Precedent

One of my pet sayings about politics is that Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, is the most powerful person in Washington, more powerful than Trump or Obama before him.

One of the curious things abouut this arrangement, however, is that McConnell’s power does not come from the Constitution, or even the formal Senate rules. McConnell’s ability to determine what bills and nominations are allowed to go for a vote in the Senate is real power, but no legally bnding document grants him that power.

Rather, the Republican caucus allows him that power through something called ‘precedent’ – not legal precedent, mind you, but just an loose array of traditions where the caucus defers to him to be recognized first on the floor and thus control the room. This maximizes their collective power as the majority by having a centralized leader. On paper, all 100 senators are equal, but realistically, Mitch has around 50 votes most sessions, not 1. This subverts the original intent of the chamber where the states would be equals, of course.

A few GOP senators, with a little planning and a lot of guts, could slip past this arrangement if they wanted. A rebellious Senate President (usually a junior senator picked for the day) could choose to refuse to recognize McConnell first and instead choose another more freethinking ally who could, then, move to consider what bill/nomination they wanted. And then the GOP rank and file would have to close ranks quickly to prevent, say, a half-dozen GOP senators joining with the Democrats to pass, oh, I don’t know, a reopening of the government, or something else that would make too much sense.

It would take great timing and luck, certainly. Mitch would exact revenge of course, stripping the rebels of their committee assignments and possibly dooming their seats, but the illusion of his power being ironclad would be shaken. And the Senate might even start down the road to being less of an exercise in vote-counting.

Nah, never happen.

Gillibrand

It is good we have a female Democratic senator that is an avowed feminist and votes on the left. We need more. I just wish Kirsten Gillibrand wasn’t one, and that she wasn’t running for president in 2020.

While she has seemingly always been feminist to some degree, she hasn’t always been liberal. This makes her just another poll-driven pol like her mentor Clinton, and casts doubt on even her longer-held positions.

Her infamous takedown of Franken was not irksome because of its accuracy. Despite all the good he’s done in government, Franken needed to go. It was irksome because he was a ridiculously easy target among countless worse – just in the Senate alone! – who would have not so quickly folded. Denouncing him was no braver than announcing she was against kicking puppies, and served her more than any of #MeToo’s collective goals.

Her New York seat has never been in any risk; she was recently elected with 67%. It was just another career move, and a classic example of the right thing done for the wrong reason. This means she will, eventually, advance to doing the wrong thing in some other matter – most likely by following a poll.

Meanwhile, there are literally dozens, if not hundreds and thousands, of more consistent and trustworthy female liberals in politics. Several are running for President. They are all better choices.

This leads me to my main agrument. A unwise assumption that lurks behind the desire to elect more female office holders is that women do a better job in such offices, and the more there are, the more powerful the collective effect. I suspect that the numbers will continue to improve, but as they so, this assumption will fade and be replaced with cynicism.

The likelihood that a man or a woman will become corrupted by power is, in my experience, identical. This will become more obvious only after something resembling equality in numbers is reached. Roughly equal gender representation in elected office is ideal, but let’s not pretend this, if even reached, will lead to better decision-making. It will lead to a better reflection of the diverse nature of the citizenry, certainly. But as more women gain political office, it is inevitable that many will become like the men already there – corrupt and craven and driven more by ambition than ideals.

This is not to say that Gillibrand is at that point yet. Perhaps she will redeem herself during her campaign. At minimum she would have to attack Trump far more directly than Clinton ever did, with the same condemnation that she gave Franken. She should have an easier time of it now that he has a dismal record to defend, but he will not resign. She, like any female candidate. will have to find a simple, brutal way to weaken him without getting the b-label.

I assume here that Trump will get to the election, of course. He might not. Right now, I suspect he will, no matter what is in Mueller’s report.

Would I vote for her? Doubtful. But let’s see what happens.

Mike’s Stupid Game of Thrones Final Season Predictions

Massive spoilers for all previous seasons of GOT follow.

