Who do we shoot?

Here’s one of my favorite scenes from John Ford’s film adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Muley and his son confront The Man who has arrived to evict them from their Oklahoma farm. Muley, played by John Qualen (the condemned sad sack fom His Girl Friday), clings to his shotgun:

MULEY: You mean get off my own land?

THE MAN: Now don’t go blaming me. It ain’t my fault.

SON: Whose fault is it?

THE MAN: You know who owns the land — the Shawnee Land and Cattle Company.

MULEY: Who’s the Shawnee Land and Cattle Comp’ny?

THE MAN: It ain’t nobody. It’s a company.

SON: They got a pres’dent, ain’t they? They got somebody that knows what a shotgun’s for, ain’t they?

THE MAN: But it ain’t his fault, because the bank tells him what to do.

SON: All right. Where’s the bank?

THE MAN: Tulsa. But what’s the use of picking on him? He ain’t anything but the manager, and half crazy hisself, trying to keep up with his orders from the east!

MULEY: (bewildered) Then who do we shoot?

A host of demagogues these days are eager to answer Muley’s question. “Want to know who to blame?” they ask, “We’ll tell you.”

“Shoot the Mexicans,” says Lou Dobbs. “Shoot the lazy blacks on welfare,” says Grover Norquist. “Shoot the atheists,” says James Dobson. “And the gays,” adds his chief politico, Tony Perkins. “Shoot the Islamofascists,” say Dick Cheney, George W. Bush and the rightwing bloggers. “Shoot ‘em all,” says Fox News.

None of those suggestions, of course, are of any use to Muley or to his contemporary counterparts, because none of those scapegoats are really the source of their problems. But the demagogues don’t give a rat’s ass about solving Muley’s problems. Their only concern is making sure that he keeps his shotgun pointed somewhere else, somewhere that doesn’t threaten the status quo.

Such demagogues are con artists. And they’re good at it. But recognizing that is where things get tricky and difficult to talk about.

Good con artists are difficult to prosecute. This is true, in part, because getting conned is viewed differently than being the victim of other forms of crime. There’s a sense of shame, or at least of embarrassment, on the part of the victims, so they’re less likely than other crime victims to report the crimes. Con artists know this, and they exploit it — sometimes compounding that embarrassment by working a con that relies on the mark’s greed or chauvinism or some other trait they are unlikely to be proud of and thus making the victim feel complicit in their own victimhood.

It’s never easy to tell someone they’re being conned. “You’ve been hoodwinked. You’ve been had. You’ve been took,” Malcolm X said. “You’ve been bamboozled.” But nobody wants to hear that, even if it’s true. Especially not if it’s true. It sounds too much like, “You’ve been a sucker.” Or even, “You’ve been stupid.” It seems to add insult to injury so people reject both the message and the messenger. Even if that means continuing to subject themselves to the ongoing injury of the scam. They are, after all, accustomed to it.

Consider, for example, the state-run lotteries. These “games” (scratch-off cards? What joyous fun!) are exempt from federal truth in advertising laws because they aren’t fair games — the pay-out is woefully disproportionate to the odds. Having to explain that the state-sponsored lottery is a stacked deck and a bad bet would likely result in fewer people “playing” (Wheee!), and thus a reduction in the revenue from these lotteries.

That exemption and the lotteries themselves are con games. Yet no politician is ever going to say that. To say that would cost that politician votes across the board. Those who don’t waste their money on the lotteries would realize that such a politician was threatening to cut off a sleazy-but-significant source of state revenue that doesn’t cost them a penny. That would mean, for them, either an increase in taxes or a reduction in services — not a popular message. Those who do “play” the lottery would interpret “You’ve been hoodwinked” as “You’re stupid,” and that’s not going to win many votes either.

