s at least capable of changing his mind. Who knows what the future holds? I want the president to be open to whatever comes up.

Bernie has an awfully thin record for someone who’s been in public office for forty years. He doesn’t have a signature piece of legislation or even an issue where he’s led the conversation. In a lot of ways, he’s basically been a seat-filler since he’s been in the Senate. His only talent, and it’s been a very modest talent at that, has been as a social critic. This isn’t the place to get into the issues around social criticism, but let’s just say I don’t think Noam Chomsky would make a good president either.

Bernie also has a major racism/sexism problem. As a person, I don’t believe Bernie is a virulent sexist or racist, he’s not Trump. I do think that he’s a typical old white man sexist and racist. It’s almost forgivable. When his views were formed, he was quite progressive. But what was progressive in 1960 is much less so now. That’s not the real problem, though. It’s the racism/sexism that comes from his most ardent supporters and surrogates that worries me. He should have put a stop to it more than four years ago. The fact that he hasn’t means one of two things. One is that he’s not really worried about it, which means I’m giving him too much credit, he’s more racist and sexist than I think. The other is that he’s such a poor leader that he can’t get his most ardent supporters and surrogates to behave. Either choice is not presidential material.

The one unequivocally good thing I can say about Bernie is that he’s Jewish. Having our first non-Christian president would be wonderful. It would break a lot of barriers and open doors for all the non-Christian Americans out there. It would also be great to have a woman or an openly gay person be president, but those don’t appear to be options in 2020.

All of this ignores the fact that Bernie’s old and has had a heart attack recently. As much as I would prefer a younger president and a fully healthy president, those also don’t appear to be options in 2020. And they aren’t my primary concerns anyway. As far as I know, Warren is in good health, but she’s not exactly young either. I guess what it boils down to is that Bernie reminds me of Trump in a lot of ways. He may be worlds better than Trump, but the legitimate comparisons are very worrying. I will certainly vote for Bernie in November if it comes to that, but I don’t want to vote for him in April. I’ll look at Biden next and see if it gets me any closer to a decision.

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Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the 2020 presidential race today. I’m having a hard time with it. As I’ve written about before, I don’t just think Warren was the best candidate in the 2020 election, I think she’s the best candidate of my lifetime. That, in and of itself, is pretty demoralizing, but I don’t think it’s the reason I’m having trouble processing it. I’ve known that it’s more than twice as hard for a woman to run for office and with the way Warren has been treated throughout the campaign, I can’t say I’m shocked. I’ve been trying to mentally prepare for this day for a while now. I think the reason this is so hard for me is because of the people that are left.

Those people are Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden (I guess, technically, Tulsi Gabbard, too, but she’s awfully problematic and she’s clearly not going to win, so I’ll just talk about the other two). This isn’t the first time my preferred candidate has lost the primaries. Just four years ago, I was a Martin O’Malley supporter. He was out before my state’s primary, so I went over to Hilary Clinton. I didn’t have any problem making the switch. While it’s true that I preferred O’Malley, I could find plenty of positive reasons to vote for Clinton. With Sanders and Biden, I’m at a complete loss. I know I’ll vote for one of them in November because one of them will be running against Trump, but deciding between them for the primary has me confused. When I look at the two of them, I only see negatives. That’s never happened to me before.

I’m going to think long and hard about my choice, although there’s a decent chance the race will be decided by the time I get to vote in the primary. That would make my life a little easier, but it still won’t be satisfactory. I don’t know what I’m going to do. In the mean time, I’ll mourn the Warren campaign and dream about her becoming the next Senate Majority Leader (It doesn’t seem likely with Chuck Schumer there, but it would be pretty great if it happened).

I know Warren wouldn’t want me to give up hope. She said in the email she sent out to supporters that she wants us to keep fighting, to keep her movement alive. I want to do that, but, right now, I don’t know how. I feel like Obi-Wan when Luke leaves Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. If anyone does know what I can do, I’m open to suggestions. Please let me know.

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Swearing In Fiction

I saw The Photograph recently. I liked it: solid story, likable characters, good acting. I recommend it. One thing about it jumped out at me. Somewhere about midway through the movie, one of the characters swore. He used the F-word followed shortly thereafter by the D-word. I can’t be sure, since I don’t have a copy of the script, but I believe those were the only two swears in the movie.

