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Some Trump opponents argue that we shouldn’t “normalize his election.” It’s a losing argument and not likely to convince anyone of anything. In fact, it’s likely to make some people defensive who can otherwise be brought to oppose Mr. Trump or at least some of his most egregious actions.

The intention behind the argument

Trump’s campaign was based on an unprecedented appeal to racism, xenophobia, and violence. (Or “unprecedented” for the candidate of a major party since World War II.) A good number–perhaps small, but still too many for comfort–of his supporters identify openly with the “alt right” or other white nationalist creeds, and one of his “senior” advisors used to be an editor for an online magazine that gave a voice to some alt right groups. Further, it appears that Mr.Trump has either declined to disavow them, waited too long to disavow them, or has been too equivocal in disavowing them. (For a dissenting view, see Scott Alexander.)

There are other sins, too, and I haven’t even touched on the in some ways more disturbing implications of Mr. Trump’s presidency for foreign policy.

Those who say “don’t normalize” the election are saying this is no ordinary transfer of power. They’re pushing back against a tempting story that goes, “well, two people ran for election and one of them won, so let’s all come together and support the new president, and better luck next time to the losers.” The “don’t normalize” people are saying that approach is insufficient. It doesn’t represent the gravity of what has already happened and doesn’t create a bulwark against what might happen. In a very real sense, that approach makes “normal” that which ought never be normal and until recently wasn’t even openly sayable.

An unnecessary hurdle

But raising the “don’t normalize” argument creates an unnecessary hurdle for Trump opponents. With the “don’t normalize” argument, they now have to explain what normalization is, why it’s bad, how not to normalize, and how any given action a “normalizer” undertakes actually constitutes normalization–all that before and in addition to criticizing anything of substance.

And the what’s, why’s, and how’s are more difficult than it might seem from a Trump opponent’s perspective. For one thing, what does it mean as a practical matter to “normalize”? As Noah Millman has said,

If people who opposed Trump refuse to “normalize” his government, what does that mean? That they will, literally, refuse to recognize its authority — refuse to pay its taxes, resign from service in its military, and so forth? Surely not.

I’ll add that it’s impossible NOT to normalize (for certain values of “normalize”) without making some very difficult decisions. If you have a 401k or an investment account, are you prepared to disinvest from any stocks or bonds that have a stake in “normalizing” the new presidency–which is pretty much all of them? Are you prepared, as Millman says, to refuse to pay taxes, etc.? Do we start a civil war? If so, who do we kill? (For the record, I disavow killing or civil war. I’m pointing out that one reductio to which the “don’t normalize” talk can go is to a call for violence. Again, that’s not something I’m willing to endorse.)

More from the same Millman article:

I think what people mean when they say that we can’t “normalize” Trump’s behavior is some some version of “we need to keep reminding people that this is not normal.” But the “we” and “people” in that sentence are doing all the work.Whoever says that Trump shouldn’t be “normalized” is implying that somebody — the press, perhaps? — is in a position to decide what is normal, and to inform everybody else of that fact. But that’s not how norms work, and neither the press nor anybody else is in a position either to grant or withhold recognition to the new government.

In fact, the word is a way of distracting from one of the crucial jobs at hand. Trump, for example, is on strong legal ground when he says that he is exempt from conflict of interest laws. But laws can be changed — and in this case, perhaps they should be. To achieve that requires making a case, not that what Trump is doing isn’t “normal,” but that it is a bad thing worth prohibiting by law. Saying “we mustn’t normalize this behavior” rather than “we need to stop this behavior” is really a way of saying that you don’t want to engage in politics, but would rather just signal to those who already agree with us just how appalled we are.

What is to be done?

I don’t know the answer to that question. Perhaps because Trump hasn’t even assumed office yet, “don’t normalize the election” might be a more winnable or at least plausible argument because he hasn’t had a chance to do much yet other than signal certain policies and criticize people’s acting ability. Maybe when the time comes, we can follow Matt Yglesias’s suggestion and focus on the actual policies and humdrum of politics.

Or maybe we could do more than that (although we should probably do that). Take Rebecca Trotter’s blog. She’d possibly disagree with my admonition against the “don’t normalize” argument, but even if she does, she offers concrete things we can do in her series of “daily acts of resistance” posts and her ideas on “what resistance to Trump looks like.” I’m don’t read her as often as I should–and I’m not prepared to say I necessarily agree with her ideas for resistance–but she’s offering something concrete.


Maybe Trump is an authoritarian who may bring us closer to the coming next presidential tyranny. Maybe he’ll turn out to be the weak-willed, thin-skinned, incompetent his actions so far suggest he is. A third possibility is that he’s just a regular politician who’ll both modify, and fit in to, the institutional norms and incentives that are the presidency.

