Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent

How Airline Workers Learn to Deal with Passengers” reminds me of teaching; I’ve spent a bunch of years teaching college students and being a grant writing consultant, and I suspect that part of the problem airline workers experience is simple and akin to the problems I experience: 95% of people are fine, but that last 5% can occupy a lot of time and mental energy.* So there’s a temptation to become somewhat armored against that last 5%, which impacts interactions with the vast majority of people, who are normal and reasonable.

A lot of public-facing professions seem to have this problem, including emergency medicine doctors, cops, retail workers, and public school teachers. Because that bottom 5% is so noisy and time-consuming, a kind of misanthropy can set in, as one begins to think the bottom represents the whole—even if intellectually one knows it does not. Mental, psychological, and emotional armoring can reduce one’s overall effectiveness; this is particularly obvious in teaching, in which person-to-person connection plays a stronger role than it does in, say, consulting.

There seems to be something about the human mind that makes one negative interaction stand out more than 10 positive or normal interactions. So there’s a kind of crowding-out effect going on. And when I have to deal with someone who is unreasonable, I try to actively, consciously remind myself that they don’t represent the whole and that behind every irrationally unhappy person there are 49 to 99 normal people who aren’t giving me unwarranted grief.

Colleges in particular have been in the news lately, and a lot of people have seen crazy social justice warrior stuff out there, like the Middlebury College thing or the Halloween costumes at Yale. This stuff is in fact outrageous, but, again, it’s salient because it’s unusual and because it’s unusual one sees it in the news (and it does represent a real problem, though the problem tends to be overstated).

Friends and acquaintances who know what I do sometimes ask me about whether I see this kind of stuff. I do, a little. The vast majority of college students, however, seem to want what college students have always wanted: to learn something; to get by; to get a job when they’re done; to get laid; to learn something about themselves and the societies they live in; to make friends; to individuate from their families. You could add other items. Many students feel a vague sense of worry about being excellent sheep, and that worry is itself a sign of intellectual health. Most students, if they’ve thought about free-speech issues at all, vaguely support it. But a minority of well-organized and angry activists can make a lot more noise and news than the silent majority!

That last point is one many casual news readers don’t realize, which is why I emphasize it. It’s related to my essay, ““How do you know when you’re being insensitive? How do you know when you’re funny?” Similar issues play out in many fields beyond teaching and consulting. One angry, unreasonable, or irrational customer or client drowns out a lot of generically happy or satisfied ones. Or consider “I was a landlord: This is what it taught me about people.” Landlords often have to be prepared for worst-case scenarios, and that preparation bleeds into their everyday scenarios and interactions.

Social media probably amplifies many of the problem traits described above by allowing the least-reasonable people to organize, scream, and (not infrequently) lie. I don’t know what, if any, solution exists to these problems, apart from most individuals to attempt to be as reasonable as possible and not succumb to the noisy but unhinged minority. Not much of a rallying cry, is it?


* You can change the ratios some; I doubt the number of problem students reaches 10% in most scenarios, and I also doubt that the number declines below 2% (among professions that face the general public).

A field guide to Trump Resistance demonstrations

My father, Isaac, wrote this post.

As a young man, I was very involved in the antiwar movement, as well as other social justice causes. I went to many demonstrations, organized some, and spent two weeks registering African American voters in Natchez, MS during one Spring Break (I wasn’t smart enough to go to Fort Lauderdale). Like President Obama, I was trained by the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) as a community organizer and spent over a year working as a community organizer in a low-income African American neighborhood. You can read about my background as a true-believer radical at the link.

While I long ago hung up my demonstrating spurs, looking back over four decades to my activist and community organizing days gives me an unusual perspective on the sudden eruption of large street demonstrations by the Resistance to Trump.* This is my guide to Resistance fighters, who are willing to leave their coffee shops, yoga studios and Whole Foods for the suddenly trendy act of street demonstrations.

