Parallax and exclusive facts

Parallax describes the phenomenon by which the perceived position of an object differs depending on the perspective of the viewer. Mostly it crops up when discussing astronomy, because the principle assists scientists in determining the position or course of distant extra-terrestrial objects. Lately, however, it could as well be an analogy for our political system.

This last weekend, when Kellyanne Conway endorsed “alternative facts,” she was defending a sort of parallax. In the face of photographic evidence, she was insisting that truth depended on the viewer’s perspective. Under different circumstances there’s actually a reasonable argument to be made there, at least insofar as people’s opinions on ethics, mores, and broader policy judgements are attached to the unknowable minutiae of lived experiences which form individual worldviews.

It is true, for example, that police disproportionately victimize minority populations, just as it is true that police do their best at a difficult job without any particular malice. That both can be true reflects the nature of truth: it is interpretive. Regarding the debate about police in American society, there are facts enough to support many different opinions, and the view that any individual hews too will depend upon which facts they value. If two opposing sides attempt to debate each other without first recognizing the perspective that makes those two statements true to the other, then they won’t get very far at all.

However, when it comes to one’s perception of complex issues, acknowledging that individual experience can act as a hand on the scale of truthfulness does not amount to surrendering the possibility of objective fact. It’s just that there are very few important issues which can be decided by fact alone, since facts are not arranged by nature to suit our analytical needs. They don’t spring from nothing ready for use.

Rather, those facts that we apply to most important discussions are those which we searched for. They are those which were discovered with purpose in mind, even if they do not always conform to the assumptions which motivated the search. It is, after all, impossible to discover or catalogue every fact that ever was, so it is necessary instead to prioritize depending on individual interest. Overtime every individual will compile a core of facts that they think are more important than others, and they will use those facts as the referent by which they most often make decisions. Invariably that same core of facts will also be different by degrees, whether large or small, from every other similarly compiled grouping, and it is that difference which accounts for the diversity of individual worldviews.

In turn, the thing which keeps all these different, personal compilations of facts from spinning into mutually incomprehensible chaos is the ill-defined concept of reasonability. Underlying it is the idea that are some facts which are so apparent, and so widely accepted, that we can simply assume every reasonable person (or at least a substantial portion of humanity) has incorporated them into their worldview. The blueness of our sky, the necessity of food and water, the observable action of gravity, the inexorable passage of time. These are the most basic facts which, along with uncountable others, form the shared reality which enables the mutual understanding from which conversation can begin. In short, our ability to engage with each other depends on trusting that the person across the table is there in good faith.

What’s so insidious about Kellyanne Conway’s lies, and those of Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus as well, is that they are actively seeking to erode the mutual trust which binds us. They seek, instead, to challenge the shared reality through which conversant of radically different backgrounds are able to engage each other. We’ve seen this before, to a degree, in American politics. The assault on the science of climate change at times bordered on the absurd, as the denunciations thereof constantly shifted rhetorical focus whenever previous positions were made untenable by the weight of newly discovered data. But, even then, at least there was some credence given to the validity of facts in themselves. Those who argued against the science of climate change did so by cherry picking and abusing facts, but so doing they at least acknowledged the primacy of the same.

On the other hand, when they defended the lie that his inauguration was the most viewed of all time, Donald Trump’s sycophants transcended proof. When Shaun Spicer said that Donald Trump drew “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe,” when Kellyanne Conway defended the lie as “alternative facts”, and when Reince Priebus tried to shift the conversation away from the patent lie towards “honesty in media,” they did so as a declaration that it is not the interpretations of facts which are partisan, but the facts themselves. They would have their audience believe that what someone says is of lesser importance compared to who says it. They would have their audience believe that the truth within a message is derived from the speaker, rather than from the message itself. They would make themselves prophets, should we allow them.

The size of crowds is not an important subject, but it is also not one in which there is room for the studied disagreements that attach to more complex issues. It is in fact known how large the inaugural crowd was, and it was not large at all. What might once have been pedantry therefore now seems necessary, as it is newly apparent that even basic facts require active defense, lest facts themselves fall by the wayside. And, for that reason, we turn again to parallax.

