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The Seduction of the Other

Saturday, November 14th, 2015

Quick. Picture:

  • A welfare recipient
  • An immigrant
  • A drug addict
  • A socialist

I bet most of you thought of:

  • A black woman, likely with too many kids
  • An illegal Mexican immigrant (possibly, a rapist if you’re Donald Trump)
  • A black guy shooting up heroin or smoking crack
  • Bernie Sanders

Here’s what you might have pictured instead:

  • A young family living in an Army base
  • An Asian engineer
  • A white man or woman addicted to painkillers
  • Margaret Thatcher

Welfare recipients are about equally likely to be Caucasian or African-Americans.  Many food stamp recipients are poor families living on military bases, working hard, but needing supplemental help. Last year, there were almost one million legal immigrants with Asians being the most common represented race.  There were less than 400,000 illegal aliens (yes, mostly Mexican). Substance abuse is more common among whites than blacks (and much more common among Pacific Islanders and Native Americans). As to Bernie Sanders, his policies, at least as far as health care are concerned, are not that much different from those espoused by leaders of our European allies.

My topic for this post is not welfare, immigration or drug use. It’s not about Bernie Sanders either. It’s about our innate distrust of the Other and how it is our nature to demonize groups. It is also about how politicians exploit this distrust and get us to hate The Other. It is a plea for us to understand these phenomena and to recognize when we are falling into natural traps. It is about avoiding the seductiveness of hating our neighbors.

Humans are social animals.  We like to live in groups. We trace the development of our civilization by digging up evidence of early human tribes. The discovery of ancient villages, burial grounds and structures provide a timeline illustrating our progression from nomadic tribes to farming communities and fortified villages. The timeline shows how early villages evolved into cities and city-states.  Our Medieval history is one of independent principalities being incorporated into nations and, later, into leagues of nations. There is safety and prosperity in large numbers. Today, a city that is growing is prosperous; one that is shrinking is in decay. This timeline of amalgamation, however, is also accompanied by another timeline noting the battles and wars that were involved in achieving our current political boundaries. While humans are social animals, sometimes it requires a sharp stick to get them to socialize, especially when it involves the tribe on the other side of the hill.

There is no paradox here.  A group is defined as much by who is not in it as by who is.  There is no cool-kids table without kids who are not cool. There is safety in a tribe because your tribe members can come to your aid when you are attacked by people from the other side of the hill. There is “us” and there is the “other.”

One of my favorite Star Trek episodes is “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield”, co-starring Frank Gorshin (who was one of my favorite impressionists, but that’s beside the point). In this episode, Kirk and Company visit a war-torn planet where only two inhabitants remain.  The two are mortal enemies who will stop at nothing to kill the other.  The two seem almost identical with distinct racial features that manifest themselves in a two-colored face, black on one side and white on the other.  Upon closer examination of the two enemies, however, we realize that one of the two is white on the left and the other is white on the right.  Thus, the war. A bit heavy-handed, but you get the point.

As our civilization has progressed and our tribes grown, the distinctions between ourselves and the Other have become more nuanced. It is no longer about the tribe over the hill. It might be about religion (Shiite v. Sunni), political philosophy (North Korea v. South Korea) or mineral rights (South China Sea).  It might also be about the role of government (Democrat v. Republican), sports (Real Madrid v. FCB) or cultural integrity (Nicki Minaj v. Miley Cyrus). I posit that the silliness of divisions is directly proportional to the prosperity of a tribe. When things are going well, all you’ve got left to argue about is which side of the face should be white and which should be black.

It is our nature to find divisions and to collect with similar tribe members.  I’m sure we will find a gene that determines our affinity for this practice and that neuroimaging will identify the part of the brain in which it manifests. Accept it; it’s part of human nature.

As with everything else that is natural (hunger, sex, fear, etc.), people will seek to exploit this nature.  If you haven’t read “Bowling for Columbine”, do so. Right now. Its treatise on our climate of fear tells you most everything I’m trying to communicate in this post. There are people profiting by your fear.