Not everyone in the thousands of people marching will necessarily share your desire for the peaceful exercise of group free speech. Some demonstrators likely have ulterior motives, whether they be the black masked anarchists who seem to love to break Starbucks windows, or, potentially much worse agent provocateurs. Such infiltrators could be aligned with some interest group, which could include Trump supporters, police—or, I suppose, even Putin, if you’re a conspiratorial sort.

As the protests grow, local cops and politicians, including Democrats, are going to be under increasing pressure to contain demonstrations to enable people to get to work, etc. It only takes a few agitators to turn a peaceful march into a riot. I know this first hand, as I was part of a demonstration of about 5,000 students protesting a speech by then HUD Secretary George Romney that suddenly turned ugly. Within a few minutes, some people in the crowd starting taunting the police and rushing the stage where Romney was speaking. A later investigation found that the people who rushed the stage were actually police agent provocateurs planted in the march. Waves of baton wielding cops moved on us from all sides. Tear gas canisters went flying. I got fairly badly tear gassed and retreated to a nearby classroom building to hide in a bathroom and wash my eyes, which is a different meaning for “sheltering” in place and a different meaning than today’s “safe space” advocates have in mind.

In a large march or demonstration, you’ll only see what happening immediately around you, and you can quickly get caught up in a riot without realizing that a riot is happening. Always be aware of your surroundings and who’s nearby.

Try to give yourself an escape route and be prepared to bolt. This is not the time for flip-flops and t-shirts. Wear running shoes, long pants, and a long sleeved shirt, since tear gas and CS gas (much stronger than tear gas and sometimes used by police), irritate the skin as well as the eyes. Carry a hanky and water bottle in case you need wash your eyes out if you get teargassed. Above all, resist the urge to get in the face of cops, throw projectiles or otherwise provoke police—they will use their batons to defend themselves and you might easily be handcuffed and carted off to jail.

Leave your babies, kids, and dogs at home. While pushing a stroller makes for great TV/Facebook/Instagram videos, kids and pets will be in extreme danger if a riot develops and you won’t be able to protect them.

The biggest danger is that counter-marchers will appear. So far, the Resistance marchers have had the field to themselves. Eventually, counter-marchers will start showing up. Over 60 million Americans voted for Trump and they also know how to use social media. Two opposing groups of peaceful demonstrators are not a problem, and police will usually try to keep them separated.

But just as there are anarchists aligned with the Resistance, some pro-Trumpsters may show up with ax handles and be intent on mayhem. Trump has fairly strong support among police unions, veterans, and bikers, for example, and these guys may show up ready to fight.

The police rank and file may also be more sympathetic to the counter-marchers than the Resistance and might just let the two groups tangle for a while. Or the police themselves can become the counter-marchers, like the Chicago Police Department at the Democratic Convention in 1968, which was later deemed a “police riot.” I don’t think any cops were disciplined, but hundreds of demonstrators were badly injured and the Chicago Seven faced years of litigation.

The free expression of political opinions is the bedrock of the American democracy and I’m all for showing opposition to the politics and politicians of the day. As the Rollings Stones said in “You Don’t Always Get What You Want,” “And I went down to the demonstration to get my fair share of abuse.” Don’t needlessly open yourself to abuse.


* I think conjuring up images of WW II France is overwrought, unless volunteers from Brooklyn and Santa Monica are going to parachute into coal country and disguise themselves by wearing red Make America Great hats, chewing tobacco, and driving Ford F-150s. If I were a community organizer on this project, I would use the term “Rebel Alliance” instead. The French Resistance were all white folk, while Star Wars goes for ethnic and inter-planetary species diversity.

