On memories of the terror that was GamerGate, the current threat of fascism, and a backhanded defense of Cathy Young

Posted by Sappho on May 30th, 2021 filed in News and Commentary

Gamergate is what happened when the reactionary rejects of 4chan teamed up to be the personal army of an abuser and attack women who make and write about video games with a molecule-thin veneer of being a consumer movement for “free speech” and “ethics in video game journalism”. These are their stories.


Nearly seven years ago, in August 2014, Eron Gjoni’s post accusing game developer Zoe Quinn of infidelity got picked up by 4chan. The rest is history. It’s a history for which some will never forgive Cathy Young.

My own views of Cathy Young’s role in GamerGate are more nuanced, but I was reminded of that horror show last week, when my Twitter feed was suddenly filled with tweets regarding someone’s plan to have a podcast debate with Young about wokeness. Why are you mad at me, the podcaster was arguing. I’m on your side. I’m team woke.

Now, half of the “don’t run this podcast” argument was a half to which I could relate. I don’t think a “team woke”/”team anti-woke” podcast debate between Cathy Young and some random “team woke” guy is likely to be all that edifying. I’ll give it a pass. In fact, I’m not sure that any “team woke”/”team anti-woke” podcast debate is going to be a useful framing of the issues. But in the midst of the tweets, one of the critics managed: a) to call Cathy Young a fascist, b) to argue that punching Richard Spencer did more than anything to stop him, because c) the punk rock scene in the 90s proved that the only way to beat Nazis is to punch them. At which point I thought – wait a second there! You’re implying that Cathy Young should be, not just deplatformed, but punched. Cathy Young is not a fascist, and I don’t want her punched.

Somebody Is Wrong On the Internet. In this case, it’s a smalltime Twitter pseudonym about whom I know nothing. So why do I care? Because, though I don’t think Cathy Young is a fascist, the threat of fascism is now real, and there are paradox of tolerance issues raised by actual fascists, whether of the still not mainstream Richard Spencer variety, or of the sadly now approaching mainstream Big Lie Capitol insurrection honoring variety. There are lines that I want drawn against the Richard Spencers of this world, that exceed the lines that I want drawn for the Cathy Youngs of this world.

But let me first look back on GamerGate. I won’t try a timeline; others have done a better job than I can on that. I’ll just talk about what it was like to live through GamerGate as a woman in IT. A while back, Razib Khan tweeted something to the effect that, though he disagreed with some things on the right, he knew which side would be likely to string him up (in his case, the left). And it stuck in my mind, because it expressed so much my own feelings, but in the opposite direction. And GamerGate is the reason why. Not why I think violence and extremism on the right is currently a bigger danger than the same on the left, in the US – that’s a matter of tallying up incidents, like the Atomwaffen killing in my neighborhood, the shootings at the Tree of Life and Poway synagogues, the bomb packages sent to Soros et al, the attempt to kidnap the governor of Michigan, the assault on the Capitol. And I hope I’d be conscious of the threat even if I’d never felt under the gun myself. But GamerGate was when I saw the mob coming, specifically, for people like me. Other times, often really, Razib Khan has said that people in general are cowards. And in some ways I agree – isn’t that the lesson of the Milgram experiment? But GamerGate was when I was a coward, when I encountered something that scared me too much for me to dare type the name in public.

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And should I not have pity on Nineveh

Posted by Sappho on April 18th, 2021 filed in Bible study, Memory, Theology

“Every year, he preaches the same sermon about Jonah,” Heidi confided in me, after the Yom Kippur service at Temple Beth-El. But the sermon that was old hat to Heidi was brand new to me.

There’s an old trope among Christians, where Christianity is the faith of mercy, and Judaism the faith of harsh justice. You can hear that trope in Portia’s speech, in The Merchant of Venice, as she explains to Shylock, the most sympathetic of Shakespeare’s villains, but still a villain, that “the quality of mercy is not strained.” You can hear it among modern, liberal Christians, Christians who never think what they are saying about Judaism, when they accuse more fundamentalist Christians of preferring the Old Testament God to the more merciful New Testament God.

It’s ironic, then, that it was not at any Christian church, but at Temple Beth-El, that I learned that the book of Jonah is a story of God’s mercy and forgiveness.

It’s not that St. Mark’s worshiped an unforgiving God. Certainly I heard enough about forgiveness, at one time or another, at St. Mark’s. But not from the book of Jonah. The book of Jonah that I knew was the one described in the Porgy and Bess song, “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Jonah he lived in a whale

He made his home in that fishes abdomen

Jonah he lived in a whale

What Jonah did when he got out of that whale, I had somehow failed to learn. And yet, what Jonah did when he got out of the whale is, it turns out, the whole point of the book of Jonah. Jonah was running from God, and wound up in his fishy predicament, because he didn’t want to preach to Nineveh and have them repent. He didn’t want God to take pity on Nineveh. Picture Jonah on Twitter, cutting off his nose to spite his face, as long as he can own the people of Nineveh. It was God who had to tell Jonah, “and should not I have pity on Nineveh, that great city, wherein are more than six score thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, and also much cattle?”

The collection that Christians call the Old Testament, and Jews the Tanakh, is a more complex collection than stories of New Testament mercy make it out to be.

And so I sat, in Temple Beth-El, on Yom Kippur, having fasted all day in sympathy with Heidi, and got a lesson about mercy.

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And His Banner Over Me Was Love

Posted by Sappho on April 3rd, 2021 filed in Memory, Worship

“Where There Is No Vision the People Perish”: The sign hung over the door where we exited the nave of St. Mark’s church on our way to Sunday school or to the parish hall where refreshments were served. The words haunted my childhood. What was vision? How could I have it? How could I lack it?

Simpler, to a child’s eye, were the words over the altar: “And His Banner Over Me Was Love.” God was love and that was all there was to it.

On the way to the altar, you passed, on your right, the baptismal font, with a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus. Then you went through a carved wooden arch, with Jesus on the cross its centerpiece. Then the choir, to your right and to your left, and then the altar rail, where you knelt. There, if you were a small child, the priest would bless you, making the sign of the cross. There, if you were older, you would hold out your hands to receive the Host.

I was, by instinct, a High Church child. If the priest said that I was receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, then in some mysterious way I was. If some bent the knee when passing the little altar to the left of the communion rail (the Episcopalian half genuflection where you slightly bend the knee, not the Roman Catholic version where you bring a full knee to the ground) and others did not, I would bend the knee.

The little altar to the left wasn’t to be confused with the altar where the priest laid out and blessed the bread and wine. It stood just past the organ, which was also to the left of the Communion rail, where we often lingered after the service to hear the closing music, before making our way to the parish hall. Why I curtsied when I passed this particular small altar, I had no idea. But I wasn’t about to omit any ritual. Not in that church grand with stained glass windows and statues and the rich strains of organ music.

