Monday Morning Insight: the Educated Electorate

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)


It may do little to improve your Monday to remind you that tonight is the first Presidential debate of the 2016 election. Here’s something to think about as the debate looms, from a letter written this week in 1820 by Thomas Jefferson:

I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.


A photographer spotted this bus in Australia. I feel as if I’m riding it to the end of the line. (Image: “undecided,” by Vanessa Pike-Russell, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


In other words, YOU and I are the “safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society” in which we live. Our government is not, because everyone can point to one or another excess of the government in which it abused its power and curtailed citizens’ liberties. As individuals, we have much less power and inclination to interfere in the lives of our fellow citizens; our government, on the other hand, seems to have little better to do than to interfere in all our lives.

For us to exercise our control over the government and the powers we grant to it — “with wholesome discretion,” as Jefferson wrote — we need to educate ourselves. And if we fail to do so, and allow the government to abuse its power further and so erode ours, then we have ourselves to blame.

Enjoy the debate!

P.S. If anyone is interested, I’ll try to compile a post or two about how I would answer tonight’s debate questions.

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There, but for the Grace of God …

I found myself thinking, as the second major party convention came to a close, about the twists and turns our lives take, about how remarkable it is that anyone rises to fame or prominence, and about how the major party candidates got started on their journeys.

Athletes, for instance, may be gifted physically but they put in long hours of training and practice and preparation before competing, and the competition at higher and higher levels is so fierce that only a tiny fraction of all who ever played the game — whatever game it might be — will make it to the professional ranks. Artistic pursuits are much the same — whatever natural gifts we may have still need to be nurtured and developed, and only a very few professional (as in, making a living from the pursuit) writers, painters, actors, or musicians will ever emerge from the vast numbers of people who have dabbled from time to time in the creative arts.

In each case, the transition from amateur to professional to world-renowned is based on the performance, the output of all the work, as evaluated by the audience.

Can the same be said for politics?

Some politicians have natural gifts of charisma, charm, and attractiveness, and many of them “train” long and hard by networking, developing positions on issues, communicating with partisans (and opponents), and raising money. But political performance seems to be measured by intentions rather than results, promises rather than productivity, and politics is a game in which the influence of others plays a much bigger role than in other areas of life.

The influence of others may be natural to the political game. The intent for the candidate is not to appeal to everyone but to just enough people to get elected — for the party, not to attract everyone but to attract enough to get enough of its candidates elected to enact its preferred policies — so patrons and pathfinders and big-time players who can lend their own influence to a potential candidate become very important to success. Not so in other fields, where a player touted by a superstar must still perform on the court or an artist mentored by a master must still paint something worthy of recognition: in politics, notoriety and the right connections seem to be far more important than doing the actual work of governing or legislating. (Were actual voting records and accomplishments important, ineffective incumbents would be voted out far more often and certainly not be advanced to higher offices.)

Presidential Election Results 2016

Seems reasonable. (Image: “Presidential Election Results 2016,” by KAZ Vorpal, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


With that in mind, I can’t help but wonder if we would ever have heard of Hillary Rodham — if she would ever have been on a trajectory to being a candidate for the presidency — had she not married Bill Clinton, or had he been satisfied with remaining the governor of Arkansas rather than running for President himself. In the same way I can’t help but wonder if we would ever have heard of Donald Trump if his father had not been a real estate developer and provided him with seed capital and connections to start dealing in New York real estate and to branch out into other enterprises. Would they both be spectators had their paths not been paved by others?

Which brings up a more interesting question: which of us, with the right connections or having gained some degree of notoriety or power, might have found ourselves on such a stage? Why them, and not you, for instance?

Perhaps “there, but for the grace of God,” go we.

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Monday Morning Insight: The Government We Deserve

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)


Something to think about with the Republicans’ national convention over and the Democrats’ national convention just getting started, a quote from the Sardinian — though considered French — political philosopher Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821):

Every nation has the government it deserves.

I heard a version of this quote back in the late 1980s, in a graduate management course at Edwards AFB taught by Rob Gray: “Management gets the union it deserves.” It makes sense in that context, since benevolent and enlightened corporate leadership may succeed in forming lasting partnerships with workers and any unions that represent them, while exploitative management is more likely to anger workers and encourage confrontations with their unions.

Only much later did I find the Maistre quote, the political quote, which I also think makes sense.

Maistre lived in a period of great political upheaval, and following the French Revolution he became a counter-revolutionary and supported a return to monarchy. He believed in the divine right of kings to rule, and perhaps in this quote he had in mind that nations with beneficent rulers deserve them while nations with despots likewise deserve their rulers. He was a devout Catholic, and may have considered it part of God’s favor or disfavor of a given nation.

I think his quote to apply to democratic nations as well, and accounts for natural consequences as much or more than any divine discipline.

Consider our current political climate in the U.S. We are fractious, self-absorbed, and fearful, and we have given ourselves a government that frequently acts to benefit select few, but which few depends on whim, caprice and political calculation; a government that we seem content to let grow without limit so long as we get what we want from it, though in the process it will eventually consume all we produce; a government that appears to view its own citizenry with suspicion and disdain, and thereby seems less and less disposed to acquiesce to the will of the people but continually asks the people to acquiesce to its will.