Caught in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble

In a Tweet Benedict Evans mentions, “I’m always baffled when people are surprised by charts like this. What do people think the world was like 250 years ago? Isn’t this obvious?”

mortality-chart

I replied, “I teach undergrads; it isn’t obvious to most, and most either don’t think about it or rely on TV-based historical fiction,” but that’s too glib; the chart’s demonstration of growing wealth is obvious to people who’ve read a lot of history and who’re immersed in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble, but that’s a small part of the population. Most people don’t really, really think about or study history, and to the extent they think about it at all they rely on hazy, unsourced stereotypes.

I’ve read lots of student papers (and for that matter Internet comments) saying things like, “In the past, [claim here].” Some will even say, “In the old days…” In the margins I will write in reply, “Which years and geographic areas are you thinking about?” When I ask those kinds of questions in class students look at me strangely, like I’ve suddenly demanded they perform gymnastics.

The past really is a foreign country and unless someone has made the effort to learn about it directly, meta-learn how to learn, and learn how the people in a given time period likely thought, it can look like the present but with different clothes. That’s often how it’s presented in TV, movies, and pop fiction (see e.g. “Rules for Writing Neo-Victorian Novels“). To take one obvious example, characters in such TV shows and movies often have modern sexual and religious mores, ignoring that many of the sexual mores and rules of the last ~500 years of European and American history evolved because a) reliable contraception was unavailable or extremely limited, b) a child born to a single woman could end up killing both child and woman due to lack of money and/or food, and c) many STIs that are now treated with a quick antibiotic were death sentences.

In most countries today, people don’t worry about starving to death, so the kind of absolute poverty that’s stunningly declined in the last couple centuries takes a strong imaginative leap to inhabit. People also seem to experience hedonic adaptation, so the many things that make our lives easy and pleasant become invisible (that’s true of me too).

So the average person probably never thinks about what the world was like 250 years ago, and, if they do, they probably don’t have the baseline knowledge necessary to conceptualize and contextualize it properly. Those of us caught in the nerd-o-sphere and researcher bubble, like myself, do. Our sense of “obvious” shifts with the environment we inhabit and the education we’ve had (or the education we’re continuing all the time).

And about that education system. Years ago I used to read tech sites in which self-taught autodidacts would fulminate about the failures of the conventional school system and prophesize about how the liberation of information will remake the educational sector into a free intellectual utopia in which students would learn much faster and at their own pace, leading to peace, harmony, and knowledge; in this world, rather than being bludgeoned by teachers and professors, students would become self-motivated because they’d be unshackled from conventional curriculums. To some extent I believed those criticisms and prophecies. One day we would set students free and they’d joyously learn for the sake of learning.

Then I started teaching and discovered that the conventional school system exists to work on or with the vast majority of the population, which doesn’t give a fig about the joy of knowledge or intrinsic learning or whatever else Internet nerds and PhDs love. The self-taught autodidacts who wrote on Slashdot (back then) and Hacker News or Reddit or blogs today are a distinct minority and at most a couple percent of the total population. Often they were or are poorly served in some ways by the conventional education system, especially because they often have unusual ways of interacting socially.

Now, today, I’ve both taught regular, non-nerd students and read books like Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology, and I’ve realized why the education system has evolved the way it has. Most people, left to their own devices, don’t study poetry and math and so on. They watch videos on YouTube and TV and play videogames and chat with their friends. Those are all fine activities and I’ve of course done all of them, but the average person doesn’t much engage in systematic skill- and knowledge-building of the sort that dedicated study is (ideally) supposed to do.

In short, the nerds who want to reform the education system are very different than the average student the system is designed to serve, in a way similar to the way the average person in the nerd-o-sphere or researcher bubble is likely very different from the average person, who hardcore nerds may not know or interact with very much.

I’m very much in that nerd-o-sphere and if you’re reading this there’s a high probability you are too. And when I write about undergrads, remember that I’m writing about the top half of the population in terms of motivation, cognition, and tenacity.