That ritual satisfied, we made our way to the parish hall, where my focus shifted to how many sugar cubes I could grab from the adult refreshment table, where the bowls of cubes sat ready to flavor bitter coffee. My mother drank her coffee black, without sugar. I liked my sugar plain, without coffee, thank you very much.

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Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine, Vaccine!

Posted by Sappho on February 28th, 2021 filed in Daily Life, Vaccinations

There has been a lot of talk about all of the things we still shouldn’t do, once we get that jab. And there are reasons for these cautions.

First, we don’t know how far the immunity conferred by the vaccination (which was measured in the Phase 3 trials) translates into preventing us from transmitting the virus to others. It would be extremely surprising if people vaccinated against COVID weren’t also less likely to transmit the virus – their viral load, even if they do carry the virus, has to be much lower. But, remember the articles about how the single shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine (which just yesterday received its emergency use authorization) provides 66% protection against symptomatic COVID, but 85% protection against being hospitalized for COVID (and so far 100% protection against dying of COVID)? It’s possible that, for all of the vaccines, X% effective against getting COVID is less than X% effective against carrying COVID.

And that might not matter much, if a large majority of people are vaccinated, because less than X% effective still adds up in a crowd where most people have gotten the vaccine. But while vaccinated people are few and COVID numbers are high, perhaps the odds of transmitting the illness aren’t negligible enough that you can throw caution to the winds.

Second, it’s not really feasible at this time to make distinctions between the minority who are vaccinated and the large majority who aren’t in public places like grocery stores. So the rule has to be, everyone wear a mask, because most people could be carrying COVID.

Still, with all this caution, here are the things that I look forward to doing, once my husband and I have both been vaccinated (in my case, this may either mean that I find out, when unblinded, that I really did get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the trial, or it may mean that, after being unblinded and finding out that I got the placebo, I get vaccinated):

I will get my hair cut.

I will make an appointment with the dentist (I know, not fun in itself, but it will be good to get a permanent crown to replace the temporary one that I’ve been trying to live with for the past year).

I will no longer wear a mask when outdoors and walking uphill. I realize I’m one of the few people who does this, but with a high risk husband I have felt obliged. No more!

I will go and visit friends who are also vaccinated, and feel free to take my mask off in their houses.

I’ll go to the store (still masked) to buy things that aren’t absolutely essential. New hiking boots!

Most of all, once I and my husband and my mother are all fully vaccinated, I can take that long postponed trip to Maine (masked on the way, of course) to see my mother. I’m looking forward to it.

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Reflections on Violence

Posted by Sappho on February 15th, 2021 filed in Peace Testimony

“We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretence whatsoever; and this is our testimony to the whole world. The spirit of Christ, by which we are guided, is not changeable, so as once to command us from a thing as evil and again to move unto it; and we do certainly know, and so testify to the world, that the spirit of Christ, which leads us into all Truth, will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world.”

Declaration of Friends to Charles II, 1660

Why write about violence at all, when I already have this wonderful peace testimony, which has stood for four centuries, for Friends?

I write because I find that I am frequently asked, when I comment on politics: Why are you raising your voice about this violence, but not about that violence?

The world is full of violence, of one kind or another. None of us can act upon all of it. And even if I have also protested the other incident named, maybe I raised my voice about this one ten times, and the other only once? Or maybe I was louder about this one than about that one?

So let me talk about some of the questions that, for me, determine when I am going to “hammer out danger, hammer out warning” and when I’m going to pass on speaking out, this time, because there’s only so much I can talk about and right now I have other things to do.

The first set of questions concern harm/gravity:

Is there any mechanism that assures me that there’s going to be accountability for the person who has done the bad deed? If so, maybe I can leave well enough alone and let that mechanism do its work. If not, or if I’m not sure that mechanism is actually going to be used, maybe it’s time for me to speak out. Obviously, I have less reason to speak out about even a gravely violent act, if it appears to have been committed by someone who was immediately arrested and is going to trial, than if we’re talking about violent acts committed by a group of people whom I fear may get off scot free without even an attempt to hold them accountable.

Is the harm likely to be ongoing? Are there, for example, a whole group of people organizing a particular type of violence, while others are downplaying the threat?

How directly harmful are the acts? There has been a lot of argument, since last year, about whether destruction of property is violence. Can we agree that attacks on people are worse than attacks on property, that some kinds of attacks on property reasonably put people in fear of their safety while others (e.g. pulling down Confederate statues) don’t, and that there are some circumstances where even speech may raise a predictable and immanent threat of inciting violence while there are other cases where speech, however fiery and insulting and offensive, doesn’t actually raise much immanent risk of inciting someone to cause harm?

The second set of questions concern mitigation:

Let me start with a quote from Shepherd Book in Firefly: “The Bible says nothing about kneecapping.” Book is a pacifist, within certain bounds – he won’t kill, but he will definitely use severe force short of killing. You may not share Book’s idea about where to draw the line. But if you don’t have some place where you draw the line, at what violence is acceptable, you scare me. So my first question, when I’m asking about mitigation, is whether we’re talking about an act that can really be mitigated much. Breaking windows is, yes, wrong, and no, not something I’m going to defend as a positive good. But it’s obviously a less harmful act than, say, planting bombs at the Boston Marathon, and I’m more likely to look at circumstances that might mitigate my judgment of the person who is breaking windows than I would for the person who is planting bombs.

Second, what’s your cause? My point isn’t that a good cause justifies absolutely anything that you might do for it – I’m committed to abjuring fighting with outward weapons, as Friends have done since the seventeenth century! But a bad cause justifies nothing that you might do for it. Obviously all of us judge more gently people who do sufficiently mildly bad things for a sufficiently good cause than people who do even those same relatively mild bad things for a bad cause. Even so mild a harm of graffiti, if it’s graffiti on behalf of doing harm, is wrong. Here, too, one needs to consider proportionality. Did someone insult you? That’s not mitigation for violence – we all learned when young to “use your words.” If someone’s endangering your life, well, I have more sympathy.

Third, what alternatives did you have? There has been a lot of fuss about pulling down statues – and I even have some sympathy, if we’re talking about crowds who are willy nilly pulling down random statues when they could have made their case for removal to a city council. I have far less sympathy, if the same people objecting to pulling down statues are in favor of state laws preventing cities from removing those statues, and of crowds coming into a city from elsewhere to protest a local decision to remove a statue (even had the crowds not been chanting “Jews will not replace us” and if no one had been run over). Conversely, if you’re defending someone who actually killed a human being, did that person have other options such as leaving the scene or not showing up with weapons to begin with? Or are you talking about someone who was truly jumped on without provocation and defending his or her life?

Finally, there are the considerations that reflect how particularly something is my business:

Am I sure I know what’s going on? If not, maybe I should be sure, before I speak.