One of the most effective ways to get you to fear is to demonize the Other. We need to stop illegal immigration because immigrants are rapists and drug dealers.  Al Qaeda is trying to sneak Ebola-infected patients in with immigrants.  Immigrants will rape your daughters and then take your jobs. Really. There are really people who profit from getting you to believe these things.

The first step that any alcoholic has to take to address the disease is to admit to being an alcoholic. We need to admit our fear of the Other. It’s a natural fear. Once we admit it, however, we can recognize it.  We can hold it in our (figurative) hands and turn it over.  We can analyze it more closely and tell whether it’s a real fear or a manufactured one.

Welfare recipients, by and large, are poor people who honestly need help and are trying the best they can to do better. Immigrants are people who have the courage and ambition to travel to a strange country to better their lives. Gay marriage will not destroy heterosexual unions.  Universal healthcare will not turn us into the Soviet Union.  Real Madrid fans are people, too (even if their team is just a European version of the Yankees).  White/black v. black/white? Get over it.  If you must fear or hate someone, direct your feelings at those trying to manipulate you.  They are much more dangerous than your neighbor.

PS: I wrote this minutes before learning of the terrorist incidents in Paris. I considered whether the post might be poorly timed in the face of such heinous attacks. I considered whether to pull the post, but decided not to.  My post does not suggest that there is never any reason to fear others; clearly, there is.  My point is that we should be wary of attempts to manipulate us into irrational fears.  I suspect that, over the course of the next few days and weeks, that we will see many such attempts as people seek to profit from the tragedy in France.


Monday, August 5th, 2013

I originally titled this post “Sad Serendipity” but it turns out that serendipity always relates to happy coincidences. “Zemblanity” was coined to represent the opposite.

I was reading through my Facebook wall and saw a post from a friend talking about Facebook’s “Other” folder.  I’d never heard of this folder so I opened the article and learned that Facebook directs messages to the “Other” folder when it determines that the message looks like spam. This folder can be accessed only through the browser interface (not the mobile app) so some users never find it.

The article went on to say that many users, having found “Other”, also found sad notices in the folder that were missed due to Facebook’s misclassification of the message. I immediately fired up my browser and looked in the folder. Sure enough, I had two messages. One was spam and the other – yes, a sad notice.

About a year and a half ago, Jeff Augenstein died at age 64 (see  An ex-colleague mine had sent me the link at the time, but I missed it, having been exiled to Other-ness.

More than anyone else, I credit Jeff (and his colleague, Ron Hosek) for my professional success.  Back in 1975, when I was 15 and attending Miami High School, I participated in the “Lab Research” program. This was a program for kids accelerated in math and science that gave them high-school credit while working for a scientist.  Jeff was my “scientist.”

Actually, Jeff was a surgical resident at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He and Ron were also very interested in “microcomputers” and their use in science and the medical industry.  My work for Jeff consisted of learning programming on a Scelbi 8H (one of the first kit computers) and writing code to automate a research project.

Later, Jeff and Ron became interested in hospital automation and bought two of the earliest Altair computers that had just come to market. I led a team of high-school kids writing code in BASIC to serve as a prototype for what they wanted to build.  This was my first leadership role and it laid the foundation for all the work that would follow in my career.

Although I consider myself a pretty good computer guy, I am a very bad friend. I am one of those Meyers-Briggs INT/J guys who seems like an extrovert but is content to be alone (as I am now, spending the weekend in the mountains while Sally travels). As a result, I’ve let many friends slip away due to negligence.

After I went off to college, I did not keep in touch with Jeff and Ron.  I still exchange Christmas cards with another team member but haven’t seen him in over 20 years. As I said, I am a bad friend.

So, today, I read about Jeff and what a wonderful, admired, man he was. I wasn’t aware of his accomplishments. I remembered his wife, Debbie, mentioned in the obituary.  They had been married 36 years.

I tried to find Ron about a year ago. I sent him a Facebook message (at least, I think it was the right Hosek).  It’s probably sitting in his Other folder.