The photo taken of Trump’s inauguration crowd from atop the Washington Monument looks different than the one Sean Spicer presented to the press because it was taken from a different perspective. It was not doctored, and contrary to conspiratorial claims, it was not taken at a different time.

Seen from directly above, the Washington Mall is a little more than two kilometers of flat land stretching between the Capitol Building in the East to the Washington Monument in the West. If you were to stand on the Capitol steps and look towards the distant monument, you would see a series of pathways and streets which cross the grass lawn, each about 200 meters apart.

However, because of the nature of perspective, the paths which are most distant appear to be closer together than the paths which are nearest, despite being relatively evenly spaced. This is due to the way in which humans perceive depth. Even perfectly parallel lines will appear to converge on a single vanishing point if they are sufficiently long, despite remaining the same distance apart. Therefore, while the space they occupy remains constant, the apparent space between them decreases with distance.

Anyone who has watched football will have seen this phenomenon in action when the referees are trying to determine whether the ball crossed the first down line or not. If the runner is being filmed running toward the camera, then they will appear to be closer to the line to gain than if they are running away from the camera.
[Click here for a breakdown of the Ohio State-Michigan 4th and 1 spot which demonstrates this concept.]
Another famous example is that of “The Tackle,” when Kevin Dyson of the Tennessee Titans was brought down one yard short of the end-zone on the final play of the game. Depending on what angle you look at the play from, he will appear to have been further away or closer to his goal.


Or, if you want to observe the phenomenon in real time, you need only walk out to a long, straight street on level ground, or else find a railway and stare down it. The width of the street remains constant, as does the distance between the rails, but the parallel lines will appear to converge upon a single point as they approach the horizon.

And then, if on that same road there are many cars, the cars that are furthest away will appear to be bunched closer together. This happens not only because they occupy an apparently smaller space due to distance, but also because the cars that are nearer to the point of view will partly occlude those cars behind them, thereby creating an apparent bunching effect.

All this effort to explain that depth perception exists. It is an explanation that is so boring and obvious that it would be unnecessary and even burdensome were it not for the fact that representatives of the most powerful official in the world have been insisting that the laws of physics serve partisan masters. It was a disagreement with reality itself which propelled Sean Spicer behind that podium so that he could hector the press for reporting facts.

Absent any real argument, he brought a photo with him which actually distorts reality. It’s taken from the perspective of the Capitol building with a wide angle lens which serves to enhance the foreground and blur the background. It does not, however, show the crowd size that Trump’s ego requires.

The far better, more representative photo is that which was taken from atop the Washington Monument. It’s better not only because it is taken with a lens that lends less spatial distortion, but also because photos which are taken from higher angles have better fields of view, and are therefore less prone to problems of perceiving the number of clustered objects.

A comparison of the available photos absolutely refutes the most common lies about the inaugural crowd size.

They are as follow:

1. The crowd reached all the way back to the Washington Monument.

2. The shot from on top the Washington Monument is not representative of the crowd at the time when Trump was speaking.

To demonstrate this, I have marked static reference points in the multiple photos so that they can be easily compared. Throughout the crowd, there are tall speaker towers which are visible every 100 meters or so, and there are a number of distinct tents that are easily visible from both angles.

The are as follow:

1: From the Inquisitor from the Capitol, facing the Washington Monument.


2: CNN’s Gigapixel, taken while Trump is speaking, from the Capitol, facing the Washington Monument.


3: Through ABC, a still taken from the Washington Monument, facing the Capitol.

In each photo, I’ve marked the speaker towers by pairs, with the furthest colored a dark red. The crowd ends in front of that furthest speaker tower, and I have marked the approximate end with an orange line. In every photo it is clear that the crowd ends before the furthest speaker tower because the crowd occludes the speaker tower rather than vice versa.

The furthest television board is also marked by a yellow/green X as another landmark which is useful for orientation.

The last speaker towers, which the crowd is in front of, are still hundreds of meters away from the Washington Monument.

The photo from atop the Washington Monument is representative of the size of the crowd at the time that Trump was speaking, as evidenced by the crowd’s position relative to the furthest speaker towers.

It’s a lot of words to say something very simple, and I wish they weren’t needed.