How effectively can I respond? I may speak, even if I don’t expect to have an impact. But I’m allowed to speak more often about things where I expect my voice to count – that’s one reason that most of us, reasonably, raise our voices more when we see injustice in our own country than when we see similar injustice in some other country.

If I don’t do anything, who will? Related is Hillel’s famous saying, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” – I’m entitled to speak with particular force about things that threaten my own safety, or that of my family, or others who are dear to me. But I must remember the full saying:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being only for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”


If I devote myself to other pursuits and contemplations, I must first see, at least, that I do not pursue them sitting upon another man’s shoulders.

Henry David Thoreau

Is an injustice being done on my behalf, to a degree that, by being silent, I’d be sitting on someone else’s shoulders?

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What Rough Beast

Posted by Sappho on January 31st, 2021 filed in News and Commentary, Quotes

The birth of Christianity is a versatile metaphor, one that can be drawn on to tell divergent stories.

There’s Cavafy, in Julian and the Antiochans, giving us the point of view of Christians reluctant to accept Emperor Julian’s return to paganism, for reasons that flip our expectations of Christians and pagans:

How could they ever give up
their beautiful way of life, the range
of their daily pleasures, their brilliant theatre
which consummated a union between Art
and the erotic proclivities of the flesh?

There’s Yeats, in The Second Coming, a poem whose mood is rooted not only in the Irish War of Independence, but also in the aftermath of World War I and of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic:

The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

And, just this week, there’s Kerry Howley, reflecting on the “bright rise of belief” in QAnon and the “unrestrained joy” of the assault on the Capitol:

By springtime, half a million Americans will be dead. It doesn’t matter whether the prophecy is right or the prophecy is wrong. In the negative space around the bright rise of belief, the rest of us argue using words that no longer work. Do you even know how to frame the question? Surrounding the birth of every new theology, forgotten or ridiculed, are the people who watched their neighbors come apart from the world. Dark to Light. We are the dark. It’s stifling in here, and full of fear.

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A Quote from Martin Buber’s _I And Thou_

Posted by Sappho on January 14th, 2021 filed in Books, Quotes

I know nothing of a ‘world’ and a ‘life in the world’ that might separate a man from God. What is thus described is actually life with an alienated world of It, which experiences and uses. He who truly goes out to meet the world goes out also to God. Concentration and outgoing are necessary, both in truth, at once the one and the other, which is the One.

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A quote from G K Chesterton on democracy

Posted by Sappho on January 3rd, 2021 filed in Uncategorized

“This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly.”

G. K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy

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Land of the Pilgrim’s Pride: On Genealogy, Truth, Mistakes, and Legend

Posted by Sappho on November 27th, 2020 filed in Genealogy

I think of Thanksgiving as a general purpose harvest festival of gratitude, and ignore the part of the holiday that’s tied to stories of Pilgrims, Wampanoag, and the First Thanksgiving. True, I remember the Pilgrim Thanksgiving story from grade school, and I’m also aware, from my adult life, that many Native Americans see the story differently. But that story has never had much place in my lived celebrations.

What genealogy sites have to offer on holidays, though, is lineage, and on this Thanksgiving, on this 400 year anniversary of the Mayflower voyage, genealogy sites have a lot of Mayflower information to offer.

Sorting out real and imagined ancestors, though, can be tricky. So let’s look at a few of the ancestors that I may find, depending on which tree I consult, who might have been present at the legendary First Thanksgiving.

Iyannough is a real historical figure:

  • sachem of the Mattakeese, a sub-group of the Wampanoag people.
  • received the Pilgrims with courtesy.
  • assisted William Bradford and his party in finding the son of John Billington, who had wandered away from Plymouth in January 1621.
  • died in 1623, when only in his mid-twenties, hiding in a swamp from the colonists, after a surprise attack by the Pilgrims on the Massachusett tribe caused many in the region to be fearful of the colonists.

My descent from Iyannough, though, proved legendary. When I first learned of Mary Little Dove, the supposed granddaughter of Iyannough, wife of Austin Bearse, and ancestor of the Merchant family that moved from Barnstable to Washington County, New York, from which I am descended, I thought the details of her story fanciful, but still possibly a white person’s imagined version of a real Wampanoag ancestor. After looking into the matter, I have concluded that I am not descended from any Mary Little Dove. Here’s why:

  • My family’s DNA segments that are identified by 23andMe as Native American triangulate with DNA cousins who come from the Charlesvoix/Saguenay du Lac region of Quebec, not with New England colonial DNA cousins from Massachusetts.
  • The Bearse DNA project on FamilyTreeDNA has not, so far, turned up evidence that Mary Bearse was Native American.
  • The general consensus on Wikitree is that the critiques of the Mary Little Dove story make the better case, and Mary Little Dove’s profile there is annotated as legendary, with notes not to link her to the actual Bearse family tree.

Richard Warren is also a real historical figure:

  • according to his Mayflower record, a merchant from London
  • came over initially without his family, who arrived later
  • one of the forty-one adult-male signatories to the Mayflower Compact

My descent from Richard Warren is: Lucy Brigham (wife of Jared Beckwith)->Lydia Howe->Lydia Church->Jonathan Church->Isaac Church->Caleb Church->Elizabeth Warren->Richard Warren. Or is it? Some Ancestry trees give the parents of Lydia Church as Jonathan Church and Thankful Bullard. Wikitree says Noah Church and Lydia Barnard. Noah Church is the son of David Church and Mary Howe. Jonathan Church is the son of Isaac Church and Mary Hutchins. Isaac Church is the son of Caleb Church, but David Church’s parents are unknown, and with good reason, as there turn out to be multiple David Church’s in the same colonial time period.

My notes about Lydia Church say, “Not sure about this ancestor: Other family trees on Ancestry.com have her simultaneously married both to Adonijah Howe and to Samuel Morse, both of whom are alive at the time. And I don’t really have any documentation for her beyond these contradictory family trees. May have to remove her and the rest of her family from my tree later, if she doesn’t pan out.”

It appears that our genealogy is not well established enough for us to know whether we are really descended from Mayflower passenger Richard Warren or not, and it would take time to look at the paper trail to judge whose genealogy is correct.

Finally, Giles Hopkins is a real historical figure:

  • son of Stephen Hopkins
  • arrived on the Mayflower as a teenager
  • father Stephen Hopkins was one of the 41 signatories of the Mayflower Compact
  • volunteered for service in the 1637 Pequot War but was not called
  • buried in Cove Burying Ground, Eastham

Giles Hopkins was the inspiration for this blog post, as I recently received an email identifying him as my Mayflower ancestor. My descent from Giles Hopkins is: Flora Minerva Hawley->Deborah Aurelia Warner->Benjamin Ruggles Warner->Mary Ruggles->Alice Merrick->Nathaniel Merrick->Abigail Hopkins->Giles Hopkins + Catherine Weldon. But does this genealogy hold up? Like the genealogy that connects me to Richard Warren, this tree has a weak link. In this case, it’s the link between Mary Ruggles and Alice Merrick. Different trees disagree on who was the mother of Mary Ruggles. Who’s right? I would need to go through the documentary evidence to know, and might even then find out that it’s unclear.