The demagogue/con-men wouldn’t be sitting idle, either, if some recklessly principled politician were to take such a stance. They would attack that politician as, of course, an “elitist,” portraying her or him as sneering and condescending to the salt-of-the-earth, just folks, red-blooded Americans of the heartland. “You’ve got a chance to keep your farm, Muley,” they would say. “You just need to win the lottery. But those elitists don’t want you to have that chance. …”

That cry of “elitism” always follows any attempt to cast light onto what Rick Perlstein calls “The Big Con.” A chorus of such cries greeted Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter With Kansas? That book offers an insightful look at how the scapegoating of “liberal elites” has become an integral aspect of maintaining the Big Con. It was thus bitterly ironic, but not at all surprising, that the scapegoaters seized on its publication as a chance to attack Frank as an “elitist” or “limousine liberal.” “You see that, Muley?” the demagogues said. “He thinks there’s something wrong with you. We like you just the way you are.

This brings us, of course, to Barack Obama and the ridiculousness of the past week here in the Keystone State. At a fundraiser in California, Obama was asked, in essence, “What’s the matter with Pennsylvania?” His answer echoed much of Frank’s analysis:

You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. …And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

That is, among other things, an astute summary of many of the bugbears and distractions the demagogues employ in order to keep the red states red and the shotguns pointed somewhere else.

It was entirely predictable that the demagogues would respond to Obama the same way they responded to Frank. “Elitism!” they cried, tripping over themselves in their best attempts to convey offendedness, desperately trying to brand Obama as a “latte liberal.” (The fact that the epithet for a prominent candidate of mixed-race heritage turned out to be “latte” is, of course, a wholly innocent accident of alliteration and it would be wrong to read anything more into that.)

“Then who do we shoot?”

Muley’s question is still, more or less, the question asked by every dispossessed, disenfranchised and desperate American family, by everyone whose life seems to be a series of long-odd, low-payout gambles in a rigged game.

We need to be able to talk about this. The Muleys of this world have been ill-served. They’ve been hoodwinked. They’ve been had. They’ve been took. They’ve been bamboozled. And they will continue to be treated the same way until we find a way to address this honestly.

So we need to be able to talk about this. We need to become the kind of people who are capable of talking about this. If the past week is any indication, we’re not there yet.

  • Bugmaster

    Regarding religion and such:
    In the interests of keeping my Pontificating Man image, I’d like to point out that, from the scientific point of view, concepts such as “love” or “fear” are not intangible. On the physical level, there are some very real changes that happen in your brain when you experience these emotions; there are certain areas of the brain that are responsible for them (such as the amygdala), and whose function is understood reasonably well. On the sociological level, when many people experience these emotions, their behaviors can be analyzed in aggregate. Love isn’t (just) a transcendent phenomenon that defies human understanding; it’s as real as rainbows, starlight, or gravity.
    Some people think this view of life is depressing (and, therefore, wrong — but that’s a fallacy). They think that it transforms humans into nothing more than pieces of mindless machinery. However, I personally have never been able to understand that point of view. IMO, the more we know about some phenomenon, the more we can enjoy its beauty and power. For example, we know today that stars are not mysitical dots of light in the sky, or the spirits of our ancestors — they’re massive fusion reactors. Not only does this knowledge provide a level of awesome that you just can’t get with meditation alone; it also allows us to appreciate galaxies, streamers of gas, the solar wind, and the Universe in general in a whole new light (*).
    As for philosophy, I think that it has its use, but it’s a very limited use. At some point, you have to stop contemplating your navel, and start getting your hands dirty, and the sooner, the better, IMO.
    Regarding celebrities:
    I don’t really recognize them by name. I don’t even see celebrities as people, to tell you the truth… More like artistic renderings.
    (*) Pun intended.

  • pointatinfinity

    People pick and choose their beliefs.
    I was under the impression that beliefs arose through experience rather than through conscious choice.