I’ve also been watching Star Trek: Picard. Honestly, I’m a die hard Star Trek fan, but it’s kind of frustrating. The acting is wonderful, but the story just isn’t there. It’s like they had a five episode story that they are trying to tell over ten episodes. But anyway, they swear often in the show. Picard hasn’t to this point, but all the other characters do. I’ve been watching Trek my whole life, and the two most recent, Picard and Discovery, are the only two iterations with swearing.

In The Photograph, the couple of curse words were jarring. I had been brought into this world where they talked a certain way, then about an hour in, they talked differently. I was sitting there thinking, “Whoa, where’d that come from?” It took me out of the movie for a couple of minutes. It would have been a better movie without those two words.

In Picard, I probably wouldn’t even notice the cursing if I hadn’t been watching Star Trek for the past forty-five years. It’s perfectly normal swearing compared to everything else on streaming platforms and in movies. But, because it’s Star Trek, it surprises me, and takes me out of the action, every time. I’m pretty sure it would be a better show without the cursing.

I read an interview with Michael Chabon, the creator/show runner of Picard. In it, he was asked about the swearing. He said that they swear on Picard because people swear in real life. People always have and they probably always will. So, swearing in Picard is a way of injecting realism into this world.

That explanation struck me as stupid. This is Star Trek we’re talking about. They have warp drive and transporters and aliens and those aliens are genetically compatible with humans. There’s nothing real about the Trek universe. Why would it be important for the characters to swear to make it more realistic? They’re not going for realism, and the audience isn’t looking for realism. Realism for the sake of realism isn’t good entertainment. Star Trek has been building a fantasy world for more than fifty years. Until now, part of that world was that people spoke without swearing. Using curse words in Picard unnecessarily changes the universe that’s been created and takes away some of its magic.

The Photograph is not science fiction. The characters are all human, the settings are New York, Louisiana, and London, and nothing happens in the movie that would be impossible in real life. But it’s important to remember that nothing in the movie is real. Despite its apparent realism, it is a world that someone built. Like all fiction, it’s a fantasy. The creator picks and chooses what goes into the world, hopefully, for a reason. The language choices are a big part of that world building. I can handle just about anything a storyteller wants to throw at me as long as it’s consistent within the world they’re building. It’s too bad that two minutes out of this movie had to be inconsistent.

When I was in college and taking writing classes, I would make characters swear in the name of realism. Curse words are a ubiquitous part of the real world. I was afraid that my dialogue wouldn’t feel natural without them. Then, I realized that no one writes natural dialogue and no one would want to read it either. If you transcribe an actual conversation between two people, there are a ton of partial sentences, dropped words, non-verbal interactions, mistakes, stutters, and mispronunciations. Tedious doesn’t begin to describe what that would be like for an audience. If dialogue has to be stylized anyway, at least I could make it into a voice that enhances the stories. I haven’t written a swear word since. In my writing, they are unnecessary.

I’m not saying that there is no place for profanity in fiction. It can be used for comedic effect like in a Kevin Smith movie. Or it can heighten the realism if the point of the piece is to depict something real, like a battle or a censorship case. But most of the time, swears are gratuitous. At best, they’re just extra words. At worst, they destroy the world that the piece is trying to create. They’re usually not fatal, I still enjoyed The Photograph and I haven’t given up on Picard. But both would be better with a little less realism.

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Pen For Hire

Here is my second story for the 2020 12 stories in 12 months challenge. The prompt was “For Hire” and the word count was 1,000. This one was a bit of a struggle for me. My January story was about an unemployed guy, and, even though that’s what the prompt prompted for me, I didn’t want to go that route again. Instead I went for a little bit of silliness. I hope the humor comes through.

“I need a fixer.”

“Why don’t you just use Tony? He never lets you down.”

“I know, but this is different. I don’t want Tony, or anyone in the family, to know about this.”

“We’re all discreet.”

“Sure you are. It’s not a matter of trust. This isn’t family business. And don’t ask me what it is. I won’t tell you.”

“I’d never.”

“Good. So, how do I find a fixer from outside the family?”

“I dunno. Did you try the internet?”

“I want to keep the cops out of this, too.”

“That’s what the dark web is for.”

“Show me.”

He stood up and let his nephew have the seat in front of the computer. A few keystrokes later and they were looking at a list of classified ads. Hitman. Enforcer. Executioner. Hitman. Hitman.

“Jeez, it looks like something out of a bad Mafia movie. You’re sure this won’t get me arrested.”