I realize there is real fear out there. Perhaps events will prove that fear unfounded, but I can’t and won’t deny that the fear is genuine and plausible. I’m not part of the demographics most likely to be targeted by what’s going on, and I realize that this fact gives me a detached view that others can ill-afford to take. My historian’s sensibility warns against judging people who are in circumstances I can never understand perfectly. But I do believe the “don’t normalize” argument at best will simply not work and at worst will help foster a defensive reaction in favor of Trump.

Category: Statehouse

The forbidden analogy.

According to Godwin’s law and its corollaries, Hitler and Nazi analogies are almost always a bad idea. They are more likely to derail a conversation than add to it.

If you’re trying to convince someone of something, comparing them to Hitler and the Nazis is probably the wrong way to get them to listen to you. It also leaves room for one objection. If someone is so like the Nazis that the comparison is apt, they might not amendable to argument anyway. (Actually, I’m not so sure. I see some moral distance between the German who didn’t approve of but who acquiesced to Nazi rule and high-ranking leaders of the party. This might be offensive, but most citizens of the United States acquiesce to some pretty brutal policies who if asked would claim not to approve. Not saying that’s the same thing….which is one of the problems with Nazi analogies in the first place.)

The analogy is distracting. If someone is to be opposed because he is “a lot like Hitler,” then it shouldn’t be too hard to point out the ways he is objectionable without saying “and this is what the Nazis did, too.” If someone really wishes to single out an ethno-religious groups for “special treatment,” or if he endorses politically motivated violence, or if he threatens to revive something like the Palmer raids, then it shouldn’t be too hard to argue that that person is proposing something wrong. If it is hard, then your problem is different from mere analogizing.

Finally–and I’m not sure I’ve heard this objection raised before–the analogy can normalize Nazism. For the purposes of naming things as they are, of course, Nazis should be called Nazis. Neo-Nazis should also be called Nazis. The “alt right”….maybe call them Nazis, I guess, depending on who we’re talking about and what they advocate.

I’m not sure how far down the ladder it’s okay to go, though. If someone is in principle persuadable to your view, or if they supported the “unsupportable” for non-Nazi’ish reasons, then it’s possible overusing the word “Nazi” in describing that person might make less illegitimate a term that heretofore has been an automatic insult.

In a sense, overuse of the word grants Nazis “official opposition” status. If that’s how things are, then that’s how they are. But we shouldn’t overdetermine the result.

Please don’t misunderstand me. If someone comes to think the term “Nazi” is now “less illegitimate” than it was before, the fault lies primarily with that person. People sometimes choose evil, and if we make it easy for them to do so, we share some of the blame. But the principal responsibility lies with the chooser.

The analogy revived.

In two fairly recent posts Over There, I’ve seen something like that analogy used for our present situation.Before I discuss them, I’d like to point out that I am citing only the parts that speak to the issue of Nazi analogies. Each post makes more complex arguments and should not be judged solely by what I excerpt here. So read the whole thing(s).

The first post is Saul De Graw’s reflections on how bad the new presidential administration might be:

We also like to think that our laws and Constitution will protect us from the worse from happening but laws and Constitution are only as strong as the people themselves. A friend of mine posted another story on Facebook. The author of the post’s grandmother was a Jewish elementary school student in Hitler’s Germany. She needed surgery in 1932 and 1933. In 1932, all of the girl’s classmates and teachers came to visit her in the hospital. In 1933, no one did.

This story might seem hyperbolic (and it does raise Godwin’s Law) but it demonstrates that the norms of bigotry can change rapidly and seemingly overnight. Maybe the girl’s classmates and teachers did not become more anti-Semitic, but they knew it would be a serious social cost and possibly a physical cost to visit their Jewish classmate in the hospital. Most people are go along and get along types. You don’t need a nation of willing executioners. You just need enough people willing to commit acts of violence with the consent of government, and most of the rest of the people will just put their heads down to save themselves and their families.

The second is Mike Schilling’s takedown of the argument that liberals’ alleged smugness played a role in the president-elect’s victory. (In my opinion, the Nazi analogy lurks in the background, although Mike himself makes no explicit reference to it and the person he’s referring to is a post-World War II “scholar.”):

In case you’re not familiar with the work of Kevin Macdonald, let me summarize. In analyzing the recurrence of anti-Semitism through history, he found the usual explanations wanting, and hit upon one that, while not new, had been oddly absent from almost all recent academic discussions: they deserve it. Jews really are awful, he observed: clannish, avaricious, and amoral, with disdain for societal norms and non-Jews in general that makes them a cancer on any society foolish enough to admit them. Anti-semitism is an entirely natural response, in effect the immune system working to fight an infection.

