Sunday, January 7, 2018

In Defense of Jason Brown

Full disclosure: I've been rooting for Jason Brown to make the Olympic team for months. Ever since I saw he was planning a Hamilton routine, I've been dying to see that routine performed at the Olympics. So what follows is entirely, entirely self-serving. I'm aware of that.

The U.S. National Figure Skating Championships just concluded (except for ice dancing), and Nathan Chen won the men's event, which I knew would happen since he won the last one by 55 points. (Only 40 points this time.) Jason Brown... did not win, or finish second, or finish third. His free skate today was frankly kind of disastrous, and left him in sixth place. Tomorrow morning the three selections for the U.S. men's Olympic team will be announced, and sixth place is a long way back to end up making a three-man team.

But the U.S. figure skating authority say that they do not just take the top three skaters from Nationals. Instead they consider a "body of work" consisting of the following events:
  • 2018 U.S. Championships
  • 2017 Grand Prix Final
  • 2017 World Championships
  • 2017 Grand Prix Series
  • 2017 Four Continents Championship
  • 2017 Challenger Series
  • 2017 U.S. Championships
  • 2017 World Junior Championships
  • 2017 Junior Grand Prix Final 
Roughly speaking, this year's Nationals along with last year's GP Final and Worlds make up the top tier, the most recent GP series and Four Continents are the second tier, and the remaining competitions are third-tier.

Jason Brown did very poorly at the very most important event on this list. He finished behind Ross Miner (silver medal at Nationals) and Vincent Zhou (bronze), either of whom could make the team over him, as could Adam Rippon, who finished fourth (and got the rather strange pewter "medal"). But the rest of his body of work is significantly better than that of either Ross or Vincent. The same is true of Rippon. So it's easy to feel that the selection committee, in making sense of this mess, has to either treat Nationals as the only competition that mattered or give it no weight at all.

But that's what math is for.

Because I can't stop pondering the question of whether Jason should or will be selected, I thought I would construct a unified metric to try to evaluate each contender's total body of work and see who "deserves" the spot according to those metrics. Below are my attempts at doing just that.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Democracy as Popular Responsibility

For the past couple of weeks I've been watching this show Legend of the Galactic Heroes. It's a curious entity: a Japanese anime from 1988 that, in a whole host of ways, has a shockingly progressive ethos. And it also manages something that I've almost never encountered: meaningful, interesting exploration of political philosophy through fictional narrative. I'm not sure why exactly that's so rare. Perhaps it's because democracies are boring, for narrative fiction purposes anyway. Stories demand characters but democracies are fundamentally not about any one person. Political stories set in democracies, therefore, will often over-emphasize the importance of individual figures, which is fine if they're just stories but problematic if they try to get philosophical. (I believe that's in part the story of The West Wing.) Most fantasy worlds, meanwhile, are pre-democratic, essentially feudal/monarchical societies, which are much better for storytelling but also boring for political theory purposes because, well, non-democratic political theory is wrong per se and therefore not very interesting.

Legend of the Galactic Heroes solves this dilemma I think in part by structuring itself as a conflict between the Empire, a Germanic society ruled by an autocratic Kaiser and an oppressive, entrenched nobility, and the Free Planets Alliance, a democratic society that broke away from the Empire some few hundred years ago. So far this sounds like a pretty standard Cold War-style Good vs. Evil story. The thing is, though, that the Alliance is actually a deeply diseased "democracy," probably as a result of 150 years of perpetual war. The show does a deft job of depicting a society that is simply not free despite its formally democratic institutions. The Empire, meanwhile, is equally decrepit after five hundred years of comfortable privilege for its aristocrats, but has the good fortune to be conquered by Reinhard von Lohengramm, one of the protagonists of the show, who rises up from the minor nobility to become Kaiser and begin his own, new dynasty. Though no democrat, Reinhard is very much a progressive reformer.

