Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Note of Hope on Anti-Semitism in America

Today is Tisha B'Av, the saddest day in the Jewish year. It is the day we remember the destruction of the ancient temples. It is a day of mourning, fasting, and contemplation. As it ends however, it turns to a message of hope, that what was lost will be rebuilt and renewed.

As it is nearly over, let me offer a message of hope.

I too am horrified by the seemingly endless cycle of massacres, and sadly, American Jews have been an all too frequent target. The massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history and has since been followed by shootings at synagogues in San Diego and Miami.

Where's the hope?

At synagogue, after one of these incidents, the rabbi asked for thoughts. When the room was silent, I offered this:
None of us have any illusions that anti-Semites are out there and want our blood. But they are a fringe. Unlike so many times in our history, there are no mobs gathering the streets calling for our blood. And the government is not complicit, it is absolutely opposed. When anti-Semitic incidents occur, does anyone doubt that the police are committed to protecting us? When an incident occurred here, and the FBI became involved, was there any question that they were not investigating diligently? When incidents occur, do our neighbors say - like they may have said in Germany or Poland (where our ancestors fled) - "Well, Jews, what can you expect?"
The answer is: No. I am sad that we have felt the need to hire a policeman to sit outside our synagogue on Shabbat. But I do not doubt that he will do his uttermost to protect us. If something did happen, our neighbors, of every faith or none would be here to support us. Our political leaders would condemn it vehemently.
I am horrified by the violence, like all of you, but I am still heartened, that in this country, we are not alone.
That is my message of hope. For those observing, I hope you had a meaningful fast.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Political Violence in an Age of Creedal Passion

My regular readers and pretty much everyone I talk to knows that I am trying to write about some deep cycles in U.S. history that are shaping our current political environment. I want it to be a book, and am writing academic papers for various conferences in an effort to make it happen.

To that end, I submitted a paper entitled Political Violence in an Age of Creedal Passion to the Southern Political Science Association. The abstract is as follows:
This paper will explore patterns of political violence during periods of Creedal Passion, and how this type of violence might manifest in the coming decade. In “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony,” Samuel Huntington identified the second and third decades of the 21st century as a period of Creedal Passion in which the American people seek to bridge the gap between their institutions and their ideals. The previous periods of Creedal Passion include the American Revolution, the Jacksonian Era, and the Progressive Era, and most recently the Sixties and Seventies. The present day evinces the characteristics of these eras including public opposition to hierarchies and concentrations, questioning traditional sources of authority, and a focus on long-standing sources of social inequality.
Each of these eras was accompanied by significant political violence, from the outright revolt against British rule, to the rioting during the Jacksonian Era, the anarchists of the Progressive Era, and the leftist extremism that accompanied the Sixties and Seventies. These eras were not necessarily more violent than other epochs in U.S. history, however the political violence was a manifestation of Creedal Passion. This paper will examine each of these eras and to understand how political violence emerged from and interacted with the broader reform movements and with society at large during eras of Creedal Passion. The paper will then apply these insights to better understand political violence in the United State today.
There has been significant violence in our current era of Creedal Passion already. Much has been on the political right, although there have been notable incidents of political violence on the left as well. There have also been a proliferation of just strange events like the Comet Pizza attack. This was not, strictly speaking, a political event (although it was linked to outrageous political rumors). But it reflects the general discontent and energy that characterizes eras of Creedal Passion.

The attempted bombings of former presidents and other politicians is something new. Eras of Creedal Passion have, sadly, featured assassinations of political leaders. The first assassination attempt on a president was against Andrew Jackson. The man was mentally ill, but again, there was a madness in the air as well. The Jacksonian Era also saw the sudden rise of the anti-Masonic party, after Masons murdered a man who threatened to reveal their secret rites.

Eternal Flame at JFK's Grave, photo by Tim Evanson
In the Progressive Era, William McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt was only saved by his extremely long speech folded in his pocket. The Sixties saw a string of assassinations: JFK, RFK, and Martin Luther King.