In some ways, Mayflower descent is the easiest seventeenth genealogy puzzle that you can imagine: Detailed records are preserved, from the moment the Mayflower arrived on our shores, of practically every settler in colonial New England. But even there, it’s possible to be mistaken, due to the existence of multiple people with the same name, and possible wishful thinking among people constructing trees. The case gets harder if you’re looking at, for example, Wampanoag ancestry, and don’t have a lived connection to the Wampanoag to keep family memory alive.

It’s possible that I had at least one ancestor in Plymouth in 1621. It’s also possible that I didn’t. I may never know which is the case. For now, I’m pursuing other ancestral brick walls, so let this post be simply a record of uncertainty.

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Of Public Figures and Shame

Posted by Sappho on November 27th, 2020 filed in News and Commentary

I get why people want to shame Trump for physical frailty: he gives the impression of being a man who can’t be shamed by being called out as cruel, but who will be hurt by being seen as weak. But the point of shaming public figures isn’t, particularly, to hurt them.

Rather, the point of shaming public figures is: to shame them out of doing bad and harmful things, if you can, and, if they can’t be shamed on that point, to make a point to the world at large about what’s shameful.

Cruelty is shameful. Self-serving, in a position where you’re obliged to serve the community as a whole, is shameful. Lying is shameful, and lies that are defamatory of others are particularly shameful.

Frailties that will come to many of us as we age are not shameful.

Trump has lost the election, and we’ll have a new and better President in two months. If you want to mock him for his difficulty acknowledging that loss, while failing to produce any evidence of fraud in court cases that, last I checked, were running 38-1 against him, go for it. But please, if you’re going to shame him, shame him only for behavior that’s actually shameful, not physical traits and ailments that are shared by many.

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Probable Cause

Posted by Sappho on November 12th, 2020 filed in News and Commentary

Suppose the police come to your house to question you. It’s quickly apparent that they suspect you of sexual assault. You say “Lawyer,” and refuse to answer any more questions. Does your reticence in cooperating with the police investigation mean that you are guilty?

Suppose some anonymous troll on the Internet accuses you of molesting children. Another anonymous troll suggests that the local DA should impanel a grand jury to investigate. If you don’t want that grand jury impaneled, does that suggest that you know at heart that you are guilty, because a truly innocent person would want to be investigated and cleared.

On the other hand, suppose you report to the police that you have been sexually assaulted. Should police not even investigate your report unless you can prove beyond reasonable doubt, right from the start and without any assistance, that you were indeed sexually assaulted?

A common mental trick is to shift the standard that should be applied to open an investigation, depending on whether you like or mistrust the person who would be investigated, whether you’re a fan of the person making the accusation or of the person accused, and what would be convenient for you to believe. And we can’t, any of us, guarantee that we’re immune to such bias. But we can at least take this as a starting point:

Being investigated has a cost. Guilty people don’t want to be investigated, but neither do innocent people. Before anyone is investigated, there should be at least some evidence that there’s cause for investigation (that could include even one witness, whether victim or bystander – but not if you quickly discover contrary evidence such as multiple witnesses saying otherwise or the accused being hundreds of miles away). At the same time, nothing can be proven until it’s investigated, so “beyond reasonable doubt” can’t be the standard for anyone bringing forth an allegation to be investigated. Sometimes you have to emphasize one of these points, sometimes another, depending on which error someone is making.

This standard applies whatever the substance of the allegation someone wants investigated. Investigations should surely not require proof, but should still require evidence, not just bald assertions.

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All Votes Count

Posted by Sappho on November 10th, 2020 filed in Election 2020

There are many important political issues ahead of us. I look forward to holding Biden accountable on some of them, when, as happens with all Presidents, he proves to be wrong. For now, though, the critical issue is this: that the candidate who won the election, decisively, by a 4.6 million lead in the popular vote, and by a large enough margin in the electoral college that we’d need to see more than one state shown to be off in its count by double digit thousands of votes for this electoral college result to change, be the candidate to take office. The millions of people who voted, fairly and according to the rules, for Biden, and whose votes were counted and found to be proper and legal votes while representatives of both parties got to observe the count, deserve to have their choice respected. Those who don’t like it can grump about their loss, as can Trump himself, and you can by all means, as we did when Trump was elected, organize protests when Biden issues executive orders that you don’t like. But a vote is a vote, our votes get to count just as much as yours do, and elections have consequences.

I get that people are confused on this point because they trust Trump, and Trump and his surrogates are screaming fraud. But the evidence for fraud is lacking. Let me look at the arguments:

1) Why did many down ballot Republicans do better than Trump? Because people *split tickets*. I’ve split tickets, myself, in the past. Some people like a lot of Republican policies but don’t like Trump’s character. Some people think that Trump has done a lousy job as President, but have enough disagreements with Democratic policies that they prefer divided government. Some people like their particular Representative or Senator.

2) Why has it taken so long to count?

a) It always takes a long time to count. That’s why the electoral college certifies the election in December, in case we don’t know the winner in November. It’s just that usually we know the winner even though votes are outstanding.

b) This year we had an unusually large turnout.

c) This year an unusually large number of people in many states chose to request absentee ballots, due to COVID.

d) This year, there was an unusually strong partisan skew in who voted in person and who voted by mail (no surprise, given the different messages going out about absentee ballots in the two parties). I’m old enough to remember when absentee ballots skewed Republican; clearly that wasn’t the case this time.

3) What about recounts? Well, Trump is absolutely entitled to recounts for those states that are within recount margins. It’s just that, at this time, it’s mathematically impossible for a recount in Georgia to swing the election to Trump.

4) “But there’s a difference between traditional absentee ballots and universal mail-in ballots.”

a) A couple of states (I think Oregon and Washington are among them) have done universal vote by mail for multiple elections now, and we do not have more vote fraud observed in those states than in states that require mail in ballots to be requested.

b) In any case, the only one of the swing states that automatically mailed out ballots to all voters was Nevada. Even if that act somehow caused double digit thousands of cases of voter fraud in Nevada, enough to swing the state to Trump, Trump still loses.

5) But what about Pennsylvania’s decision to allow ballots postmarked by election day to be received after election day? Doesn’t matter. Pennsylvania sequestered those ballots, so when AP news called the state for Biden, because his lead had crossed the threshold that would mean no automatic recount, none of the late arriving mail in ballots had been counted.