Much of the reaction to the recent election has included a similar insight, which, much like Dr. Macdonald’s, is moving beyond the area that once hosted it. [The president-elect’s] popularity among voters is explained by the fact that liberals are smug. Of course voters dislikes liberals: who wouldn’t? They’re whiny losers, overeducated but lacking any sense, haters of patriotism, religion, and everything genuinely American, nanny-staters, Godless socialists, baby-killers, special snowflakes who need safe spaces. And worst of all, smug. No wonder their political fortunes are slipping; no one can stand them. (Even worse for fans of Dr. Macdonald, liberals are often… Well, you know.)

What surprised me wasn’t so much that the analogy was used (or in Mike’s case, implied). That’s to be expected on a liberal-leaning blog in which almost all authors and contributors opposed the president-elect and believed his campaign represented an unacceptably racist, xenophobic, or authoritarian turn in US politics.

What surprised me slightly more was that no one, as far as I can tell, actually complained about Godwin’s law. The closest was one comment to Mike’s post, which complained that “[i]t seems like the point of this article was to stack the concepts of liberalism, smugness, and anti-Semitism on top of each other in so many combinations that it will seem like anyone who accuses liberals of smugness is anti-Semitic.”

A lot of things could explain the unwillingness to call out Godwin’s law.  It is a liberal-leaning blog, after all. And for each OP, the main point wasn’t the Nazi analogy but some other thing. In Saul’s case, he forthrightly admits the dangers of “Godwin’s law” and in Mike’s case, as I’ve said, the analogy was only implicit. And maybe those posts just happen to show up on the right day/time so that no one chose to discuss the analogy’s aptness.

Directing the analogy inward.

I’m not inclined to call Godwin’s law, either. Whatever differences I might have with Saul’s post, I have no standing whatsoever to tell him that he doesn’t really fear what he says he fears. I’d go even further and say his”…and most of the rest of the people will just put their heads down to save themselves and their families” is too charitable.It’s far from clear that the question was always saving oneself and one’s family. It might have been more like “saving oneself the inconvenience and opportunity cost” of raising even a token opposition.

For Mike’s post, a more charitable reading of his analogy is that he’s identifying a prior instance of fallacious reasoning and noting how in his opinion current commentary succumbs to similar reasoning. I’m not sure I agree completely–and I see more disanalogy than analogy–but I can’t say he’s wholly wrong, either.

In fact, looking to myself, the chance that the analogy might have some teeth haunts me in our present situation. My insistence on “understanding the voters, my own “gut” preference for the president-elect, and my perhaps too cheerful optimism that (to use what seems to be our newest cliche) “our institutions can survive the stress test”–these all suggest to me something similar to the German citizen who silently disagreed with the Nazis’ racial policies or who complacently believed Hitler might not be so bad or that his ministers and the institutions of civil society could control him.

The dangerous thing is that I could probably get away with complacency. I’m not a member of the demographics most likely to be targeted, although some of my loved ones are. And Saul said, who’s targeted and who’s not targeted can change, sometimes very quickly.

I really want to agree with Scott Alexander. He has written that as bad as the president-elect is likely to be, he’s not the white nationalist wolf some people are crying. And on paper, Mr. Alexander is right. As far as I can tell, the last president who indulged in overt racism and white nationalism was Woodrow Wilson, and the next president ain’t no Wilson. That’s probably both a good thing and a bad thing. But I also fear the new guy is as much of a wolf as he can be.

More to the point, I do realize that the way things happen in the US are different from how they happen in Europe. Not “exceptional,” just different. Our persecutions and oppressions tend to be more decentralized, though no more benign for that. And I must keep things in historical perspective. Maybe a few months from now I’ll find the new president is just a regular politician with a populist streak, of the sort we’ve had before and have survived.


Even flirting with the Hitler analogy by implication compares those of my family, friends, or readers who voted for the president-elect to Germans who voted for national socialism in the 1930s. I ask only that they realize I’m directing this analogy to myself and my own complacency. I disagree strongly with their decision, but I refuse to direct the analogy to them. As an analogy, it works best for removing the beams in the eye of those who use it. Motes in others’ eyes require a more precise instrument.