My wallpaper in tribute to its author

I like this as a metaphor for the 2016 campaign: D. Trump and H. Clinton contending for the Presidency. (Image: “My wallpaper in tribute to its author” by JP Freethinker, from Flickr under Creative Commons.)


Would you say we have the government we deserve? I’m afraid I would, and I wish we governed ourselves such that we deserved better.

Moreover, I’m afraid that no matter how the campaigns run or what the election results are in November, we will still have the government we deserve — and many of us won’t like it.

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If I Had Been Mrs. Trump’s Speechwriter

A thought experiment, of sorts.

I’ve been avoiding overt political topics lately, but Melania Trump’s apparent plagiarism in her speech at the Republican National Convention created quite a buzz in the speechwriting community (and everywhere else, it seems). My thoughts, as a speechwriter…

I understand Mrs. Trump gave the staffer who helped with the speech some passages she liked from Mrs. Obama’s previous speech. If the provenance of those lines was clear and I had been Mrs. Trump’s speechwriter, I would have recommended (if she really wanted to use them) that she preface them with something along the lines of, “like another woman whose husband was privileged to earn his party’s nomination,” etc. The way I see it, if she didn’t want to change the lines so the same message came through in a new way, then it wouldn’t have hurt to acknowledge the source (even if obliquely). But I hope I would have recommended, instead of using the same words, that she think of an example or two from her own life to illustrate the same points, because the strongest part of Mrs. Trump’s speech was when she focused on her own personal story. And this type of speech works best when it is deeply personal, heartfelt.

Mrs. Trump’s delivery was pretty good, especially considering that English is not her native language. But if I had been Mrs. Trump’s speechwriter, I would have encouraged her to deliver the speech in two parts. First, a short version — maybe three to five minutes — delivered in Slovene, because that would be more comfortable for her and her delivery would (I think) have been more fluid and consistent. Second, a little bit expanded version — perhaps ten minutes — covering the same material and delivering essentially the same message, in English.

(I have seen this work before, for a helicopter pilot from Cameroon who was in my flight at Squadron Officer School. When we gave presentations, he spoke first in his native French and second in English; even though most of us did not understand his French we could clearly see how much more confident he was presenting in his native tongue.)

I think if Mrs. Trump had prefaced her remarks with a brief explanation, the audience would have appreciated the interlude in her own language because her delivery would have been more natural and she would have been even more poised and confident.


Melania Trump addressing the Republican National Convention. (Image: “144070_2_1DA8023,” by Disney | ABC Television Group, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


If I had been Mrs. Trump’s speechwriter, my aim — as it has been with everyone for whom I’ve written speeches — would have been to help her sound like her most authentic self, not to make her sound like anyone else. That would extend beyond trying to help her avoid copying anyone else, to helping her find wording that complemented the natural cadence of her voice and stories that resonated with her and could connect her to her audience.

To me, she seemed at her best when talking about coming to the U.S. from Slovenia; that was a good springboard for her message. I think if she had spent a little more time talking about her story, and tied elements of her story to the problems we face and the upcoming campaign, her message would have been stronger — and she would not have had to endure the repercussions of lifting those lines from Mrs. Obama’s speech.

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Ladies, Stand Your Ground

Warning: Controversy Ahead.

I wrote this a couple of months ago, after considering the notion for many more, but there never seemed to be a good time to post it. I thought about posting it when I heard that someone was planning a rally in support of legalizing rape; I’m still not sure if that was a real thing, but it seemed a monumentally stupid idea — what next, rallies to legalize robbery and burglary and other crimes? Then a GOP Presidential hopeful mentioned abortion in the context of self-defense against incest or rape, and was criticized for it, and now another made thoughtless, asinine comments about punishing women who have abortions.

Maybe there is no good time to post something like this.

This post is about self-defense, and abortion. I advise you to leave now if you don’t want to be offended, because something I say here will almost certainly offend you — no matter where you stand on these issues.

Use of Deadly Force Authorized

(Image: “Use of Deadly Force Authorized,” by Brian Reynolds, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


First, an observation: I believe the decision to abort a baby must be one of the most difficult decisions a human being may ever make. I do not intend to second-guess anyone who has made that decision, nor do I intend to criticize or vilify them.

Second, another observation: I recognize that some people believe that I should not express my opinion on abortion (or perhaps even that I should not form an opinion) because I am a man and not a woman. Obviously, I disagree.

Now, to the root of the matter: It seems to me that, regardless of one’s personal views on either issue, logical consistency requires that our view of abortion should align with our view of self-defense, especially where the latter is covered by various “stand your ground” laws. To that end,

  • It appears logically inconsistent to support using deadly force in self-defense — often related to “stand your ground” laws — and at the same time oppose abortion.
  • It appears logically inconsistent also to support abortion and at the same time oppose using deadly force in self-defense.
  • Logical consistency would seem to require either supporting both, or opposing both, abortion and using deadly force in self-defense.

I do not think it is necessary to like self-defense killing or abortion, or to be in favor of or advocate either one, in order to recognize that they rest on the same premise: that we have the right to defend our lives and property using force, up to and including deadly force.