    In my experience, I believe that it is some of both (and will depend on the person.) The term “experience” is a vague word here; do you mean “I have experienced that things fall down when I let go, so I will believe in the theory of gravity”; “I have experienced the reading of biological texts, so I will believe in evolution”; “I have experienced the people I’ve spoken to stating beliefs that did not arise consciously, so I will believe that beliefs arise from experience rather than conscious choice”?
    Some people come through experience gradually to choose a set of beliefs (I am thinking of a gradual loss of religion or conviction that a different religion than the one you were brought up in is appropriate for you) whereas some experience a relatively rapid crisis and resolve it by a conscious choice of a set of beliefs.
    Your mileage may vary. My experience has led me to consciously choose a belief that there are lots of people who think differently than I think, feel differently than I feel, and believe differently than I believe. And to choose the belief that this makes life fun.

  • http://d-84.livejournal.com cjmr’s husband

    More like artistic renderings.
    I refer to celeb watching as “admiring the art of plastic surgery”.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/boldfacelie/ practicallyevil

    The issue is not zealotry but absolute truth, an idea that is hostile to the principle of freedom of conscience. Even when a person who believes in absolute truth does not try to force that belief on others, it seems like a grudging acceptance of freedom of conscience, like an arrogant belief that he knows what’s best for everyone.
    Tonio, in the very sentence you quoted me in I admitted, in not so many words, that what may be true for me, may not be true for you. You may believe in your naturalistic religion of pure reason over all, I’m genuinely intrigued by your ideas, send me the church newsletter, I’m still for right now a Catholic, but I’m perfectly capable of understanding why you would choose to believe in absolute reason and it has nothing to do with you “willfully denying God.” But if you are trying to say that you don’t understand how someone could believe that their position on a matter is right and yours is wrong then we are in for a long argument.

  • Bugmaster

    I admitted, in not so many words, that what may be true for me, may not be true for you.

    Isn’t this like saying that both positions are unknown at best, unknowable at worst, and thus likely to be false ? Contrast this with something like gravity or furniture. It’s not “true for me but false for you”. It’s true for everyone, regardless of whether you believe in it or not. It’s even true on Pluto, where there are no humans to consider it. Are you saying that God isn’t like that ?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/boldfacelie/ practicallyevil

    Isn’t this like saying that both positions are unknown at best, unknowable at worst, and thus likely to be false ? Contrast this with something like gravity or furniture.
    I can’t attest to gravity, but you taste in furniture may be different from my taste in furniture, your taste may be based on some interior design theory with stringent reasons as to why your arrangement of furniture is better than mine, and I could just choose furniture based on a personal taste, and we could have equally well appointed homes.
    Indeed your house indeed may be better appointed than mine from a design standpoint, but that doesn’t make my arrangement of furniture “wrong.” It doesn’t make your aesthetic “wrong” either, it just makes them different.

  • Jeff

    Indeed your house indeed may be better appointed than mine from a design standpoint, but that doesn’t make my arrangement of furniture “wrong.” It doesn’t make your aesthetic “wrong” either, it just makes them different.
    Bug chose a bad example. I think he meant a physical object: “chair” or “table”. The chair or table exist whether you believe in them or not [*] — they’re not “true for you but not true for me”.
    [*] unless you believe that there is no “real” physical world, or just like getting banged in the shins.

  • Tonio

    Love isn’t (just) a transcendent phenomenon that defies human understanding; it’s as real as rainbows, starlight, or gravity.
    While I agree. my point is that no matter the biological causes of love, no matter how it affects behavior, the experience itself resides in the consciousness. We perceive consciousness as separate from the physical universe. That doesn’t mean it can’t be analyzed, but it does mean that it is subjective.
    IMO, the more we know about some phenomenon, the more we can enjoy its beauty and power…
    Absolutely. That’s part of what I mean by the euphemism “naturalistic religion.”
    Isn’t this like saying that both positions are unknown at best, unknowable at worst, and thus likely to be false ? Contrast this with something like gravity or furniture. It’s not “true for me but false for you”. It’s true for everyone, regardless of whether you believe in it or not. It’s even true on Pluto, where there are no humans to consider it. Are you saying that God isn’t like that ?
    That is exactly what I’ve been trying to ask.
    Indeed your house indeed may be better appointed than mine from a design standpoint, but that doesn’t make my arrangement of furniture “wrong.” It doesn’t make your aesthetic “wrong” either, it just makes them different.
    How does that allegory square with the fact that many religions that claim to possess absolute truth? Wouldn’t empirical evidence be the only way to refute not just the claims but also the concept of absolute truth?