It is worth remembering and putting things into perspective on this awful day. In the 1960s massive urban riots swept through American cities. In the Progressive Era, violent bloody confrontations between labor and business. We aren't there - and I don't think we'll get there. But sadly, things will get crazier. I'm trying to figure out how.

UPDATES: Events keep overtaking me. Now, we have the horrific news from Pittsburgh, where a monster with a gun committed the worst act of anti-Semitism in U.S. history. I love this country, it has been amazing for the Jewish people (my people!) I am heartsick, but I am also heartened that the people of Pittsburgh - and almost everyone - are rallying around their neighbors.

I would also say that both in responding to the bombings and the synagogue shootings, our law enforcement agencies have acted with utter professionalism. There is still a commitment to rule of law in this country.

I ended the initial post (above) saying things are not as bad as they were in previous eras of Creedal Passion - but that the madness we are in is nowhere near over. I stand by that.

I don't have any hot-takes, but I'll make this observation. At some point some forms of serious gun control will be passed. The NRA has been winning battles for a very long time. Eventually it will lose - possibly soon. This will be to the good. There is simply no way to ignore the simple reality that access to firearms enables individuals and small groups to do absolutely terrible things.

However, the forces of Creedal Passion cut in many different directions - it is not simply left or right. For some Americans gun control threatens a sacred right. Most gun owners are law abiding, and they may grumble, but they will obey the law. For some however this gun control will be an enormous offense and lead them to more radical positions - and yes - to violence.

The only way out of this is through.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Could Saudi Arabia Collapse?

I used to do Middle East. Not so much anymore. I haven't followed the ins and outs of the Saudi royals either. That's its own real world. If you are interested, I can send you pointers to people who know this stuff well.

But, I do know this: every single Arab country, without exception, is built on sand. I don't mean this literally (although it seems true in many cases.) Rather, I mean that the societies are fragile, they are run by unpopular dictators, and their economies do not meet the needs of their people. All of these states (as we saw in the Arab Spring) were dry tinder waiting for a match.

I write this thinking that we need to consider seriously that the Jamal Kashoggi affair could bring down the Saudi government and replace it with a terrible civil war. The Saudis themselves are clearly concerned about this.

Smart Middle East hands, who may not like the Saudis much, will probably say we use this carefully push them towards reform - but we don't want to dump them. They are valuable allies (if morally dubious ones, but hey, welcome to the Middle East.) I don't like the Saudis much either. But, this is probably the smart play.

Putting aside this administration's competence to pull of the smart play, things can get out of hand. The opprobrium heading towards the Saudis can set a serious set of cascading events into motion. The Saudi regime cannot take care of itself. It relies heavily on foreign technical support. What happens when no one wants to provide that support because of public pressure? When the Saudi people lose confidence in their corrupt dictatorial regime, they are done for.

I'm not saying that this WILL happen. They've weathered a lot so far. But right now, nothing is impossible.

Syria, The Night Watch by Briton Riviere (1840-1920), painted in 1880. A favorite of mine at the wonderful Walters Art Museum in Baltimore.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Listening to Women, Learning Empathy

Somehow this Rothko captures the mood.
I am not writing this to advertise myself as some wonderful "woke" guy who really gets all of the indignities and awfulness that women suffer. My hope here is to share my path to at least a glimmer of empathy in the hope that it will help and inform other well-meaning men and boys to also be understanding and better.

So I'm writing about me, but it isn't about me, I'm just trying to set the stage.

First, two decades ago, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal was the big news I worked in a small office with two women. When we began discussing current affairs I made the argument that perhaps Ms. Lewinsky was just a tiny bit responsible for what had happened.

My colleagues rounded on me. They adamantly stated that this was a situation between a powerful man and a powerless woman, it was not her fault. I dropped my argument because a light went off in my head - both of my colleagues had been in a comparable situation!

And if that were true, it means that many - most - women have also been in a comparable situation. This meant that most women had been ensnared in a fraught, sexualized, if not sexual, relationship with a more powerful man.

This is on top of the constant  harassment and judgment to which women are also subject. I haven't surveyed women I know to find out how true this is. But between listening to my wife and just paying attention - it's pretty clear how pervasive these situations are. Women worry about situations to which I would not give a second thought (such as whether an Uber ride in a strange city could become an assault.)