“David Brooks and the Intellectual Collapse of the Center”

David Brooks and the Intellectual Collapse of the Center” is excellent. I may be a small part of that intellectual center, to the point of writing a presidential endorsement post in October—something I’ve never done before, because the climate has never seemed to merit it. But given the potential for catastrophe, it seemed necessary. Some readers have complained about the increasing amount of political content on The Story’s Story, but given the worldwide political darkness that has been descending it seems necessary to attempt to understand it. I would like to go back to mostly ignoring politics apart from straightforward analysis.

And the problem of false equivalence is real, as Chait makes clear at the link: “official centrists would simply relocate themselves to the midpoint of wherever the parties happened to stand.” Yet official centrists should do more than triangulate. They (or we) haven’t done that. They (or we) have also been somewhat asleep over the last six or so years.

I certainly have been and am now attempting to make up for that slumber, in part because I’ve been so wrong about what I thought was politically possible or feasible. Though I’ve read The Myth of the Rational Voter, I didn’t entirely internalize its lessons. Though I’ve read about the extent to which irrationality pervades most human cognition, I didn’t think that we’d become so wildly irrational on a large-scale, public basis. Though I understand that most people know little about history, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which “little” really means “nothing.”

But knowing and understanding things may not matter very much, since we may be living in a post-literate age and I’m writing material that may go largely unread, especially by the people who most need to understand what’s happening.

Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse

In a best-case Trump scenario, he bumbles around for four years doing not much except embarrassing himself and the country, but few substantive political changes actually occur; in the worst-case Trump scenario, however, Trump starts or provokes a nuclear war that either extinguishes the human race or at least wipes out the United States and one or more other countries. I still view the latter scenario as unlikely, but it’s far more likely than I would’ve judged it three weeks weeks ago, and when I’ve mentioned increasing fear of nuclear war I’ve gotten a weirdly large amount of pushback.

Most of that pushback seems like wishful thinking. To understand the danger, Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon is a good book about nuclear policy and history, but Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser is probably better for people who know little about the subject. Command and Control details the (scarily) short lines between the president and launching, or attempting to launch, nuclear weapons is appallingly short.

To understand why Trump is scary, it is necessary to understand two things: 1. That in theory the president is supposed to be able to order a nuclear launch anywhere, at any time, and have missiles in the air and 2. The way seemingly minor quarrels among countries have sometimes led to historically catastrophic outcomes.

Let us deal with the first point: while the president is supposed to be able to order an unprovoked nuclear attack at any time, there is at least some precedent for a gray area around nuclear weapons:

[I]n 1974, in the last days of the Watergate scandal, Mr. Nixon was drinking heavily and his aides saw what they feared was a growing emotional instability. His new secretary of defense, James R. Schlesinger, himself a hawkish Cold Warrior, instructed the military to divert any emergency orders — especially one involving nuclear weapons — to him or the secretary of state, Henry A. Kissinger.

It was a completely extralegal order, perhaps mutinous. But no one questioned it.

“Although Schlesinger’s order raised questions about who was actually in command,” Eric Schlosser writes in “Command and Control,” a 2013 book, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

This is at least somewhat heartening, as it implies that the generals in charge of executing nuclear launch commands simply will not do so unprovoked. The human nuclear bureaucracy and apparatus is itself hopefully not suicidal and homicidal. Still, that is a slender hope, as Alex Wellerstein describes in “The President and the bomb.”

To be sure, it’s also possible that Obama, Biden, and for that matter someone like Paul Ryan is having quiet conversations with the Secret Service and the military about what to do with a rogue nuclear launch order. Those quiet conversations might be arguably unconstitutional, but if the choice is between constitutionality and the death of everyone and everything, one should hope that the few people charged with mechanically carrying out orders will second-guess those orders.

Beyond that, the history of World War I should scare us. World War I was a catastrophe that killed tens of millions of people and it was a war that no one wanted. I doubt most people have the faintest idea how World War I got started, and if you want to annoy your friends try asking them. Hell, I’m not even sure I could give a good answer. Still, consider some background reading:

* This is Tobias Stone’s “History Tells Us What Will Happen Next With Brexit And Trump.”

