I, Tonya: American Tragedy?

Do Aristotle’s virtues hold true in modern life? How about in figure skating? Below is another blogger’s take on how the classics still have something to teach us today.

mimesisity: on art, reality, etc.

In his Ethics, Aristotle argues that we acquire virtues like justice, temperance, moderation and wisdom through exercising them, and our fundamental dispositions of character are formed by the habits of reaction and behaviors instilled in us in childhood. (Yes, this is a review, of sorts, of the film about the figure skater Tonya Harding. Bear with me.)

…the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

The same is true of appetites and feelings of anger; some men become temperate and good-tempered, others self-indulgent and irascible, by behaving in one way or…

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Homeric Tweets, or The Epic Poetry of Donald Trump

Donald Trump’s communication quirks have gotten a lot of attention, but commentators have missed what he shares with Homer and the other epic poets.

Books of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey

Homer has lessons for modern communication.


Something was familiar about his patterns of “Lying Ted,” “Crooked Hilary,” and lately “Sneaky Diane Feinstein.” (If you want to see a more complete list, The New York Times has one here: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/us/politics/trump-nicknames.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FTrump%2C%20Donald%20J.) It was in a bar conversation with my friend Steve, with whom I went through a couple of classical literature class, that it became clear.

Trump was using epithets – Homeric ones as well as insulting ones. In epic poetry, epithets are used to help the poet remember the poem both by providing guideposts and helping to maintain the meter, or rhythm of the poem.

Some of the Homeric ones described things, like “the wine dark sea” and “rosy fingered dawn.” More importantly, they were used to describe people, both groups, like “flowing-haired Achaians,” and individuals, like “swift-footed Achilles.”

The use of these epithets and repetition of them anchors a character trait to the individual and provides a memory anchor for listeners. Looking at the names he assigns, there also is a flow to what he says: two syllable epithets. It provides almost a metrical foot for his poetics.

Consciously or unconsciously, Donald Trump is tapping into an ancient, and effective communication tool to drive home his point and build recurring associations.

His use of repetition and anchoring phrases is similar to the epic poets who first had to recite their works out loud for audiences. They used repetition, epithets, and themes as guideposts to help them remember their poems and help people keep track of the story. He’s not quite using ring composition, where he returns to his starting point in every instance, but he comes close by trying to bring things back around to particular points.

Consider his tweets about his mental stability.

mental stability

He starts with stability and brings it back to stability.

In a more general sense, Donald Trump is tapping into the traditions of epic poetry by doing his best to turn everything he does into an epic struggle or into an epic success. This is interpreted as narcissism or self-aggrandizement. While it may be those things, it is also an attempt to have a story worth telling, an epic tale. Let’s face it, no one seems to be able to stop listening, as the press reports on every tweet as though it came down from Mount Olympus.

I don’t know if Donald Trump ever studied epic poetry, but his communication style has tapped into a human tradition that has been effective throughout human history. People may not like the story being told, or the person telling the story, but in an age where politics has become a performance art, it doesn’t seem too surprising that these techniques should be effective.

The effectiveness of the communication doesn’t mean that the content is good. Plenty of effective communicators in history have used that power to do bad things. But recognizing how the message is delivered can help us separate form from content and to decide whether something is really worth hearing. This is part of the value of studying the classics.

Philosophy – Why Do We Have Governments? Locke Attempts to Give Us an Answer.

What is the purpose of government? Why do we even have it in the first place? Locke takes on answering these questions as his task in his “Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay.”

Locke is answering many of the questions that have come up in some of the modern political debates. Perhaps if more folks were to read Locke, then perhaps the discussion could start from a place where the first principles had at least been considered.

So, what is the purpose of a civil government? It is to take people out of a state of nature where everyone needs to shift for themselves to a state where they can live together. The purpose of government is to resolve disputes between people impartially and peaceably.

“Men being, as has been said, by nature all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent, which is done by agreeing with other men, to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living, one amongst another, in secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any that are not of it.”