6) “But election officials wouldn’t let Trump supporters in to observe the count!”

a) Not true. At every ballot counting site, an equal set of observers from each side were admitted and allowed to observe. Some Trump supporters staged protests where they showed up and tried to be admitted as additional observers, and were not allowed in because doing so would have meant that the Trump side had *more* observers than the Biden side, and would also have crowded sites that were trying to space people out in a pandemic.

b) Reporters also observed, and the sites had cameras (the Philadelphia site is said to have had “more cameras than a casino”).

7) What’s the harm of allowing Trump his court appeals? Sure, Trump should get any recount to which he is entitled (if a state is within the recount margin a recount should go ahead), and both sides should have (and do have) an equal opportunity to offer grounds to challenge ballots. But there *is* harm in taking seriously accusations of widespread vote fraud when evidence of such has not been presented.

a) “When the 9/11 Commission did their autopsy on what went wrong, one of the things they pointed to was the slow pace of the Bush administration getting our national security team in place. And they said it impaired our ability to react.” (https://www.npr.org/…/what-role-does-federal-agency…) It’s important to get the transition process going when it’s exceedingly unlikely that the result will change.

b) Some of the people who are being convinced, falsely, that the election is being stolen, are dangerous and violent. We already had a thwarted plot to attack the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. This is a horrible thing to do to people trying to do an honest (and not especially well paid) job, performing the important civic function of counting our votes. They deserve better.

And the majority of us who voted for Biden deserve to have our votes honored, as those who voted for other presidents have had their votes honored in the past.

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Posted by Sappho on October 31st, 2020 filed in Election 2020, News and Commentary

Let me look at a few dictionary definitions, supplied by Google as coming from Oxford Languages:

manly – having or denoting those good qualities traditionally associated with men, such as courage and strength. “looking manly and capable in his tennis whites”

masculine – having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men. “he is outstandingly handsome and robust, very masculine”

There’s a reason that we talk about “toxic masculinity” and not about “toxic manliness” – the word “masculine” doesn’t inherently include any suggestion that a thing is good or bad, just that it’s a thing associated with men. So you can have positive masculinity – good and useful qualities that are traditionally associated with men, such as courage. You can have neutral masculinity – things with no particular moral weight that are traditionally associated with men, such as beards. But you can also have “toxic masculinity” – bad and hurtful things that are traditionally associated with men, such as excessive aggression, contempt for weakness, etc.

But I mean to post, not about the toxic variety of masculinity, but about manliness. Really, any ethical virtue may be possessed both by men and by women. So you can be a strong and brave and tough woman. But if we’re talking about good qualities traditionally associated with men, what makes these qualities both good and traditionally associated with men?

Isn’t it the central component of manliness “strength used in ways that protect the weak”? Because, though any given man may or may not be braver than any given woman, on average a man is larger and has more upper body strength than a woman. A manly man, then, is one who uses whatever strength and power he has in ways that protect and care for those who have less strength and power, and a not so manly man is one who uses his strength (physical strength) or power (social position and wealth) in less protective ways – one who is a bully, or one who is selfish, or one who skips out when there is trouble and leaves others to clean up his messes.

If manliness makes any sense at all as a moral quality that we ascribe to men, it has to mean that. Not who blusters the most about his own strength.

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The Good Dad

Posted by Sappho on October 24th, 2020 filed in Election 2020

I saw the headline as I was scrolling on Twitter this morning, “Vote for the Good Dad this November,” with the tagline “It’s clear between Trump and Biden who is better.” And, as it is indeed clear, between Trump and Biden, who is the more fatherly figure, I clicked through, to get the mood boost of seeing a writer in The American Conservative endorsing Biden.

It’s not that I exactly agree that you should always vote for the leader who’s the best father. I voted, in the primary, for Elizabeth Warren, who, whatever her other merits, is not a better father than Biden. This morning, I phone banked for Katie Porter, a wonderful Representative who holds government and business officials alike accountable with her whiteboard, but clearly not a father.

And it’s important, up and down the ballot, to support candidates who can deliver for their constituents, fathers or not. As Katie Porter pointed out, when she gave us our GOTV pep talk this morning, local officials here in Orange County have done useful things with the COVID stimulus money that Congress voted for them:

  • Irvine gave rental assistance program for people whose hours have been cut.
  • Lake Forest helped business owners with expenses to keep their business going.
  • Orange County has put a ton of money into food assistance.
  • Down ballot races determine who’s on the ground to fight the pandemic and whether they’re doing a science first job

Still, the top of the ballot is also important, and on my November ballot for President, I got to choose between two men. Character matters in a President, and when I voted, I did indeed vote for the good Dad:

  • I voted for Biden, the empathetic guy who, like a good Dad, shared how he had overcome his own struggles with stuttering to help Brayden Harrington with his stuttering. Not for Trump, who, like a lousy Dad, mocks disabilities.
  • I voted for Biden, who, like a good Dad who doesn’t play favorites, promises to be POTUS for red and blue states alike. Not for Trump, who, like a lousy Dad who does play favorites, didn’t care about COVID as long as it was happening to blue states, and wanted to play the “I would like a favor though” game by suggesting that blue state governors owed him something in return for COVID aid.
  • I voted for Biden, the Dad who has faced unimaginable grief and still been there for the kids and grandkids that he has left.
  • I voted for Biden, who has shown that as POTUS he would, like a good Dad, act when America is threatened (already in his January COVID editorial on top of what needed to be done, prior experience with competence during the Ebola and swine flu epidemics), and not for Trump, who, after a half-assed shutdown of travel with China, was otherwise absent in responding to shortages of testing and PPEs, while our death toll mounted. And who still serves up happy talk in place of policy.
  • I voted for the engaged and empathetic and protective Dad, Biden, not the alternately absent and abusive Dad, Trump.

So I clicked through, looking for an endorsement, by a writer in the American Conservative, of the obvious good Dad, Biden.

No, wait, what? I clicked through to an article endorsing Trump as the fatherly candidate. On the basis of his COVID response. So much for turning doomscrolling to hopescrolling. This is a Mirror Universe view of what a good father does.

The writer applauds Trump’s photo op tearing off his mask, and his happy talk about COVID, because, hey, a good father encourages his children to take risks. And indeed he does – as my father and grandfather did when they encouraged me to work for a startup. A good Dad supports his children in taking risks for worthwhile reasons, as my Dad did when I followed my husband into a war zone to report back on what was happening there and what peace groups and relief workers needed.

But a good Dad sure as hell doesn’t encourage his kids to take pointless, reckless risks. He doesn’t encourage his daughter to get pregnant before she has the support she needs to care for her child. He doesn’t encourage his children to drive drunk and without seatbelts.