There are really only two questions that interest me, and the possible answers are related:

  1. What happens when Jaime reaches the Starks?
  2. Who is Sam going to give the Tarly sword to?

Rather than answer these directly, I’d like to make death predictions instead and work my way back to them. Most of the chess pieces are in place at this point to be captured, so it’s mostly, at least in my mind, making the exchange, as they say.

Cersei and the Mountain

These two die in all possible scenarios. The only question is by who. Ayra, Tyrion, and Jaime are the top contenders. I think it will take all three.

I expect Jaime to reach Winterfell and offer his son’s sword, Widow’s Wail, as a peace offering so he is not killed immediately by Ayra, as well as his service. Sansa and Jon will back Ayra, but Brienne will defend him, citing her mission to find the Stark sisters on his behalf, his gift of Oathkeeper to her (and with Widow’s Wail, Ice can now be reforged), but she saves the best for last: the true story of how the Mad King died. Bran will confirm Brienne’s story. Minds are blown.

Then they will throw him in a dungeon just to be safe. Cue Tyrion at the cell door. “Why, hello there, brother. What do you say to killing our sister?”

Likely assassination squad: Jaime, Ayra, and the Hound, not long after, or perhaps while, Cersei backstabs the Starks and Daerenys. The most obvious course is to take Dragonstone with Euron Grayjoy’s fleet while the Starks are trying to fight the Night’s King, cutting off the Jon-Daenerys alliance off from their supply of dragonglass and setting themselves up to mop up whoever survives.

Naturally, the Hound distracts and fights his brother – regardless of outcome, their story ends. Jaime then confronts Cersei, but it’s a ruse to allow Ayra close to do the actual deed. After Jaime watches Cersei die, Ayra will probably kill him too, then wear his face or Cersei’s to command the Lannister army for the duration on the conflict (or, even better, kill Jaime first, wear his face to get close, and tada). Afterward, she will return to Sansa, leaving Casterly Rock to none other than Tyrion. If Ayra spares Jaime, he will wield Widow’s Wail in the final battle against the Night King and die fighting. Either way, Tyrion and Ayra “win,” as much as anyone in GOT “wins” anything.

Euron Greyjoy

Euron is No. 3 for zero chance of survival. Theon may fail to rescue his sister, but either he or she will kill their crazy uncle. My money is on her, as then the House can live on, potentially.

Jorah Mormont

No. 4 of the certain dead, Jorah has two tasks remaining in his very long arc. One is to have Sam Tarly offer him Heartsbane, the Tarly ancestral sword, which he gladly accepts.

Why Jorah? Well, there literally isn’t anyone else to give it to. Jon already has Longclaw, and Jorah is fine with that. Brienne has Oathkeeper. Ayra has that pesky dagger originating from Littlefinger that Bran gave her. Jaime, now on Team Stark, has Widow’s Wail. Sam ain’t going to give it to the Hound, so who’s left that favors a sword? Not Grey Worm. The guy that Sam knows well because he saved him from certain death from greyscale is the only logical pick. In fact, Sam’ll offer it to Jon first… who will suggest Jorah. This completes a five-person Murderer’s Row to fight the Night’s King on foot. Of though, Jorah is the most likely to perish in battle by saving Daenerys fresh from losing her dragon; he literally has nothing else to do in the story at this point.

But how are they going to get the Night’s King off Viserion, the undead ice dragon, to fight him at all?

The Viserion Problem

Sam has another obvious task besides getting Heartsbane to Jorah. He is going to tell Jon who his real parents are, at which point Jon will realize he has just had sex with his aunt, and Daenerys, given her knowledge, with her nephew. Ick. This may lead to a marriage, but more practically, they will realize Jon can ride the second dragon. That’s all a pretty straightforward reading of a series called, tada, A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE. I think they will both survive, oddly enough. But they may wish they did not.

The Night’s King isn’t going to be killed while an undead Viserion is still flying around. They really only have three things to fight Viserion with, alas. The remaining two dragons are one and two, and assuming Arya or Jaime control the Lannisters, the scorpion-like contraption that Cersei had built is three. A dragonclass bolt might do the trick. But I doubt the good guys are smart enough to use the remaining dragons to lure Viserion into such an ambush, as that would allow the other dragons to survive. More likely, though, for increased drama, both dragons will perish to take down Viserion in the final battle, leaving the Night’s King on foot and vulnerable, facing a Murderer’s Row of Brienne, Jorah, Jaime (if he lives that long), Arya, and Jon.