What’s more important is that governments are created because the people come together to create them voluntarily. But creating the government does come with responsibilities.

“And thus every man, by consenting with others to make one body politic under one government, puts himself under an obligation to everyone of that society to submit to the determination of the majority, and to be concluded by it; or else this original compact, whereby he with others incorporates into one society, would signify nothing, and be no compact if he be left free and under no other ties than he was in before in the state of Nature.”

People who benefit from the government have a responsibility to conduct themselves in accordance with the laws of that government. We have seen instances in the United States where people have tried to set themselves outside of the law, and even tried to use force or the threat of force to make their case. Locke would say that these people are essentially freeloaders who are taking advantage of the safety and benefits offered by a government without holding up their end of the bargain.

“And to this, I say that every man that has any possession or enjoyment of any part of the dominions of any government doth hereby give his tact consent, and is as far forth obliged to obedience to the laws of that government, during such enjoyment, as any one under it, whether this his possession be of land to him and his heirs for ever, or a lodging for only a week; or whether it  be barely traveling freely on the highway; and in effect it reaches as far as the very being of anyone within the territories of that government.”

“Whoever therefore from thenceforth, by inheritance, purchases permissions or otherwise enjoys any part of the land annexed to, and under the government of that commonweal, must take it with the condition it is under – that is, of submitting to the government of the commonwealth, under whose jurisdiction is it, as far forth as any subject of it.”

All of that said, Locke does not believe that people should just be blind subjects. If there is a problem, he writes that people should turn to the law first and work through problems with the government in accordance with the law. A well-constructed state will have laws that prevent tyranny and prevent governments from acting arbitrarily. But when governments start to infringe on peoples’ rights, then they can be changed.

“The power that every individual gave the society when he entered into it can never revert to the individuals again, as long as the society lasts, but will always remain in the community; because without this there can be no community….But if they have set limits to the duration of their legislative, and made this supreme power in any person or assembly only temporary; or else when, by the miscarriages of those in authority, it is forfeited; upon the forfeiture of their rulers, or at the determination of the time set, it reverts to the society, and the people have a right to act as supreme, and continue the legislative in themselves or place it in a new form, or new hands, as they think good.”

While Locke thinks that the first step should be finding a remedy within the laws and finding a peaceable solution, he does believe that the people have right to resist governments that threaten them. He rejects the notion that there are kings who would be somehow so superior to the people that they can act capriciously. When the government gets really ugly, then the people have the right to return the favor.

“But if they who say it lays a foundation for rebellion mean that it may occasion civil wars or intestine broils to tell the people that they are absolved from obedience when illegal attempts are made upon their liberties or properties…this doctrine is not to be allowed, being so destructive to the peace of the world; they may as well say, upon the same ground, that honest men may not oppose robbers or pirates, because this may occasion disorder or bloodshed.”

Of course all of this requires people to actively think about their government and to engage with it. People need to think through why the government is there and realize that it is there because we have all agreed tacitly or explicitly to have it. Our political discourse would be improved if we could all start from the place Locke suggests: we have agreed to a government because it is better than living in a state of nature, and we need to work to configure it in such a way that it works for the good of people and, as Locke would say preserves “their lives, liberties and estates, which I call by the general name – property.”

Current Events – Chelsea Manning Lives in a Cage – And Says One is Closing on All of Us

As she sat in a metal cage in a tent in the Kuwaiti desert, one thing stood out to Chelsea – then Bradley – Manning, PFC: the cage was made in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

At the time, she also felt she was caged in the wrong physical body.

Despite having a thirty-five year prison sentence commuted after seven years and beginning the process of transitioning to a body that feels more like her own, Chelsea Manning is still living in a cage.

At the New Yorker Festival, Chelsea Manning was interviewed by Larissa MacFarquhar, during which she revealed the outlines of the cage she lives in. She also described how all of us are being increasingly caged in, slowly but surely.