  • malpollyon

    @Froborr
    I wish Mathematicians were coherentist. Most often they are mushy unreconstructed Platonists. They seldom have even a philosophically rigourous account of proof. Similarly, science is hardly as philosophically uniform as you would claim. But, I seem to recall that you are unwilling to concede that mathematics studies anything real (although what else you can call facts that have stood unchallenged for thousands of years is beyond me).
    Still, I am curious, what part of the scientific method are you claiming mathematics lacks?
    Now statistics on the other hand, that is far too often an unscientific mess. (Particularly statistics as used in psychology, far too often they might as well be using numerology).

  • Froborr

    mal: Ye cats, where to start? Testability? Nothing in mathematics is testable, because there’s nothing to test it against. Empirical data gathering? Never happens, because there’s nothing empirical. Experimentation? Closest math comes is in the exploration of mathematical constructs, but those constructs are purely theoretical themselves. All math asks of its constructs is that they be consistent with themselves; science demands that a theory be not only internally consistent, but also describe phenomena or relationships between phenomena in the material realm, and do so in such a way that its ability to predict phenomena is testable.
    I’m not trying to cast math as being somehow inferior. I’m just saying that it’s not science, it’s math. Math is in its own category. It resembles (but often surpasses) science in its rigor. It resembles art in its production of works of beauty, its exploration of relationships, and its non-empirical nature. It resembles technology in its production of useful tools. But ultimately it is none of these things; it is something else entirely.
    As for what I’d call “facts” that have remained unchanged for millennia: consistent. Nothing more. The noun-verb distinction has likewise existed for millennia, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything other than a way of reconstructing our perceptions of phenomena into something that the human brain can process easily.

  • malpollyon

    @Froborr
    Three words Four Color Theorem.
    Look it up.
    If that proof wasn’t an empirical test, I’m not quite sure what you mean by the words.
    There either are or aren’t a finite number of twin primes, we don’t know. At the moment it’s an empiricle question.
    Mathematicians perform experiments all the time. Gendanken, and if you think that’s not an experiment, Einstein would beg to differ.
    Mathematics is full of predictions, they’re confirmed all the time. Every time you test a mathematical model of the world that’s necessarily a confirmation of the mathematics.
    I really am at a loss here to understand the distinction you’re trying to draw.
    If mathematics is as divorced from the world as you say, how does it *work*? Magic?

  • Bugmaster

    @practicallyevil, Jeff:
    Yes, Jeff is right: In my example, I meant furniture in general, as physical objects, not as a aesthetic. However, if I understand your “feng shui” example, then you’re saying that religion is also a matter of aesthetics: you may like a bearded old man in the sky, whereas I like the Earth Mother, so, to each his own (yes, I’m obviously caricaturizing religions here). But this implies that none of the religions are true — or perhaps there’s just no way to tell — so it doesn’t really matter which one you join, as long as it feels right to you.
    Many religions, however, actually do claim that they are factually true, and that joining the right religion does matter a great deal (and some also claim that they have evidence for their gods’ existence). For example, some versions of Christianity claim that they are uniquely true, and that adherents of all other religions will go straight to Hell. I’m not saying they’re right, but still — it seems that many theists see their religions as something far more than a mere matter of aesthetics.
    Personally, I think that, while all religions are very likely false, it does indeed matter whether I’m right about it or not. For example, if the fundamentalist Jesus really does exist, then I really am going straight to Hell. I could always say, “well, Jesus just feels wrong to me; I prefer Aphrodite, she’s a lot prettier”, but that won’t matter when I’m burning in lakes of molten sulfur. The fundamentalist Jesus still exists, or doesn’t exist, regardless of how I feel about him.