“I’m sure.”

“Leave me, then.”

His nephew left the room and he sat back down at the computer. He scrolled through the listings. How many hitmen does one city need? Then he saw one that said, “Pen for hire.” He chuckled. Like a pen would do him any good.

He kept scrolling. They all looked alike. The only one that was different was that pen one. He went back up and clicked on the pen for hire:

The pen is mightier than any sword, gun, or tank. I can fix any problem, solve any conundrum, or rehabilitate any reputation. And unlike all the other listings on this site, I can do it legally. Just tell me your target, give a few days for some research, and BAM! problem solved.

This couldn’t be real, could it? He clicked the link. It took him to a standard looking website called Pen For Hire. It had a picture of a quill in a bottle of ink at the top and under that was home, about, contact us, and frequently asked questions. He clicked on frequent asked questions. The first question was, “How can what you do be legal?” He thought, Good question, and clicked on it:

My methods do not harm anyone physically. While it is possible that I hurt their reputation or pride, I only write what is true. So, I don’t run afoul of any slander or libel laws.

Fair enough, but how effective can it be? He clicked the back arrow. The third frequently asked question was, “Is this method effective?” He clicked it:

Unfortunately, due to the nature of this work, I cannot provide testimonials. However, my clients are always satisfied. People’s reputation and relationships mean more to them than their physical bodies. By manipulating them, I get the desired outcomes.

He clicked the back arrow again and scrolled through the list of frequently asked questions. He came across one that asked, “What if the target is too good?” He clicked it:

I’ll answer your question with a question, can someone be too good? But I take your meaning. What if the intended target has not said or done anything that can be used to damage their reputation or relationships? First of all, it is rare to find someone that good. Most people have skeletons. However, if the target does not, I will not lie or fabricate stories. In other words, I will not take the job. You will get a full refund and you should reevaluate your grudge against the target.

Who is this guy to tell me to reevaluate anything? He clicked the back arrow and scrolled back to the top of the frequently asked questions. He only had two more questions. They must be here somewhere. He found the first, “What, exactly, do you do?” He clicked it:

Every case is different, so I don’t have a single method. Generally, I run negative publicity about the target. If you want a leader removed from power, I undermine the confidence in her leadership abilities. If you want revenge on the target, I will humiliate him for you. There is a lot of flexibility. I will tailor each job to fit your needs.

He clicked the back arrow and started scrolling again. He got to the very bottom of the list before he saw it, “Why should I choose an ethical hit?” This was the real question. He clicked it:

There are several reasons for choosing an ethical hit. First, it is at least equally effective and more ethical than a traditional hit. If you have two options that have the same results, you should always choose the more ethical option. Second, because it is legal, you won’t take any heat from the fuzz as a result of the hit. Third, it is harder to trace back to you. In a traditional hit, there are weapons and fingerprints and DNA and a money trail, all of which can be used by your enemies to trace it back to you. That creates an unending cycle of retaliation. Using the truth as a weapon means that the target can only blame themselves. If a marriage falls apart over an affair, the target should not have had the affair or should have hidden it more carefully. You cannot be blamed for that. Unlike a traditional hit, an ethical hit can be the final move in a battle.

Definitely intriguing. He reread this answer a few times. Could he avoid retaliation? And the cops? That would be nice. How much does it cost? He clicked on the “contact us” link:

No job is too big or too small, but since every job is different, we will have to negotiate payment. Submit the information about your target and a contact number to begin.

He didn’t like the idea of leaving a number, but he could use one of the burner phones. It was tempting. After a moment, he clicked the back arrow until he was on the classified page again. He clicked a hitman. I guess I’m just old fashioned.

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Philosophy Phridays – Tense and Aspect

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Tense and Aspect.

As someone who tutors English and frequently works with students for whom English is a second language, I find myself talking about tense and aspect fairly frequently. Tense, as you probably know, is about when something happens. Aspect is much less famous, but it is about the internal constituency of verbs. This is most commonly addressing things like if an action is completed or in progress (or perfect or progressive to use the grammar lingo). I know these things in a very practical way that allows me to help people learning English how to make themselves understood. I had never spent much time thinking about them philosophically.

I would understand if you’re wondering what is philosophical about tense and aspect anyway. It comes into play when studying temporal logic. Also, philosophers throughout the twentieth century studied language to learn about how we experience the world. And linguistics is often thought of as a branch of philosophy and they spend their time studying language and grammar.