Chelsea’s Current Cage

Ms. Manning’s cage is partially built by legal settlements, and partially built by her own sense of honor, duty, and right and wrong.

The legal sides of her cage come as a result of her court martial from the videos she leaked of the Iraq war.

“There’s a particular statement I read at court martial – that’s what I can talk about,” she said.

Even when she was asked about the most famous video that she leaked, which shows a helicopter attack that killed journalists and children, she said she was legally bound not to talk about what was in the video. That video is all over the Internet, but she still cannot talk about it.

Nonetheless she is adamant that she did not reveal anything that would harm the interests of the United States.

“I knew what was in them. I worked them every day. It is historical data. There’s nothing sensitive in there – no troop movements or mission critical data….We’ve proven that repeatedly. There’s no identity of sources….It’s what happened. It’s historical data.”

But the legal constraints are not the only reason she wouldn’t talk. When asked about the work she did, she refused to give away things that might be military secrets. She described her work in the military as doing data analysis on large data sets, similar to what marketers might do, trying to predict people’s behavior, but when Ms. MacFarquhar asked for details about what she was analyzing and how, Ms. Manning’s response was simple and direct.

“I can’t tell you.”

It was clear she was not going to give up any of the information or methods that she had learned which were secret. This seemed to be less out of any legal responsibility, but more of the sense of duty. Her tone was that of any military person who has reached the limits of what they can tell you.

She also wouldn’t violate the sense of camaraderie she had with her fellow soldiers, refusing to characterize the ribbing she got from fellow soldiers as hazing.

“I’ve never said I was teased and bullied by my colleagues. Maybe it is something we just did in military culture and we justify it. There were times it crossed the line. I don’t think that [the disclosures and transitioning or being picked on by fellow soldiers] are connected.”

Ms. Manning said that she felt she had to share the videos and files that she leaked because Americans needed to know about what was happening in Iraq.

“It was like drinking from a fire hose of death and destruction every day,” Ms. Manning said.

Feeling boxed in was the reason she ended up in Iraq in the first place. After struggling with family troubles, homelessness, and a sense of being in the wrong body, Chelsea Manning was trying to figure out her life. Her father said she should go into the military to gain structure and discipline.

Looking at what was happening in the world she joined the army for two reasons.

“I saw the images of the Iraq war and thought I could make a difference. And I thought I would not be trans. I can’t be trans [in the army]. I joined the army because that is where the fight was and I thought I could help. I was 18.”

The idealism of the 18-year-old Bradley Manning was tempered by death and destruction she saw, and the imprisonment that she endured. After all that she went through, Ms. Manning said that she realized that it did not make sense to try to be someone else. Instead, she had to try to become the person she felt she was and that is when she decided to transition from being a man to being a woman.

The Banality of Cages

Despite leaving the cage of prison and even the confines of a body that didn’t fit her, Ms. Manning thinks the she and all the rest of us are becoming entrapped by two macro trends: 1) the growth of the surveillance state, and 2) the growth of algorithms determining what information we get.

“I got outside, and I said ‘this is a different place. It feels like the most boring and predictable dystopian novel I ever read.’ There is a dystopian element, but it is banal.”

She said that prison has encroached on the outside world. While she acknowledges that her time in prison may have made her more sensitive, Ms. Manning said that she notices how often she sees surveillance cameras and heavily armed police officers everywhere.

“Everything that makes prison bad is starting to happen out here.”

The other thing that she warned about during her talk is that the use of algorithms in technology is creating feedback loops that could end up restricting our knowledge and our choices, which could lead to societal harm.

“There are systems that if misused could be very dangerous to society. There are feedback loops going on.”

She said that we can see this with the way data sets are analyzed. As an example, she used Google search results, which programmers will use to optimize algorithms in order to make the information more relevant.

“What ends up being the top search results changes society over time. It makes [the results] more relevant, which makes it more prevalent, which makes it more relevant. Who’s in control? Us or machines?”