* Here is one description of “How Trump Could Realistically Start a Nuclear War.”

* Here is “The real danger,” also about the possibility of direct, great power wars.

* At the same time, see “Commander-In-Chief Donald Trump Will Have Terrifying Powers. Thanks, Obama.” It can be fun to have secret, unchecked powers when your guy is in office, but is incredibly dangerous when the other guy does.

Almost everyone has forgotten about World War I, but in the short prelude to it people acted like it was normal. Check out the sleepwalking into war described in the Hardcore History podcast, around 1:38. In the horrible late July and early August of 1914, people went on holiday and shopkeepers assured their customers that nothing untoward would happen (One sees similar noises in the normalization of Trump). World trade had been expanding for decades; everyone “knew” that war would be suicidal; it seemed implausible that the death of a minor noble would lead to conflagration.

A similar set of circumstances could happen today. The flashpoint could be in the South China Sea, which is a disputed area. It could be the Baltic states. It could be Syria. It could be almost anywhere that the U.S. could pointlessly clash with China or Russia. Trump is obsessed with revenge and in a skirmish or dispute between U.S. forces and Chinese or Russian forces, which escalates rapidly in a tit-for-tat fashion.

Like this scenario: a Chinese ship fires on a U.S. ship in the South China Sea. The U.S. ship flees with a few causalities and Trump orders an attack on a Chinese ship in retaliation. The ship sinks, and China cannot possibly accept disrespect and in turn sinks a sub and imposes trade sanctions. The U.S. rallies to the flag and does the same. Eventually China uses a supercav missile to take out a U.S. carrier.

One could spin out an infinite number of scenarios like the above, which may develop very quickly, over the course of days or weeks. Tit-for-tat may be an attractive strategy for small bands of humans or proto-humans in hunter-gatherer or agricultural societies fighting each other. It could end the world in the nuclear age.

I’m not too worried about Trump and domestic policy. He is likely to do some bad and foolish things, but they are unlikely to be existential threats. I am worried about Trump and the end of the world.

Maybe nothing catastrophically bad will happen. I hope so and think that will be true. But to pretend he is a “normal” politician (or to vote for him) is to be willfully blind to history and to the man himself. In darker moments I wonder: maybe we don’t deserve democracy or freedom. Those who will not even vote for it—and half the potential electorate didn’t vote—don’t deserve it. Maybe institutions will resist Trump for the next four years, or resist his most militaristic and dangerous impulses. Maybe they won’t.

Again, I think the likely scenario is that Trump bumbles for four years and gets voted out of office. But nuclear war is a too-likely scenario and one that seems so far outside most people’s Overton window that they won’t even consider it, much as the total destruction that preceded World War I was inconceivably by any of the belligerents (had they realized it they would not have marched off to war, and many of the soliders themselves would have dramatically resisted conscription; they marched to their own deaths).

If you are not scared you’re not paying attention.

We are one black swan event from disaster. The last worldwide, negative black swan event was arguably World War II. Perhaps the 71 years separating us from then is long enough to have forgotten how bad bad really is.

I don’t expect this post to change any minds. All of the information in it was available three weeks ago and that didn’t change shit. This is a post based on logic and knowledge and logic and knowledge played little role in the election. Maybe, outside of elite spheres, it plays little role at all in human life. I only hope that the apocalyptic scenario doesn’t come to pass. If it does, “I told you so” will be no comfort, as it wasn’t in the aftermath of World War I. In that war the prophets and historians were ignored, as they were in the 2016 election. Let us pray that some of the prophets and historians are wrong.

The end of democracy?

It is scary to think that I may be watching the end of democracy in the United States, live.

At the very least this election demonstrates frightening weaknesses in the structure of the democracy itself. The Constitution may deserve less reverence than it is commonly accorded. And voters may be even less rational than even I thought. Brexit showed as much. Tonight may be worse, much worse, than that.