If a homeowner has the right to use deadly force to protect their life and property, or the lives of others in the home, then a woman has the right to use deadly force to protect her life and person — say, in the case of defending herself against rape. By extension, a pregnant woman has the right to use deadly force against an attacker if her baby is threatened. But in a similar fashion a pregnant woman also has the right to use deadly force against her unborn baby — to remove it from life-support, if you will — if she believes that the baby poses a threat to her life and/or person.

Coming at the issue from the other direction, if a pregnant woman has the right to use deadly force — or, in the case of a seeking an abortion, to contract for the use of deadly force — to protect her life, her lifestyle, or her property, then homeowners or citizens have the right to use deadly force to protect their lives or property or the lives or property of those they love. However, if a pregnant woman has no such right, then neither does anyone else have the right to defend themselves against threats of violence or loss.

Self-defense, after all, is based on the individual’s perception of the threat. The threat may be direct or indirect, and perceptions may be clouded by a variety of factors, but the decision to act or not rests with the person who is threatened at the time the threat presents itself. We may, from a different perspective or at a different time, disagree with the homeowner or the pregnant woman on the degree of the threat; or we may disagree with the decision they made when faced with the threat; but the decision was theirs at that time, not ours at some other time. And to support one and refuse to support the other appears to me to be logically inconsistent.

We can make a similar case about abortion and the death penalty. That is, we can make the case that if the death penalty is a just punishment for certain crimes, enacted after weighing the evidence and coming to a verdict, then abortion may be considered as a death penalty in itself, with the potential mother as judge and jury, possibly as both prosecution and defense, and in some tragic cases even as executioner. For me, that is a much more difficult concept (and following it too closely may lead to considering abortion as a form of justifiable homicide), but I still can consider it somewhat equivalent.

I say “somewhat equivalent” deliberately: I do not mean to say that killing in self-defense is exactly equivalent to abortion, only that they are similar. (Others have tackled that subject in far more depth than I can here, as noted at the end.) One case is more often a quick-reaction response compared to the other. One is more often a direct confrontation than the other. One clearly involves acting against an agent capable of independent thought and action. On that score, advocates of abortion often argue that the unborn child, by virtue of being fully dependent on the mother, should not be considered fully human; rather than argue that matter here, except to note that such a dehumanizing mentality is something pro-abortion advocates have in common with armies facing enemies, it seems clear that an unborn child at the very least has the potential to grow into an independent agent (as the pregnant woman was considered above a potential mother). On that basis, we can say that both self-defense killing and abortion involve terminating with prejudice the future potential of a human person.

Again I must emphasize that it is not necessary to prefer or to approve of either of these mechanisms. It is possible to wish for every unborn child to be wanted and to be cared for, in utero and beyond, just as it is possible to wish that there might be no thugs, no rapists, no burglars, no threats against people’s lives, persons, or property. Wishing for these things, however, does not make them come to pass, and so we are faced with difficult decisions that have far-reaching consequences.

Therefore, as someone who supports the right of an individual to protect their person and property with any means at their disposal, up to and including deadly force — whether homeowners defending themselves against burglars or women defending themselves against rapists — I must support the right of any woman to protect herself against an unborn life she is supporting if she feels threatened by it, up to and including the use of deadly force. Ladies, stand your ground.

I do not have to like it. I may wish for any number of alternatives. But it seems to me that I cannot support one and not the other without being logically inconsistent.

I could be wrong.

Some Notes:
1. The first GOP contender alluded to above was Chris Christie. See Chris Christie Faces Criticism for Saying Aborting a Baby After Rape is “Self-Defense” for Women. The second was Donald Trump, in his more recent MSNBC interview that, as much as it presented his egregious thinking on the subject, lent credence to the idea that he thinks very little of Republicans and is merely playing at being one.
2. The idea of abortion as self-defense was discussed in 1971 by Judith Jarvis Thomson in her article “A Defense of Abortion” in
Philosophy & Public Affairs. She wrote, “I should perhaps stop to say explicitly that I am not claiming that people have a right to do anything whatever to save their lives. I think, rather, that there are drastic limits to the right of self-defense…. But the case under consideration here is very different. In our case there are only two people involved, one whose life is threatened, and one who threatens it. Both are innocent: the one who is threatened is not threatened because of any fault, the one who threatens does not threaten because of any fault. For this reason we may feel that we bystanders cannot interfere. But the person threatened can. In sum, a woman surely can defend her life against the threat to it posed by the unborn child, even if doing so involves its death.” The entire article is online here and elsewhere.
3. This short BBC article also covers the topic of abortion as self-defense.
4. A Harvard Law blogger asked in a 2012 entry, Is the Self Defense Exception Consistent with the Belief that a Fetus is a Person? Their conclusion was that “the belief that a fetus is a person with the full complement of rights leads to uncomfortable positions in relation the self-defense exception.” Indeed.
5. The tendency of armies to dehumanize the enemy, in order to make it easier to kill them, was covered quite well by Robert O’Connell in
Of Arms and Men.

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In Defense of Slower Government

Are you more likely to make a mistake when you’re being hasty, or being deliberate?

There’s a reason the old saying is, “Haste makes waste.” It’s “measure twice, cut once,” not “cut wherever you want to, who has time to measure?” And speaking of cutting, there’s a reason I have a chunk missing from my right thumb — tip: don’t rush the process of slicing onions with the mandolin, thinking that you have plenty of room before you need to use the little safety attachment.

