What I saw of the far-right hecklers at the Katie Porter town hall

Posted by Sappho on July 13th, 2021 filed in Daily Life, Democracy, News and Commentary

It’s now two days after the town hall, and I woke up at 4:30am because I’m still feeling agitated about Nick Taurus and his crew, and their brown shirt tactics at what we all expected – because our wonderful Representative Katie Porter did her best to make it so – would be a safe, family friendly event.

I hear that Nick Taurus has been playing the victim on Instagram, after the event. Can I say that he and his crowd, while at the event, were the most aggressive victims I have ever seen?

The “scuffle,” news outlets say, is one whose details remain obscure. They’re right. Those of us who could see the fighting were in the middle of a crowd. People moved across my view at some points. I wasn’t always facing the action. I can’t guarantee that a Porter supporter didn’t give the first shove. What I can speak to is the broader story of what was going on. I’m told that Taurus, afterward, took to Instagram to play the victim and say his group suffered at the hands of a violent Katie Porter supporters. The opposite was the case.

I arrived just ahead of a group bearing a Green New Deal banner.

“Green New Deal! Green New Deal!” they chanted.

“You’re corporate shills! Soros is paying you!” Nick Taurus’ crew shouted at them.

A Porter supporter, in a level voice, asked them to please be quiet.

“Why are you shutting us up? Why not silence them?” pointing at the Green New Deal folks.

“You’re shouting insults. They’re being peaceful,” still in a level voice.

“They’re not being peaceful! You should tell them to be quiet!”

And the Green New Deal folks were still chanting, simply, “Green New Deal!” You can love the Green New Deal, or you can think it’s the wrong approach to climate change – maybe you want less New Deal and more carbon tax and let the market sort it out. But either way, you have to admit, chanting “Green New Deal” is advocating a policy, while shouting “You’re corporate shills! Soros! Open Society Foundation!” is not. That insulting other constituents there to ask questions is less peaceful than being present at a town hall to ask your Representative for a specific policy. And the Green New Deal people played by the rules – they wrote their questions on cards, and they shut up so we could all hear Katie when the town hall started.

Not so Nick Taurus and crew. They shouted non-stop as the town hall started, clearly trying to take advantage of Katie Porter’s initial mic trouble to drown her out, so that we wouldn’t be able to hear a word she said.

What were they shouting? “Stop the Steal! Stop the Steal!” and “Corrupt Katie!” and “Biden cheated!” and “Why won’t you answer our questions!” That last was rich, given that, first, they had the same opportunity to write questions on cards as anyone (I was asked three times if I wanted to write a question on a card – that’s how careful Katie’s people were to make sure we all had that opportunity, not just asking in the check-in line but circulating in the crowd), second, most of their chants weren’t even questions (“Stop the Steal” is not a question – and not a remotely acceptable shout directed at a candidate who fairly won her election six months after Biden took office after fairly winning his), and finally, they were shouting to prevent anyone’s questions from being answered.

Some Porter supporters did, yes, engage with Taurus and crew. This is how that engagement went.

First, at one point we all shouted over them. When they booed Katie as she came out, those of us who liked her, who far outnumbered them, drowned their insults out with a cry of “Katie! Katie! Katie!”

Katie urged us not to respond to heckling, before she began. And most of us, most of the time, didn’t. But I’ll admit that some of us made one off shouts back. I myself, once, slipped, and, angry at a “Stop the Steal” chant, shouted at them, “Shut up with the Big Lie.” And remembered myself and stopped. After just that one sentence. This was before Katie made her “Don’t respond” request. I also heard one woman say, “Go back to Huntington Beach!” which was a reference to within Orange County stereotypes about which town draws white supremacist rallies. But she, too, shut up after that one crack. Nick Taurus and his supporters did not.

Mostly though, what folks were saying to Nick Taurus and crew was, “Shhh! Please be quiet so we can hear Katie.” So there was one side shouting insults and another saying “hush” to the disruption. With Taurus and crew then angrily responding to “Shhh!” as if we were the instigators.

The first physical contact that I saw was a man on the Porter side laying a hand on the shoulder of a man on the Taurus side. But just a hand on the shoulder. Not a punch. Not a shove. A “can I get your attention without shouting so I can ask you to calm down” touch. Maybe not wise. But not assault. And to this, the guy in the brown shirt brigade responded with, “Get your hands off me! Get your hands off me! Get your hands off me!” fiercely shouting in the guy’s face, as if he had actually been grabbed. If I did that every time in my life that a man placed a hand on my shoulder!

Then I lost sight of the interaction, and the next thing I saw was two men fighting. And I’ll be honest; I hadn’t seen which of them gave the first shove. Soon after that, two other men fighting crashed to my feet, the MAGA guy on top of the Democrat. I did not touch anyone, did nothing other than to say, “Please stop fighting! Please stop fighting!” But I could well have been among those punched, simply by the bad luck of being near the brown shirts at a public event.

One of Porter’s staff pulled me back to safety, and I did my best to take photos (should have gotten video, I know), not getting the shots I wanted. It was all I could do.

But what I can say is, throughout all the confrontations, both when the fighting broke out and later when it was just arguments, most of the Porter friendly crowd, who far outnumbered the hecklers with their brown shirt tactics, were either trying to keep out of the way, or, if moving into MAGA zone, were doing so mainly to try to get people to safety.

If a Porter supporter appeared ready to confront one of Taurus’ crew, other Porter supporters would be at hand to say, “Walk away, it’s not worth it.” No one on the Taurus side would be saying one word along those lines to others on the Taurus side. Not once did I see Taurus try to calm anyone down, deescalate any argument, or make any move to make safer the situation that he and his crew had made more tense and dangerous. And I was near his sector for most of the town hall.