She said that she saw examples of destructive feedback loops in the data she analyzed in Iraq. The military would look for trouble and enemy activity and then go into specific neighborhoods to try to deal with it. By going into those neighborhoods, the military would draw more of the enemy, and sometimes instead of decreasing violence and stabilizing neighborhoods, the data would lead to an increasing spiral.

Can We Escape The Coming Cages?

The question that arises is, of course, what do we do about it?

Ms. Manning brought up three things, perhaps not in direct response to the big question, but both of which were related to the solution.

First, people need to assert their rights. She said that she learned this in the context of being a trans person. What she came to realize is that we all have rights, and that they are not something given to us by judges, or police officers, or institutions.

“We all have rights. No one gives them to us. We don’t win them. It’s how we assert them or demand them. You already have rights; you just have to assert them.”

Second, she said that we need to recognize institutions, no matter how good they may be, sometimes fail. And that is when something like her leak becomes important, because it gives the people the knowledge to hold the institution accountable.

Third, people need to think about what might happen with the work that they do. She said that technologists, software engineers, and others need to think about what can be done with the tools that they are building. They need to think about how those tools might be used in other contexts, and they need to talk to one another, whether formally or informally to get outside perspectives.

“Software developers have an inherent ethical obligation. We need to think beyond meeting deadlines and meeting criteria.”

She recognized that this has real world costs in time and money, but she said that they need to “red team” more of their work – have someone look at it oppositionally – to make sure that the tools they are developing don’t cause harm.

“Let’s take some chunks of time and say ‘what are the consequences of this system.’ How can this be misused?’”

Throughout the interview Ms. MacFarquhar came back a few times to the question of what advice Ms. Manning would give someone facing the decision about whether or not to leak information or take some similar action. But there was no easy answer or guidelines.

“There’s not a one-sized fits all answer. It depends on what is in front of you.”

Ms. Manning said that her leak was a political act. It was done out of the sense that sometimes people need to do something that goes beyond the ballot box to make up for when institutions fail. Individual circumstance and conscience will often determine what should be done, but people need to realize that they have the power to do something, she said.

“Every single person has to make their own decision. Every single one of us has the innate agency to act.”

Current Events: War by Thursday? How Rational Are We?

The United States could be at war with North Korea by Wednesday.  The scenario, as laid out by Ambassador Wendy Sherman at The New Yorker Festival’s North Korea panel, could go something like this.

Tuesday, October 10: North Korea tests a new long range missile to celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the communist party and to show it can hit the United States.

Wednesday, October 11: Donald Trump decertifies the Iranian nuclear treaty, despite reports from the International Atomic Energy Commission that Iran is complying.

Thursday, October 12: The United States pulls out of the Iran deal, and war starts with North Korea.

Ambassador Sherman served as special adviser on North Korea to President Bill Clinton, and was the lead American negotiator the Iran nuclear deal. She did not specify what the spark would be that could touch off a war with North Korea or who would initiate it, but instead pointed out that the danger was an escalating cycle that would override the rationality of the two sides.

Ambassador Sherman was on the panel with James R. Clapper, Jr., the former U.S. director of national intelligence, having held the position under President Barack Obama from 2010 to 2017, Suki Kim, is the author of the Times best-seller “Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korean Elite” and the novel “The Interpreter,” Robert E. Kelly, a professor in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University, and the famed BBC dad, and Sue Mi Terry, the senior adviser on Korea for BowerGroupAsia, and who was formerly a senior analyst for the C.I.A., focusing on Korean issues. The panel was moderated by New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos.

This distinguished panel did have some good news. They say that nearly everyone who studies North Korea agrees on two points.

  1. Kim Jong Un is not suicidal, and is primarily concerned with preserving his regime, which leads to…
  2. North Korea is not going to attack the United States directly.