This was the beginning of a great sympathy towards women. I don't think I was ever a bad guy, I was nice and courteous. But this first realization helped me develop a sense of compassion about what women have to go through - but not empathy, I couldn't claim to truly grasp their experience.

Now, with the questions around Kavanaugh's behavior - his alleged attempted rape - my sympathy has deepened. Reading Caitlin Flanagan's article on a similar incident that happened to her as a teenager is a reminder that huge numbers of women have had a similar experience of physical assault. Even more women were in bad situations that could have become an assault, but that they somehow evaded. Let's be very clear, that still leaves a scar. The fact that rape or assault did not occur does not mean that nothing happened or that the experience was not terrible and frightening.

Anyone who thinks that the outpouring of women supporting Dr. Ford is cynical politics is fooling themselves. They believe her because they have been there.

A Mile in Another's Shoes
Sympathy is generally understood as compassion towards, while empathy is understanding another's situation - putting yourself in their shoes. Empathy is harder. Science fiction writer Jonathan Scalzi, in an epic blog post wrote that if life were a video game: "'Straight White Male is the lowest difficulty setting there is."
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.
This straight white male does not always understand what those unlike myself have to go through. But I'm trying. To show how I got there, I need to talk about myself a little.

A Glimmer of Empathy
When I was a kid I was bullied, a lot. I was an awkward, strange, nerdy kid. This happened at school, in my neighborhood, (oddly) at Hebrew school, even at (can you imagine) a summer program for gifted and talented kids. That's right, I was so nerdy that other nerds picked on me. I was insulted and taunted. I was pushed around.

I was never really beaten up. I took steps to get out when the situation got threatening. It was often humiliating. But I was weak and uncoordinated. Attempts at violence were not going to go well for me. On TV, the victim slugs the bully in the face. And it turns out the bully was just a coward. Maybe so, but I'm not sure it would have worked out so well. In my experience, the bully was just looking for an excuse. Also, lots of times the bully had a bunch of friends. There was no honor, they would have piled on and beaten the crap out of me.

I have a great life now. None of this should matter. But I can still get mad about these incidents from three or four decades ago - in an instant. I still wake up at night with elaborate revenge fantasies.

But this is not about me. 

What I dealt with was chump change, small potatoes compared to an attempted rape. Thinking about my own open wound, made me realize just how massive the hurt that must be left by a sexual assault.

I don't want to equate my being pushed around at the playground with an attempted rape. It is not, not even close.

Update - A wise friend wrote to me:
I'd add here a caution of false equivalency. You left the playground/summer school--women must be vigilant wherever they are, every moment of their lives. The threat never stops. One is a fixed incident in time and space and the other is persistent through time and space. 
So if I consider my still festering anger and pain, and then try to imagine it extended many orders of magnitude into multiple dimensions, then maybe I have glimpsed just a shadow of what most women are carrying with them. The fact that despite these deep wounds, women carry on - raise kids, work jobs, write articles and PhD dissertations - is simply amazing.

That is the beginning of empathy.

Try it and extend it to everyone - people of color, LGBTQ, and the disabled.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Tisha B'Av and the Ruins of Rome

As Tisha B'Av winds down, my thoughts return to my recent visit to Rome (and food, Tisha B'Av is a fast day and I'm really hungry.)

I've been meaning to write up my visit, it was wonderful. I saw splendid things, met interesting people, tasted delicious food, and had lots of gelato. But, in the spirit of the day - which is the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, remembering the destruction of the ancient Temple by the Babylonians AND the Romans - this will be more somber. It will expand on my Tisha B'Av post from two years ago.

I love ancient ruins. As a graduate of St. John's College and a general fan of history, antiquity fascinates me. Yet, my visit to the great ruins of Rome, centered around the Forum, was delayed until nearly the end of my trip. Between meetings and tours I had booked, my time with the ruins was limited to my last afternoon. And I took a nap. Still, the Forum is open late, until 730, so when I got up in mid-afternoon I had plenty of time.