Modeling rejection of masks – the easiest and least intrusive of effective countermeasures to the disease that’s now the third leading cause of death in the US, isn’t being the good loving Dad who encourages his daughter to stretch her wings and take the risk of working for a startup. It’s being the Dad who encourages his kids to drive drunk and without seatbelts. And Trump, by resisting all countermeasures to COVID, save that one China border closing that forty other countries were doing at the same time – by being the “open everything up right away without masks or adequate testing or sufficient effort to help states who are short on PPE” POTUS, the “some day soon it will magically go away” POTUS, is being the Dad who encourages his kids to drive drunk and without seatbelts, in a car he didn’t bother to repair.

Vote, yes, for the good Dad this time. Vote for Biden.

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“Good genes”

Posted by Sappho on October 16th, 2020 filed in DNA

We all have good genes. We all have bad genes. How do I know? Because we all have many genes, and at least some of them are bound, in some environment, to have effects that we like, while at least some are bound, in some environment, to have effects that we don’t like. In some cases, the same genes that are “good” in one environment are “bad” in another environment. Or perhaps we only know of “bad” effects for a particular variant, but may never encounter the environment in which that variant is “bad.”

Given that I’m not dead yet, I can tell that at least some of my genes are good enough at their job to take me this far. Given that you’re still alive to read this, so are at least some of yours.

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When our understanding of reality is incorrect

Posted by Sappho on September 24th, 2020 filed in Books, Quotes

Furthermore, telemetry is what enables us to assemble our best understanding of reality and detect when our understanding of reality is incorrect.

The DevOps Handbook, Chapter 14

This quote from the DevOps Handbook comes from a chapter about how telemetry and information radiators can be used to find and fix problems quickly. But the words “when our understanding or reality is incorrect” caught my eye, because they raise broader questions:

How do you make sure you detect when your understanding of reality is incorrect?

How do you keep yourself honest and make sure you want to detect when your understanding of reality is incorrect, rather than just wanting to be proven right?

Are there any information sources that you find particularly useful, in terms of correcting you on those occasions where your understanding or reality is incorrect?

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Our nemesis

Posted by Sappho on August 16th, 2020 filed in Books, Quotes

We carry our nemesis within us: yesterday’s self-admiration is the legitimate father of today’s feeling of guilt.

Markings, by Dag Hammarskjold

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On replacing Confederate statues with Dolly Parton, firing Colin Kaepernick, and criticizing Charles Murray

Posted by Sappho on July 11th, 2020 filed in News and Commentary, Race

Every so often, we’ll get a wave of discussion of something that’s stirring on the left. That something has various names: political correctness, Social Justice Warriors, a decline in civility, or cancel culture. The name doesn’t so much matter, as the fact that it will include two things:

1) Usually, built into the name is an assumption that this is a phenomenon of the left. We could, in theory, talk about an “illiberal left,” an “illiberal right,” and even, perhaps, an “illiberal center,” separating the word that describes the behavior that’s troubling from the place on the political spectrum of the person engaging in the behavior. But in practice, we don’t. If boycotting is part of “cancel culture,” then boycotting Goya Foods is “cancel culture,” but boycotting The Chicks isn’t. Even words like “civility,” in principle a neutral word, get used differently as applied to different points on the political spectrum. “Civility” that’s desired by people on the left is “political correctness.”

2) Lots of things are lumped together in a single word. Some of the people complaining may be concerned about one of these things. Some may be concerned about another. And the people who read them and make judgments on what they say may make different inferences about which of those things they mean. It would be better if we addressed specifically, and separately, issues that are specific and separate.

For example:

When and how should we remove statues from the public square? Which ones should be removed?

We all agree that it’s sometimes OK to remove statues – does anyone really want to condemn the people who removed statues of Lenin across Eastern Europe when the Iron Curtain fell? Call that statue removal erasure of history or somehow the equivalent of 1984? And we all have some monuments that we don’t want removed or damaged. For me, Confederate monuments can’t go away fast enough, and a statue of Frederick Douglas, or the monument to Emmett Till that gets frequently defaced by white supremacists, are high on my list of monuments that I don’t want touched.

And, finally, we have ideas about the process by which monuments should be removed – I say by local decision, and that neither state legislatures restricting the actions of cities nor mobs pouring into a community from outside, as in Charlottesville, to protest a local decision, should have a say.

And how alarmed should we be if people damage monuments without due process? (I say “not very alarmed,” as we already have local laws and authorities to deal with vandalism, and statue vandalism is far less likely to escalate into violence against people than, say, freelance vandalism of small stores operated by innocent bystanders, or of local churches.)

When should we try to get people fired? When should we be concerned about people getting fired for something that becomes public? This is an entirely different issue from what to do with statues. One may reasonably believe that Confederate statues should be removed as fast as possible, and that it doesn’t matter much if protesters pull them down, and find, say, the firing of Schor deeply troubling. And we could have a much better discussion of the thorny question of when people should or shouldn’t be fired if we didn’t muddle it together with the question of when statues should be torn down. All the more so because even if we just ask, “When should someone be fired based on a viral video,” the answer may not be altogether simple.

Is this a private figure or a public one? A governor has less grounds to complain about a viral hot mic moment than an insurance agent.

Does the behavior in the video have direct bearing on the person’s job? Then maybe the firing is sound. But wait, what if the behavior alleged has direct bearing on the person’s job, the person has a government job about which the public may legitimately be concerned, and we later find out that the video was deceptively edited? Then we get the case of Shirley Sherrod, fired for a speech in which she talked about having to confront her prejudices, to encourage others to do the same (and, for many of us, the first time we learned about Breitbart News, and the reason we distrusted Breitbart News from the get go, even though, perhaps, in hindsight, it was less thoroughly anti-Black then than it is now).

Is it possible we’re misreading an ambiguous gesture? (Please don’t go around getting private individuals fired for making the “OK” sign, now apparently a white supremacist gesture; many haven’t caught on to this change in meaning.)

Is the person doing something horrible enough that it may reasonably give a company pause about what this person may be like as an employee? If someone is, say, threatening people over a requirement to wear a mask, that might be a sign that person won’t be a good fit. Or maybe the final straw for a manager who was already seeing signs that this person wasn’t inclined to follow rules laid down for the good of everyone. On the other hand, what if that person who is doing something really horrible in public – threatening a grocery clerk who asked for a mask, or, several years back, marching in a crowd in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us” – was misidentified by people in a viral Twitter thread, and you wind up getting entirely the wrong person fired?

Does this person have a job where being fired for political missteps should be an expected part of the job? Let’s say you’re a highly placed Congressional staffer whose name most people didn’t know until your video went viral. Or Tucker Carlson’s top writer whose name most people didn’t know until you got caught being crudely white supremacist online. Whatever the line should be for firing people, surely it should be more lenient in this case than if you were a pizza clerk, even if none of the people involved was well enough known to the public at large to be fully a public figure.