The eternal agony of being Paul Ryan

It’s a tough job being the Republican Speaker of the House. You get all the mucky tasks. Some days it’s inveighing against Bill Clinton’s extra-marital affair while conducting one of your own behind the back of your cancer stricken wife, other days it’s standing on stage to pledge support for the man that you just described as the “textbook definition of a racist.” No doubt the position description lists “absolute spinelessness” and “grating lack of shame” as the primary qualifications.

At least in that regard, whatever mold it was that Paul Ryan formed in was built on spec. As a champion of hypocrisy and bright-eyed lying, he’s unparalleled. Just this last week, faced by a voter who earnestly wanted to know why the Republicans would repeal Obamacare without a replacement in place, Paul Ryan looked towards his roots and lied like a champion.

No, he said, the Republicans would never do that. With a smile on his face, and a sly shake of his head, Paul Ryan stared the truth down like an old-west Sheriff come out to warn wayfaring ruffians that they weren’t welcome in these parts. It’s a performance that might have fooled someone with absolutely no knowledge of American politics or recent history. Failing that, he might have put one over on an alien that is totally ignorant of how humans interact. But, lest we be drawn in ourselves, let’s examine the record.

Not twenty-four hours before Ryan’s performance, the Senate had voted to take the first step necessary for repealing Obamacare by passing their continuing resolution for next year’s budget. Alongside the humdrum of yearly outlays, the Republicans included parliamentary provisions which make it impossible for Democrats to filibuster healthcare repeal. At the same time they rejected an amendment which would prohibit cutting medicare, medicaid or social security. No matter what Ryan might say about simultaneous repeal and replacement, the fact of the matter is that repeal is ongoing while replacement remains purely within the realm of speculation.

Besides lying about the schedule for the repeal and uncertain replacement of Obamacare, Ryan also spent no small measure of time happily lying about Obamacare itself. First he said that it was a rotting edifice which is slowly decaying of its own. Were that true, Republicans could hardly be faulted for clearing away the rubble. It isn’t though. In the last year, 6.4 million newly insured Americans have signed up for health coverage through Obamacare sponsored exchanges, about a 7% increase from the previous year. In fact, the states which boasted the most new enrollments were all won by Trump. Maybe that explains Republican haste to do away with health coverage quickly, so that their voters never get to know what they’ve missed.

[read more about the impact of Obamacare here.]

Ryan then said that Obamacare was fundamentally flawed as an insurance scheme because it was facing down a “death spiral.” Perhaps an impolitic term to use in response to a man who has just survived a serious disease, but according to Ryan the term is actuarial in origin and it describes the problem that arises when healthy people are not buying into insurance pools. Because the very principle by which health insurance remains sustainable depends upon healthy people buying in at a rate that can support the expensive care of sick people, a lack of buy-in dooms any plan. That’s a truism though, and uninteresting.

Where Ryan finds his stride is in the style by which he begins with a true statement (in this case the insurance marketplace equivalent of stating that the sun is round) before skipping directly to as asinine conclusion (that Obamacare is necessarily doomed). It’s an insidious technique because the opening truism acts like the flourish of a magician’s hands. By beginning with something basically true before leaping directly to a conclusion that is only tangentially related Ryan skips straight past the argumentation that actually connects the former to the latter, perhaps hoping that we’ll fill in the blank ourselves or not notice the sleight of hand at all.

It’s a cheap trick though, and it falls apart upon examination. Leaving aside the fact that the described circumstance isn’t so much an argument against Obamacare as an argument for raising the penalty for going without insurance, Ryan’s unsaid implication that the Republican plan would solve this is an atrocious lie. The single aspect of Obamacare which has attracted the most vitriol over the last eight years was the individual mandate. Though I’m not sure if they ever settled on a point of rhetoric as to what the individual mandate actually was, from the Republican point of view it certainly lay somewhere between the imposition of dictatorial rule and wholesale gun seizures. They have promised unequivocally that whatever they cook up, there will be no requirement to buy insurance.

In other words, Ryan is arguing that Obamacare (with its individual mandate requiring everyone, including the healthy, to buy insurance) is fatally flawed because the insurance pool is too small to support those with pre-existing conditions or other expensive ailments. And, at the very same time, he is proposing an as yet undefined fix which will remove the requirement that everyone buy into an insurance pool while somehow also expanding it. His contention, apparently, is that healthy people so resent the idea of being required to buy expensive insurance that they will refuse to do so out of spite, but if given the option to buy equally expensive insurance of their own free will, they will jump at the opportunity.