Let’s back up a bit. At the end of Season 7, everyone is heading to Winterfell. The Night’s King is headed there as that is where his real nemesis, Bran Stark, hangs out. I suggest two battles for pacing purposes. One to slow the walkers down before they get to Winterfell, which fails miserably and is made worse with whatever Cersei decides to backstab with (see Dragonstone musing earlier). Then, a last stand at Winterfell where all dragons are wiped out and any remaining forces try to give any Murderer’s Row survivors a chance to kill the Night’s King.

The Night’s King and the Murderer’s Row

Even GRRM isn’t going to let this guy win in the end, so who offs him? This assumes of course that he is truly a load-bearing baddie, where all the walkers he has created and any wights he has raised will crumble when he is defeated.

Of the remaining Valryian steel wielders, Arya has already had her moment by killing Cersei. So she’ll die. Ditto Jaime, if not offed by Arya. That leaves Brienne, Jorah, and Jon.

Brienne has two possible fates. Either she will die in battle, or live to hook up with Tormund. This is GOT, unfortunately, and if you think this will end well, you haven’t been paying attention. So no giant babies. And Jorah’s logical endpoint for his arc is to die saving Daenerys.

Jon, then, by process of elimination, is the only one left to do the deed. He has already died, so he has some serious plot armor. He has an appropriate weapon. Melissandre may even appear to resurrect him again if he missteps (and given his promise, his first act on waking up would be to kill her).

The Remaining Starks

The attack on Winterfell will be devastating, and dramatically speaking, at its most potent if the Starks are wiped out. Sansa dies defending Bran, and Bran is killed by the Night’s King, perhaps distracting or delaying him enough for Jon to kill him. With Arya already dead, Jon and Daenerys are left alone, the last Stark and Targaryen, destined to rule over a kingdom where almost everyone they know and love is dead. Tyrion, too, rules Casterly Rock alone, having killed (in some fashion or another) his entire nuclear family – mother, father, sister, and brother.






Mike’s 10 Best Games of 2018… or maybe less

I am not even sure I played 10 distinct games in 2018, what with son #2 spawning and a super-intense work-life balance, but let’s see.

Fallout 76

The multiplayer sucks. I don’t care. It’s got a huge fun sandbox and I can play it single-player. Not finished yet, but one does not play Fallout for the ending. One plays it to brutalize Super Mutants with their own weapons while wearing Power Armor.

Kingdom Come

This is still the only game I can recall where I murdered a Benedictine for criticizing my Latin. I would do it again.

Battletech

Backed it, early. Finally, a worthy successor to The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge. Only took over 20 years.

Hero-U: Rogue to Redemption

I backed it early too. No regrets at all.

Subnautica

An excellent mix of free-form exploration, crafting, and light combat in a unique setting.

Pillars of Etetnity 2

Like its precursor, the middle of the game is the best part. Not enough quality endings, though.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

A little bit of Thiefy goodness.

Frostpunk

Good concept and flow, though it seems to me, after finishing, that it could have been more complex.

Civilization 6

Surprisingly good, especially on iPad.

Cultist Simulator

Dark and quirky, and also difficult.

Hey, what do you know, I did play ten! Most of these came before M, though.

Writing during the sabbatical

I may not have mentioned that I had a sabbatical this semester to write a book. It has been productive time. Of a projected six-chapter manuscript, I have drafted four chapters and about half of a fifth since late August.

It is a more complex and ambitious work than my old dissertation and will probably be well north of 100k words when finished. I am pretty sure, given my current speed, that it will be complete by May.

It has been enjoyable to concentrate mostly on reading and writing, if only for a brief time. I have also had time to push various articles near completion out, which doesn’t hurt either.