The ruins of Rome have a particular fascination for me, because I play a game called Caesar. It is a city-building game - like Sim City - but set in ancient Rome. So I know a bit about Roman architecture and urban development. As I wandered around the city I hummed the music from the game. (FYI - I haven't played the game in years, the ancient laptop I used for it was stolen.)

Circus Maximus!
I had earlier visited the City of Water, a lesser known archaeological site (Rome is crawling with them) in which construction had discovered an an insula (a tenement) that was rebuilt in the 4th century as a luxurious domus. This is exactly what happened in Caesar!!!

Later a walked along the Circus Maximus, the site of the great chariot races. Now it is a big empty field, but in the game, if you built one you were pretty close to winning the game!

A Funny Thing Happened at the Forum
I set off the for Forum, excited thinking I had saved the best for last. But, after stops for gelato and quick looks at the many other ruins, when I arrived at the Forum they were still open but not providing the audioguide. The Forum was closing "soon." The official close time was still hours away...

I downloaded a different audioguide and began exploring. But when I went in one direction I was instructed it was closed as the Forum would be closing soon. I got perturbed, started walking, and found myself on Palatine Hill.

The Forum was the heart of ancient Rome, while Palatine Hill overlooks it. It was the seat of the Imperial Palace. Admission to one grants admission to the other, but once one site is exited, you cannot re-enter it.

Ruins on Palatine Hill
Hints of past glories
So I explored Palatine Hill. It was mostly remains of brick walls - with terrific views of Rome, the Forum, and the nearby Colosseum. The scale of the Imperial ruins are impressive, but there are only the faintest hints of its past grandeur. A piece of marble column here and a fragment of a mosaic there.

The Forum - seen from Palatine Hill
Somewhere around 630-645 (well before 730) I was definitively shooed out. On exiting the site, one comes to the Arch of Titus. Built to commemorate the Emperor Titus' conquest of ancient Palestine it include the image of the Great Menorah from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem being paraded through the streets of Rome. This sacred relic was reduced to war booty.

The Colosseum: A Temple to Cruelty
Just beyond the Forum was the Colosseum. It is a remarkable building. It was closed but I walked around outside. I was a touch disappointed from not really getting to see the Forum. I learned that Titus had build the Colosseum with the spoils taken from Jerusalem. The gladiatorial games in which people fought one another or killed animals are abhorrent to Judaism (and to me).

It brought the day into perspective. Palatine Hill made sense. The palace of the most powerful man in the classical world was, in mere centuries, reduced to piles of bricks. Rome became a swampy backwater for centuries. Yet we - the Jewish people - are still here. This is not celebratory. I am not glad Rome fell, I do not revel in the sufferings of others. Rather it is a reminder of the vast tides of time and history, and of those things that truly keep us afloat.

The Great Menorah depicted on the Arch of Titus - the Jewish people proved to be more than our things

Monday, May 28, 2018

Memorial Day Thoughts: No New Civil War

Suddenly everyone on them Twitters is talking about a coming civil war, based primarily on this expert assessment that is umm... meaningless.

Memorial Day was, of course, started to honor the dead of the Civil War. It was established in great part due to the efforts of John Logan, a truly great American. He was a citizen-soldier, a war hero, and an accomplished politician. He founded the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans group, after the Civil War and as a politician tirelessly advocated for the rights for freed slaves. I work near Logan Circle, where his Washington home stands and where there is an impressive monument to him. (He also ran for vice president.)

The deaths in the Civil War are hard for us to comprehend. Fully half of all of the Americans killed in war where in that conflict. Over 600,000 Americans died, from a population base one-tenth of todays. A new Civil War on such a scale would take six million lives. It would bring unfathomable horrors.

It was faced with the aftermath of these enormous losses, that Memorial Day (originally Decoration Day) was established.

We are nowhere near this. Not even close. (There are political scientists who specialize in Civil War who could, undoubtedly explain through comparative analysis why the U.S. is not heading into Civil War.)

The Civil War occurred because there was a massive, unconscionable crime that was irreconcilable with the core values of the American people. There were also powerful vested interests that would not compromise on the issue. The economy of the South relied on slavery - at least for the region's elites.