Category: Statehouse

I don’t like Donald Trump. I hope he’ll be merely a bad president and not a disastrous one. I don’t like Trumpism, either. I hope (but am not optimistic) the anecdotes of racially and sexist motivated violence are either exaggerated, reported only because they’re topical, or at least don’t represent a new trend. The night of the election I was depressed and worried. You might not believe it, but I didn’t sleep at all. Not a wink. I just lay awake in bed thinking about the future.

And yet, when people in my life criticize Trump or his supporters, I get very defensive for some reason. By “people in my life” I mean family members, close friends, coworkers, and people on the blogosphere. Even my belief that we do indeed need to understand our opponents represents a certain defensiveness because my go-to (with some past exceptions) is usually to understand Trump supporters or non-liberals in general and not to understand the liberals who oppose Trump.

Perhaps some of this has to do with “flippism,” an idea I got from Jaybird, a commenter Over There. In relevant part,

It’s the basic idea that if you don’t know which of two choices are before you, you should flip a coin. Not because you should do what the coin says, mind, but because the moment the coin is in the air, you’re a lot more likely to say “OH I HOPE IT’S HEADS” at which point you’ll know which choice you actually prefer in your gut.

Then you just have to figure out how much weight to give your gut.

I bring that up because hypocrisy can work that way for people who are on the fence. Let’s say that you’re torn on a particular policy. There’s this way, there’s that way… you don’t know which is the best one… then you encounter a hypocritical politician. Are you inclined to snort and reach conclusions about all those people? Are you inclined to get defensive and start defending the guy even before you read a single attack? Well, now you know what your gut thinks.

As upset as I was about Trump’s victory, I can’t deny that somewhere in my gut I wanted him to win, if not the presidency, then at least the GOP nomination, and not in the way that some liberals wanted him to win the nomination in order to ensure a Democratic victory. In the voting booth, even though I voted for Clinton, part of me wanted to vote for Trump just to be contrarian. In Sangamon that vote wouldn’t have affected the outcome, but it’s still something I might have done.

Some of this defensiveness and “gut support” is a luxury. I’m not among the demographics most likely to be hurt by Trumpism if the worst (or even just the “moderately bad”) predictions about what it means come true. Some of it is probably also due to what my co-blogger Oscar recently described as the “-ism-lite,” which is the type of racism (and other ism’s) that are not quite as nefarious or bad as the more obvious or open kinds, but are still wrong and withal easy for its practitioners to overlook. As he puts, it instead of rejecting out of hand, “I have to parse it, process it, and then I recognize it and decide it’s not OK.”

I realize that in this post, other than noting that I do get defensive, I haven’t really explained the defensiveness or even the types of situations that elicit that defensiveness. I’m simply noting that it’s there and I’m not sure what to do with it.

Category: Statehouse

Sometime during the GOP primary races–probably after I wrote this— I started to sign on to the view that we need to stop “understanding” Trump supporters and focus on defeating them. I had forgotten two things.

First, while “defeating” (and winning over) the opposition are the principal goals in a political contest, it’s not always about “defeating.” It’s also about trying to live in the same world with others, being open to what they have to say, and when possible, convincing them to listen to what I have to say.

Second, understanding the opposition is always important. There’s the utilitarian reason. You’re more likely to win if you understand your opponent. But there’s also the intrinsic rightness of aspiring to empathy. People are people in their own right. I never said and never really believed that Trump supporters were the caricatures of racist reactionaries that others portrayed them as any more. But I probably acted that way.

Trump supporters have their own feelings and their own complex views of the things in their lives that affect them. They are humans just like me, though on average they probably got a lot fewer breaks in their lives than I have. I don’t mean that last point condescendingly, either, as in “they are so underprivileged that they must turn to somebody like Trump.” But it’s probably the case that I stood and stand to gain a lot than they from the type of policies that Clinton would have enacted or maintained. (It’s probably also the case that from a purely personal perspective, I stand to gain a lot from some policies Trump supports.) I also have resources to fall back on should I experience some reversals in fortune. So maybe I should withhold judgment when someone sees things differently. That’s what I ask of others before they judge me.

I do maintain some fundamental disagreements. Whatever their personal views, people who voted for Trump at the very least determined that his racist and sexist-bordering-on-pro-rape-apologetics statements weren’t deal breakers. For me, they would have been deal breakers even if Trump’s views aligned with my own on other matters. Some of my nieces, nephews, and in-laws are Latino or black. Those statements of Trump suggest either that they don’t have a place in our society or that their “proper” place is below white males. (That said and while I don’t know for sure, one of my Latina in-laws probably voted for Trump.)

I need to get out of my bubble more often. As the cliche goes, to understand someone is to forgive–or at least legitimate–them. “Understanding” can sometimes lead to apologetics or agreeing with that with which I should not agree. But it can also put things in perspective and force me to recognize others’ humanity.