The logic that most people learn about when they learn how to do proofs in geometry class, as well as standard Aristotelean logic, is time agnostic, kind of like physics. If bachelors are unmarried men, and Charlie is unmarried, he is a bachelor. It doesn’t matter when this little scenario takes place, the logic is sound. Temporal logic is about the propositions in which time does matter. For example, in regular logic, if p then p is uncontroversial. But when you add time to it, it becomes more difficult. If present p then future p is not a valid argument. In temporal logic, the tense and aspect matter.

Tense and aspect tell us about the world in several ways. One that I find interesting is the idea of instants. This quote says it better than I can:

Even if there be a physical world such as the mathematical theory of motion presupposes, impressions on our sense-organs produce sensations which are not merely and strictly instantaneous, and therefore the objects of sense of which we are immediately conscious are not strictly instantaneous. Instants, therefore, are not among the data of experience and must be either inferred or constructed. It is difficult to see how they can be validly inferred; thus we are left with the alternative that they must be constructed. (Russell 1914: lecture IV)

This is basically saying that we never experience an instant, just like we never perceive a geometrical point. Yet we talk about them. We construct them out of tense and aspect. If we say something in the past tense, it is over at a specific instant in the past. If we use a perfect aspect, the action is complete at a distinct time. We don’t witness those instants, but our language lets us create them.

Linguistically, the most interesting thing, to me at least, is the way tense and aspect are different in different languages. As a native English speaker, the idea of three tenses, past, present, and future, is the most natural thing in the world. But, some languages only have two tenses, past and non-past, while other languages have a more robust future tense than English. And when they give equivalent sentences to native speakers of different languages and ask those people to plot the events on a timeline, the people put the events in different places depending on what language they speak. With aspect, German speakers and English speakers differ on the time they think a progressive happens. English speakers mark the progressive event at its beginning while German speakers mark it at the end.

Next time I get an English as a second language student, this will definitely be on my mind. I probably won’t get any definite answers, but I’ll be curious how the person’s native language treats tense and aspect. There may not be any practical consequence to my questions, but it will deepen the interactions on my end at least.

Hamm, Friedrich and Bott, Oliver, “Tense and Aspect”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/tense-aspect/>.

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Vote Blue No Matter Who

“Vote blue no matter who,” has been the catch phrase of the anti-Trump movement in the 2020 election. I’m not against the sentiment. It’s been true for as long as I can remember. I don’t know why it took Trump to make everyone realize that the Republicans are evil. They have been my entire life. However, I do have a problem with the way the catch phrase seems to be interpreted by many. The narrative that I’m talking about is the idea that the left needs to rally around a candidate now, as if it doesn’t matter who that candidate is. “Vote blue no matter who,” only applies to November. It’s ridiculous to be invoking it in February.

It’s important to remember that there are huge differences between the Democratic candidates. Some, or at least one, Warren, would make an excellent president. Others, like Bloomberg, would make a terrible president. If we’re going to vote blue no matter who, it’s vital that the blue candidate is the right candidate. That’s what the primary process is all about.

Solidarity is important, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. When summer gets here and when the Democrats have the convention everyone against Trump needs to rally together to stop another term. But, until then, keep the debate going. When a candidate has a negative, like Sanders’ health or Buttigieg’s lack of experience, talk about it. They are legitimate concerns.

I’m on record saying that a boiled turnip would be a better president than Trump. That doesn’t mean we should be looking for a boiled turnip to run against him. Why would we want to replace the worst president in American history with a president who’s just normal bad? We want a president who is at least good if not great. Warren is the only one left with that potential. We need to do everything in our power to get Warren the nomination. It’s only after the nomination is settled, even if it’s not Warren, that we should start saying, “Vote blue no matter who.”

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Why Warren?

I said in a recent post that I believe Elizabeth Warren is the best presidential candidate of my lifetime. This post will explain why. And, just to be different, it will just be about Warren. I won’t even mention the other candidates. This is an election where I’m happy to be voting for someone instead against the others.

I guess I’ll start with the thing that she is most famous for, “Warren has a plan for that.” Every presidential candidate has ideas and hopes and wishes. Surprisingly few have plans. And the ones that do have plans don’t have plans like Warren’s plans. In the business world, they get excited about SMART plans. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Warren has SMART plans. She is not only telling us what she wants to do as president. She is telling us how she will do it, why she will do it, what the costs are going to be, and who will benefit from it. This ought to be the baseline for any presidential candidate, but it is rare. And Warren, to mix my sports metaphors, has knocked it out of the park.