The only completely frustrating side effect has been all the ideas. I have generated enough ideas this semester for at least a decade of research. This means difficult decisions ahead as to what to work on next. Given the book will not be finished by Xmas, I can afford to introduce at most two side projects (articles) in the spring. They will not slow down the book at all – they will rather speed it along as they will serve as an outlet and break during the brief moments of block that I sometimes encounter. But it is very frustrating all the same to sit on projects that could be written in a month, had I actually a spare month for them. The edits and endnotes for the book alone will take two months, minimum.

I guess this all beats sitting around with no ideas, though.

Sometime later this month I will submit my 7th article in the last 12 months, a personal record. A lot of work, but the results have been slow coming. One acceptance and one collection chapter waiting on publisher review are the only good news. Another is still out, another is at its 2nd journal, yet another was rejected harshly but I am carefully working its thesis into one of the book’s chapters, and another was rejected 4 times, which means it goes into the cornfield until further notice. The last one is yet to be sent.

Still, work is its own reward, right? Ugh.

Are We To Blame For Trump?

As I write in October 2018, criticism of Donald Trump’s competence and respect for the law as President of the United States has ceased to be a partisan affair and has become a duty of the citizenry. But all he is is a symptom, I’d argue, of a larger problem. From my perspective as an university professor, colleges haven’t been successful enough at iberal arts education in the last 40-50 years to prevent a Trump-like political event.

Consider these numbers.

First, 50% of voters in the 2016 exit polls claimed a college degree or higher, with another 32% “some college.” Pew has corrected this to 37% of voters having degrees. Either is higher than the national average of college degree holders, which is 33.4% as of 2016. Overall, 39% of registered Democrats have degrees and 31% have some college experience; 28% of registered Republicans have degrees, with another 35% having some college experience. Thus, I submit that less than one-third of the electorate had no college experience, one-third had some, and one-third graduated. I further suggest, then, that the majority of voters had encountered the basic required curriculum of any college, including a composition/writing course like the ones I teach.

Second, according to Pew, among white voters with a college degree, Clinton took 55% to Trump’s 38%, with initial exit polls claiming the reverse of Trump winning 49%-45%. Overall, among all college graduates, Clinton took 52% and Trump 42%, with a gender split among whites: white women with degrees, Clinton 51%, Trump 41%, and white men with degrees, Trump 53%, Clinton 39%. I cannot find numbers on non-white degree holders. I find these numbers incredible, whether or not you favor Pew or the exit polls.

Third, the default explanation that Trump voters were left behind economically is partially mistaken; rather, “growing domestic racial diversity and globalization contributed to a sense that white Americans are under siege by these engines of change” – a polite way of saying those same voters tended to be (but were not necessarily) racist, anti-immigrant, and isolationist.

Fourth, there were about 18 million college-degree-holding Trump voters; my estimate based on 36% of degreed voters being affiliated with the GOP. In accordance with the third point, they tended to view diversity as threatening, immigrants with fear, and their culture – predominately white – as under siege.

These four points form prima facie evidence that college, as the supposed champion of critical thinking and citizenship, has been a crapshoot for fostering critical thinking or citizenship. If those core courses, like composition, had reliably done the citizen-building job that they claimed to do, the degree holders voting for Trump would much be closer to zero. This failure is more apparent when factoring in the millions of graduates that did not vote at all. Turnout for college-educated citizens was about 70% and post-graduate was 80%.

Writing classrooms in 2016 were not the lone culprit, of course; this was a failure to vote against an authoritarian candidate that has its deep origins in previous decades, as most degree recipients got their degrees many years ago. Still, past Republican candidates – Romney, McCain, Dole, the Bushes, Reagan, McCain – were all moderates, worthy of some democratic consideration, compared to Trump’s odious strongman.

I could blame history or philosophy or political science – how can one get a post-WWII college degree without knowing that electing an authoritarian demagogue is undesirable? But no. Few undergraduates take many courses from these disciplines, but exposure to composition is almost guaranteed. My discipline must share some blame, too. We could have done more.

I used to think my teaching was formative of critical thinking and ethics and built at least a motte and bailey defense against the worst excesses. Writing needed teaching to all comers as a communicative civil right. All that seems dangerously stupid now. Increased writing skill does not magically lead to responsible citizenship. If you knew 42% of your composition class was going to note your citizen-building pedagogy and vote for Donald Trump, would you not change your strategy? Or would you “do your job” to “teach writing” like thousands of others, especially as an adjunct or lecturer if you did not have a reasonably secure job or control over your curriculum?