No, actually he’s not saying that. Really, he’s just hoping you won’t dwell too long on the logic of it, because like any good magician he knows that the trick falls apart as soon as you’ve gotten a peek behind the curtain. It’s on this same principle that he confidently cited Washington State’s high-risk insurance pool as an example of how great Republican lead health reform would be in a world without Obamacare. He’s certain that you won’t bother to look up the fact that the same insurance pool nearly collapsed in the early 90’s as a consequence of policies that the Republicans are now touting as the “solutions” to our healthcare woes.

However, as reported by David Gutman in the Seattle Times, that early foray into Republican brand healthcare reform brought woe above all else. Much like the politics around Obamacare, this early Washington plan expanded medicare and protections for those with pre-existing conditions at the cost of mandating that every individual buy into insurance. Soon after, Republicans rode a wave of resentment to their largest state-house margin ever, in no small part because of their persistent promise to do away with the individual mandate.

And this they did, while all the while promising that the more popular provisions like protections for those with pre-existing conditions would remain. But, much like Ryan and the current crop of Republicans are doing now, those Republicans were promising the stars when they knew full well that the best we were gonna get was something a little closer to Earth.

In this case, without the individual mandate local insurers had no way to keep up with the cost of caring for sick patients. The “death spiral” which Ryan predicts as the consequence of an individual mandate was in fact the result of its removal. The largest insurer in the state lost $120 million before quitting the individual policy business altogether, and within four years 17 of the 19 insurers in the state had called it quits. The next year it was no longer possible to buy individual insurance even if you wanted to.

So, whatever Ryan and the Republicans might say about health savings accounts and driving down premiums, know this: it won’t matter how much you can afford to buy when there’s nothing for sale. The Republican plan has been tried, and it failed. Repealing Obamacare without a plan in place for a robust replacement will mean higher costs. Not only increased monetary expenses coming from an uptick in emergency room visits for what could have been routine or preventable care, but also the extreme social costs that we will be burdened with by premature deaths.

Ryan, with his glimmering eyes, will tell you otherwise. Don’t believe him. He knows the truth, but, unwilling to admit that he is simply disinterested in whatever fate might befall those who cannot afford or acquire health care, Paul Ryan turns time and again to lies.

Senator Doug Ericksen is a royalist

The founding lore of the United States celebrates one moment in particular as that which first crystallized the sentiment that Americans would no longer prostrate themselves to a foreign and unrecognized power that demanded duties without acknowledging rights in return. It came in Boston, in 1773, when news was circulating that the crown had imposed yet another tax upon the colonies; this time in the form of a duty imposed on tea.

The arrangement made it impossible for American tea merchants to compete, and while it allowed the Empire’s company to sell tea at cut-rate prices, the imposition of the tax was seen as but one more act in a line of imperial dictates that had come to be perceived as intolerable.

In response to this news, the locally known rabble-rouser Samuel Adams rallied the population to mass meetings and invocations in order to build the sort of popular support that had previously halted the hated Stamp Act of 1765. In the heat of emotion, Benjamin Rush went so far as to declare that in the importation of tea lay “the seeds of slavery.”

The Royal Governor, however, proved stubborn, and admitted the tea-laden ships to harbor despite the protests of the vocal crowd. With their voices unheard, these self-named Sons of Liberty decided upon more drastic action, and in a daring morning raid they boarded the ships, commandeered their cargo, and cast it into the bay, all as part of a bold declaration that they would be ruled no more. The legend of the Boston Tea Party was born.

There’s a bit more to it though. From the perspective of power, Samuel Adams was little more than a fire-thrower at the head of a mob. After all, the price of tea had actually decreased since the imposition of the duties. From their point of view the colonial uproar had all the appearance of a childish fit.

And, in fact, the Bostonians were a mob. The earliest agitation against the tea duties were marked by public displays of violence, wherein figures of the colonial administration were burned in effigy. One meeting ended when crowd settled upon the stamp distributor Peter Oliver as the target of their ire. However, rather than dispersing to begin a campaign of nonviolent letter writing, they got together and marched over to his house where they threw rocks through the windows before breaking in to drink his liquor and smash his furniture.