The next thing is that Warren has a true grasp of the issues. She understands on a deep level. She’s not the type to work off of talking points given to her by advisors. It’s clear that she studies. It’s no accident that she’s always prepared. This understanding shows the work she puts in.

Warren’s tenacity is another selling point. She’s a fighter. She doesn’t give up or get distracted. She doesn’t get pushed around or bullied. She’s demonstrated her tenacity throughout her adult life.

The next two are related to each other. First, she listens. I don’t just mean that Warren has functioning ears. I mean she really listens. She might not always agree, but she does her absolute best to know where the ideas are coming from. Second, she cares. Warren has a high degree of empathy. It’s other people that she cares about. For Warren, it’s not about defending her point of view or protecting her cherished ideas. It’s about helping real people.

The most important thing that makes Warren different, and better, is what all these things add up to. To put it as plainly as I can, she gets it. In this case “it” is referring to a lot. She gets the issues, she gets the people, she gets the political climate, she gets the opposition, she gets the job, and she gets herself. But, more importantly, she gets how all of those things (and more) fit together. Because she gets it, as president, she will be in a perfect position to get stuff done, stuff that will improve our lives in the short and the long term.

This is the first time I can remember a candidate having the full package. The trick is getting everyone else to realize it. I’ll do my part. I hope everyone else gets onboard.

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Elizabeth Warren and Janet Jackson

After the New Hampshire primary, I was on Twitter. I ran across a Bernie Bro gleefully saying that Elizabeth Warren got what she deserved with her disappointing finish because she had gone after Bernie Sanders. He was talking about Warren saying that Sanders said that a woman couldn’t win the presidency, which I wrote a bit about here. I tried to dismiss the comment. Bernie Bros are saying stupid, mean-spirited things all the time. But, I kept thinking about it. What if there was some truth to it? Not to the part about Warren deserving it. She’s head and shoulders above all the other candidates. But what if there was some truth to the idea that Warren’s criticism of Sanders was the reason she dropped in the polls?

MILAN, ITALY – FEBRUARY 25: Janet Jackson attends the Giorgio Armani fashion show as part of Milan Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2013/14 on February 25, 2014 in Milan, Italy. (Photo by Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images)

Before trying to answer that question, I want to look at what seems to be a similar case, Janet Jackson’s 2004 Super Bowl half time show. That performance has been discussed ad nauseum, but one thing that is rarely brought up is that there is no way to look at it where Jackson is at fault. It was most likely a choreographed part of the show, in which case it was the choreographer/director’s fault. Or we can take them at their word and it was a wardrobe malfunction. In that case, it was either nobody’s fault or it was the costumer’s fault. Or, in kind of a worst case scenario, everyone might have witnessed Justin Timberlake sexually assault Janet Jackson on live TV. (I want to stress that I don’t believe Justin Timberlake assaulted Janet Jackson, but if it wasn’t preplanned and choreographed, what was he doing grabbing her and ripping her clothes off?) The point is that there is no plausible scenario in which Janet Jackson is responsible. Yet she is the one who lost work and had her music blacklisted as a result.

At the 2004 Super Bowl, in the public’s consciousness, Janet Jackson crossed a “too line.” She was perceived to be too overtly sexual and she got punished for it. It wasn’t fair, or right, but that’s the world we live in. Women are trapped by all the too lines. A small step in any direction gets women labeled as too outspoken or too docile or too serious or too masculine or too old or. . . There are thousands of these too lines and half of them contradict the other half. If a woman steps forward, she’s too serious, but if she steps back, she’s too flighty. Women live in a prison of expectations.

Getting back to Elizabeth Warren, it’s likely that her direct criticism of Sanders was seen to have crossed a too line as well. A bunch of likely voters saw it as too aggressive. Our society doesn’t expect, or want, women to be too aggressive. (Of course, they also don’t want a woman, or a presidential candidate, to be too passive.) Like all women, Warren is trapped by too lines, and it’s hurting her chances of being president.

Elizabeth Warren is not only the best candidate in 2020, she’s the best presidential candidate of my lifetime. It would be a shame if people’s sexist assumptions about what a woman should be kept her from being elected. Women can be anything. It’s long past time we stop adding the adverb “too” to what women are. As long as we do so, we are hurting ourselves.