Repeatedly, we have thrown the difficult and lengthy task of teaching skilled writing to instructors that were underprepared, underpaid, and overworked. When we surrendered collectively and unconditionally to the conclusion that the task was not important enough for the best trained, best paid, and best-motivated instructors – who got to become “scholars” with minor teaching responsibilities – that was when the seeds were planted. Now the entire country pays for our neglect; a constitutional crisis that makes Nixon look like a paragon of integrity. If we could have taught just 1% more responsibility – just 1% – Trump would not be president.

Facing our miserable 58% showing (and I refuse to count those college degree holders that didn’t vote for Trump but didn’t vote; that’s sin by omission), we could salvage our idealistic faith in citizenship-building with a dose of realpolitik. Yes, I have the glimmerings of a solution. Still working it out, but I think writing classrooms, at least, need to explore and learn the techniques of the direct opposites of “ethical” citizenship – falsehood, obfuscation, and emotion. Our link between the teaching of writing and the promotion of citizenship has clearly failed to prevent the development of  “anti-citizens” that willfully voted in a demagogue without critical reflection as voting one into the highest office of the land undercuts the purpose of the system.We could teach writing as a neutral tool used for good, evil, and all the gray points in between, as much as we did the practice of democracy and the performance of citizenship – a marriage of realpolitik and idealism. We could study how to compose “unethical” communication through not just the increasingly prevalent examples, but practice, and thus stress the real-world consequences of rhetoric and writing used for nefarious purposes, particularly in civic/political contexts, using the lessons of history – and starting with Trump as Bad Example #1. We have to stress the consequences of dishonest communication and condemn them when we see them.

Or, is it too late? Have we bled out from a self-inflicted wound, and my musings here are part of the last flickers of a dying brain? Certainly, waiting passively for Robert Mueller to save America is a losing bet. The poison has settled in, and the problem is now long-term. Behind Trump is Pence, and behind Pence are other emboldened strongmen, many overseas in parallel tracks. Times are dire.

A college education, on the front lines of voting, may be the best hope for holding the democratic line, but blind idealism, our old pedagogical strategy, is not enough in the face of an evil that conceals its true nature all too well. There are many “anti-citizens” out there that think Trump is the second coming. Lower taxes, reduced immigration, tough trade talk, white male Supreme Court justices, racism and sexism carefully enshrined – all the little things they want, and at what they think is a great price, their souls bundled with the future.

You may note that I used the word evil. I did so purposefully. This is a path of evil we’re on. The election of Trump in 2016 was not a blip. It was a game-changer, a culmination of decades of poor education and careful politicking. Whatever happens in the midterms next month, even a Democratic takeover of both the House and the Senate, will not reverse it. It takes decades to make this kind of mess, and it will take decades to change it. I wonder, though, if we have decades left.

The Link Between Competence and Character

Tiger Woods’s recent “comeback kid” storyline and the ongoing accusations against Judge Kavanaugh remind me that America has an obsession with linking competence to character.

Americans understand competence in two ways. The first is as a minimum. Competent means you mean the minimum requirements for your job or role or sport. You can use it as a pejorative – “He’s just competent,” or as a compliment, “I think you’re competent,” signaling that we ourselves don’t quite know what to make of the concept.

The second way, which is much more insidious and worthy of analysis, is that competence signals good character; a competent person is a good person. When Woods was struggling on the links, it was far easier to link that struggle to personal failings of will, talent, or ethics. But when he’s winning, those concerns are forgotten and replaced by their opposites. He is “mentally tough” and “brilliant” and “disciplined” now, an object of celebration and adoration, a victim of his injuries rather than ruled by them, if he was still losing.