Category: Statehouse

For me it’s Johnson vs. Clinton. I know Johnson isn’t going to win and I believe Clinton will probably win.

The advantage with voting for Johnson is that the more votes he gets, the more some of the issues I like will be highlighted, like decriminalizing drugs, ratcheting down police militarization, promoting civil liberties more robustly, and evincing skepticism about policies that might lead the US into another land war in Asia. It will also remind Clinton (assuming she wins anyway) that she needs to fight for our votes.

The disadvantages. Aspects of Johnson’s message I don’t agree with might be highlighted even more. I’m not too keen on decreasing the size of the federal government in the way that he’d probably do it. I don’t know of any explicit statement he’s given on Obamacare this election cycle, but I assume he’s hostile to it and is likely to want something much different from me.

More important, this election requires me to take a stand against Trump in a way that I haven’t really had to take a stand against a major party presidential candidate before. While in general Johnson may take away more votes from Trump than from Clinton, in my case a vote for Johnson takes away a vote I would have cast for Clinton. A vote for Clinton is a repudiation of Mr. Trump in a way that a vote for Johnson isn’t.

Category: Elsewhere

UPDATE: Please see my version of this post Over There. The short story is, I was wrong and I retract my argument.

My wife got a piece of mail yesterday addressed to “[her name] or current resident” and the return address said, “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon.” The bottom of the envelope had a note that said “From the desk of [Joe Schmoe],” who is Sangamon’s secretary of state. Inside the envelope were a vote-by-mail application, a postage-paid envelope in which to send the application, and a form letter from the Sangamon secretary of state explaining the vote by mail process. At the end of the letter is a postscript:

P.S. No matter who you vote for, voting matters. It’s the backbone of our democracy. Fill out your Vote By Mail application and send it back TODAY! You can apply online or find your early voting site at [Sangamaon][Sangamon]

While I have mixed feelings about vote by mail, it’s an option open to people in Sangamon and I offer no complaint about it here. And because, as I understand, the state’s secretary of state is charged with voter registration and running the vote by mail service, I find it entirely appropriate that his office sends letters and applications to citizens.

But it’s unseemly, in my opinion, to have this thing paid for by the Democratic party. It’s also unseemly that she was the only one to get the application. While my wife is registered to vote, I don’t know if she’s registered as a Democrat. (If I understand right, in Sangamon, you don’t have to declare an affiliation when you register, but you may if you wish.)

I’m not a registered Democrat. I’m also not particularly friendly to the local Democratic party. Several months ago, a precinct captain was in the neighborhood asking for my signature on a petition for someone to run for Democratic the ward committeeman. I politely explained that I was uncomfortable with the quasi-official “party committeeman” form of governance. Equally politely, he didn’t pursue the matter or harangue me.

It’s possible I was put on the list of “not likely to vote for our person and therefore shouldn’t waste campaign resources on him.” When it comes to things like voter canvassing or who to hit up for donations, that’s a perfectly acceptable way to designate people. But if, as may be the case here, it might determine who receives vote by mail applications “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon.”

Or not. There may be other, mostly innocent or innocuous, things going on. Our landline is registered under my wife’s name, so it’s listed in the phone book under her name. So if that kind of record is gotten by the same pool of information as the phone book, then I can see why the default would be to send the application to her. I also understand that in Big City, the Democratic Party is the main organization and its quasi-official role in governing the city gives it certain responsibilities. So it’s not completely bad that it helps meet operating expenses for public services like vote by mail applications. And Sangamon’s budget is pretty strapped, although I seem to recall similar notices sent to my wife years ago when the budget troubles weren’t quite as bad.

And the envelope was addressed to her “or current resident.” Presumably, I or anyone residing at that address could comfortably open the envelope and get the benefit of access to the application.

But I have a problem with that. I usually won’t open a piece of mail addressed to someone “or current resident” if that someone is not me. I opened this particular piece of mail only because my wife gave me permission. Even if the envelope had been addressed to me, the label “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon” might lead someone to believe it’s just a political flyer or request for a donation. In that case, I’d be disinclined to open such an envelope. Some of that is counterbalanced by the “from the desk of Joe Schmoe” note I mentioned above. And of course, I was curious enough to open the envelope, so I wasn’t deceived.

But if a state service “from the desk of” the state’s secretary of state is being sent out “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon,” that implies something like an official advertisement the party bought from the state, suggesting that for the benefit of paying for this outreach, it receives quasi-official status as the main game in town. This isn’t the most horrible thing ever, but it’s not entirely benign either.