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Philosophy Phridays – Colonialism

Photo by Dulcey Lima on Unsplash

Philosophy Phridays is a series where each Friday, I go to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, click on “random entry,” and then write about whatever comes up. This week’s random entry is Colonialism.

Colonialism is one of the trickier things for philosophers to discuss. Part of that is because of the inherent difficulties of the subject matter. It combines history, sociology, psychology, economics, international relations, military tactics, and a whole host of other things. Part of the difficulty is that anything anti-colonial tends to disrupt the universalism that philosophers like so much (Universalism in the sense that truths are universal). But the biggest reason for the difficulty is the embarrassment. There are tons of famous, otherwise admirable philosophers who couldn’t see non-European people as anything but backward or savage.

The article starts by distinguishing colonialism from imperialism. Basically, colonialism is when lots of people from one country go out and settle in another country while staying loyal to the home country. Imperialism is when one country conquers another, but doesn’t send it’s people to live there. Other than where the conquerors choose to live, they are very similar.

Colonialism has been around for thousands of years and is not just a European thing, but European Colonialism has been the most significant in shaping the modern world and post-colonial studies, so that is the focus of most of the article. For hundreds of years, European thinkers mostly defended colonialism. The chief rational was that colonizing a land was a civilizing influence on those people who lived there. Sometimes civilizing was overtly religious, they wanted to bring the Christian faith to people who didn’t know the gospel. Sometimes civilizing was economic involving the ideas of property rights and such. And sometimes it was political, such as spreading democracy. These defenses of colonialism don’t really hold up because the indigenous people were mostly much worse off after colonization.

John Stuart Mill was fairly typical. He recognized the barbarity of colonization in practice and condemned it. He enumerated reasons why a land being governed by a foreign government was a bad idea. But he also believed that commercial society was what allowed people to flourish and by having countries like England bring commercial societies to new lands, they were helping those lands. The bad effects of colonialism were due to poor execution, according to Mill.

One thing I learned from this article was that Marx saw colonialism as a progressive force rather than a bad thing. Marx viewed history as a process. A feudal economy had to progress to a capitalist economy before the revolution could happen and everyone could be happy in a communist society. He saw colonialism as speeding that process. I think it’s funny that Marx, the hero of the left, was fine with colonialism while Adam Smith, the father of capitalism, actually argued against it.

After World War II, post-colonialism took over in academic circles. It was led mostly by Marxist thinkers and focused on the way colonial powers exploited their colonies. It is frequently pointed out that most of the social sciences are dominated by a European way of looking at things which makes self-determination by indigenous peoples almost impossible. Recently, people have started to criticize post-colonial theory for adhering to a progressive attitude to history. That was the kind of thinking that justified colonialism in the first place.

Now there is a field of indigenous scholars. They deal with questions like how much should an indigenous people participate in the practices of the colonial power in order to reform those institutions. They also ask whether accommodationist policies for the purpose of reconciliation actually benefit the indigenous people. Some call for an “indigenous resurgence.” This is the idea that the evils of colonialism will continue until indigenous people separate from their oppressors and go back to their traditional ways of doing things.

This is a tough topic to handle in a short piece. I hope I did it some justice, but I’m not sure I did. Certainly don’t quote me if you’re writing a paper on the subject. But I definitely recommend reading more about colonialism and post-colonialism and indigenous studies. It will change the way you look at things.

Kohn, Margaret and Reddy, Kavita, “Colonialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/colonialism/>.

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I’ve Got a Problem

Photo by ActionVance on Unsplash

I’ve always assumed that most people are good people. And I don’t mean 51%. I’m talking about 95% or more. When I pass someone on the street or meet someone new, I can’t help it. I’m pretty sure that’s a good person who deserves my respect. There’s a part of me that recognizes that bad people do exist, but I can’t live my life assuming the worst of people.

I understand that, among other things, this speaks to my privilege, but I’m going to set that aside for this piece. It’s more than just a feeling. I have philosophical reasons for believing people are generally good. One is, from an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that as social creatures we would be predisposed to function well in society. That involves a decent amount of caring and compassion.

The more prominent reason for believing in the good in people has to do with the nature of good and evil. There’s a very old idea which I first encountered in Plato. It is that people aim at the good. If they fail to do good, it is because of a lack of knowledge or a mistake in judgement, not from a desire to do bad. In fact, in some versions of this, bad is simply equal to ignorance.