Kavanaugh, too, is a litmus test for how competence is viewed. On one hand, Republicans tend to point to his long career as evidence of competence, and this is extended, by the second definition, to his character. He could not possibly be an attempted rapist because he is competent professionally, the reasoning goes. On the other hand, Democrats reverse this – because he is competent in Republican eyes, they reason, his sterling resume is just the mask of a sexual offender. Either way, it’s a logical mistake. Kavanaugh’s competence as a judge does not cause better personal behavior, or the reverse, that an ethical life leads to competence.

Think over your life, of the many people you’ve known, and you’ll recognize many other examples. The selfless saint that can’t hold down a job, the crack businessman that made his fortune cheating customers, the immature star athlete, the idealistic employee passed over for promotion yet again. And yet we insist to ourselves that there must be a link between behavior and competence. There must be. But there isn’t.

All Trump voters in 2016 knew this very well, even though they might not admit such in public. Trump was rich and famous, with all the trappings of success, and a reputation, at least, of business acumen, but no one is seriously going to point to him as a paragon of moral character. And yet, even with his glaring, obvious example, this doesn’t change how we view Woods or Kavanaugh in the slightest.

Disengagement from this kind of thinking is difficult. Among the professoriate of which I am a member, the professors who publish often are seen as hardworking and industrious, and many sins are forgiven. The ones that don’t get as much in print are viewed as lazy, goldbricking deadwood. This happens despite the inherent randomness of the academic publishing process and despite all the other things professors do, like teaching and administrative work. We’re supposed to be the smart ones, but we can’t easily escape the fallacy either.

Curiously, when it comes time to fire someone, the two concepts of competence and character separate a little. Either can be used to fire you without recourse to the other, but there is always an implication that you failed in both areas. Many positions are apparently supposed to be better than the average Joe, character-wise, given employment clauses detailing the requirements of proper behavior. Behind this is the assumption that you can’t really do your job competently if people don’t view you as competent because your behavior suggests otherwise… even though your behavior has no necessary logical connection to your job performance. It is the appearance or performance of competence, then, that matters.

With Woods and Kavanaugh, we can see one figure ascendant, with his competence and character simultaneously restored; with the other man, both concepts are crashing rapidly because they are so closely linked. I am not suggesting that we do away with linking competence to character, or even if we could, given how hardwired it seemingly is to the American mindset, but we might want to start thinking about applying it more carefully and questioning whether the claims it makes are really warranted.

Privilege

Put yourself in the shoes of Kavanaugh. You’ve gone to the right schools, partied with right friends, worked hard in class and on the job, and now, on the eve of your crowning achievement – being a justice on the Supreme Court – you’re accused of attempted rape.

And you know you did it. You may not remember the details or even the event, but your friend Judge remembers. That’s why he’s in hiding, ineffective as it is.

What would you do?

I am a cynical person, because I see people lie all the time about important, moral things. And I suspect most people in that exact position would lie through their teeth. The pull to just tough it out to confirmation would be too powerful to resist. He knows no witness will come forward. There is no consequence to lying… so why not? He can do good on the court. He can justify himself to his wife and kids. Right?

Right?

Confessing would destroy him. He claims his family has been destroyed already, but that is laughable compared to Ford’s trauma. Confessing would be the real death blow.

So he avoids it. He denies, under threat of felony.

I don’t think I fully understood privilege until I heard his opening statement. He was full of rage – not against injustice, no. Against cruel fate. Against the ‘left’. All that work and feminist stuff only to be stopped by a woman who dared point out he was flawed.

I understood privilege in an intellectual sense, sure. And I saw kids when I was growing up – and adults later – that by benefit of money or class or sports or some other strange gender or race benefit were going places I could never go. And I was a white male myself, and not poor.

But Kavanaugh… he really thinks he is owed a seat on the SCOTUS. He had paid a fee, and he expects – and demands – payment. I have to say, at my university, if we caught a whiff of that kind of thinking in a job candidate, they’d be gone.

But this guy, coached by his real boss, Trump, in how to respond to sexual allegations, gets the go-ahead. Despite the super-credible victim, despite his tantrum on the Senate floor, because it is politically convenient, and because he’s male.

I wonder how many GOP senators have daughters. Would they vote for the man that tried to rape their daughter? Laughing all the way?

Wow.

Just, wow.