Category: Statehouse

Some terms have a technical meaning and a common meaning, and the common meaning has a “normative slant.” The technicians know how to use the terms in the technical sense. But sometimes the common meaning slips in, in such a way that using the term ends up making two arguments with one word.

If one isn’t careful, using such terms can lead  to confusion. Who’s to blame is not always clear. It could be the technician who uses the term or it could be interlocutor who misinterprets or misidentifies the technical meaning.

I have a list of three terms here, in ascending order of how knowledgeable I am about the technical definitions.



Title(s) of technicians. Economist; political scientist.

Technical meaning. The extra amount one is willing to spend to get the next widget. Or, somewhat less technically but still bound up with what technicians mean: the amount of change a given policy will bring about in a given direction.

Common meaning. An amount that is unimportant or trivial.

Normative slant to the common meaning. Mostly neutral, but it can swing either way depending on whether “amount” in question is good or bad.

Possibilities for confusion. When people speak of changes “on the margins” or assert that such and such policy will bring about “marginal” changes, they may have in mind the technical meaning. But sometimes they let slip in or leave unaddressed the common meaning. If it’s a somewhat harmful, but in his/her opinion necessary thing technician is advocating, he/she leave themselves open to the charge that he/she is minimizing the harm.

Sometimes, too: The size of the margin–not whether a marginal change will be brought about–is really what is under dispute. Simply pointing out that change (for the better or worse) will occur along some margin does not 1) demonstrate how much the change will be and 2) whether the change is worth it.

Exploitation (Marxist version).

Title(s) of technician(s). Marxist theorist; activist.

Technical meaning. Expropriating the surplus value of a worker to pay the profits of the person to whom the worker sells his or her labor. (Other technicians may have other meaning, but I’m focusing on the Marxist version.)

Common meaning. Somehow compelling someone to do something that they don’t want to do and that harms them.

Normative slant to the common meaning. Bad.

Possibilities for confusion. One sometime activist I knew who was steeped in Marxist theory often used the word “exploitation” to great emotional effect when describing the treatment of workers and the need for a revolution. And yet if you bring up examples of workers being treated well or workers as a whole benefiting from the prevailing economic system, then that same Marxist will fall back on the more technical meaning of “exploitation” and explain what they really meant was that the workers’ surplus value, etc., etc.


Title(s) of technician(s). Historian.

Technical meaning. Representing the phenomenon of change over time. I believe it can represent persistence over time as well. The key point is that change happens (or doesn’t) but it can be explained by people’s decisions or by contingent, unforeseen happenings. This is probably a modern conceit. Historians in earlier times sometimes appealed notions of “forces of history” or “cycles of history” or “spirits of history” (e.g., Zeitgeist, Volksgeist, Ortgeist). I’m not saying my definition is true for all times and places and people, just that it’s the prevailing definition among those who were trained professionally in history and abide by professional history’s norms.

Common meaning. True and factual story of what happened.

Normative slant to the common meaning. Good.

Possibilities for confusion.There are at least two ways we sometimes commingle the technical and common meanings. One is simply using the common meaning when it suits us and then relying on our status (such as it is) of “historian” to claim that it’s truth.

The second is to speak as if merely demonstrating that a given belief or position or attitude is “ahistorical” we have therefore invalidated it. This is wrong, or at least “confusing,” because it assumes that historicality is the only measure by which to judge things. It judges people by the standards of professional historians even if those people did not claim to be abiding by those standards in the first place.



There’s a lot I don’t know about the above terms. I’m least confident with “marginal.” Not being an economist or trained in economics, I suspect I’ve got it wrong on some level. So please correct me.

I feel a little bit more confident about “exploitation” and Marxism. But to be clear I’ve never read Marx to any significant degree, and most of what I “know” comes from reading Marxist-inspired historians and talking with people like my sometime activist acquaintance. And perhaps the “confusion” I talk about is just an anecdatum from my activist acquaintance.

Even with “historical” I might be off despite my training. In my anecdotal observation and experience, historians aren’t usually trained in grad school to examine the assumptions of history. Instead, grad school socializes them into the norms of the profession, and among those norms are the assumptions I mention above. My experience is no exception: I’ve given these assumptions some thought, but haven’t really investigated them systematically.


My takeaway, though, stands. We should beware how we use technical terms. It’s not only that there’s room for confusion, there’s also room for deception or at least lazy argumentation. And while the blame can’t always rest with the technicians, it sometimes can.

Category: Market, Statehouse

Nice guys like to think they’re peculiarly disadvantaged when it comes to love, sex, and dating. And they’re none too fond of the competition, either. But Nice guys aren’t as nice as they think.