If your personal experience is anything like mine, then you can point to specific instances when you made a snap decision — or just a swift decision — and had that decision turn out badly. Perhaps not with the bloody results that my kitchen mandolin incident produced, but I’m confident that at least once you’ve looked back at a mistake and thought, “I wish I’d taken more time with that.”

But how about our government? Is it also more likely to make a mistake when it’s being hasty?

We the People

(Image: “We the People,” by Chuck Coker, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


Our personal decisions usually affect only a few people: maybe just us, maybe our family or friends, maybe coworkers or even some strangers. So our personal mistakes have limited consequences. But government decisions usually affect a great many people — even all of us — and therefore government mistakes can have far-reaching effects.

Aside from natural disasters and enemy attacks, governments generally do not face emergencies that require immediate or even especially fast action. Particularly where legislative bodies are concerned, urgency is usually contraindicated. Legislatures are built for deliberation — their strength is in studying issues, building consensus, reaching compromise — and they should be loath to abandon careful consideration, reflection, and caution.

You may be able to think of an example or two of a hasty government move. Very recently, for instance, a few miles from where I live, the North Carolina legislature staged a late night raid to combat a Charlotte city ordinance; they seemed to be working against a deadline, but the fact remains that by acting swiftly they perhaps worked less well than they would have if they had taken more time to think through what they were doing. In some instances government leaders act quickly in order to capitalize on perceived crises or fleeting majorities; in at least one prominent case, highly complex legislation was passed before everyone was cognizant of everything in it, exemplified by the enigmatic “we have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”

It is true that Miyamoto Musashi encouraged readers of Go Rin No Sho (The Book of Five Rings) to train themselves “day and night to make quick decisions,” but he was writing about life-or-death situations in which failing to act would be disastrous. When the clock is not a factor and the decision is less crucial, taking time to deliberate before making a critical choice often results in a better outcome.

And when decisions become more momentous, when they affect more people, and particularly when they entail significant controversy, it seems that longer and longer deliberation might be in order. From that perspective, the government that operates slowest may in the long run be the best.

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Do You Prefer Your Socialism Voluntary, or Mandatory?

Recently there’s been a lot of social-media talk about socialism, what it is and what it isn’t, if for no other reason than one of the candidates to be the Democratic nominee for the Presidency is a self-described Socialist.

Now, before we get to the question posed above: in the hopes of improving communication let’s take a moment to define a few terms. At the very least, we might ensure that we are not confusing socialism with other -isms. According to the online version of Webster’s:

  • socialism is “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”
  • communism is “a theory advocating elimination of private property; a system in which goods are owned in common and are available to all as needed”
  • capitalism is “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market”
  • fascism is “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition”
  • altruism is “unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others”

From the dictionary definition, it would seem as if there could be no such thing as “voluntary” socialism except in the context of voluntary adherence to the dictates of government and collective society. But socialism seems to have come to mean something different in common usage, which is why I included altruism among the defined terms.

So far as I can tell, a lot of the people who advocate for socialist policies do so out of personal altruism — i.e., out of concern for others’ welfare — and not because they believe that the government or other collective entities should own and operate factories and businesses. That is, in some respects “little-s” socialism has come to be understood in terms of social action (or even social “justice”) and thereby in terms of caring for members of society, as opposed to its dogmatic, collectivist big brother: systematic, capital-S Socialism. In other words, from what I’ve observed some people look at socialism not as an economic theory, but as a form of human tribalism (defined by Webster’s as “tribal consciousness and loyalty; especially, exaltation of the tribe above other groups”) where the “tribe” consists mainly of the downtrodden as opposed to the related.

altruism makes you more attractive

(Image: ” altruism makes you more attractive,” by Will Lion, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


In this manner of thinking of socialism, the question posed in the title distinguishes between two possible modes of implementation: voluntary or mandatory.

The first is voluntary socialism, practiced primarily through personal social action: giving of one’s excess treasure, time or talent to help the less fortunate. This is the socialism of charity, of personal altruism, of expressing one’s individual concern for one’s fellow man by actually doing something — writing a check, building a house, cooking a meal. This is the socialism of the soup kitchen, the homeless shelter, the sanctuary.

The second is mandatory socialism, practiced primarily through government-led social action: empowering the government to take everyone’s (and particularly other people’s) excess — most readily in the form of treasure — to help the less fortunate. This is the socialism of confiscation, of redistribution, of assigning responsibility to the government to take care of one’s fellow man and thus absolving oneself of the need to act. This is the socialism of the tax office, the entitlement check, the welfare line.

So, do you prefer your socialism to be voluntary, or mandatory? Do you prefer to volunteer your contributions to social action, or to be made to contribute to it?

Generalizations always exclude those who do not fit them, but I have observed that, in general, many people who regularly practice voluntary social action oppose mandatory social action, and many people who promote mandatory social action don’t seem to engage in much voluntary social action (other than perhaps organizing people into promoting more mandatory social action). That is, many people who frequently donate their time or money to charities they deem worthy oppose efforts to empower the government to exact donations from them, and many people who support the idea of the government providing and expanding all of the social safety nets do not often seem quick to engage in personal acts of charity. I find that curious, but I admit my observations are limited and perhaps flawed.