The education system—of which I am a small part—has also failed, at least in a mass sense. Maybe real education really isn’t plausible for the majority of people. A dark thought, but one that seems more plausible tonight than it was yesterday.

The number of people who really learn anything from history is small. We really art apt to repeat our past follies. We came through the darkness of the 1930s and 1940s only to flirt with a different form of it today.

Here is my maybe futile October 10 post, “Clinton or Johnson for president.”

EDIT: Here is Krugman asking, legitimately, whether we are a failed state.

Vote for Clinton or Johnson for president:

If polls are to be believed the presidential race was much closer than it should have been; they are widening now, but their previous narrowness is a travesty because Trump is unfit to be president. There are longer explanations as to why Trump is such a calamity and so unfit for office, like “SSC Endorses Clinton, Johnson, Or Stein” or many others, but perhaps the best thing I’ve read on Trump is “The question of what Donald Trump ‘really believes’ has no answer” (it came out before this weekend’s fiasco and I started this post before this weekend’s fiasco—I wish I’d posted this sooner). The “really believes” article is too detailed to be excerpted effectively but here is one key part:

When he utters words, his primary intent is not to say something, to describe a set of facts in the world; his primary intent is to do something, i.e., to position himself in a social hierarchy. This essential distinction explains why Trump has so flummoxed the media and its fact-checkers; it’s as though they are critiquing the color choices of someone who is colorblind.

Most of us are simultaneously trying to say something about the state of the world and trying to raise our place in it (or raise the place of our allies or lower the place of someone else). Particularly fact-based enterprises like science and engineering are notoriously averse to strongly positional-based enterprises like marketing and sales, where belief matters more than truth (or where belief is true, which is not true in engineering: It is not enough to believe that your bridge will remain standing). But Trump takes the basic way virtually all people signal their status to such an extreme that his speech and, it seems, mind are totally devoid of content altogether.

The number of people who would ordinarily be politically silent but who cannot be silent in the face of ineptness combined with cruelty is large. LeBron James endorses Clinton. Mathematician Terry Tao writes, “It ought to be common knowledge that Donald Trump is not fit for the presidency of the United States of America” (he’s right: it ought to be).

I’m not famous but will note that you should vote for Clinton or Johnson. This is not like any presidential election I’ve been alive for. The risks are real and the difference between Clinton and Trump is not one of policy. It is one of basic competence.

The situation is so bad that The Atlantic’s editors have endorsed Clinton—only the third time in the history of the magazine that it has endorsed a candidate for president (the other two were Lincoln and LBJ):

Donald Trump, on the other hand, has no record of public service and no qualifications for public office. His affect is that of an infomercial huckster; he traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself. He is easily goaded, a poor quality for someone seeking control of America’s nuclear arsenal. He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.

The reviewIn ‘Hitler,’ an Ascent From ‘Dunderhead’ to Demagogue” is only superficially writing about Germany from 1931 – 45. It is really a commentary on Trump, like notes about how “Hitler as a politician … rose to power through demagoguery, showmanship and nativist appeals to the masses.” That’s part of Trump’s appeal. Or it was part of Trump’s appeal. One hopes that appeal is fading. The distressing thing is watching people fall for it (or did until recently), or view Trump as a way to express other grievances.

We collectively must not be willfully blind and the United States is better than Trump.

It is impossible to be even slightly skilled at close reading and not perceive Trump’s many weaknesses as a speaker, thinker, or human. If nothing else this election may be a test of the United States’ education level and the quality of its educational system. In all the other elections I’ve lived through, major politicians have had strengths and weaknesses, but none have been outright demagogues or dangerous to the fabric of democracy itself. This election is different and that’s why I’m writing this. America is better than this.

I hope to never again endorse political candidates, but when the structure and stability of the country itself is at risk it is a mistake not to say something, somewhere, publicly. Writing this post is itself depressing.

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