It was Taurus and his group instigating the whole while, while Porter supporters were trying to remind each other not to take the bait. And the Taurus crew, as they persisted in their aggressive claims of victimhood, took care to include people who were simply trying to stop confrontations and extricate their friends among those they accused of aggressively invading their space.

And it was Porter’s people who pulled me to safety to get me out of the way of the punches, and Nick Taurus who instigated the violence that put me, a 60-year-old woman there to be civically engaged as is my right, at risk.

Hell will freeze over before I ever vote for Nick Taurus even for dog catcher.

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Ashli Babbitt and Diana Oughton

Posted by Sappho on June 23rd, 2021 filed in Books, Memory, News and Commentary

When I was a child, I read a book called Diana: The Making of a Terrorist. The book, at the time I read it, was newly released, and the events it recorded were still fresh in people’s memories. The book, as I recall, had a photo of a younger, not yet terrorist Diana Oughton on the front cover, a hint of flame at the edge of the photo. On the back you saw a photo of Diana as she was when she died, and that photo appeared engulfed in flame.

I thought of that book as I read the CNN article about Ashli Babbitt, including interviews with her family about her life before she got sucked into a conspiracy theory rabbit hole.

Ashli Babbitt grew up a tomboy, jumping bikes over ramps and skateboarding with her brothers. Diana Oughton played the piano and flute as a child, and shot pheasants with her father. Ashli Babbitt was an Air Force veteran. Diana Oughton went to Guatemala after graduating from Bryn Mawr, and taught indigenous people to read. Bagpipes played “Amazing Grace” at the funeral that Ashli Babbitt’s family held for her. Children whom Diana Oughton had taught pinned their fundraising buttons to a bouquet at the site of her death.

It’s not that I can take violent extremists’ profession of idealistic motivations at face value. Sometimes, whatever leads someone down the path of political violence has also shown itself in personal violence. Example: Ryan Samsel, accused of beating a cop unconscious on January 6. It turns out that this is not the first time he was arrested for beating a woman.

But violent extremists can also have ordinary pasts. So I’m not surprised that Ashli Babbitt, like Diana Oughton, has people who remember her less fanatical days. Oughton’s parents said, after she died in 1970, that as recently as 1968 she had been a committed activist who rejected violence. That was before she joined the Weather Underground, the group of would be Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries who would provoke the Black Panthers to disavow their support, after seeing the Weather Underground’s Days of Rage.

Diana Oughton died in a townhouse in Greenwich Village, when a bomb she was making exploded prematurely, wrecking the townhouse and killing her and two of her fellow terrorists. Members of the Weather Underground would later say that their bombs only destroyed property – reportedly, Diana Oughton had argued, on her final day, to keep to that policy. But the deadly toll of the bomb that killed her shows that if the Weather Underground had failed to kill anyone with their bombs, it would only have been moral good luck. Sad though her death might be, Oughton was no peaceful martyr.

Ashli Babbitt rushed to her appointment in Samara as part of an insurrectionary mob. To get to her death, she had to push her way past police barriers around the Capitol, push her way into the building, and join a mob battering their way through a barricaded entrance that would take them to where Congressional representatives were sheltering.

Along the way, members of the Capitol Hill insurrectionist mob clobbered cops with flagpoles and lead pipes. One cop would suffer two strokes after being attacked with a chemical spray. 150 cops would suffer injuries, some severe, including concussions and broken ribs. At the beginning of June, five months after the Capitol riot, seventeen cops remained out of work due to injuries suffered on that day.

Cops and Secret Service shouted at Ashli Babbitt to stop; she continued to climb through the window that another rioter had broken. She was shot and killed – unarmed, but no peaceful martyr.

It’s worth studying the Oughton and the Babbitt who were not yet martyrs, the moments of their lives that were better than their last moments – we want to know how people are radicalized so that we can know if and how to break the cycle. And it’s only human that those who knew them when mourn them. But make no mistake – neither woman’s last act should be admired.

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Seven things that I believe about human nature

Posted by Sappho on June 19th, 2021 filed in News and Commentary

1) Lots of people are better than me. I don’t mean that in an “I’m awful” sense, and I don’t mean to pretend I’m especially humble. I mean, simply, that I know I’m more clever than good, and that for any virtue that I really admire, whether gentleness or courage or humility, I can find people who are better examples of that virtue than I am. So it’s worth finding those people and listening to them.

2) No, we aren’t all doing our best. Partly because any view I have of human nature has to include Hitler, who was clearly not doing his best, and who was also a human being. And also, even those of us who are nowhere near as bad as Hitler are, at least some of the time, not doing our best.

3) At the same time, often people whom you may think aren’t doing nearly their best *are*, in fact, doing the best they can in their circumstances, which aren’t yours. We’re all subject to the Fundamental Attribution Error.

4) Most people aren’t all that selfish, at least where their close kin and friends and immediate community are concerned. People like to share and to help other people.

5) People are groupish, and can find it hard to respect people outside their group as much as those inside their group. And easy to use their minds to find ways that their group is right, rather than to correct their own perceptions where they are wrong. This is a tendency we need to learn to check sometimes.

6) Most people, myself included, are sometimes cowardly – it’s one of the ways our ancestors survived.

7) We can change – some things more easily than others – but the way to change isn’t trying to change through sheer willpower, but finding out what your best cues and triggers are, and finding allies who will support you in your changes. Whether you see the glass as half empty or half full, the glass is refillable.

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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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