Blackface and Redemption

Conor Friedersdorf writes a thoughtful reaction to the controversy surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam:

I am loath to judge people today for behavior of 35 years ago, especially when there is evidence that their bygone transgressions are at odds with their current outlook. I favor an ethos that prioritizes rehabilitation and redemption above punishment. I believe that . . . making every bygone instance of blackface a career-ender is every bit as untenable as Coleman Hughes persuasively shows, that apparently earnest apologies from people who can credibly show they’ve changed should be accepted, that grace toward people who previously held noxious views helps to hasten the demise of bigotry, and that “offense archaeology” is often an objectionable enterprise that leads us to waste time and energy on matters that help no one.

What Ralph Northam’s Defenders Get Right—And Wrong

Nevertheless, Friedersdorf concludes that Northam should resign because the controversy has damaged his ability to govern. I am not so sure. For one, I’m not convinced the controversy has in fact damaged his ability to govern. Polls don’t say that. Just talking heads.

Dave Chappelle has a wonderful line in one of his recent comedy specials, speaking about the #MeToo movement: “You have to have men on your side. And I’m telling you right now, you’re gonna have a lot of imperfect allies.” Imperfect allies. The phrase is wonderful because it captures the maddening, remarkable complexity of human behavior, change, and redemption.

I am more inclined to judge people on who they are now. Changing your mind in the face of contrary evidence is to be encouraged and even lauded. Governor Northam has an opportunity to redeem himself. All signs point to him genuinely feeling remorse, genuinely seeking racial justice. We have to have the ability to forgive and embrace. We’re going to need a lot of imperfect allies.

Corporate Gatekeepers

This is not sustainable:

During the midterm elections in the United States last year, Twitter added, most of the false content on its site came from within the country itself. Many of the misleading messages focused on voter suppression, with the company deleting almost 6,000 tweets that included incorrect dates for the election or that falsely claimed that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement was patrolling polling stations.

Twitter Says False Content Is Evolving, and More Comes From the U.S.

It is both dangerous and ineffective to rely on big corporations to curate messages so that only “good messages” are seen. We can’t even decide whether we want this. On the one hand, it scares us that big companies have this power. On the hand, we insist that they use it.

It will get worse. Deepfakes are coming to the political space. (This one is amazing.) And videos do not have to be fake to be taken out of context.

So what to do? Facebook/Twitter/Apple/Google are not the solution. Corporate decision making is not immune from bias, mistake, and poor policy. But it is less transparent and less aligned with our social goals.

We need to slow down and stop making snap judgments. We need a renewed emphasis on the legitimacy / authority of the source. The good news is that we might get better at this over time.

Impeach Trump Now

“Impeach Trump Now” is the title of an Atlantic article by Yoni Appelbaum being published in the March edition, which focuses on the Trump presidency at its midway point. Its central premise, as the title suggests, is that impeachment proceedings should begin now because such proceedings would have benefits even if Trump is not ultimately removed by the Senate.

Opponents of impeachment point out that, despite the greater severity of the prospective charges against Trump, there is little reason to believe the Senate is more likely to remove him than it was to remove Clinton. Indeed, the Senate’s Republican majority has shown little will to break with the president—though that may change. The process of impeachment itself is likely to shift public opinion, both by highlighting what’s already known and by bringing new evidence to light. 

Appelbaum argues that impeachment proceedings would have five distinct benefits:

  1. Trump loses control of the public conversation as attention turns to the proceedings;
  2. the undemocratic elements of Trump’s agenda will be paralyzed while he deals with the Congressional investigation: “There may be no more effective way to run out the clock on an administration than to tie it up with impeachment hearings.”
  3. impeachment proceedings can be used as a tool for discovery, discernment, and (in my own view) summary and distillation of the transgressions;
  4. it defuses the potential for actual political violence by providing a legitimate option for removing a divisive leader: “The public understood that once the impeachment process began, the real action would take place in Congress, and not in the streets.”; and
  5. it would damage Trump’s political prospects even if unsuccessful.

In fact, it’s the very efficacy of these past efforts that should give Congress pause; it’s a process that should be triggered only when a president’s betrayal of his basic duties requires it. But Trump’s conduct clearly meets that threshold. The only question is whether Congress will act.

The remainder of the article is a history lesson about prior impeachment proceedings — those of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton — and how those proceedings impacted their respective presidencies even though none of them were ultimately removed. Appelbaum argues that Trump’s presidency will be similarly constrained, and that this constraint alone should justify the exercise.

I would add one other benefit to this list: demonstrating the health of our institutions. We have long influenced the world through our military power and moral and institutional superiority. As our numbers and power are inevitably challenged globally, it is vital that we continue to command respect for our democratic principles, transparency, and excellent decision-making. Much of Trump’s impact can be reversed, but the most serious long-term impact will be the undermining of trust and respect for our public institutions. Impeachment would demonstrate that we remain a healthy democracy with the continuing capability to root out corruption, prejudice, and incompetence.

Winston Churchill may or may not have said that, “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” Hope springs eternal.

Does science excellence require freedom?

This will be a central tension for China and – as a result – for most of the rest of us heading into the middle of the 21st century.