In this framework, at least my interpretation of it, evil is rare. That’s one of its advantages. Evil only exists when someone does bad and has no excuse for not knowing that it is bad. I know everyone uses him as the prime example of evil, but Hitler had no excuse. A desire to wipe out Jewish people wasn’t commonly held at the time. Murder was outlawed. Hitler’s views were outliers in his own time. That’s what makes him evil.

Someone like Ralph Nader, who unquestionably did bad by running for president in 2000, is not evil. It was completely understandable for people to be fed up with Bill Clinton, and by extension Al Gore, by the end of Clinton’s second term. It was also easy to be fed up with the Republicans who had been following Newt Gingrich’s hateful lead. So a person running with a third party was understandable. Nader had an excuse. Even though he got Bush elected which led to endless, unjustified wars and other very bad things, Nader probably didn’t know that when he made the decision to run. It was a terrible mistake, an extreme misjudgment, but not evil.

That’s my basic position, in broad strokes, of course. So, what does this have to do with the problem I mentioned in my title? Well, something has changed in the last four or so years, since the rise of Trump. It’s not that there’s an evil person in power. That’s happened plenty of times before. Just look at Richard Nixon. There are two things that are different now. One is that Trump is very openly evil. He’s been saying and doing evil things for as long as he’s been in the public eye. At least Nixon tried to hide it. The other change is that despite Trump’s open evilness, 43% of Americans continue to support him (according to FiveThirtyEight.com). When the truth came out about Nixon, his former supporters agreed that he had to go. That’s not the case now.

And that, specifically, is my problem. 43% of Americans have no excuse and still approve of the president. For the longest time, I tried to make excuses for them. Even though Trump went way out of his way to tell us in 2016 that he is racist, sexist, ableist, stupid, cruel, angry, prideful, lustful, lazy, gluttonous, envious, and greedy (yes, that’s all seven of the cardinal sins), I went out of my way to give the people who voted for him the benefit of the doubt. He was so far outside the norms that I told myself the people who voted for him didn’t really believe what he was saying. They thought that the Republican party would rein him in. Certainly more than 40% of American voters weren’t bad people. It was a really bad mistake.

After Trump’s election, as he started putting his “plans” into action and still 40-ish% of people continued to approve, my mistake excuse got harder to hold. Not only was he saying how horrible he is, he was demonstrating it with his Muslim ban, separating children from their families and putting those kids in cages, his clearly unconstitutional emoluments, and many, many other actions. If anyone didn’t believe him before, they had to believe him after his election. I couldn’t figure how that could be. He said how bad he was, demonstrated his evil, and a significant number of people continued to support him. I still didn’t want to believe that so many of my neighbors were bad people, so I talked myself into thinking that Trump’s supporters are stupid. Incredibly, colossally stupid.

I was never comfortable with the stupid theory. The vast majority of the people I know and interact with are not stupid. It would be a bizarre probability puzzle if that many people were stupid, but almost none that I talked to. More than that, it makes me really uncomfortable to think that almost half of all Americans are stupid. However, the alternative to thinking they were stupid was thinking they were evil, and, with those choices, stupid is preferable.

After the impeachment “trial,” the stupidity theory became untenable. No human being is that stupid. Even some non-human animals seem to get the basic idea of fairness better than 43% of Americans. That can’t be explained by the animals being smarter or more knowledgeable than the people. It can only be explained by the people valuing their greed or racism or sexism or whatever above the good. In other words, it can only be explained if these are bad people.

That’s where I am now. I’m trying to hold two incompatible beliefs at the same time. One is that people are basically good and the other is that 43% of Americans are bad. I don’t know what to do. I mean, the obvious thing is to give up (or modify) one of those beliefs. But a lot of other beliefs are tied to those beliefs. If I decide to abandon the belief that people are good, it will force me to change the way I interact with people. If I abandon the belief that Trump supporters are bad people, I run the risk of believing that Trump’s actions are tolerable. And those are just the two most obvious ones.

I find the fact the Trump has any supporters to be disturbing. But the idea that 43% of Americans are bad people is equally disturbing. I would be appreciative if someone could show me where I’ve gone wrong. Until I figure it out, I’m going to continue acting like I think people are good while being upset by the number of people who are clearly bad. When I meet someone new or pass someone on the street, I’ll interact with them the way I always have, but, sadly, I’ll be afraid I don’t really have a good reason to do that.

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