But which do we emphasize: the voluntary, or the mandatory? As with most dichotomies of this sort, most continua, I think that everyone favors a little bit of volunteer action and a little bit of mandatory contribution. I’m not sure I’ve ever met someone so dyed-in-the-wool that they did not accept some of the alternative approach. (Perhaps the one Trotskyite I’ve met, though we have not discussed this in any depth. Perhaps a Libertarian or two.)

When we emphasize the voluntary, we allow ourselves to practice socialism — to contribute to social action — to the degree we feel comfortable, and we allow others also to practice it (or not) to whatever degree they want.

But when we emphasize the mandatory, we may ourselves end up practicing socialism to our preferred degree but we almost certainly require that others practice it to a greater degree than they feel comfortable. And when we enforce contribution through coercion via the rule of law, we should not be surprised when those others bristle, and balk, and even prepare for battle.

Where do you fall on the continuum between voluntary and mandatory contribution? If you tend to take the burden of helping others onto your own shoulders, with no thought of reward and no expectation of other people pitching in, then you probably fall closer to the voluntary side. If you sometimes think “someone ought to do something about that” and sometimes think “can I do anything about that,” then you probably fall somewhere in the middle. But if you tend to think “those other people ought to do more to help” more than you think “what can I do to help,” then you probably fall closer to the mandatory end.

I’m not here to pass judgment; in the end, I think in some way we will all pass judgment on ourselves. But I know who I’d rather have as my neighbors, if I ever find myself in a pinch. And I know what kind of neighbor I’d like to be.

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A Serious Question for Trump Supporters

I’m not going to ask you why you’re a Trump supporter. I’m not sure I want to know the answer.

Donald Trump Backyard Photo Sign at Night - West Des Moines, Iowa
(Image: “Donald Trump Backyard Photo Sign at Night – West Des Moines, Iowa,” by Tony Webster, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


I will ask this, since it’s been reported that he’s unlikely to show up to the Fox News Channel debate:

Since Trump postures and preens and presents himself as a hard-nosed negotiator, a savvy dealmaker, and a “uniter,” how can he be unwilling to face a particular female reporter (Megyn Kelly) as the moderator of a debate?

Note that I didn’t say he was unable to face her, nor did I say he was afraid to face her — although it does appear that way despite his campaign’s protestations to the contrary. But at the moment he certainly appears unwilling to face her. In addition, he has been rather vocal in the past about not liking the way she asked him questions, even though it’s her job to ask questions and most reporters who take their jobs seriously ask tough questions. How does his unwillingness — or even his complaining about her being one of the moderators — show him as anything but weak, and petulant, and maybe a little pathetic?

Oh, hell, I will ask the question anyway. In all seriousness, how can you support Trump?

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Political Lessons, and … the Hugo Awards?

I ran for elective office this year, and lost. (For the record, I spent about 0.41% of the total that all four candidates in my district spent up until the election, and I got 3.5% of the vote. Not close to winning, but a good return on my meager investment.)

I was also nominated for a Hugo Award this year, and lost. The story behind that has been chronicled on this blog and elsewhere, and I won’t go into it in this post. (For the record, and as nearly as I can tell from trying to figure out the preferential voting numbers, about 9% of the 5100 novelette voters selected my story as their first choice. I ended up in fourth place . . . two spots below “No Award.”)

I introduce the fact of my being on political and literary ballots this year because I observed two things in the recent Town Council election process that seem pertinent to this year’s Hugo Awards. Specifically, that the political parties inserted themselves deeply into what was supposed to be a nonpartisan race, and other players also wielded considerable influence; and that a lot of voter information was readily available for the candidates to use.

Now, with the caveat that this post is very long, I’ll try to make those connections.

Parties, Power Brokers, and Influence. I ran for Town Council in a single district here in Cary, North Carolina, and though the race was ostensibly nonpartisan the parties definitely made their presence known. The Republican Party endorsed one of the three of us who identified as Republicans — though not this particular candidate — and the Democratic Party endorsed the fourth candidate. The party endorsements brought with them not only some cachet, which those two candidates used to their advantage, but also party money for advertising as well as organized volunteer efforts for canvassing neighborhoods and working the polls.

In addition to the parties, several civic and professional groups were quite interested in the campaign. Some invited the candidates to meet with them in interviews or to fill out interview questionnaires; some sponsored “meet the candidate” social events; some even sponsored debates between the candidates. A few of those groups also endorsed candidates — again, not this candidate — and encouraged their members to support that person who they felt most confident would represent their interests if elected.

What relation does this have to the Hugo Awards? Simply, fandom has developed its own “parties” and thus the Hugo Awards have their own sets of power brokers (or would-be power brokers).

This year some people were very open about exercising their power. The “Sad Puppies” campaign was a party of sorts and encouraged people to consider specific works (mine included), while the follow-on (and aptly named) “Rabid Puppies” campaign flatly admitted that they intended to wield whatever power they could. When they succeeded at placing their preferred stories and people on the ballot — beyond my wildest imagining, if not others’ — a less organized but much more vocal cohort coalesced to wrest the voting power back into the hands of long-time WorldCon members (i.e., the traditional Hugo nominating-and-voting fans).