I used to think I was a nice guy. I was wrong. I used to think my only shortcoming was social awkwardness. I was wrong again.

My first mistake was not realizing how off-putting “mere” social awkwardness can be. The evidence was right before me. I knew people even more socially awkward than me, and I didn’t like to be around them. If they were socially awkward enough, I might talk about them behind their back, or make fun of them, or not hang out with them. Awkwardness is unfair and difficult to shed. As the song says, “nobody wants to know you now and nobody wants to show you how.” But I was just as guilty of acting against others’ awkwardness as my dating interests were to mine. Why should I have expected more of them than I did of myself?

My second mistake was not realizing I had greater problems than social awkwardness. To be sure, I said and claimed to believe (and probably on some level did believe) all the right things. I believed it’s wrong to objectify women, that gender discrimination is real, that sexual harassment happens, and that in most environments women disproportionately fear for their safety more than men do. All of that, I said/claimed to believe/(probably believed) ought to enter into the equation when it comes to such things as love, sex, and dating.

But in practice I objectified women without realizing–or more honestly, without admitting to myself–that I was doing it. More important, I also had and have anger issues and control issues. I won’t go into them here. My point is that those qualities were potentially creepy and definitely not “nice.” On the one hand, they can be chalked off to youth and inexperience. But on the other hand I had work to do and as long as I believed I was a nice guy that wasn’t going to happen.

At the same time that the work wasn’t happening because I still thought I was a nice guy, one convenient foil for my frustrations was the “bro dude,” although I’m not sure I’ve ever used that exact term and probably didn’t even encountered it until about a year ago. The bro dude is a jerk. He’s crass, rude, and a bit of a slob….but women love him. He comes out ahead but doesn’t deserve it while the nice guy finishes last.

But just as I was mistaken about myself, I was mistaken about “bro dudes,” too.

My definition of “bro dude” was too broad. Pretty much anyone I didn’t like and who had a girlfriend qualified. And “anyone I didn’t like” often meant “anyone I perceived as competition.”

Bro dudes weren’t as boorish as I believed them to be. They evidently had something to offer the women who dated them. While women, like all people, sometimes make poor relationship choices, it’s wrong to assume women aren’t capable of living their own lives and making their own choices. That assumption is inherent in anti-bro-dude’ism.

And boorishness isn’t all bad. Maybe some of the behaviors I called boorish were just ways to be oneself and maybe some ways of me being myself seem boorish to others. What’s more: Some behaviors I used to think were boorish were probably just the guy being willing to be honest with his emotions.

As an aside but not really an aside, boorishness–and being a “bro dude”–is often mistaken for stupidity. The “they’re stupid” trope by itself is best kept at a distance. Nice guys love to imagine themselves as smart, but delicate flowers that need and deserve special treatment because of their alleged intelligence. They rarely stop to admit they may not be as smart, talented, or sensitive as they think they are. They even more rarely stop to think about the implications behind giving more intelligent people special treatment. There’s an important sense in which “smart people should be given more respect (because they’re smart)” is equivalent to “strong people should be given more respect (because they’re strong).”

I guess my moral is “if you feel you’re being especially oppressed because of how good you are, maybe you’re not either oppressed or good.” “Bro dudes” aren’t to blame. They might not even really be “bro dudes.”

Now, my parting caveats and CYA concessions. I’ve overgeneralized. I admit it.

Yes, there probably really are guys who have a lot to offer and aren’t as appreciated as they should be. There are definitely guys who are too controlling of their partners, and some are even more than just “too controlling.” More likely, most men fall between those extremes, having something to offer but also having a full range of weaknesses and faults.

And yes, I still believe it’s wrong to objectify women, that gender discrimination is real, that sexual harassment happens, and that in most environments women disproportionately fear for their safety more than men do. And I still believe all of that needs to be taken into account when it comes to love, sex, and dating.

And yes, I’m a straight, white, cisgender, upper-middle class, American….you get the picture.

Finally, I don’t want to deny anyone’s feelings of loneliness or awkwardness. It’s legitimate to feel sad or distressed or frustrated. I think it’s also understandable that such feelings sometimes translate into categorical bitterness against entire groups of people. And while we must draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable ways of expressing those feelings, it is usually be a good thing to withhold judgment and listen first.

Category: Bedroom

I’ve been pretty upfront that I believe the American Revolution was unjust. Not 100% unjust. I concede some very good things that might not have happened, did happen or happened more quickly because of the Revolution. I also don’t claim that but for the Revolution, we would be right now sipping Molson’s and complaining about wait times and doctor shortages imposed by our single-payer system but being grateful that it’s not as bad as the National Health Service. But I believe the war was unjust enough that if I were around back then and had the same sensibilities as today and had the courage of my convictions, I would have opposed it.