And what this dynamic sets up is the very interesting question of which side of this war between a corrupted democracy and an enlightened dictatorship is actually the good side. It's a particularly pressing question for the other chief protagonist, Yang Wenli, an admiral in the Alliance fleet who actually hates war and really just wants to be a history scholar, who feels uncomfortable about fighting on behalf of the in many ways unworthy Alliance government. And for whatever reason (credit presumably goes in large part to the writers of the show), Yang is spectacularly wise, and every single thing he says about political philosophy, every decision that he makes as the war goes along, is fascinating. It really gets at the ideas of, what is democracy, why is it good and important, etc., in a very deep way that you just don't see in a lot of fiction.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Problem with Privilege

I had been thinking of writing this post for a while, but I had kind of lost momentum and figured I wasn't ever going to get around to it. Then I saw this tweet:
Here's the thing about this tweet, which is responding to the astonishing fact that at the Women's Marches yesterday, which featured four or as many as five million people protesting Donald Trump all across the country (and the world), there was absolutely zero violence, and there appear to have been zero arrests. The first sentence is absolutely true! It's true in every dimension, and it's important.

So why do the last two words rub me the wrong way so much?

I think it's because the word "privilege," as it has come to be used, carries with it a connotation of wrongfulness. But in this case it is obvious that the "privilege" enjoyed by the "white women" (who were, of course, only part of the crowds at these protests) of not being "jumped" by the police while protesting peacefully is entirely rightful. It is a privilege against wrongful treatment, one which we should all by rights enjoy. The correct remedy is not to abolish the privilege but to extend it universally; in a good world, peaceful BLM protesters wouldn't get arrested either. (Of course in a good world BLM wouldn't have to exist, but you get the point.)

This is, I think, a general fact about a whole lot of kinds of "privilege." The way privileged people are treated is the way people ought to be treated, period. A video will surface of a white man brandishing a gun at the police and being carefully subdued without a shot's being fired. We all know that this is an example of "white privilege," and it really is! A black man behaving similarly would have been dead within seconds. But the problem here is not with how the privileged white guy is being treated, it's with how the oppressed black men—and boys, and women and girls—are treated. Those of us who are privileged are, in most cases, simply being treated the way we deserve. We should all be so privileged; the horror is that so many are not.

And I'm speculating here, but I suspect this has something to do with the cocktail of grievances and resentments that fueled Donald Trump's support. Because very often, privilege does not really benefit the privileged; oppression does not really benefit the oppressor. Sometimes it does, of course. White supremacy and white privilege are among other things concerned with the distribution of scarce material resources, and the more those resources are plundered from black people the more plunder there is for white people to enjoy. Affirmative action in college admissions, for instance, has this zero-sum dynamic.* But potentially-fatal police encounters are not zero-sum. The police really could treat everyone they meet and have occasion to consider shooting the way they treat white people in that position, and doing so would benefit a whole lot of black people without taking anything from white people to do it. Oppression in these contexts is, in other words, negative-sum. It may even be, like, a bizarro version of Pareto efficient, making some people worse off and no one better off.

And so I suspect that this is part of why it rubs some people so much the wrong way to be constantly told how privileged they are. Because after all, doesn't that make it sound like they lead lives free of woe and strife? They are, after all, privileged! But of course that's not true at all. In so many cases their privilege does nothing real to benefit them, not against the baseline of rightful treatment, of what should happen. And they may have other troubles; they may even partake of other forms of oppression, e.g. along class lines. They feel in other words that their lives are hard, and are no less hard than they should be because they are write. And they're right! White men may be playing the game of life on the "easy" level of difficulty, but there's nothing really wrong with that in most cases. We liberals, who have fought for centuries to make the world a better place, are huge fans of the "easy" mode. We created it, and it is our mission to extend its bounty.

But of course these people, who are told that they are privileged and who cannot square that with their own experience and the difficulties they face in their lives, do exactly the wrong thing with the fact that their privilege does not really help them all that much. They lash out. They want to punish those who accuse them of the horrible wickedness that is being privileged, and in doing so of course they become not just privileged but defenders of privilege, not just people who benefit from racism but actual racists themselves. And to be clear, that is overwhelmingly their own fault. It's entirely their own fault, really, on any sort of moral level. Culpability for racism lies with the racists.