These conclusions are based on the notion that Kim Jong Un is rational person. That rationality also means that he will not give up his nuclear weapons, because he is worried about suffering the same fate as Muammar Gaddafi, who gave up nuclear weapons and ended up deposed and dead, Ms. Terry said.

So the question becomes whether or not the United States could live with a nuclear armed North Korea that is capable of sending a nuclear tipped ICBM to the United States. The question becomes one of living in a kind of cold war existence with the North Koreans. On one hand, there is a belief that the North Koreans would be unlikely to ever do anything of the sort because they know that it would be the end of their country. On the other hand, there are some observers who believe that the North Koreans would try to blackmail the United States with its nuclear arsenal so that U.S. troops would leave and North Korea could try to take over the whole peninsula.

Prof. Kelly dismissed the second idea as unlikely because the Koreans would never be able to absorb the South Korean people into their society even if they could beat South Korea’s larger, and better equipped army. The South Korean people would never accept a repressive regime, and being far more numerous would overwhelm the North Korean culture. Additionally, they would never buy the notion of King Jon Un as a god-like ruler, not having been indoctrinated into that notion since birth.

The indoctrination of the North Korean people is what makes the problem of North Korea more difficult. Ms. Kim pointed out that the people of North Korea are somewhat infantilized by the constant control and that they have no context to think about their regime from the outside world. So, it makes sense for the average north Korean to believe that the United States is an enemy poised to attack them at any moment and that the dear leader is the only one who can save the people. She believes the long term strategy for dealing with Korea is to try to get information into Korea about the world outside so that they can rethink their situation, but she and the rest of panel admit this is a long play and not enough to deal with the current nuclear situation.

Mr. Clapper said that there are signs of hope in that the a member of the younger generation had said to him on one visit that “I have been to Seoul and I have seen what is there” in a way that made him think that the official had second thoughts about how great North Korea is. Mr. Clapper also pointed out that unless there is some kind of carrot to go with the threat of sticks, there would not likely be much movement in the situation. He thinks that the North Koreans will need to be accepted into the nuclear club and told to act like grownups now that they are in it.

One further complication in all of this is that China wants North Korea as a buffer against South Korea, the United States and Japan, despite being South Korea’s largest trading partner. Convincing China that a regime change in North Korea would be ideal is probably the easiest bet for change, but that is a tall order.

Ultimately, the panel agreed that it will take more than one thing to solve the North Korea problem successfully. As Ambassador Sherman said, the United States will need to use every tool it has, diplomacy, the credible threat of force to support diplomacy, sanctions, public diplomacy to the North Korean people, cyber warfare, and even basketball diplomacy with the likes of Dennis Rodman.

With any luck, we all won’t be singing the blues about Sad News from Korea.

Current Events: All the President’s Reporters Over Simplify America

What is the role of the press in U.S. politics? How did it do during the 2016 presidential election?  How is it doing covering President Trump?

These are some of the questions that a panel of experienced reporters attempted to answer during The New Yorker Festival’s “All The President’s Reporters” panel.

The panel, which included Jo Becker, from The New York Times, Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame and now at Vanity Fair and CNN, Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, and Greg Miller, of the Washington Post, had a lively discussion with the moderation of David Rohde, the news director of the thenewyorker.com.

The discussion moved me to do something I rarely do at events like these, and that is get up and pose a question to the panel. In their conversation, they covered Russian interference in the election, the ideological divisions in the country, and the repeated assaults on the new media by Donald Trump, who nevertheless remains very concerned about his coverage.

David Rohde asked whether or not the media had somehow failed in its coverage of Donald Trump and of the presidential election as a whole.

Jo Becker said that the media had covered things about Donald Trump’s business dealings and personal scandals but that none of it seemed to matter very much. Greg Miller added that it seemed that the media had been used as a tool of the “Russian operation” and that there were limits to what the media could be expected to report in real time.

Carl Bernstein made an important point, which was that “I don’t think it is our job to keep Donald Trump from being president of the United States or to see that he has has a premature exit. Our job is to learn what the hell is going on.”

But in all of this, whether it is a Russian attempt to influence the election, a divided electorate that searches for news that reinforces its preconceived notions, the discussion continued as though Hillary Clinton had not won the popular vote by 3 million votes. The idea of Russian hacking or people not learning about the scandals of Donald Trump start to fail when you consider that most of the people in the United States did not vote for him. Half of the people didn’t vote, and of those, fewer than half voted for him. Even among the quarter of the population that voted for Donald Trump, there was a significant group that voted for him strictly as a protest vote, those that voted for him because they thought Clinton would win regardless, and those that voted for him because he was the Republican, not because of the candidate himself.

I feel there is a condemnation of the American people based on an electoral system glitch. To her credit, Jo Becker did point out that Obama had been elected twice and that one of the things historians would need to grapple with is how the country could go from voting for him twice to electing Donald Trump.

While I believe that Carl Bernstein was correct that cable news gave Trump too much free airtime and that Jo Becker was right that Trump was not taken seriously enough, I do believe that in a country where he got less than 25 per cent of the vote and where this week 64 percent of the country says the United States in on the wrong track in a USA Today poll, we should not be too quick to say that Trump won thanks to some combination of American racism and Russian meddling. Our country is far more complicated and sophisticated than that.  Our panel, as accomplished and distinguished as they were, and the rest of the press, should adjust their reporting to account for that complicated picture.

Locke: Freedom Isn’t Ignorant

We often heard that “freedom isn’t free,” usually applied to some notion of military service. In his essay “Concerning the True Original Extent and End of Civil Government, John Locke argues that freedom is not ignorant either. In other words, freedom is only available to people who have the ability to manage their affairs.

He explains this by answering the question of how children can be both born free and subject to the control of their parents.

“We were born free as we are born rational; not that we have actually the exercise of either: age that brings one, brings with it the other too.”

Through this section of the essay, Locke is primarily focuses on parental power, and distinguishes it from political power. But he takes time to talk about freedom in general. One of the interesting passages concerns whether or not freedom and laws are able to coexist. Today’s political debate often rages around whether or not laws and government are good or bad. For Locke, there is a way to tell.

“For law, in its true notion, is not so much the limitation as the direction of a free and intelligent agent to his proper interest, and prescribes no farther than is for the general good of those under that law. Could they be happier without it, the law, as a useless thing, would of itself vanish; and that ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices. So that however it may be mistaken, the end of law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge freedom. For in all the states of created beings, capable of laws, where there is no law, there is no freedom. For liberty is to be free from restraint and violence from others, which cannot be where there is no law; and is not, as we are told, ‘a liberty for every man to do what he lists.’”

Locke says laws should help free and intelligent people – he requires that the people be intelligent, that they have some knowledge of how to manage their affairs and be mentally sound. We have seen laws attacked for being too restrictive or against freedom with an underlying argument that people should be allowed to do things that are bad for themselves – and even sometimes others. I have seen libertarians make an argument that drivers’ licenses are a bad idea. Yet, I think Locke would argue that licenses based on training people to do things better and more safely are those that direct people towards their proper interest. The less extreme debate is whether or not there ought to be training and licensing for gun ownership. Recent changes by the U.S. Congress say that even being mentally sound is not required, but I think Locke would disagree.

Locke wrote after serfdom, but before the rise of the corporation. I wonder what he would think the limitations on businesses should be in our modern context?

Laws can preserve and enlarge freedom by protecting us from “the violence of others” as Locke writes, but we need to understand that phrase in a modern sense. Does contaminating our water and food, threatening our financial stability, or taking away our access to information constitute violence? Perhaps it doesn’t in a physical sense, but an argument can be made that laws should free us from needing to test our water every time we want a drink.

All of this points to need for us to intelligent enough and to possess enough understanding to look after our own interests. Once we can do that, then, as Locke says, the unnecessary laws will vanish.