Finally, if you think people are fired too easily for political speech, should we be revising laws regarding at will employment, remembering that most of us are at will employees?

Answer all of these questions, and you may find that, in some cases, your answer is, “Yes, this person should be fired.” And in other cases, “It’s a travesty that this person was fired.” And that may be fine, though if you’re fine with Colin Kaepernick being fired for expressing views some people didn’t like, and fine with the fact that Breitbart got Shirley Sherrod fired for views she turned out not to hold, I won’t include you among the people I listen to about “cancel culture.” But wherever you fall on getting people fired, the questions are surely different from those that apply to viral criticism.

Now viral criticism raises questions of it’s own:

When should we resist adding to a pile on, because someone has been piled on enough already?

When should we resist adding to a pile on, because the time we’d spend piling on is time we’re not spending promoting something positive?

When do viral videos draw attention to a problem that’s serious, and that people wouldn’t believe without the videos (such as white folks calling cops on Black people who are right where they should be and breaking no laws)?

When should we consider the possibility that the subject of a video needs particular care, because, perhaps, underage, or because, perhaps, possibly mentally ill? (Bear in mind, here, that if your standard includes “if a teenage girl sends a nude photo to her boyfriend and then gets punished when the photo is circulated to her whole school it’s her own damn fault,” you’ve undercut any argument that you might make to the left about leaving teenagers alone who, perhaps, gang up on someone and use racial slurs. People should be at least as free from being publicly shamed for consensual, whether or not unwise, sexual activity as for racist actions.)

What actions by private individuals should be left alone and not publicized?

What about public figures who sic crowds on private figures? Or worse, prominent people in government who sic a crowd either on a private person or small business (something Trump does all the time)?

But a standard that treats harsh and widely spread criticism per se as somehow illiberal is a standard that should be thrown against the wall. And people do this all the time.

If you want, for example, to oppose “cancel culture,” and the “cancel culture” that you want to oppose is “getting ordinary private individuals fired who have no platform to recover their reputation,” then you should vigorously resist any attempt to include, as the same sort of illiberalism, “using the word ‘racist’ to describe the proposition that Black people are genetically predisposed to have lower IQ than white people, and that anyone who doesn’t believe that is ‘anti-science.'” And people do, all the time, argue that the only “liberal” position is to allow that argument to be made everywhere and to be willing to counter it indefinitely by arguing even though you are weary with the argument. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for a time, debated the proposition, and then threw up his hands and said he would debate it no longer, and got criticized for refusing to consider, forever, the argument that people of his color were naturally less intelligent. Steven Barnes for years was willing to debate, on his blog, with far more patience than I could have shown in his shoes, and when he finally drew the line, and said, this argument isn’t allowed on my blog or on my Facebook page, he got people complaining about being censored. Count me out of any definition of “liberal” that says that being a prominent Black writer entails a moral obligation to politely debate, for however many years people want you to debate it, the proposition that Black people are just naturally less intelligent than white people.

At the very least, viral criticisms of the words and actions of public figures, of prominent books, of positions promoted by widely read columnists and public intellectuals, of what gets published in the New York Times, should not be included in “cancel culture” if you want people to take “cancel culture” at all seriously.

So, maybe define specifically what you’re upset about, and what you want to change? Because the answers to “what statues should we remove,” “who should get fired,” “what actions by private individuals should be too small for widespread public embarrassment,” “when is it OK to reveal someone’s name and what process should you follow to make sure you don’t get the wrong person,” and “what positions deserve to be described as racist” may be different answers. And if you want actually to persuade folks on the left to take your concerns seriously, rather than to provoke them into a position that you can characterize as “anti-free-speech,” then maybe getting really specific about what your concerns are and what lines you want to draw would help.

Obviously, if your name is Donald Trump, you want to double down on rallying the base so people will ignore the COVID-19 death count, and to believe that it’s “free speech” for you, the most powerful man in the US government, to threaten government action against Twitter, and “anti-free-speech” for Twitter, a private company, to criticize you. But if, instead, your name is Nicholas Christakis, chances are that, once we get down to specifics, we’d find at least some areas of agreement, even if we also wind up with areas of disagreement (I won’t predict which areas those will be, as I haven’t had that one on one discussion).

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On Reading/Talking with People with Whom I Disagree

Posted by Sappho on June 7th, 2020 filed in News and Commentary

I don’t mean, here, the cousin with whom I regularly argue about politics. I don’t mean the woman who went to my high school who does a yeoman’s job pulling our graduating class together and keeping track of people’s personal lives, and who differs with me on, say, gun rights.

I mean, how do I make the decision whether I want to follow Ross Douthat or unfollow Glenn Greenwald? I mean, if you, the cousin with whom I regularly argue about politics, suggest that I look at something, when am I going to take the time to look at it? And I mean, when, in my own space – my own blog or my own Facebook page – am I going to draw a line, and say, no, I’m not going to host this discussion any more? Here are some of my considerations:

  • Is this argument a Flat Earther argument? By this I mean, am I so convinced that it’s factually false, that I don’t see any use in spending time considering the possibility that it’s true. I have finite time. I don’t believe in hate reading (reading people just to get riled up at what they say). There are points of view that, even if I don’t agree with them, might contain some balance for my own point of view. Better to spend time reading those than ones that I don’t think worth serious consideration.
  • Is this position the moral/ethical equivalent of a Flat Earther argument? That is, is it arguing for something so ethically repugnant that I’m not actually prepared to change my mind? Again, I don’t believe in hate reading.
  • OK, let’s say Joe Schmoe is a Flat Earther, whether factually or ethically. Do I still have some reason, at least for a time, to read or engage Joe Schmoe? Possibly I do. Maybe I think Joe can be talked out of Flat Earther views, and that I’m the one who can do it. Maybe Joe is a powerful person, and I want to get an idea of his thoughts, to get a heads up on harmful policies that Joe might be pushing down the pike. Or maybe I just am interested, right now, in the sociology of who becomes a Flat Earther, and why? In any of these cases, I might give Joe Schmoe some of my time. But not an unlimited amount of time.
  • OK, let’s say Joe Schmoe is a Flat Earther, on some topic or other. Is Flat Earth nearly all Joe talks about now? Or does Joe talk about a lot of other topics, on some of which Joe is not a Flat Earther at all (whether Joe agrees with me, or offers a counterpoint that I might have missed).
  • OK, let’s say Joe Schmoe is a Flat Earther. Is Joe, at the moment, talking about a topic close to the one on which Joe demonstrably has Flat Earth views? If you bought into, or winked at, Birtherism, then I don’t believe you on issues related to race. You might, on the other hand, be dead wrong on astrology and still be insightful on race, because the topics don’t have much to do with each other.
  • OK, you’ve suggested something that I might want to check out, that might challenge my beliefs. Let’s say that it’s not, from my point of view a Flat Earther position. Or maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but I won’t know until I check it out. Is is something I can read? Or is it a podcast or a video? I can read fast. I can’t view a video fast. If you give me something to read, I’m much more willing to check it out.
  • Finally, I have a limited amount of time and pick my topics accordingly. I’m not much interested in reading about GMOs right now, for instance, because I’m busy reading about other things. If I don’t read something you suggest to me about GMOs, no judgment of your source is implied. There are lots of topics I don’t have time to follow. I wish the people who do follow them well.