Things feel and in many ways are awful now. But not Civil War awful. This is not to lessen the cruelties that are currently pervasive in our society. The monstrous policies towards migrants, the continuing institutional racism, and the growing income inequality leading to mass immiseration. But how is a Civil War appropriate or necessary to rectify this? Against and between whom?

One of the things that spurred this talk of Civil War was the August 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, VA. It was, of course, distressing and terrible to see Nazis marching in mass and the president's mealy mouthed response only contributed to the feeling that our nation might break. But what has happened since? Many alt-right groups - under law enforcement pressure - began to implode and their leader is now begging for funds - without much success. 

None of this is to say that things are going swimmingly in these here United States. By all means we should exert every effort to try to right ourselves as a nation. But the clear and vast injustice simply does not exist.

Political Violence in a Period of Creedal Passion
Interestingly, the original post that sparked this conversation specifically said, that they weren't really thinking about a full on war. The post author wrote:
Definition: By “civil war,” I don’t necessarily mean set-piece battles and Pickett’s Charge. I do mean widespread political violence with parallel (though not necessarily connected) efforts to reject current political authority in certain legal domains or physical spaces.
That is another story entirely and yes, that is going to happen. We are in a period of creedal passion, in which we try to remake ourselves in line with out values. Outlined by Samuel Huntington, periods of Creedal Passion are characterized by broad questioning of authority, in which privilege and hierarchy comes under attack, and even potential violation of norms comes under attack.

The last round was the 1960s, which had a bit of political violence.

There are numerous communities within the U.S. which feel that the nation is headed the wrong way and might turn to violence. We've seen it from the "alt-right" and there is certainly potential from the truly massive sovereign citizens movement. I would not discount the potential of violence from other vectors as well. The emotions stirred up in periods of creedal passion are powerful, and when that happens the disturbed radicals may feel that the wind is at their back.

Also, I believe that new gun control measures are coming. The NRA has won politically for a long time. But nothing is permanent. When those measures come, the vast majority of American gun owners will accept them. A few won't.

None of this is a true Civil War, and frankly all of this violence in total will be a fraction of the appalling level of criminal violence our society already tolerates. But of course political violence, particularly if it has a spectacular element, has a way of resonating in the public imagination.

And therein lies the danger, not of secession. But rather that low-level violence further degrades trust, perhaps on a scale that it cannot be repaired.

Perhaps in the context Memorial Day is more important than ever as we focus on our deepest beliefs and how much so many have sacrificed for them.

Update: I just want to clarify this civil war thing. What if President Donny Two-Scoops is impeached. What then? Could that trigger a civil war? Seriously, Alabama (yea, I'm talking to you) would you secede for this guy? Would that make sense? 

I remember during the 2000 election imbroglio reading the Egyptian press. They were convinced the U.S. was on the verge of a Civil War. But really, who would strap on weapons for Al Gore or George W. Bush. I think now is the same.

Political violence, sadly, yes. Civil war, no.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Technology, Risk and Facebook's Dating Service

Facebook, thanks for providing the perfect demonstration of my recent paper on risk communication and technology, presented at WeRobot2018. In starting a new dating service, Facebook shows exactly the cluelessness that I worried tech world had about public attitudes.

Full disclosure, I really like Facebook. I enjoy it immensely and there is a decent chance readers will find this post through Facebook. Further, on the whole I am a fan of new technology, we've seen great things happen in recent decades. My paper is a bit of a cri de coeur to tech world urging them to consider public perceptions so that when they do something ill-advised they don't face backlash that stymies innovation.

Let me start from the beginning.

Communicating Risk
Robots, that is, in the words of the inestimable Laurel Riek, are: physically embodied systems capable of enacting physical change in the world. This change, either locomotion or manipulation, means this systems will be able to do harm. The paper includes an in-depth taxonomy of vectors of harm robots may do. Further, many, although not all, robots are directed by non-deterministic algorithms, which means that they may act in unpredictable ways. (The tragic Uber self-driving vehicle accident is an example.) On the whole, these systems have enormous potential to bring benefits, but that must be balanced against the potential for harm.

To make informed decisions about using and interacting with robots, people need essential information. Ensuring people have this information is the role of risk communication.

The paper begins with a summary of risk communication, a well developed field. There has been extensive research on risk communication and public health and environmental issues, as well as the subfield of crisis communications. There has been extensive research about how to best communicate probabilities, what type of language to use, and what mechanisms are most effective for reaching audiences. This is not to say it is a settled science, much of the work is intuitive and every issue and situation will require new approaches.

Further - and this is big - people vastly overestimate how well they understand others and how well they are understood. This, from my cursory reading, is central to communications theory and makes all of this really hard. A communicator might think they did a bang-up job, but the key points recalled by the recipient were not what was intended.

The obvious conclusion is that the robotics industry should start studying this field and figure out how to apply it. But there's more (and I'm coming back to Facebook - even though they aren't building robots.)

Risk Perception
But there's more. A lot more. The risk communication process described above is a rational cost benefit analysis process. But that is not how people make decisions. Certain types of risks and benefits loom large in people's minds out of proportion to their probability. The classic case is terrorism, which your TerrorWonk will readily point out is much less likely to kill someone in the U.S. than a car accident. But this offers little comfort, people understand car accidents and feel they have some control. Terrorism is poorly understood, uncontrolled, and potentially catastrophic. Terrorism, in particular, inspires dread because there is an active adversary behind it.

It would be easy to dismiss these concerns as irrational, but also unwise. Paul Slovic, one of the giants of this field, wrote:
Perhaps the most important message from this research is that there is wisdom as well as error in public attitudes and perceptions. Lay people sometimes lack certain information about hazards. However, their basic conceptualizations of risk is much richer than that of experts and reflects legitimate concerns that are typically omitted from expert risk assessments.
Donald MacGregor, of MacGregor-Bates Applied Decision Concepts, put it more bluntly, telling me:
Familiarity with the technical risk analysis can breed contempt for those who don't share the same views of risk. 
This is where businesses, industries, and governments can get into trouble, when they do not consider these perceptions of risk a failure can lead to a "signal" event that triggers public concern of catastrophic impact. The classic case is the nuclear power industry. They did not consider seriously the potential of an accident, did not engage in serious risk communication, and when Three Mile Island occurred the public was frightened. Even though the accident did no real damage, the public perception shifted quickly and nuclear power development was effectively halted in the United States.

In the paper I discussed how robots, because they are perceived as having agency and because their actions may not be well understood may trigger high levels of perceived risk and could trigger a signal event. I'll go farther and say that tech world more broadly is not immune to this possibility.

A Matter of Trust
Effective risk communication relies on trust. If the communicator has trust, the audiences will hear their message and bear some risks. Trust however is very hard to build, requiring extensive two-way communication. It is also very, very easy to lose.

My concern is that tech world is assuming a high level of public trust. Facebook (remember them) has the famous slogan: move fast and break things.

Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt told an audience at MIT: Instead of spending all day worrying, why don't you wait until there's a near miss... Let's not translate that worry into premature constraints on the innovators....

In tech world the belief appears to be that when inevitable failures occur, the public will understand. But this reservoir may not exist and when signal events occur, there will be broad regulatory and public backlash.

Back to Facebook
That brings us back to Facebook's dating service (I don't doubt, by the way, the company's ability to do some effective analytics on this). After the Cambridge Analytica imbroglio, the company is under increasing scrutiny. That scrutiny is not going to be limited to the issues around the 2016 election, it will extend more broadly into what Facebook does with the data it gathers. They are, to their credit, making some moves to better meet privacy concerns.

Given this situation is now a good time to consider a bold new endeavor that leverages very personal information? Further, there are going to be incidents of violence and harassment linked to this dating service - this is a matter of percentages, given the unfortunate and terrible reality of violence against women. Even if Facebook does a masterful job and is incredibly effective at screening out those with violent tendencies (and this is very hard to do), their algorithm will not be perfect.

When this happens Facebook is very likely to be held responsible. Their arguments that they have done everything possible to protect the participants in their dating site will not sway and angry public. When they appeal to the public on the basis of the good they've done, Facebook may find that it has few friends.