  • jamoche

    People pick and choose their beliefs.
    I was under the impression that beliefs arose through experience rather than through conscious choice.

    The picking and choosing can be conscious or subconscious. Imagine a hypothetical church that is full of people who believe that other people’s suffering is God’s will and not to be interfered with. They don’t come right out and say it, but they don’t participate in food drives or anything like that. Now imagine someone who doesn’t believe this walking in. They’re *saying* the same things as his other church, but something is off that he might not be able to detect consciously, since it’s harder to notice something that’s absent. Subconsciously, the members of the group have chosen one thing; subconsciously, the new person feels something is off and decides not to stay.

  • Froborr

    I’m not going to answer your points in the order you made them, because it’s easier this way. Apologies.
    There either are or aren’t a finite number of twin primes, we don’t know. At the moment it’s an empiricle question.
    There are or are not a finite number of twin primes in our mathematical constructs — it is an empirical question in the sense that counting the number of times the word “I” appears in Robinson Crusoe is an empirical question, but that doesn’t make it a scientific question. Like Robinson Crusoe, the prime numbers are an imaginary human construct, not material reality.
    Mathematicians perform experiments all the time. Gendanken, and if you think that’s not an experiment, Einstein would beg to differ
    In science, Gedanken are not acceptable as proofs, only as illustrations. The theory of relativity was popular from fairly early on as it provided a good explanation for the otherwise baffling Michelson-Morely (sp?) experiments, but it was only after its predictions were observed in the real world (particularly the bending of light by the sun’s gravity, observed by looking at stars near the sun during an eclipse) that it became established.
    Every time you test a mathematical model of the world that’s necessarily a confirmation of the mathematics.
    Well, no. The mathematics have already been confirmed by mathematical proofs. What you’ve confirmed is your choice of that particular mathematical model over any of a multitude of other, equally mathematically valid models of the world. For example, Newtonian mechanics and relativity are both mathematically valid models. However, at high energies and speeds, relativity more closely predicts the real-world numbers than Newtonian mechanics does.
    The Four Color Theorem is an interesting case. I am not certain I completely understand how it was proved, but it appears to have involved (1) showing that if a particular planar graph with ~1800 vertices required no more than four colors, then no planar graph could require more than four colors, and (2) painting the graph with four colors. This tells us something interesting about planar graphs, to be sure, and could be very useful in instructing us on how to construct models of real-world phenomena that involve planar graphs. However, it does not directly tell us anything about any actual, material, real phenomena.

  • malpollyon

    We really seem to be talking past each other here. Firstly, yes the four color theorem tells us something practical, that’s why I used it as an example. It tells us you never need more than four colors to color a map. Similarly, Natural numbers aren’t just some platonic ideal, they’re what you get when you count something.
    You seem to think that abstractions can be anything, which in a sense is true, but mathematics is finding out what’s true about *specific* abstract entities. There’s a right answer, and many wrong ones, just like in the rest of science. In the same way that Newtonian, Quantum and Relativistic theory each give different answers and are useful in different areas.
    I wonder, do you think Computer Science is a science? Neuroscience? Pyschology? Sociology? Or even, heaven forfend, Economics?
    What do we have to be studying to count as scientists in your mind? These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’m genuinely curious. Also, your account of relativity is a bit muddled, what *really* settled it was the orbit of Mercury, which had already been measured. The eclipse experiment was awful, the observer error made the whole thing basically worthless. In fact the whole episode is fascinating, I reccomend you look it up.