But we lawyers (and I am, as of a couple days ago, a lawyer) distinguish between causation and fault; the one is a subset of the other. And though it is not our fault, those of us on the left, that there are so many goddamn racists, we should probably find any way we can to reduce the number of things factually contributing to the existence of so many goddamn racists. And I suspect, though again this is extremely speculative, that this thing about the "privilege" analytical framework is part of that factual causal problem. Certainly the practice of demanding that people acknowledge their privilege, or "check" their privilege, feels almost perfectly calculated to arouse defensiveness and resentment. I suspect that the better form of outreach to these people would be to say, look, we know you're hard-working, ordinary people just trying to do your best to live a decent life. All we want is for so many of these other people to have the same chance at that that you do, which they unfortunately and unjustly do not, and for you to understand that these other people aren't as lucky as you are and to have sympathy with their struggle to obtain the "privileges" that you so rightfully enjoy. I bet that message, which I think was in large part Barack Obama's message, would piss off a whole lot fewer people.

Again, it is not our job, on any accounting of justice or responsibility, to avoid pissing these people off. It is rather their job to stop being racist. But far too many of them aren't going to do their job, and so unfortunately those of us who do care about making the world a better place for everyone, and especially for the racial minorities and other oppressed groups whose interests a powerful politics of racial resentment so threatens, are faced with a choice between trying to save people from their own goddamn racism and accepting a world with all these goddamn racists. If we're going to try to do the former, which we probably should (though it is such an aggravating enterprise and the impulse is so often to rage-quit), I feel like we'll be better served with a narrative of privilege that is less accusatory and that, where appropriate, recognizes that oppression benefits not the oppressor and that the only problem with privilege is its absence from too many people's lives.

*Of course, things like affirmative action are zero-sum only if you just take their immediate material effects at face value. I suspect that in even in these cases oppression harms the oppressor, by depriving society as a whole of the bounty which the oppressed would have produced had they been given the opportunity. This relates to the arguments for why e.g. sex discrimination in hiring practices are inefficient and irrational. Obviously the conclusion sometimes forced upon those arguments, that employers, being rational, will therefore not discriminate and so there's no need for anti-discrimination law, is a load of bull, but that doesn't mean the discrimination isn't economically irrational. (Corporate boards with more women on them perform better, etc.) And when those oppressed people are prevented from realizing their full potential, society is impoverished and that harms the oppressor class, too.

Even in cases where the raw material math works out such that the oppressors are coming out ahead, though, I still think oppression and supremacy are worse for the supreme oppressor class than equality would be. As my grandfather once said, in his masterful article defending Brown v. Board of Education:
I can heartily concur in the judgment that segregation harms the white as much as it does the Negro. Sadism rots the policeman; the suppressor of thought loses light; the community that forms into a mob, and goes down and dominates a trial, may wound itself beyond all healing.
This was a man who knew whereof he spoke, having grown up as a white man in segregated Texas. Oppression largely offers the oppressors only false promises. In exchange for some small amount of plunder taken directly from the oppressed they impoverish their own society and, on top of that, poison, perhaps irreparably, their own personal and political morality.

And of course the very next line of the same paragraph could not be more on-point:
Can this reciprocity of hurt, this fated mutuality that inheres in all inflicted wrong, serve to validate the wrong itself?

Monday, November 21, 2016

Oh My God The Obergefell Opinion Is Bad

Last summer, the Supreme Court decided the hideously-named Obergefell v. Hodges, which held that the Constitution protects what we on the left these days call marriage equality, i.e. that state laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman are unconstitutional. And... what with one thing and another I just never really got around to reading the case. Not the majority opinion, not the dissents. I heard some things about it. I heard that Kennedy did a lot of pronouncing about how wonderful marriage is, including a final paragraph the reading of which has apparently become a fixture at weddings. I heard that, as usual in these sorts of cases, his doctrinal analysis was a mess, and (as in Lawrence v. Texas) he was kind of unclear about whether this was an equal protection case or a "substantive due process" a.k.a. fundamental rights case. I heard that Chief Justice Roberts's opinion was far more fire-breathing culture warrior than I had been expecting after his curious dissent in U.S. v. Windsor. But I didn't read it for myself. Between those few snippets and my knowledge of Kennedy's previous gay rights jurisprudence I figured I had a decent kind of idea what the opinion said, and while it left a lot to be desired (aside from, y'know, deciding the case correctly), it had some interesting, maybe even promising stuff going on.