That is not to say that Hugo Award power brokers have only been active in recent years. Key figures in the science fiction and fantasy industry have long enjoyed considerable influence within the relatively small community of WorldCon fandom. Whether by their positions in publishing houses or the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), their notoriety, or the force of their personality; whether by their knowledge of the field, their literary achievements, or the number of people who read their blogs; or whether by other factors entirely, clearly some people became movers and shakers in fandom, and perhaps even kingmakers in terms of placing their favored selections on the Hugo ballot.

There was, for instance, considerable electronic weeping and wailing this year over whether, in the past, some “cabal” of industry insiders exercised deliberate and coordinated control over the nominating process. Accusations were levied with no proof beyond some statistical correlations, and despite the relatively weak charges they were at times denied with enough stridence that the old phrase “the hit dog howls” came to mind.* But from a group dynamics standpoint, a cabal was never necessary in order for insiders to have influence over the process. In the same way that a CEO or other leader can forget how much power they have over their employees and followers, people with informal power can forget that even a casual suggestion or question — “Have you read the new novel by [beloved author]? It’s marvelous” — can have an outsized effect on those who hear it.

Pillars of Influence
People can exert influence accidentally as well as intentionally. (Image: “Pillars of Influence,” by David Armano, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Taking that a step further, people can in some ways grow comfortable with or even addicted to the power they wield, even if that power is informal. They can come to enjoy it, to depend on it, and therefore to resent when it seems to have been taken away from them. In response, they could resort to making veiled (or not so veiled) threats, or to levying personal accusations that are demonstrably untrue. Again, the hit dog howls.

I will say at this point that I doubt there ever was a super-secret cabal directing Hugo-related fandom. But I know for a fact that insider politicking is as real in SF&F as it is in electoral politics, because I was faced with it in mid-April. Shortly after the nominations were announced, a friend of mine who has won Hugo and other awards and is generally well-known in SFWA and the SF&F community approached me, unsolicited and unexpectedly, to encourage me to withdraw my story from consideration.**

My friend wrote,

I think that you are a talented writer and that this is not going to be your only good story. . . . I think that if you made a statement withdrawing your story from the ballot, that you would get a bump next year and land on the ballot again. Not guaranteed, but I think that you would get a lot of good will.

My friend rightly pointed out that in some ways my nomination made me a pawn, a human shield, in the great Hugo fracas. My friend somewhat glossed over the point that I was destined to end up in someone’s bad graces no matter whether I let my nomination stand or withdrew it, but my friend was unceasingly gracious and pledged to support me no matter which decision I made. I very much appreciate that friend’s concern and their willingness to share their point of view while respecting mine; I count myself fortunate to have such a friend.

Now, a concerned friend reaching out like that would not by itself constitute insider politicking, even when the friend is nearly as deep inside the SF&F community as is possible to go. But when that same friend sends pretty much the same message to other nominees (a fact I verified from other people contacted), then . . . well, it certainly seemed to fit the description of a relatively powerful insider trying to exert influence over the process.

When one of the other nominees asked my friend about the fact that they had approached several of us, my friend wrote,

I was talking with a bunch of you individually . . . and started cutting and pasting from one email to the other. . . . I should have thought of how that would look. Please convey my apologies to whoever you spoke with.

I give my friend the benefit of the doubt, but I saw much the same thing even in the little Town Council race: insiders and special interests approaching candidates to see if we agreed with them or could be swayed to their positions. Some were more open and obvious about it than others, and their motives were clearer. As for my friend, I believe they were genuinely concerned for me and the other friends they contacted, and concerned for what the schism appeared to be doing to the community of fandom.

Looking back at what my friend proposed, it seems somewhat ironic to think that by withdrawing after being nominated I might improve my chances of being nominated in the future, not because anything else I might publish would be better than my 2015 nominated story, but because I would have engendered “good will” with the traditional fan contingent. As I wrote in reply,

. . . from a pragmatic standpoint I’m not sure whether withdrawing would really earn me the good will you speak of. I hope it might. But if good will garnered in that fashion is more important than any qualities inherent in my work . . . then the award really is more than just literary.

Consider this: If some of those who did withdraw — such as my friends Annie Bellet and Edmund Schubert — are nominated in the future, will they wonder if factors besides literary merit influenced the outcome? Since the primary complaint against my story and others was that they were nominated for reasons having little to do with their relative merits, it’s hard to see much of a difference with regards to receiving a friendly “bump” to “land on the ballot again.”

But in addition to the influence (deliberate or incidental) of insiders and power brokers, the other thing I observed in electoral politics that has some bearing on the recent Hugo unpleasantness is

A Plethora of Voter Information. Very early in my run for Town Council, I learned that the Wake County Board of Elections had available a comprehensive database of registered voters. I downloaded it as a huge Excel spreadsheet and narrowed it down first to Cary and then to just my district. In the end, I still had a lengthy list of around 24,000 registered voters that included names, addresses, party affiliations and other information, up to and including whether (and by what method) they voted in recent elections. The only thing missing was exactly for whom they voted.

How does that relate to the Hugo Awards?

During the WorldCon business meeting, when changes to the nomination-and-voting procedures were being proposed and debated, the membership passed a resolution calling for the convention organizers to release anonymized nomination data. The convention committee agreed to do so, but shortly thereafter appeared to back away from fulfilling that agreement because, as I understand it, they were finding it too difficult to produce the data without giving away the identifying information.