Johnny (and Susie and Bob and Jane and …) Can’t Add

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

If you’ve ever faced the “Monty Hall Problem“, you know how tricky math can be.  Seemingly obvious problems can turn out to be more complicated than they seem.

Even though my politics tend to lean left, I am frequently dismayed by the poor reasoning, naivete and, yes, bad math, expressed by my fellow liberals. Recently, there’s been a popular post on Facebook entitled “9 out of 10 Americans are Completely Wrong about this Mind-blowing Fact” (see article here). The general topic of the article is how the average American’s perception of their country’s distribution of wealth is wrong. The video presented in the article charts distributions of wealth and tries to compare “ideal”, respondents notions of “ideal”, respondents notions of “actual” and actual results.

Now, I am not 100% sure of what were the x and y axes in the presented charts, but they appeared to me to be “income” (x) and “wealth” (y).  I presume, too, that by “wealth” the video meant “net worth.”  I could be wrong, but I don’t think so – I looked at the source material from Mother Jones.  If I’m correct, the focus of the video could be restated as “what clusters of income should have what percentage of the wealth”. What percentage of the wealth should be owned by the people who are in the 20th percentile of income? What percentage should be owned by the top 20%?

The video briefly mentions equal ratios (20% income bracket=20% of the wealth) but dismisses this as something that would be derisively considered as “socialism.” The subtle subtext is that the derision is unwarranted and that there’s nothing wrong with this notion. Let me show you why this is even worse than socialism – it’s just plain nuts.

Let’s imagine a simple world with a population of 100 people. 20 of those people make $20,000/year, 60 of them make $40,000/year and 20 make $500,000/year. Now, let’s further state that the poor segment has a 100% propensity to consume. This is an economics term that means these people will spend all of their money on necessities. Likely, it’s worse – they’ll be in debt. Let’s imagine, too, that the middle 60% has a 95% propensity to consume – they save 5% of their income every year. This number is probably not far off from reality for the US middle class. Finally, let’s assume that the wealthy class has a 50% propensity to consume. The rich, having a lot more income, can buy lots of stuff and yet still save a lot.

Now, what happens after 1 year?  The poor have 0% of the wealth, of course! The middle class has collectively saved $120,000 (60*.05*40000). The rich have saved $5,000,000 (20*.5*500000). The collective wealth of our world is $5,040,000. The poor have 0% of the wealth, the middle class has .79% of the wealth and the rich have 99.21%!

The rich have more wealth because they make more money and, thus, can save more – lots more. The poor will never have any money if they can’t save at all. It’s simple math. Just like the Monty Python problem.

Now, you may complain that I’m cooking the numbers by choosing such a variation in incomes between the lower 20% and the upper 20%. The truth is that a factor of 25 (20k vs. 500k) is not that wacky even for socialist countries but let’s pick a smaller ratio and see what happens. Using ratios of 1:5:10 (e.g. $20k, $100k and $200k) but keeping the propensities to consume identical what happens after year?

Of course, the poor still have 0% of the wealth. The middle class have 13% and the rich have 87%. I suspect the video would still “disapprove”.

So what kind of system could possibly result in the poor having an equal proportion of the wealth as the rich? Socialism? Er, no. Tax cuts? Credits? Not if their propensity to consume remains at 100%.

Perhaps there ought to be a video, instead, about the distribution of income in the US, but that’s a whole other topic. If a worker at McDonald’s earns $18,000/year (they do here in WA!) how much should a brain surgeon earn? $180,000/year at least, but that 10x spread, we know, leads to 0:13:87 wealth distribution.

I’m not arguing that the distribution of wealth or income in the US is what it ought to be. In fact, I think it’s quite bad and that the increasing distance between the poor and the wealthy is a very bad thing. I think a lot of our political stability stems from the belief by the poor that they might be rich some day. If this dream turns out to be a delusion, we could see some scary politics over the next decade or two.  I just wish the people trying to raise awareness about the issue weren’t so unknowingly dumb or knowingly manipulative.

Maybe some day I’ll write a similar blog to address conservative complaints about how the rich pay such a large percentage of the taxes. I could pretty much swap all the nouns in this blog and it would serve the same purpose.