Well I just actually read the damn thing, and oh my god it sucks. It's waaaaaaaaaay worse than I had been imagining. First of all, about half the opinion isn't legal analysis at all, it's Anthony Kennedy Tells The Story of Marriage And How Wonderful It Is. Which first of all is just weird and kinda gross to read in the U.S. Reports. It's like Scalia's dissent in U.S. v. Virginia, the VMI case, where he includes the full text of the Virginia Military Institute's Code of a Gentleman at the end. This is just not something that belongs in a judicial opinion, not like this anyway. (As I'll note later, there could be a place for a little bit of this sort of thing in a better-crafted opinion, but Kennedy massively overdoses us on it.) Second, while there's some nice stuff in what he says, particularly the bits about how the changes that have been made to the institution of marriage over the centuries as women have achieved greater and greater social progress have strengthened and improved marriage, a lot of it is kind of gross on its own terms. He goes on and on about how wonderful marriage is, how it's a bond unlike any other, so ennobling, it's at the heart of human civilization, blah blah blah, and then he's like, hey isn't it great how these gay people love marriage as much as I do! They want in to our patriarchal (if slightly less than it used to be) institution, hooray!!! He literally goes so far as to say that "Were their intent to demean the revered idea and reality of marriage, the petitioners' claims would be of a different order." WTF, bro.

Monday, October 31, 2016

On Trump's Gains

The polls have tightened! Maybe you've heard, people are making kind of a big deal about it. In fact they're probably overstating the extent of the tightening, but it's pretty undeniable that some tightening has occurred. And one interesting thing about it is that it's almost entirely Trump gaining ground, rather than Clinton losing ground. On October 19th, the 538 national polling average stood at Clinton 45.4%, Trump 38.8%, a lead of 6.6% for Hillary. Today Trump's all the way up to 41.0%, a gain of 2.2%! And Clinton has fallen all the way to... 45.4%. A.k.a. the exact same place. Admittedly in the interim she went up to 46.0% and came back down again, but even since Hillary's number peaked on October 26th she's only down 0.6%, while Trump is up 1.4%. The share of voters remaining undecided or going for one of the third-party options has been falling for a while now. So let's think a bit about what this means, that Trump is gaining ground while Hillary is holding her ground.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Trump at Gettysburg

Donald Trump gave a speech today at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Apparently after descending into a depressed funk where he seemingly knew he was going to lose and didn't have much fight left in him yesterday, he's back to being Donald Trump today: reiterates that he'll lock up Hillary, attacks the media, says he'll sue the women accusing him of sexual assault for libel after the election (which, in this vision of the future, he has I believe won--imagine that, the President suing people for defamations that failed to derail his campaign!). Y'know, standard "Donald Trump is a disgusting creature" stuff.

But since he gave the speech at Gettysburg, it provides an occasion for a game I like to play. It's called "Imagine if it were Trump." The way it works is you take any memorable moment from the Presidency of any of the forty-three men who've actually been President so far and you picture that moment playing out if Trump had been President instead. It's literally always just laughably absurd; sometimes, as with the Cuban Missile Crisis, it ends with the destruction of the world. (There's a companion game, "Imagine if it weren't Trump," where you picture any major political figure not named Donald J. Trump doing any of the shit he's done. Equally hilarious; almost always ends with the destruction of that person's political career.)

But anyway, so let's play this game with the Gettysburg Address. The setting: some four months earlier, the Union Army had won a great victory at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a turning-point in the war but one that came at extraordinary cost (the Battle of Gettysburg had the most casualties of any in the Civil War). Now there's to be a dedication for the Soldier's National Cemetery in Gettysburg, and the President has been asked to speak. Imagine what Donald Trump would say. And then read what Lincoln actually said:

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Mets are Dead, Long Live the Mets!

The 2016 New York Mets have been eliminated from the post-season after losing last night's National League Wild Card Game. Noah Syndergaard was brilliant, getting into the sixth inning before giving up a hit and finishing with a pitching line of 7.0 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 3 BB, 10 K, good for a Game Score of 80. That would've been tied for the second-best start of the 2015 playoffs. It's the second-best start ever in a game which eliminated the pitcher's team, behind a Mike Mussina gem from 1997. (It is therefore the best such start by a National League team.) Unfortunately Madison Bumgarner turned in an even better start, a complete game shutout with four hits and two walks against six strikeouts (Game Score 83), and Jeurys Familia gave up the game-winning three-run home run to Conor Gillaspie of all people in the ninth inning, bringing the Mets' season to a close.

Which means it's time to look to next year. Here's what I figure the incumbent 2017 Opening Day 25-man roster looks like: