Thanksgiving 2020

Thirty years ago, Linda and I made our first Thanksgiving dinner in her small Oakland cottage. We invited her parents and mine, and a couple of friends. Linda’s father seated himself at the table, smiled and said, “Well, this is a sea change.” In that moment, a torch was passed. Our house became the designated gathering place for holiday meals. When we moved to a larger house to accommodate our growing family, we had room to put up guests from out of town. They came from Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Washington, D.C.—even Stockholm, Sweden. Good food, good wine, extended visits from grandparents and aunts and uncles and step-siblings and cousins. Stories and jokes with friends. Treasured memories for our kids.

So it has gone every year until the present. This year, for the first time since the Administration of Bush the Elder, we will set a table for two. We’ll do a family Zoom call tomorrow, but that is cold comfort. Our kids are spending the holiday with each other, and that would warm the cockles of my heart if I knew what a cockle is, but they aren’t here. We will have our turkey and stuffing and sides and pie, but it ain’t the same. Linda and I have each other—and that’s more than so many people have—but it will be a sad and hollow Thanksgiving nonetheless.

I know we sacrifice this year so that we may all gather in good health the next. I know the circumstances in which we find ourselves are not the fault of any politician. I know this is only one day, and our relationships endure. It all sucks anyway. We will spend this holiday reminiscing about Thanksgivings past and anticipating Thanksgivings yet to come. We hold in our hearts all those from whom we are separated this year.

Our best wishes to friends and loved ones, here and elsewhere, however you are spending this most unusual and fraught holiday season.

Play Ball

Linda and I agreed to re-up today. Talent scout that I am, I originally signed her to a long-term contract, but that expired many years ago. Because I’m a cagey bastard, I included a reserve clause that enables me to renew the original terms every year if negotiations on a new contract break down—and I always make sure they do. No arbitration, no free agency. It’s indentured servitude, really. Sucks to be her, I suppose. Sue me.

The original terms included bonuses based on performance and durability, and she meets them every year. Plus, this spring she reported to camp in The Best Shape of Her Life and showed all the rooks how it’s done. She shows up every day, and she always brings her “A” game.

Sometimes I think she thinks I’m looking for a reason to cut her. I get it; youth is prized in this business. Every veteran looks over her shoulder at the kid who thinks she’s the next big thing. Maybe that gives Linda an edge. She doesn’t see how I’ve come to rely on her steadiness in the clutch. I don’t need to coddle her like some wide-eyed youngster who’s never felt the pressure of the big time. She’s the one I want on the field when everything’s on the line and someone has to win the day.

So I’ll bring her back for another year. Same terms.

She’s a gamer. I like that in a woman.

About Last Night

Did you watch the debate last night? I did, and by the end I was halfway through a full-blown anxiety attack. There were times early on when Joe Biden started to stutter, and I couldn’t deal. It wasn’t bad, but it was there. I sat there with my head in my hands, trying not to cry. I asked Linda, “Did you see him stuttering?” She hadn’t noticed. But I couldn’t not notice.

I don’t know at what point in my childhood I started to stutter. I just know that it was bad—bad enough that my parents sent me to speech therapy. (Is that even a thing anymore? Do kids still get speech therapy for stuttering?) Mom says I was improving until the day I was called out of class in junior high school for therapy. It was announced over the school loudspeaker: “WILL JEFF STEELE PLEASE REPORT TO THE OFFICE FOR SPEECH THERAPY?” Because public humiliation always helps. After that, Mom says, I was back to square one and therapy was useless. 

At some point in my tween years, I decided I wanted to be a trial lawyer. Imagine that: a kid who couldn’t get words out of his mouth was going to make a career in public speaking. It was insane. But I decided that this was a thing I wanted, and no handicap was going to stop me. If I stuttered, people would have to listen harder. They would have to lean in and focus on what I said, not how I said it. I wasn’t going to be deterred. I have no idea where that self-possession came from. 

I didn’t date in high school. There were a lot of reasons for that, but one was an absolute terror of talking on the phone. There were no cell phones in those days, so no texting. You wanted to talk to a girl, you had to call her. I couldn’t. My stutter got worse when I was nervous so, unlike normal people, I couldn’t hide my nerves. All a girl had by which to judge me was my voice on the telephone line, and it sputtered like a ’57 Chevy. The date wasn’t worth the humiliation if the date ever happened, which it wouldn’t because who would want to go out with such a goober? 

To this day I don’t answer the phone. I make my wife do it. I don’t need that kind of stress. 

Things got better. I discovered alcohol in college, and it helped. I got laid. I became more social, and therefore more relaxed, and thus I stuttered less. I learned how to control my breathing in ways that mitigated the stutter. Then law school, and trial practice classes. I developed a pretty tough skin. No, I did more than that. I became an accomplished public speaker. I gave closing arguments and won significant cases. I argued before courts of appeal. Some political types suggested I consider running for Congress. (Um, no.) I made speeches to a couple of hundred people in my congregation at holidays, including one time when I got to the podium only to discover that my printer had only printed every other page and I had to wing it. No one ever knew. I was good in my time.

But after every legal argument or speech, that suit went to the cleaners because it was drenched in flop sweat. I was simultaneously wound up and exhausted, every time. My nerves were shot. I drank and went to bed. 

It never goes away completely. Sometimes I can tell when the words aren’t going to come out right, and I can search for alternative words or phrases so quickly you don’t know I’ve done it. Sometimes it catches me by surprise. Sometimes there are no alternatives. You know one phrase that trips me up? My own damned name. That’s right; I stutter when saying my name. I’ll be called upon to introduce myself, and I’ll insert an “ah” or “um” between my first and last names so I don’t trip over it, and everyone will laugh—“Having trouble remembering your name? HAR HAR HAR HAR.” Then I am ten years old again, embarrassed and seething.

Have you seen the clip in which Joe Biden comforts the kid who stutters? Have you seen where he puts his forehead against the boy’s forehead and tells him it’s going to be okay, and that there will always be bullies but he doesn’t have to let them win? Today I want to do that for Joe. I want to tell him that I noticed last night, and it’s okay. I listened, and I heard what he said without regard to how he said it. There will always be bullies, and he doesn’t have to let them win. I want to say that, but I would cry if I ever did. And it wouldn’t come out right, because I would stutter.  

I am a sixty-year-old man. Holy fucking hell, why am I never over it?

Addendum: My mom saw this post and reminded me of important facts that the mists of time had obscured for me. My folks never put me in speech therapy. My schools did that twice without consulting or informing them. When Mom got wind of it in elementary school, she stopped it because her research had indicated that the best way to treat a stutter was to leave it alone and not make the child self-conscious. Sure enough, I got steadily better on my own—until my junior high school again put me in therapy without consulting Mom, and used the public address system to call me out of class. She stopped that, too, but the damage was done.

And Now, The Rest of the Story

Something happened in last night’s Presidential debate that most people probably missed, but that is crucial to understanding what happens after November 3.

Pennsylvania is moving away from Trump and toward Biden. Fivethirtyeight.com’s models now show that Biden wins the state 79 times out of 100. If you look at the electoral map, Pennsylvania is the ballgame. Here’s why:

The states of the upper Midwest—Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—all have similar demographics and similar economics. This was the “blue wall” that Hillary Clinton famously and erroneously counted on in 2016. Biden leads in every one of those states, but it’s closest in Pennsylvania. That means that if Biden wins Pennsylvania, he probably wins the others as well. If that happens, Biden does not need to win a single swing state to win the election. He doesn’t need Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Iowa, Georgia, or even Arizona (where he currently leads).

Trump needs to win every swing state and take one or more of the upper Midwest states. Pennsylvania is his best shot, and it’s slipping away from him.

Early voting has already started in Pennsylvania. Last night Trump claimed that his poll watchers were excluded from polling places in Philadelphia because “bad things happen in Philadelphia.” That’s false. In fact, there are no polling places open. Trump’s poll watchers were refused entry to the offices of election staff because they are not registered as poll watchers. Nothing inappropriate happened.

Not that that matters. Trump is laying the groundwork for disputing the election results in Pennsylvania. He is teeing up the argument that he lost the state because shady things happened in Philadelphia, and the “proof” of that is the fact that his non-registered poll watchers were denied access to election staff. The fact that it’s all hooey doesn’t matter. What matters is that he has just given us a preview of the justification he will assert for refusing to accept the results of the election.

Step Right Up

In the wake of revelations that Donald Trump told Bob Woodward that he, Trump, had deliberately misled the American people about the dangers of Covid-19, White House officials reportedly are scrambling to assign blame. Aides are pointing fingers at each other, asking whose stupid idea it was to have Trump talk to Woodward in the first place.

The truth is, they couldn’t have stopped him.

Once upon a time I was a criminal prosecutor. It occasionally happened that I would find myself in trial on a case that looked far better on paper than it did when testimony was given in open court. Many was the time when I said, “Your Honor, the People rest,” and thought to myself, This case is a piece of crap. I’m gonna lose. Then the defendant would take the stand and lose the case right back to me. He’d say things that proved his guilt, or were so terrible that they made the jurors want to convict him as fast as they could. I’d win. Afterward, I’d think, Why did the defense put on a case at all? Why didn’t the attorney just rest right after I rested, and then argue to the jury that I hadn’t proved much of anything—certainly not enough to send a person to prison?

It took me a while to figure it out. The answer was that the defendant wanted to testify. Crooks tend to be people who have spent their lives pulling a fast one on family, friends, and acquaintances. They peddle bullshit, and over the course of time they hone their craft to the point that they think they will always be able to bullshit their way out of trouble. Then they get to court and it doesn’t work on strangers, and off to prison they go.

Their attorneys let them do this because it’s less hassle. If the attorney keeps the defendant off the stand and the jury convicts, the defendant is mad at his lawyer. If the defendant testifies and convinces the jury to convict him, he has no one to blame but himself. The attorney got paid up front, so who cares? Let the clown testify and convict himself.

Now think about how many decades Donald Trump has been peddling bullshit.

Trump is P.T. Barnum. He doesn’t worry about whether what he says is true. He is only concerned with whether what he says is useful. Life is all about—and only about—making a buck. If saying a thing makes him a buck, it’s right to say that thing. He thinks all the handwringing over the falsity of his statements is funny. He thinks you’re a loser and a sucker for thinking truth matters.

Trump thinks (wrongly) that his utilitarian view of language serves him well because he thinks (wrongly) that he is a successful businessman, and that lying has been one of the engines of his (illusory) success. So why wouldn’t he talk to Woodward? Trump didn’t talk to him for his last book, Fear: Trump in the White House, and the result was an unflattering portrait. Not this time. No sirree. This time, Trump the con artist was going to bullshit Woodward into writing a paean to the greatest President ever to appear under the Big Top.

No one in Trump’s orbit was ever going to stop him. It would be an affront to Trump’s ego to suggest that he couldn’t put one over on Woodward. Affronts to this President’s ego are not well-received. Why put your head on that chopping block? Let the clown testify and convict himself.

It is mildly interesting, I suppose, to wonder whether Trump understands the mistake he made. Does he know how badly he screwed up, or is he confused about all the fuss? If it’s the latter, he has come to believe his own bullshit. If it’s the former, he will never admit it. Either way, we can expect him to lash out soon at some unrelated target in an attempt to change the subject. The key to sleight of hand, after all, is to distract the mark while the con takes place just out of view. Come one, come all: the circus is in town.

Racism 2020

Read this article. It may seem at first like just another outrage of the type that has become so common these days that we’re becoming inured to them. But there’s so much to unpack here that it’s worth spending a few minutes on this one:

https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-election/gail-welch-mississippi-elections-commissioner-black-voter-registration-a9604731.html

First, if you want to know why it’s important to keep saying, “Black lives matter,” consider this statement from this election official: “The blacks are having lots (of) events for voter registration. People in Mississippi have to get involved, too[.]” Notice that she considers “The blacks” and “people” two different categories. If Black Americans aren’t people, their lives don’t matter. You won’t find a plainer statement of racism, or a more cogent justification for BLM.

Next, consider her “explanation” when called on her racism. First, she said she intended her message to be private—as if it is a defense to racism to say you didn’t mean for other people to find out. Second, she says she merely intended to encourage voter turnout. But how does expressing concern about Black registration encourage voter turnout? By stoking white fear, obviously. She’s trying to encourage white voter turnout, not voter turnout generally.

Third, she seems to realize that her “explanation” is such complete B.S. that it is incoherent. Her post, she says, “wasn’t intended to be anything.” Right. Did she have a seizure that caused her fingers to type randomly, and did that random typing just happen to result in complete sentences that just happened to relate to her official duties and just happened to express racism? Because otherwise, her post was intended to be something. She just can’t articulate a non-racist explanation, because there is none.

Last but not least, I first saw this story when it was posted to Facebook by a friend. His post cited an article in the New York Post, which I consider so trashy that I thought it worthwhile to corroborate the story from a more reputable source before reposting. I found local news outlets in Mississippi that reported it, several articles in African-American outlets like BET and theroot.com, and this article from the UK. I could not find an American national news outlet that reported this story. That is where we are in this country. A few short years after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act on the grounds that it isn’t necessary anymore, open racism on the part of election officials in the former Confederacy apparently is so ordinary that it is not even considered national news.

When Joe Biden wins in November this kind of racism will go back underground, where it festered before Donald Trump. It will not magically disappear. Racists will not suddenly find enlightenment. Most of them will be more articulate than this woman. They will rationalize and explain, and many people who don’t want to believe racism is a problem will be convinced because they want to be convinced. That’s how confirmation bias works. When that happens, remember what it was like when white supremacists felt it was safe to speak their true feelings aloud.

Evolution

Adam said to Lucy, “This just won’t do, you know. I’m going to need a better story.”

Lucy looked at Adam with big, sad eyes. She said nothing.

Adam continued, “You’re very sweet, but you’re an Australopithecus. I can’t have people believing that you created me. They’ll always think of me as an ape. If I want to be more than that, I need to be free of my past.” Lucy groomed herself; she ate a mite. Adam said, “Look, I’ll always be grateful to you, but don’t tell anyone you know me, okay?”

Adam sat down and wrote a story. He created a Creator, and a garden, and he saw that it was good. He wrote for six days, and on the seventh day he rested. He had written the story of himself, and now he could be whoever he wanted to be.  

Adam was a man like any other man; he fell hard for the first naked woman he saw. Eve and Adam had three boys. Abel was their favorite, so it was easy for him to persuade his parents to send him to Europe for his education. He took his brother, Seth, with him, and when Seth was killed in an anti-immigrant riot Abel raised his brother’s children.

Cain was hell-bent on proving he wasn’t Abel, so he lit out for Asia. There, Cain could be whoever he wanted to be. For the first time, he wasn’t just Adam’s son or Abel’s nerdy brother. He changed his name to “Kublai” because he thought that sounded cooler than “Cain.” He dressed in robes and grew a hipster topknot and beard. He made friends. Life was good.

Cain/Kublai married Awan, who bore him a son, Enoch. One day, when Enoch had grown into a young man, he approached his father. “Dad,” he said, “Asia is cool and all, but I gotta go some place where I’m not just your son. I gotta be me.” Enoch kissed his parents goodbye and tramped northward. He walked through Siberia to Alaska before turning south. When he found good weather he set up camp, changed his name to Old Crow, and began writing the story of himself. Old Crow wrote that Earth Maker and Coyote sang together to create the world, and that Coyote endowed Old Crow with his cunning and wit. In this way did Enoch/Old Crow make himself a great man and escape the shadow of Kublai.

Abel raised Seth’s kids. There were so many people in Europe by this time that they needed last names to tell each other apart. Seth’s kids were given the name “Abelson,” after their uncle. One day, the eldest, Enos, shouted at Abel, “I have absolutely fucking had it with this place! All day long it’s ‘Enos Abelson will make his family proud.’ ‘Is Enos Abelson going into his family’s cattle business?’ ‘Enos Abelson looks just like his siblings and his uncle!’ No one in this burg knows the real me! Even I don’t know the real me! I have to get out.”

Enos Abelson hired out on a galleon and sailed to New York, where immigration officials changed his name to Eddie Abelson. He and his wife, Martha (née Orlovsky), became citizens, opened a dry goods store, and started a family. They became civic boosters, proudly displaying the flag of their adoptive homeland on every national holiday. Their lives were good.

Eddie and Martha’s oldest son was Abraham. One day, Abraham said to his wife, Sarah, “Why are we starving and freezing in New York when we could be starving and warm in California?” They rented a car and drove to Los Angeles, where Abraham and Sarah Abelson became Arthur and Sasha Green. (They picked “Green” out of a phone book.) The family prospered. Artie Green became chief counsel at Paramount Pictures. He and Sasha entertained entertainers. Life was good.

One day, the Greens’ middle son said to them, “Mom, Dad, I’m feeling the need to strike out on my own. I want to find my destiny and my identity. Don’t worry, though. With social media now a thing, I can go anywhere in the world without leaving home. I can talk to anyone I want. I can be anyone I want. All I need is a user name. What do you think of ‘Sweyn?’”

Sweyn logged on. He said to Lucy0088, “This just won’t do, you know. You’re going to need a better story.”

Lucy0088 looked at Sweyn with big, sad eyes. She said nothing.

Sweyn continued, “You’re a bot. Those big, sad eyes never blink. They aren’t even your eyes. I wish I could find someone out there who was real, you know? Someone who didn’t pretend to be something they’re not.” Sweyn wanted to believe in such a place, so he sat down and wrote the story of himself. In his story there was a garden to the East where everyone was genuine, and everything was just as it seemed. The garden was named “Olduvai Gorge.” And Sweyn looked upon the garden, and he saw that it was good.

Macedonian Lives Matter

You guys would not believe what has happened. Last month, Linda asked me to transplant a rose bush in our backyard. I was out there digging a hole for the bush when my shovel hit something solid. I dug around it until I could pull it up. It was an earthen jar. Inside the jar was a scroll. On the scroll was writing in a language I could not understand.

We brought the scroll to experts at U.C. Davis, who have verified that the writing is a previously unknown dialogue written by the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato. It must have been in the possession of the previous owner of our house (a UCD professor) who forgot where he’d hidden it before he moved away.

The work has been translated. I am able to present it to you here for the first time. Enjoy.

The setting is the square in front of the amphitheater. Socrates has finished giving a lesson in philosophy to his students and is preparing to leave when he is approached by Phaedrus, a former student and longtime friend.

Socrates: Phaedrus, my dear fellow! How good to see you again!

Phaedrus: And you, Socrates, my teacher.

Socrates: But Phaedrus, you look upset. What has furrowed your brow so?

Phaedrus: Socrates, I have come from the agora. What I saw there has upset me terribly. A great wrong was done to a blameless citizen of Greece. I do not know how to make sense of the events I have witnessed.

Socrates: Tell me what you saw Phaedrus. Perhaps we can make sense of it together.

Phaedrus: I would be most grateful, my wise friend. I was just at the marketplace, where I saw a man shopping for fruit. His clothing distinguished him as a Macedonian. I saw several of our fellow Athenians eyeing him with suspicion—for what reason I do not know. When the man picked up several olives to look them over and set them back down, the merchant berated him. ‘Keep your filthy hands off my olives,’ said the merchant. ‘No Athenian will buy olives that Macedonian hands have touched.’

The man looked shocked at these words, but I fear the merchant was right. For when the Macedonian put down the olives, I saw looks of revulsion on the faces of nearby shoppers. Nevertheless, the Macedonian stood his ground. ‘I am Greek,’ said he. ‘I have as much right as any Greek to shop here, and to inspect your goods as any Greek would.’

Socrates: Indeed he does. Our laws provide for the equal treatment of all Greeks.

Phaedrus: Tell that to the Athenians I saw today! Socrates, the olive merchant was so enraged by the temerity of the Macedonian that he came out from behind his stall with a mallet, chased the man through the marketplace, and beat him to death! No one lifted a hand against the merchant.

Socrates: That is horrible!

Phaedrus: Yes, it was truly shocking. But I was equally disturbed by what happened next. Once it was clear that the Macedonian was dead, citizens of Athens who had witnessed the killing turned away and resumed their activities as if nothing had occurred. Now as it happened, the killing occurred in front of the stall of a woman selling amphorae. I turned to her and said, ‘Does this man’s life mean so little that his killing is as nothing to all who have seen it?’ She shrugged and said, ‘He was Macedonian.’ ‘But Macedonian lives matter,’ said I.

At this the woman rebuked me, saying, ‘All Greek lives matter. You should not say Macedonian lives matter, lest you denigrate the value of all other Greek lives.’ I had no response to this, and this is why I find myself so disturbed. I find no fault with the belief that all Greek lives matter—how could I? Yet it does not seem appropriate to respond to a specific crime with a statement that conveys only a general truth that is already known, and that demands no particular action. I find myself beset by confusion, Socrates. Do not Macedonian lives matter? Do not all Greek lives matter? Why is one statement made in response to the other as if they are opposites? Does the belief that Macedonian lives matter imply that others do not?’

Socrates: I understand your confusion, dear Phaedrus. Will you walk with me so that we may reason together?

Phaedrus: I would like nothing better, Socrates. But now I must visit the temple of the Oracle. My wife is with child, and I promised her I would seek the wisdom of the Oracle regarding the course of her pregnancy.

Socrates: Meet me tomorrow then, at the temple of Hephaestus. There we shall discuss this matter further.

Phaedrus: Until tomorrow, Socrates.

Socrates and his student, Phaedrus, meet on the steps of the temple of Hephaestus. There they continue the conversation begun the previous day.

Phaedrus: Good day, Socrates!

Socrates: Good day, Phaedrus. How propitious that we meet in this place. As Hephaestus molds elemental metals into objects of great strength and ingenuity, so do philosophers create strong and ingenious truths out of reason and logic.

Phaedrus: May it be so today.

Socrates: Do you remember, Phaedrus, when I first began to teach you the elements of logic?

Phaedrus: I do indeed.

Socrates: You recall, then, that we began by examining the relationships between specific things and ideas and the general categories into which they fall, in order to then discover their relationship to each other.

Phaedrus: Refresh my recollection, my teacher.

Socrates: How is the state of your farm, Phaedrus? Does it prosper? Do you still grow oranges and pine nuts there?

Phaedrus: My farm is well, and I still grow those crops. Why do you speak of such things now?

Socrates: Is it correct, Phaedrus, to say that an orange is a specific thing, and fruit is the general category into which it falls?

Phaedrus: It would seem so.

Socrates: Is it also correct that fruit can itself be described as a specific item in an even more general category; namely, produce of the earth?

Phaedrus: That is also true

Socrates: Is it further correct to say that all oranges are fruit?

Phaedrus: Yes, certainly.

Socrates: And is all fruit produce of the earth?

Phaedrus: Of course.

Socrates: Does it necessarily follow, then, that all oranges are produce of the earth?

Phaedrus: It must be so.

Socrates: Let us describe this as a general logical proposition, independent of agriculture. If all A’s are also B, and all B’s are also C, then it must follow that all A’s are C. Is that correct?

Phaedrus: I do not see how it could be otherwise.

Socrates: Nor do I. But tell me, Phaedrus, is the reverse also true?

Phaedrus: I do not follow.

Socrates: Is all produce of the earth fruit?

Phaedrus: Certainly not! My pine nuts are not fruit. Eggplants and beans are not fruit. Yet they are all produce of the earth.

Socrates: Are any of these items—pine nuts, eggplants, or beans—oranges?

Phaedrus: Of course not.

Socrates: So then, not all produce of the earth is oranges, is it?

Phaedrus: No.

Socrates: So if all A’s are also B, and all B’s are also C, all A’s are also C. But if only some A’s are B, and only some B’s are C, then we cannot say that all A’s are C, can we?

Phaedrus: No. I remember this lesson now, Socrates. It is among the first you taught me.

Socrates: Now then, Phaedrus, tell me: Is Macedonia in Greece?

Phaedrus: You know it is.

Socrates: So a Macedonian is Greek?

Phaedrus: Yes.

Socrates: Remember, Phaedrus, we said that logic is a way of establishing the relationships between things, but also of ideas. Do you think that incorrect?

Phaedrus: No, it seems correct to me.

Socrates: Would you also agree that the statement “Life matters” is an idea?

Phaedrus: That seems right. The notion that life matters might not be subscribed to by all peoples. It is an idea that animates certain belief systems and cultures, but perhaps not others.

Socrates: Now we have already established that all Macedonians are Greeks, because Macedonia is in Greece. Do you agree?

Phaedrus: Yes, we have established that.

Socrates: We might say that “Macedonian” equals “A,” and “Greek” equals “B.” So all A’s are also B, correct?

Phaedrus: I think so, yes.

Socrates: We might also call the idea that life matters “C.” So if all Macedonians are Greek, and all Greek lives matter, then all Macedonian lives matter. Is this not so?

Phaedrus: It would seem so, Socrates. Yet I find that your logic does not clarify things for me, and in fact leaves me more confused than ever.

Socrates: Tell me why you are confused, so that we may find a remedy.

Phaedrus: There are two things that trouble me. First, if all Greek lives matter, and this necessarily means that all Macedonian lives matter, than to say that all Macedonian lives matter is a necessarily correct statement. No Greek should ever be opposed to the saying of that which is necessarily true. Thus, no Greek should ever disapprove of the statement, ‘Macedonian lives matter.’ Yet some clearly do. I believe I understand the reason for their disapproval, and this leads to my second concern.

All Macedonians are Greek, but not all Greeks are Macedonian. Some are Athenian, others Spartan, still others hail from Rhodes, Corinth, or elsewhere. If I say, ‘All Greek lives matter,’ I necessarily include Macedonians. But if I say ‘Macedonian lives matter,’ I do not necessarily include all Greeks. Does my omission of other Greeks not imply that their lives do not matter? It seems legitimate to object to singling out particular Greeks for special concern while dismissing others.

This is my conundrum: It seems impossible for those who believe all Greek lives matter to object to saying that Macedonian lives matter, because no one may object to the saying of a thing that necessarily is true. Yet it also seems that saying that Macedonian lives matter implies something untrue; namely, that other Greek lives do not matter. Thus, the statement, ‘Macedonian lives matter,’ seems true and untrue at the same time. How can that be?

Socrates: I believe we can resolve your conundrum. But we have spent enough time in conversation for one afternoon. Go to your home and tend to your family and fields, and meet me here again tomorrow so that we might continue.

Phaedrus: I will see you tomorrow then.

It is the next day. From across the agora Socrates spies Phaedrus coming toward him. Socrates ends his lesson, dismisses his students, and greets Phaedrus.

Socrates: Greetings, Phaedrus. I believe we have a conundrum to resolve. Do you recall that we began our discussion by relating specific things and ideas to the general categories into which they fall?

Phaedrus: Yes, I recall.

Socrates: Are specific things identical to general categories?

Phaedrus: Of course not.

Socrates: So an orange is a fruit, but “orange” and “fruit” do not have the same meaning?

Phaedrus: No. An orange is but one example of a fruit. There are many others.

Socrates: Do you like some fruit, and dislike others?

Phaedrus: Yes, and I suppose I am like most people in that regard.

Socrates: I suppose you are. Do you like the oranges you grow, or do you grow them only for sale?

Phaedrus: I like them a great deal. On our farm, we usually keep a certain portion of the harvest for our personal use.

Socrates: I envy you your abundant supply of fresh oranges. I like oranges, too. Now tell me, Phaedrus, what do you know about my taste for grapes?

Phaedrus: Nothing. How would I know?

Socrates: Well, you know that I like oranges. Oranges are fruit. Grapes are also fruit. Does my taste for oranges mean I necessarily like grapes?

Phaedrus: No.

Socrates: Even though both are fruit?

Phaedrus: That does not determine your taste.

Socrates: Does my taste for oranges mean I dislike grapes?

Phaedrus: No.

Socrates: Even though both are fruit?

Phaedrus: Again, that tells me nothing. An orange is only one type of fruit. It may be that all fruit share certain characteristics that you enjoy. If so, you may like all fruit. But it may also be that fruits share certain characteristics but differ in other characteristics, and those differences may result in your liking some and disliking others.

Socrates: And this is because a specific thing is not identical to, or fully congruent with, the general category to which it belongs?

Phaedrus: I suppose you could put it that way.

Socrates: So, if I like all oranges, and all oranges are fruit, but not all fruit are oranges, we cannot conclude that I like all fruit.

Phaedrus: That is correct.

Socrates: Neither can we conclude from my like of oranges that I dislike any other specific fruit?

Phaedrus: Again, that is correct.

Socrates: Now, imagine that my former student, Xenophon, were here with us. Imagine that I said to you, ‘Phaedrus, I like oranges so much that I wish I had one to eat right now.’ And suppose Xenophon replied, ‘Socrates, why do you dislike grapes?’ What would you make of Xenophon’s apparent belief that I dislike grapes?

Phaedrus: I would think he had no foundation for saying any such thing.

Socrates: And that is because . . .

Phaedrus: Your taste for oranges implies nothing about whether you like or dislike grapes.

Socrates: Exactly. And so—

Phaedrus: Wait, Socrates. I think I understand. ‘Macedonian’ describes people from a specific city-state. ‘Greek’ is a more general category to which ‘Macedonian’ belongs. ‘Macedonian’ is not identical to, or exactly congruent with, ‘Greek.’ Therefore, if I say I like Macedonians, I have revealed nothing about whether I like or dislike other Greeks. If I say Macedonians are coarse in their manners or pleasing in their dress, I make no statement about the manners or dress of other Greeks. And if I say Macedonian lives matter, I do not denigrate the lives of other Greeks. To say that Macedonian lives matter is not say that the lives of other Greeks do not. It is only to assert that Macedonian lives matter in circumstances where others seem to believe Macedonian lives do not matter.

Socrates: You were always a quick student, my friend. Have we fully resolved your conundrum?

Phaedrus: Perhaps. I can see now that no one who believes that all Greek lives matter can object to the statement that Macedonian lives matter, because the former necessarily implies the latter. And I understand that saying Macedonian lives matter does not say imply any negative feelings toward the lives of other Greeks. Therefore, it is illogical to counter the statement ‘Macedonian lives matter,’ with ‘All Greek lives matter,’ because the two are not inconsistent. Thank you, my friend. You have almost put my mind at ease.

Socrates: Almost? Surely there cannot be more.

Phaedrus: Alas, Socrates, there is still one aspect of this matter that concerns me.

Socrates: My friend, it is late and I am tired. May we conclude our discussion tomorrow?

Phaedrus: Until tomorrow, Socrates.

Phaedrus and Socrates meet the following day in the agora to conclude their discussion.

Socrates: Tell me, my friend, what still troubles you about our discussions of the past few days?

Phaedrus: I understand now why it makes no sense to respond to the statement, ‘Macedonian lives matter,’ with the statement ‘All Greek lives matter.’ The former may be an important statement to make in appropriate circumstances, and the latter does not constitute a refutation. Yet the latter statement is, in fact, offered as a refutation to the former. Why? Are we Greeks so illogical that we cannot reason?

Socrates: No, Phaedrus, we Greeks are not illogical. But tell me, why do you think we study philosophy?

Phaedrus: I suppose we study philosophy so that we may know the world, and ourselves.

Socrates: That is certainly an admirable goal. But is that all? Suppose we know the world, and ourselves, and we find ourselves to be execrable. Has philosophy served its purpose in those circumstances?

Phaedrus: That seems doubtful. Philosophy must be the pursuit of knowledge in service to the virtuous life.

Socrates: I agree wholeheartedly with that definition. But tell me, would you presume to teach seafaring to the captains of the Athenian navy?

Phaedrus: No, I would not.

Socrates: Why not?

Phaedrus: Because they are already accomplished sailors and navigators.

Socrates: Would you attempt to improve the athletic skills of an Olympic champion?

Phaedrus: No, he needs no instruction from me.

Socrates: Would you try to teach farming to those whose fields overflow with the bounty of the earth?

Phaedrus: No, they are already experts.

Socrates: Why then, do we need to study philosophy?

Phaedrus: I see. We study philosophy to learn virtue. We need to learn virtue because we are not already virtuous.

Socrates: Can you name the ways in which people are not virtuous?

Phaedrus: They are so numerous that I doubt anyone could name them all.

Socrates: Too true, I am afraid. Allow me a momentary digression, Phaedrus. How are your children?

Phaedrus: They are fine, thank you. Zeno is an active and pleasant boy, and Dimitra is wise and comely.

Socrates: I seem to recall at one point that Zeno hated to eat vegetables. Is that still true?

Phaedrus: Yes, we still argue with him over his diet. He is fond of meat and fish, and he loves a crust of bread. But he turns up his nose at vegetables and will not eat them.

Socrates: Do you offer him instruction?

Phaedrus: Of course. I tell him that vegetables are important to his health.

Socrates: Why would you tell him that vegetables are important? Are not all kinds of food important?

Phaedrus: Of course they are. But he does not need encouragement to eat meat, fish, or bread. I talk to him about eating his vegetables because that is where the problem lies.

Socrates: Suppose I admonished you not to tell Zeno that vegetables are important, because to do so implies that other kinds of food are not important. What would you make of that?

Phaedrus: We have already resolved this issue. ‘Vegetables’ are a specific subset of the general category ‘food.’ Offering guidance regarding the importance of vegetables implies nothing about the value of other kinds of food. Thus, there is no logic to your position, and I would tell you so.  

Socrates: If you could not specifically address the importance of eating vegetables with Zeno, how would that matter?

Phaedrus: I would be prevented from naming and directly addressing a problem. I suppose I could address it indirectly by talking about the benefits of a balanced diet, but that would dilute the message. Zeno would not understand that I am concerned about his refusal to eat vegetables.

Socrates: I have no quarrel with what you say. But suppose I insist, in contravention to the reasoned conclusions at which we have arrived, that you must not tell Zeno specifically that eating vegetables is important. Does that seem sensible to you?

Phaedrus: No.

Socrates: Nor does it seem so to me. Tell me, Phaedrus, do you believe that we Greeks could have achieved what we have in mathematics, the arts, architecture, politics, and philosophy if we behaved in a wholly insensible manner?

Phaedrus: No, I do not.

Socrates: Tell me then, why a sensible people would insist on framing an important issue in a wholly insensible manner. Tell me why anyone would want to prevent you from talking to your son clearly and plainly about the deficiency in his diet. Tell me why people would insist that ‘All Greek lives matter’ is a sensible retort to ‘Macedonian lives matter,’ when logic and reason demonstrate that it is not.

Phaedrus: I do not believe this is a difficult question, Socrates. In your hypothetical, you would prevent me from naming and directly addressing a problem with my son by forbidding me to talk about vegetables. There must be a reason why you would do that. You must have an interest in doing so, whether or not I ascertain that interest. 

So too must there be a reason why people would prevent others from naming and directly addressing the problem that Macedonian lives do not matter in Athens by chastising them for saying that Macedonian lives do matter. I do not know what those reasons are, but I do not have to know what they are in order to see that people who act in this manner must have some interest in preventing a discussion of the problem.

Socrates: Have we now addressed your concerns in full?

Phaedrus: Yes, I believe we have. Socrates, I find myself once again in your debt. Thank you for your counsel and instruction.

Socrates: I believe we have reached the end of our discussion. My students are waiting for me to engage them in today’s lesson. Please give my regards to your dear wife, and I pray to the gods that we may see each other again soon.

Bostock v. Clayton County, Explained

Yesterday the United States Supreme Court ruled that homosexual and transgender people are protected from discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Many did not expect this result given the Court’s conservative majority. The crux of the issue in Bostock and the companion cases was whether Title VII’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sex covers sexual orientation and gender identity. (Although there has been much discussion in the popular press about the use and meaning of the word “sex” in the statute, the Court gave that word its ordinary meaning circa 1964: status as either male or female as determined by reproductive biology.) What surprises me the most about yesterday’s decisions is that the Court’s reasoning is not the reasoning the plaintiffs had urged it to adopt. In fact, the rulings are so laughably simple that I have to wonder if anyone saw this coming.

The employers in yesterday’s cases admitted that they fired the plaintiffs because of sexual orientation or transgender status. They simply argued that Title VII does not forbid their actions.

Plaintiffs were trying to extend reasoning first adopted in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins. Ann Hopkins was an associate at Price Waterhouse who was denied partnership despite having an exemplary work history and a substantial book of business. When she asked male partners the reasons for their decision, they explained that it had nothing to do with her work. She was too aggressive, didn’t act feminine enough, and didn’t dress or style her hair the way they believed a woman should. She sued. Price Waterhouse contended that it could not be guilty of sex discrimination because it had made partners of other women who conformed to their expectations.

Hopkins won. She successfully argued that an employer discriminates on the basis of sex if it conditions employment on conformance to standards of appearance or conduct that are based on gender stereotypes. Thus, it didn’t matter that Price Waterhouse elevated other women to partnership. What mattered was that a woman would only be considered for partnership if she was the “right kind” of woman, and the employer’s notion of what constituted the “right kind” of woman was based on sexist stereotypes.

The plaintiffs in yesterday’s cases were trying to extend the reasoning of Hopkins. They claimed they were fired because they weren’t the “right kind” of men and women as defined by stereotypical ideas about gender norms, and thus could seek redress under Title VII even though the law wasn’t specifically written to cover homosexuality and transgender.

The Court didn’t bite. It declined to address gender stereotypes or the changing perceptions of gay and transgender people. In fact, in a certain sense it didn’t address the rights of gay and transgender people at all. Instead, the Court reasoned as follows: Employees A and B are both attracted to women. Employee A is a man; he can stay. Employee B is a woman; she’s fired. The only distinction between A and B is their sex. It’s okay for A to be attracted to women because he’s a man. It isn’t okay for B because she’s a woman. That’s discrimination on the basis of sex. Boom, we’re done.

The same reasoning applies to transgender employees. Behavior that is tolerated in one employee because she was born female is not tolerated in another because she was born male. That distinction—sex—is the basis for distinguishing between them. That’s sex discrimination. Boom, we’re done.

There’s a sense in which the simplicity of this argument is brilliant. It is simply beyond argument that the defendant employers tolerated behavior in other employees that they did not tolerate in the plaintiffs, and the reason for the disparate treatment is the sex of the employees. The logic of the decisions is unassailable.

But it’s also narrow. The Court made no broad declarations about the rights of gay and transgender people. It did not find that they have been subject to a history of invidious discrimination. Thus, it did not define them as a protected class such that constitutional claims under the Due Process or Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment will receive special attention. In fact, it did not decide any constitutional claims at all. Yesterday’s cases were brought under a federal statute. Congress can amend that statute if it pleases, although it probably won’t. The Court did not find that Congress intended Title VII to cover gay and transgender people. It did not find that the needs of gay or transgender employees must be accommodated in any way that does not involve disparate treatment on the basis of sex. For this reason, yesterday’s rulings are a significant victory for gay and transgender people. But it is an incomplete victory, and it does not represent full equality under the law.

Black Lives Matter. Damn Right They Do

I watch the news and see footage of the protests. I go online and read the blowback: “Why do black people complain about every little thing?” (Apparently murder is a little thing.) “Why does everything have to be about race?” (Apparently being murdered because of your race is about . . . something else.) I see the video of police officers advancing on demonstrators who are standing still and pepper-spraying them for no reason. I have seen this before.

Fifty-seven years ago, a poet asked, How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see? Fifty-seven years! And still we turn our heads and pretend.

People are angry. That’s good; anger is a great source of energy for those who would effect change. Me, I’m angered out. I’m too old for this. The things that used to make me angry now just make me want to weep. Everything we’re talking about in these days we’ve already talked about. The lessons we are pledging to learn today we were supposed to have learned long ago. Why didn’t we? Will we ever?

Get up, stand up. Stand up for your rights.

These words should be relics of a different time. They should be nostalgic. They should not be relevant today. We should know better now. Instead, we make the same mistakes over and over and over again. Then we’re surprised by the consequences. Then we pretend nothing happened.

I see so much white anger at being made to face ugly truths—so much denial. Then the Idiot-in-Chief tweets that Confederate names on military bases symbolize the great American tradition of “Winning, Victory, and Freedom!” I’m pretty sure those are three words you can’t associate with the Confederacy. Losing, defeat, and slavery? Sure thing. Those seem to be the opposites of winning, victory, and freedom, though. I used to wonder if he knew who won that war. Now I’m not convinced he even knows who fought it. Still, I’m sure his base reads that tweet and thinks, “Right on, bro.” After all, history is for weak-kneed Euro girly-men.

And you tell me over and over and over again, my friend, you don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction.

Sometimes I think we need to be more German. Education about the Holocaust is mandatory in Germany. There is no evasion, no turning away. German students are taught, “We did this. Not someone else. Not some long-dead ancestors who aren’t us. Don’t ever believe we’re not capable of monumental evil. Look at what we’ve done. We could do it again if we forget.”

We enslaved people. When we weren’t allowed to do that anymore, we used law and government to dehumanize them, make them invisible, and impoverish them for another hundred years. Now that we aren’t allowed to do that anymore, we deny we ever did it, or claim it doesn’t matter anymore. And still we dehumanize them as thugs and predators so that we can kill them in the street with impunity. Don’t ever believe we’re not capable of monumental evil. Look at what we’ve done.

Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swingin’ in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

Minneapolis is not a Southern city. Neither is Cleveland (Tamir Rice). Neither is New York (Eric Garner). This is not someone else’s problem.

I don’t want to relive my youth. It doesn’t thrill me to listen to old protest songs and think that we finally get to feel that sense of purpose again. No, I just wonder why we don’t learn—why it is so important to resist learning.

Around and around we go. We protest and organize and write letters and run candidates, and still we end up right back where we started. Fifty-seven years later, we have to ask again: How many deaths will it take ‘til they know that too many people have died?