That’s not a particularly brave or shocking thing to say in 2016. I don’t fear tar and feathering, which was by the way a really, really horrific practice and not the comical thing it used to sound like to me. I’m not going to lose my property be and forced into exile or shunned.

But my position takes some people aback, even my liberal and leftist friends. Some of my very liberal friends who in other contexts threaten to move to Canada get offended when I say the war was unjust. #notallleftistsorliberals , of course. I know a Trotskyist whose take on the Revolution is probably “something something bourgeois elites something something.” And there’s always the Howardzinnians, but even they claim the Revolution itself was just but that it was counter-revolutioned. (Actually, I’ve never read Zinn, so I don’t know exactly what he argues.)

Why bother harping on this? Even if you concede that the Revolution was an unjust war, there are other unjust wars the US has engaged in, usually wars more unjust, and certainly more recently, than that unfortunate escapade. And the Revolutionary War was a really long time ago. The scars have been healed. If celebrating it brings some people comfort, then why be “that guy” who gripes about it? If the founding document that allegedly justifies that war inspires or at least provides ideological cover for causes I support, then why diss it?

One reason why I bother: It’s the founding moment of the story we tell ourselves as a nation. There’s a holiday dedicated to celebrating it. I like my days off as much as anyone, and I feel fortunate to have a job that gives me July 4 as a paid holiday. But I’m not too keen on celebrating the type of political activism that gang of criminals in Boston engaged in and that gang of more polite apologists in Philadelphia “ennobled” with their declaration.

However, I can’t hide that I get a certain contrarian thrill from saying I oppose the Revolution. I agree with Kevin Vallier when he warns against the “contrarian trap.” I think contrarianism, as contrarianism, is a bad thing.

I end on “however, maybe I’m being merely contrarian” and not on “I think I’m right” because I don’t know whether I’m being contrarian or not and it’s best not to think too highly of oneself. But I do believe that war was unjust and we shouldn’t celebrate it.

Category: Statehouse

Mostly because I’m ignorant of the nuts and bolts, I’ve pretty much avoided the debates about whether transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choosing. My position is roughly the same as Thoreau’s over at High Clearing.

However, what little commentary I’ve read seems to leave an important point unaddressed. In my experience, schools are unforgiving when it comes to respecting students’ privacy. In my middle school, no provision was made by our gym class for those students who would have preferred not to shower in a room full of other naked boys. The gym teachers (there were 2 gym teachers who taught one class0 actually made it into some sort of right of passage, something we all had to do as a step to manhood. At least that’s how I interpreted their attitudes.

In high school, the school for whatever reason ordered the doors to all the bathroom stalls in the boys rooms to be dismantled so that if someone had to do “sitting-down business,” they had to do it in full view of others. As in the middle school shower example,

It was rumored that school policy in each case treated the girls better. I had heard (but didn’t know and still don’t know if it’s true) that for the girls’ gym classes, my middle school allowed the students to have their own shower stalls. I had heard (but didn’t know and still don’t know if it’s true) that my high school permitted girls to have bathroom stall doors. If those rumors are true, then I think that’s inexcusable sexism, not that girls should have to suffer the same as boys, but that boys shouldn’t be especially targeted.

Despite my hyper-modesty, I was able to do the middle-school showering with no problem. But in keeping with my hyper-modesty, the “no doors on bathroom stalls” policy really, really bothered me. When you gotta go, you gotta go, except when you’re too afraid to, then you can’t, but you still gotta. And well, nobody’s gonna be sympathetic.

My anecdote is just that, an anecdote. I’m sure some schools handle things better and some, worse. And maybe at a systematic level, most schools handle these things better. Or maybe I’m just hypersensitive. I realize it’s asking a lot to suggest the world needs to change to accommodate my special neuroses.

But the debate over transgender privileges needs to take privacy seriously. I’m actually optimistic that the debate can lead to greater respect for students’ privacy, if only because any workable compromise or solution on the issue may include offering things like private clothes-changing stalls, private shower stalls, and doors on bathroom stalls.

Category: School


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Greetings from Stonebridge a fictitious city in a fictitious state located in a tri-state area in the interior Mid-Atlantic region. We're in western Queenland, which is really a state unto itself, and not to be confused with Queensland in Australia.

Nothing written on this site should be taken as strictly true, though if the author were making it all up rest assured the main character and his life would be a lot less unremarkable.

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