Worth quoting at length:

Mr Xi talks of science and technology as a national project. However, in most scientific research, chauvinism is a handicap. Expertise, good ideas and creativity do not respect national frontiers. Research takes place in teams, which may involve dozens of scientists. Published papers get you only so far: conferences and face-to-face encounters are essential to grasp the subtleties of what everyone else is up to. There is competition, to be sure; military and commercial research must remain secret. But pure science thrives on collaboration and exchange.

. . . . .

Although many researchers will be satisfied with just their academic freedom, only a small number need seek broader self-expression to cause problems for the Communist Party. Think of Andrei Sakharov, who developed the Russian hydrogen bomb, and later became a chief Soviet dissident; or Fang Lizhi, an astrophysicist who inspired the students leading the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. When the official version of reality was tired and stilted, both stood out as seekers of the truth. That gave them immense moral authority.

Some in the West may feel threatened by China’s advances in science, and therefore aim to keep its researchers at arm’s length. That would be wise for weapons science and commercial research, where elaborate mechanisms to preserve secrecy already exist and could be strengthened. But to extend an arm’s-length approach to ordinary research would be self-defeating. Collaboration is the best way of ensuring that Chinese science is responsible and transparent. It might even foster the next Fang.

Hard as it is to imagine, Mr Xi could end up facing a much tougher choice: to be content with lagging behind, or to give his scientists the freedom they need and risk the consequences. In that sense, he is running the biggest experiment of all.

How China could dominate science

A prediction and solving for the equilibium

This is as good a summary and prediction as any.

House Democrats have reason on their side. Even knowledgeable immigration hawks think spending $5.7bn on a wall would be a waste of money. The number of people crossing the southern border illegally is at a 45-year low. Vastly more people fly into the country legally and then overstay their visas. If illegal immigration is the problem, Mr Trump should be focusing on that.

Yet it is also true that $5.7bn is peanuts in budgetary terms. The federal government spends that every 12 hours. And, despite what Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker says, there is nothing inherently “immoral” about a wall. A lot of wall and fencing was built on the southern border long before Mr Trump became president, and with plenty of Democratic support.

If this were just a fight about policy, it is clear what a deal would look like. Congress would pass a bill giving citizenship to those who arrived in the country illegally as children, amounting to about 700,000 people, and fund the wall in exchange. The president gets something he wants; Democrats get something they want; America gets back its government.

How the shutdown in Washington ends

Privacy vs Security

It’s an old topic, long discussed, and for that reason somewhat boring / repetitive. But I think new intelligent video analytics and facial recognition technology are about to make this extremely relevant again.

There’s no question in my mind that we, as a society, as going to trade public privacy (e.g., being monitored in public all the time) for safety. If the DC Sniper incident happens again, we’ll have drones over every major city. But two points:

  1. The privacy of our homes continues to be relatively secure, apart from the voice-control and IoT devices we voluntarily invite inside. Will that change? I don’t see any need for safety purposes.
  2. Will the additional security change the debate on gun control? If we as a society (i.e. the government) know exactly where you are and what you’re doing every time you step outside, does it matter that you have an arsenal inside your home? So long as it stays there…

And I often think of the aphorism attributed to Ben Franklin:

Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.

Still relevant? Of course, like many old quotes, this one is often thrown about without any understanding of its context.

On balance, I lean towards freedom to deploy technology and catch law breakers. And freedom to own firearms. Safety and liberty?

Timing and a prediction

My belief is that Trump now sees his trade war with China as costing him votes because of it’s purported negative effect on the stock market.  Trump now needs to rev up the stock market for his 2020 race.  Self preservation at its finest.  If he wins, assume the trade war will commence post reelection.

I do not think a new trade deal with China (if one is cobbled together) will be better than what we had.  But it will stabilize the economy and boost the stock market.

That said, I do think any new deal will have language protecting US intellectual property.  But this is a hollow pledge because most of the intellectual property worth protecting was stolen long ago.

“John McCain Would Have Passed the Anne Frank Test”

RIP John McCain, a man of honor and character.

Jeffrey Goldberg, writing for The Atlantic:

I told him then that he would most definitely pass the Anne Frank Test. He was unfamiliar with the concept (mildly surprising, given that his best friend was Joe Lieberman). The Anne Frank test, something I learned from a Holocaust survivor almost 40 years ago, is actually a single question: Which non-Jewish friends would risk their lives to hide us should the Nazis ever return?

McCain laughed at the compliment. Then he became serious. “I like to think that in the toughest moments I’d do the right thing, but you never know until you’re tested.” I found this to be an absurd thing for him to say. Few men had been tested like John McCain; few men have passed these tests in the manner of John McCain. Of all the many stories of McCain’s heroism in Vietnamese captivity, the one I’ve always found most affecting is this one: When presented with the opportunity to be freed—he was the son of an important admiral, and his release would constitute a propaganda victory for the North Vietnamese—McCain demurred; it was not his turn (prisoners were generally released based on their time in captivity), and he would not skip to the head of the line. When he rejected the Vietnamese offer, he knew that intense torture would be his reward. And he did it anyway. His sense of honor would allow him to do nothing else.

I pressed him on this point. “I’ve failed enough in my life to know that it’s always an option,” he said. “I like to think I would do what it takes, but fear will make you do terrible things.”

John McCain Would Have Passed the Anne Frank Test