Why would the nomination data be interesting?

Consider that, within hours of the Hugo Awards ceremony closing, the io9 blog published an article with the title “This Is What The 2015 Hugo Ballot Should Have Been” in which the author put forth a vision of what the award results might have been had the “Sad Puppies” and “Rabid Puppies” entries not been nominated. The author began with this:

Based on the newly released statistics, Brandon Kempner of Chaos Horizon has a good analysis of the Hugo vote, (as does Nicholas Whyte in From the Heart Of Europe)—they estimate that the Rabid Puppies bloc was composed of 550-525 voters, while the Sad Puppies bloc made up 500-400 voters: around 20% of the 5,950 total voters. Of those numbers, around 3500 likely voted “No Award” out of principle, objecting to the lockstep nomination process of the Puppies.

and then made the leap from the number of voters to the idea that the SP/RP entries might not have been nominated at all. To me (the former engineer and nonstatistician), that seems to be trying to produce orange juice from a bag of apples. The question of what would have been nominated requires delving into the nomination statistics; the voting statistics are irrelevant to that question, because it turns on how many SP/RP nominations there were, not how many votes there were after months of competing rhetoric. With only the raw nomination figures, i.e., without the data that would provide insight into nomination patterns, it seems unsupportable to conclude that none of the stories and people on the SP/RP lists would have been nominated.***

Returning to the example of voter rolls that do not reveal voting results, it seems reasonable to imagine that if the Board of Elections can record votes and yet produce a database of registered voters that contains everything but those voting results, then it should be a simple enough — or certainly no more complicated — database management task for the WorldCon committee to produce records of the Hugo nominations without including identifying information, whether name or membership number or IP address.

Along those lines, if the WorldCon committee’s IT experts — and it’s a committee of geeks, surely they have ready access to a number of technology, computing, and database experts — cannot find a way to produce the promised data, then perhaps they could turn to the local Board of Elections for assistance. I doubt my local Board of Elections is that much different from any other in the country; it seems that their local board in Spokane should be able to provide some guidance.

Conclusion: Heinlein May Be Right.

Robert A. Heinlein maintained in Double Star that “Politics is the only sport for grownups — all other games are for kids.” As someone who enjoys other games and sports, as a spectator and participant, I’m not so sure about that; maybe I haven’t “put away childish things” in that respect, but I’m generally in favor of practicing youthful exuberance in order to stay young at heart. So I suggest a corollary to RAH’s observation: Politics is the sport people play even when they don’t intend to.

All human organizations, from churches to businesses to science fiction and fantasy conventions, are suffused with politics, some of it practiced openly and some of it practiced surreptitiously. It would be disingenuous to claim that the Hugo Awards were ever without politics and politicking; indeed, during the run-up to this year’s awards many thoughtful commentators acknowledged the awards’ political past, though the degree to which politics overshadowed this year’s award was unprecedented.

Perhaps I’m uncomfortable with Heinlein’s assertion because I obviously have not played the political game well, but I’d like to suggest that another of his observations may be more apt, more relevant as we move forward. From Friday: “It is a bad sign when the people of a country stop identifying themselves with the country and start identifying with a group. A racial group. Or a religion. Or a language. Anything, as long as it isn’t the whole population.”

We continue to see this play out in electoral politics, as small groups band together in solidarity over their specific interests. And we’ve seen it in genre politics as well, whether the rallying cry is “Diversity Now!” or “Golden Age Forever!” or something equally narrow in scope. The implication is that the way we think about the subject is right and all other ways must be wrong, which is a peculiarly limiting viewpoint in a community that enjoys speculating about all manner of fantastic encounters and possible futures.

From my perspective it seems that part of the issue from the beginning of this year’s Hugo Awards melee was a difference in outlook among people who love genre fiction in all its forms, but who placed themselves in one of two groups: one that loves genre and also loves fandom itself, and considers fandom the ultimate expression of its love for the genre; and another that loves genre but for which fandom and the fan community is an adjunct, an addendum, rather than a critical component of their genre experience. That is, one group was devoted to fandom as well as genre; the other was devoted to genre but not (or less) to fandom.

And as long as we divide ourselves, or in the case of fandom subdivide ourselves; as long as we separate ourselves into (virtual or actual) walled-off enclaves and echo chambers, and associate only with those who look like us, act like us, and believe the things we do; we will find it harder to understand, relate to, and get along with one another — in civil life as well as in the SF&F community.

I think we would be well-served as a fannish community if we talked more about what we love and why we love it, without implying that those who do not love it as we do are ignorant or contemptible. And I think we would be better off if we recalled another RAH observation, also from Friday (emphasis in original): “Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms . . . but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.” I believe the pithy advice that bears ST:TNG alumnus Wil Wheaton’s name sums that up rather well.****

I had several e-mail exchanges with the friend who encouraged me to withdraw my nomination, and my friend helped me refine this statement of what I would like to see in our discourse: I’d like to have less shouting and more talking; less gloating, more humility; less blaming, more acknowledgement of different points of view; less name-calling, more self-deprecation; less rage (but no less passion), more acceptance.

It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable; if it were not, I would have far fewer friends in this field. It may not be easy, but it is possible — and if Heinlein is right, it is actually necessary if the community (whether the SF&F community or the larger polis) is to survive.

I hope, for my part, I have succeeded in doing so. But that is for others to judge.

*If you prefer something more eloquent, perhaps “doth protest too much” would fit the bill.

**I do not intend to identify the person, because I do not want them to face any recriminations; I realize that makes some of the usage here awkward. If my friend wants to self-identify, that’s up to them.

***For example, I perused the 2015 Hugo Award Statistics and it appeared to me that both Annie Bellet’s “Goodnight Stars” and Kary English’s “Totaled” might well have been nominated even if they had not appeared on an anathema list. If that’s true, I’m not sure whether that would make their Annie’s subsequent withdrawal of the stories her story more ironic or tragic. (Whether other listed works would have fared so well is more difficult to tell.)

As a final note on the statistics, it would be interesting if the Hugo Award record-keepers would report the number of works that received ANY votes in a given year; in other words, to show that, out of the entire universe of eligible short stories or whatever, X received at least one nomination. The total number of nominating ballots is given in the statistics, but knowing how many unique works were on those ballots might give a glimpse into how homogeneous the reading tastes of the nominating cohort were.

****Wheaton’s Law: “Don’t be a dick.”

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Post-Campaign Blues: What I Learned, and What’s Next

Or, how less than 0.86% equaled 3.5%.

The voters spoke two weeks ago today, and declared that I was not their choice to represent District D on the Town Council of Cary, North Carolina. C’est la vie.

I am grateful to everyone who voted for me, and a little pleased that I garnered 3.5% of the vote while investing less than 0.86% of the total money spent on the District D campaign. How much less than 0.86% I’m not sure, since the other candidates haven’t filed their final reports (and two of them are continuing to spend money on a runoff); that figure is based on their reports from 2 weeks before the election, and I know one candidate in particular spent a whole lot more money on mailings and robocalls and such right up to election day.

Prepare for the Worst: Political Ads are Coming!
(“Prepare for the Worst: Political Ads are Coming!” by Jeff Gates, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

I do wonder how many more votes I might have gotten if I had mailed out a postcard or two, or put up a few signs, or advertised a little. I think I might have made it competitive, but it’s hard to do when you spend less than $100. But, to paraphrase the song,

I’d like to run for [office] and play the political game
But I don’t have very much money to wage a big campaign

“I Think I’ll Run for Congress”

So, besides the obvious lesson that you have to be willing to spend a great deal of money — either your own or someone else’s — to get elected, what other lessons did I learn, or have confirmed? I’ll catalogue a few:

  • Cary, NC, is not a small town — just the district I ran in has more registered voters in it than the entire combined populations of three of the towns I’ve lived in: Georgetown, SC (my hometown); Seneca, SC; and Plattsmouth, NE — which, as a small-town guy at heart, was a bit overwhelming
  • There is no such thing as a nonpartisan race — the parties came out in force, even at this lowest level of government
  • Board of Election rules are hard to interpret — so hard, in fact, that the State Board still hasn’t answered my question about one of them
  • Changes in polling places cause problems — I was told that some people got frustrated and drove away from the old polling place without coming to the new one to vote
  • Word of mouth is good and useful, but limited in its effectiveness unless the message is really compelling
  • Being noncontroversial — and especially being quiet and deliberative instead of raucous and divisive — doesn’t attract much in the way of attention
  • People who are content, and think things are pretty much okay, don’t vote in large numbers

So what’s next for me in politics? Not much.

I will continue my Anti-Campaign: Anyone, anywhere, can write me in for any office at any time. I remain the Anti-Candidate, and continue to approve that message. (I have it on good authority, for instance, that at least one person wrote me in for Mayor of the Town of Cary. But since the Board of Elections doesn’t release the tallies for write-in votes, I have no idea how many people might have done so.)

Will I ever run for office again? Maybe.

That is to say, I could be convinced to run if enough people wanted to recruit me. You’d have to be willing to handle the campaign management — the paperwork and reporting, the scheduling and coordination, the fundraising, advertising, and so forth. Why? Because I’m more than willing to serve, and willing to stand in the arena and talk about issues and experiences and qualifications, but I don’t have any desire to work on another campaign. (Not even my own.)

After all, as the song says,

I just want your money, I just want your cash
I just want all your treasure, whatever’s in your stash
It’s strictly voluntary, it’s not highway robbery
I just want your money … and that’s why politics is for me

“The Anti-Candidate Song”

But rather than just hold my hand out for you to drop money in it,* I prefer to offer a little something of value. So I’m happy to sell you some CDs or other merchandise, or stories when I can get them published, or to write a speech for you or help you edit something. I will continue to try to produce content that people want to buy and to provide services that help people tell their own stories in the best possible way.

So … let me know if you have any questions, or if I can do anything for you, and sign up for my newsletter (using the form in the right sidebar) for periodic updates and info!

And, if you happen to have voted for me (or written me in), thank you very much!

*Don’t get me wrong, if you want to send me money I’m okay with that. If any of this has been entertaining for you, we’ll call it a fair trade. Send me a note and I’ll be happy to give you my PayPal information.

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