Another group at another time headed to the home of William Story, a judge, where they seized his court records and fed them into a bonfire. Yet another crowd headed directly to the home of the colonial governor, Thomas Hutchinson, where they set about smashing the insides with axes and clubs. Along the way they raided the wine cellar and stole whatever money was available.

Even the tea party itself was a rowdy affair. The saboteurs disguised themselves as native Americans, perhaps in an attempt hide their identity, or else to scapegoat the native inhabitants for the wreckage they intended to undertake.

Whatever their reasons, they’re reported to have made quite an impression. The mate of the ship Dartmouth, upon which the tea was being held, recorded that the tea partiers came aboard “dressed and whooping like Indians,” and the Boston Post-Boy reported on the events as “a Number of very dark complexioned Persons (dressed like Mohawks or Indians) of grotesque Appearance” who made “a most hideous Noise” before heading to the docks.

Once onboard the ships, the actual dumping of the tea was a chaotic affair. Some of the apparently drunk participants proved as interested in outright looting as solemn protest. Others were simply caught up in the fun of it and continued whooping and hollering throughout. All told, the day ended with a bunch of apparent hooligans having raided a private ship to steal and destroy private property.

All this, in defiance of a Massachusetts law which was passed in 1753 that had prohibited “all riotous, tumultuous and disorderly Assemblies” along with the “horrid Profaneness, Impiety and other gross Immoralities” that accompanied them. Especially forbidden was the act of disguise, noted as “painted or discoloured Faces” or “having and Kind of Imagery or Pageantry for a publick Shew.” The tea partiers were not the party of law and order that day.

No doubt though that they had principle of their side, despite the roughness around the edges. Theirs was a stand against unrepresentative government. They took it upon themselves to oppose the tyranny of minority interests dictating the lives of the common man. Theirs was an act in favor of democracy.

Unfortunately, with his proposal to criminalize the act of protest as a form of “economic terrorism,” our current State Senator Doug Ericksen has put himself squarely on the side of King George III.The patent absurdity of his hyperbolic rhetoric describing  protest as “terrorism” aside, Senator Ericksen’s proposal betrays a deep-seated contempt for the (sometimes dramatic) goings on of democratic expression.

Saying so is not an endorsement of vandals or stone-throwers. Those are petty crimes which are already best dealt with in existing law; be it civil or criminal. The problem with Senator Ericksen’s legislative revanchism is that a law which condemns protest as terrorism will find no surer applications than those which advance dictatorial tyranny.

It is a price to pay of living in a free society that freedom will grate at times. Sometimes it stings. Sometimes windows are broken and tea dumped in harbors. And frankly, that’s a better result than empowering the state to clamp down upon every protest because of the actions of a minority. In such a situation popular sentiment which might once have boiled over before dissipating is left only the opportunity to build until it explodes.

Quotes and historical background sourced from Benjamin L. Carp, Defiance of the Patriots: The Boston Tea Party & The Making of America (Boston: Yale University Press, 2011)

Strength, as Donald Trump sees it

Donald Trump is a man who believes that the outcome of an action is the only thing of consequence. Either tremendous or awful, he deals in a binary world where the ends justify the means.

This has caused some fear, no doubt due in part to the fact that he sometimes has a difficult time expressing himself. I’ve therefore compiled his many statements into one speech so that we can all understand his point of view.

You look at what’s happening in China, in Hong Kong right now. They came down on it big league. A lot of people are telling me it’s like Tiananmen Square, except it’s not. Those people don’t know anything. When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength. Our country is right now perceived as weak, as being spit on by the rest of the world.1

That’s what went wrong in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev should have been stronger, harder. He could have had a tremendous success. That’s my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand.2

What happened instead? Suddenly, for the first time ever, there were coal-miner strikes and brush fires everywhere- which would all ultimately lead to a violent revolution. Yet Gorbachev is getting credit for being a wonderful leader and we should continue giving him credit, because he destroyed the Soviet Union. But his giving an inch ended up costing him and all his friends what they most cherished; their jobs.3