  • Bugmaster

    Personally, I think Computer Science is a misnomer. It should be called “Applied Math”. Which still makes it incredibly useful — it allows me to earn a salary, for one thing, not to mention this whole “series of tubes” thing that we’ve got going…

  • Froborr

    Neuroscience, psychology, and sociology are all three sciences, since they study a natural phenomenon that exists in the real, material world, namely human behavior. Economics could be a science if done properly, but empirical data and testing are so rare as to be almost nonexistant in economics-as-practiced, which makes it basically nothing at all. Computer science is a tougher case. The actual design and programming of computers is obviously a form of engineering. Theoretical computer science… hmm, I’ll have to think about that.
    It might be part of what I’m starting to suspect is a fourth type of intellectual endeavor (along with science, art, and technology), consisting of math, maybe language (languages themselves, not linguistics, which is a science since it studies a material phenomenon), and maybe theoretical computer science. I’m not entirely sure what these would be called, but they study the relationships between things that are defined but don’t exist. Abstractions?
    A natural number is not a material object, nor a property of material objects, nor a behavior of material objects. It is, in short, not a part of material reality; we assign numbers to objects when we count them, and the numbers themselves are constructs of the human imagination, much like “good”, “bad”, “tasty”, and “disgusting”. Admittedly, since natural numbers appear to be universally applied the same way by all or nearly a;; humans, it is in a somewhat different category from the other valuations I mentioned, though without a non-human mind to check against it is impossible to tell whether the natural numbers are non-arbitrary evaluations or, like color, arbitrary evaluations that happens to be made the same way by (nearly) all humans because of the way we are structured.

  • Froborr

    Bug — Applied Math is what it was called when my parents were in school.

  • ohiolibrarian

    the notion that there is no deliberate plan or intention behind the “bad things” may terrify them.
    Frankly, what terrifies me is the notion that there is a “deliberate plan or intention behind the “bad things””! Whenever something bad happens, and someone comes up and tells me that “it’s part of God’s plan,” I not only have to restrain myself from punching the person in the face, but I feel really nervous. I’m not certain if it makes me more nervous that there might be a God who operates that way, or that there are people who actually believe that such a statement is comforting.

  • Sniffnoy

    To take Froborr’s argument a bit further, whole numbers are equivalence classes* of finite sets. malpollyon says they’re what you use to count actual objects… but again, this is just us applying a useful mathematical model! That we count things with whole numbers is forced upon us – as long we choose to model collections of real-world objects with mathematical sets. :)
    Regarding 4-color theorem, let’s not forget all the math used to reduce it to a finite number of cases. And once it’s down to a finite number of cases, so, we do case analysis, so what? Case analysis is the same whether done by human or computer. But mathematics settles for nothing less than exhaustive case analysis, while science makes generalizations about infinite sets from experience of finitely many of its members; that’s what’s meant by empirical, not just the analysis of cases. Or else, say, the proof of triangle inequality for real numbers would be “empirical”.
    *OK, specific representatives, if you want to keep it all within ZFC, but I’m not going to worry about that here.

  • Tonio

    Whenever something bad happens, and someone comes up and tells me that “it’s part of God’s plan,” I not only have to restrain myself from punching the person in the face, but I feel really nervous. I’m not certain if it makes me more nervous that there might be a God who operates that way, or that there are people who actually believe that such a statement is comforting.
    I have the same emotional reaction, but for a different reason. The logical conclusion from the “God’s plan” belief is that I deserve to suffer, or that it’s acceptable for me to suffer. It implies that it would be acceptable for the believer to act as God’s agent and inflict further suffering. This is true even though the believer would probably reject the conclusion.

  • Sniffnoy

    …OK, I suppose actually what I wrote is a bit ridiculous, as the theory of numbers seems to always precede the theory of sets. But using numbers to count things is still a mathematical model, founded in set theory or no. The reason everyone comes up with it, with whole numbers, is because it’s so useful.


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