There’s lots of daylight between “people I disagree with” and “people who hold views I see no reason to consider as even possibly valid.”

Now here is someone I do read, both when I agree with him and when I don’t, giving an example of why it’s worth listening, sometimes, to people whom you consider dead wrong on at least some issues: David French, at the National Review, on

American Racism: We’ve Got So Very Far to Go

And the journey must continue step-by-step.

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COVID-19 and Borders

Posted by Sappho on May 3rd, 2020 filed in Health and Medicine

Back in 2014, in connection with the Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, I said that I didn’t consider myself “open borders,” and that the need, sometimes, to put up border controls to stop epidemics from becoming pandemics was one reason why.

I was thinking, at the time, of Senegal’s decision to close its border to neighboring Guinea. This border closure was in some ways controversial at the time – critics said that Senegal had shut down its border so tightly that it was making it harder to get medical assistance to Guinea, which was needed, not just, obviously, for Guinea’s sake, but also because if you don’t put out the fire in your neighbor’s house, eventually it will spread to yours. And some negotiation was done, for Senegal to make adjustments that would make it easier for medical workers to go to and from Guinea, while still allowing Senegal to keep controls on its border. I’m not sure what the details wound up being – it has after all been six years – but I do recall that only one Ebola case reached Senegal, which was quickly isolated.

Now, of course, we face a pandemic far more contagious than Ebola, one that, though its case fatality rate is less, in fact has caused many more deaths than that longest Ebola epidemic, because it has spread to more countries, and the contagion proves very hard to check. And I find my thoughts about borders shifting in unexpected ways.

I still don’t consider myself “open borders” – to me that phrase implies that I’d be starting from a position that people have a right to cross borders, which my government should not only recognize itself unless there was some compelling reason to restrict entry (something like our First Amendment presumption for freedom of speech), but also promote internationally as something other governments must respect. And, well, no. The worst thing about the government of North Korea isn’t the fact that it keeps foreigners out. I do, in fact, think that legal immigration to the US is largely a good thing, and also that we need to welcome refugees. But “wide open to nearly everyone” doesn’t describe my starting point.

And I still think that, of course, border restrictions have a place when facing an epidemic that threatens to become a pandemic, or for countries that have managed to free themselves of a pandemic to prevent it from coming back.

But. Here’s the thing. What I have seen, during the COVID-19 pandemic was that, when the epidemic was largely in China, everyone applied border restrictions, and none of the usual folks objected. I saw Democrats and libertarians who hated Trump’s immigration policy in general raising no real objection to his border controls as applied to China in late January. Sure, there was a minor “let’s all go to Chinese restaurants” movement to make sure that fear of a disease coming from China didn’t spill over to ethnically Chinese people who hadn’t been in China at all recently. But that’s an entirely different thing from saying, Trump, drop this border restriction. People were fine with restricting travel from China who had otherwise objected to every damn travel restriction that Trump ever imposed. And with reason: everyone, as I said, was applying border controls. Italy, which would later suffer so, restricted travel from China at nearly the exact same time. In fact, Trump wasn’t even first past the post in applying this restriction.

So the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is to leave me unworried that people will prevent reasonable restrictions at a time of pandemic on open borders grounds. In contrast, I’ve seen how people who lean more toward closed borders are more of a problem than I had ever imagined they’d be, in time of pandemic. Because, from where I sit, it looks as if people whose priors are to favor more restrictions on immigration, in time of pandemic, place too much faith in border restrictions, once they’re established. And it doesn’t look to me as if this is confined to Trump himself. Rather, I think that people who see themselves as fighting unreasonable “open borders” people, and who think greater border restrictions are really important, proved to be under the mistaken impression that all you need to do, to stop a pandemic, is to shut down the borders.

And it turns out that’s not at all the case. By the time anyone – Trump very much included – thought to institute border controls with China, COVID-19 was already well out of China and spreading among the community in multiple countries. We just didn’t know it yet. That shouldn’t have been a surprise. Diseases have incubation periods. They have asymptomatic spread. That doesn’t mean border controls are useless. But it means that you have to understand what their use is: They buy time, by reducing the number of people coming into the country, and helping to make the number of people spreading the illness in your country small enough that test and trade can do its thing. For a disease like Ebola, which gets people really sick really quickly, that may mean that hardly anyone gets through, and its easy to isolate the people who do. For a disease like COVID-19, you need a much more vigorous test and trace program.

This we notably didn’t get. We didn’t get it in late January, when the World Health Organization was already warning about the dangers of COVID-19. We didn’t get it in February. Trump didn’t even acknowledge we faced a serious threat in the US until well into March. And even now, we’re not able to test and trace enough to contain the pandemic that we have.

At this point, I could go on a rant about everything Trump did wrong. But this post isn’t about Trump. It’s about borders. And that’s an issue that goes well beyond Trump as an individual. The US has handled the pandemic worse than some countries, with a starting position that should have allowed us to handle it better than we did. But we aren’t the only country that messed up. And other countries that messed up made the same mistake of slapping down border controls and then thinking that they had solved the problem. Now we’re in the position where states are in some ways finding the need to impose border controls on other states. If I were to leave California and fly to visit my mother, I would be obliged, on arriving in her state, to go into a fourteen day quarantine by myself (pack fourteen days of supplies on that plane flight, I guess), and could finally see her right about the time that I’d need to fly back to California to return to work.

My point is: yes, border controls have their place in limiting the spread of disease, but in order to actually make good use of them, we need not to have leaders who are irrationally invested in closed borders as a solution to everything. Otherwise we wind up without the tests, without the PPEs, but hey, we closed the border to China in late January, so let’s do a victory lap. And my sister in Brooklyn can tell you how well that worked out.

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“Ford to City: Drop Dead”

Posted by Sappho on March 25th, 2020 filed in Memory, News and Commentary

Remember that cheeky New York Daily News headline, back in the 1970s? I do. I was a teenager at the time, growing up in the NYC metropolitan area.

The headline, of course, was metaphorical. NYC was nearly bankrupt when Ford gave a speech denying federal assistance. But no one was actually on death’s door.

Now they are. Now we have a plague, and NYC is the canary in the coalmine, catching the wave that will come to the rest of the country in time.

Please let us not say to NYC, this time, “Drop dead.” Because it’s literal life and death we’re talking about now, and we’re all in this together.

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