And it’s jobs that we need. And you know we have lost million and millions of jobs to China and other countries. And they’ve been taken out of this country, and when I say millions, you know it’s, it’s tremendous. Companies like Ford, Carrier. They’re allowing tremendous people that have worked for the companies for a long time, they’re allowing, if they want to move around and they want to work on incentives within the United States, that’s one thing, but when they take these companies out of the United States.4 Well, you can tell them to go fuck themselves.5

The problem is no one talks about this stuff. The rigged, corrupt media works for those who control the levers of power in Washington, and for the global special interests. It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.6

The Clinton machine is at the center of this power structure. Let me tell you, people have been, their lives have been destroyed for doing one fifth of what she has done. And it’s a disgrace. I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into her situation.7 She’s a very dishonest person. I have one of the great temperaments. I have a winning temperament. She has a bad temperament. She’s weak. We need a strong temperament and that’s all it is, I have a strong temperament.8 She’ll be in jail, believe me, believe me.

As for all the others, especially the failed media. Well, when they write dishonest stories we should be a little bit tough.9 We’re too gentle. They’re high-fiving, smiling, laughing. I’d like to punch them in the face, I tell ya.10 The press back there, they’re a bunch of bloodsuckers.They’re dishonest people, I’m telling you.11 I love the old days. You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher, folks.12

The problem is that they usually write bad stuff about me. They don’t even like me, right? Reuters, The New York Times, they all write bad about me. They love to write bad. The good stuff, they don’t want to write.13 And then it goes online, we’re losing a lot of people because of the Internet. It’s not fair. We need to think about maybe in certain areas, closing that Internet up in some way. Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people.14 It is not ‘freedom of the press’ when newspapers and others are allowed to say and write whatever they want even if it is completely false!15 We have a lot of foolish people.

Just the other day, we just had a very open and successful presidential election. Now professional protesters, incited by the media, are protesting. Very unfair!16

Really, it’s all about strength. Russia and China now are unifying, and they’re getting together now, and they’re doing tremendous. Putin, who kills journalists, political opponents, and invades countries, at least he’s running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we had in this country.17 And he’s called me brilliant. I think that’s fine.

Our leaders though, they’ve been so stupid. We have a president that doesn’t know what he is doing. No one respects us. I’ll make the military so strong that nobody’s going to mess with us.18 One of the protestors, he was being taken out, he walked out like this, with his finger way up, like, “screw everybody.” And that’s when I made that statement. “Boy I’d like to smash him up.”19 But Obama wouldn’t do that, he won’t call our enemies by their name.

So, the other day with Iran. I would handle that totally differently. Iran, when they circle our beautiful destroyers with their little boats and they make gestures at our people that they shouldn’t be allowed to make, they will be shot out of the water.20

The important thing is to be strong. These are horrible times for our country. We need very strong leadership. We need very, very strong leadership.21 And nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.22 Believe me, I will never let you down.

1. Interview with Playboy, 1990, Alternative source.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Interview with the Washington Post Editorial Board, February 2016

5. Rally in Portsmouth N.H., February 2016.

6. Rally in West Palm Beach Fl., October 2016

7. Second Presidential debate, Alternative source.

8. ABC News interview, July 2016.

9. Rally in Fairfield, Conn., November 2016, Alternative source.

10. Rally in Las Vegas, February 2016.

11. Rally in Birmingham, Al., November, 2015.

12. Rally in Las Vegas, February 2016.

13. Rally in Birmingham, Al., November, 2015.

14. Speech in Yorktown, S.C., December 2015.

15. Tweet, August 14th, 2016.

16. Tweet, November 10th, 2016.

17. Interview on “Morning Joe,” December, 2015.

18. Rally in Pensacola, Fl., September, 2016, Alternative Source.

19. Interview with the Washington Post Editorial Board, February 2016

20. Rally in Pensacola, Fl., September, 2016.

21. Interview with the Washington Post Editorial Board, February 2016

21. Nomination speech at the Republican National Convention.

Citizens United protects

Overturning the Citizens United decision will provide no benefit to this country. Though its opponents have promised to take careful aim at the nefarious interests of manipulators and schemers when they promise to chase the corrupting influence of money from our politics, the tool by which they propose to do it is one which could do more harm than good. A constitutional amendment is a cudgel and a last resort that can return greater harm to the bearer than to the target if swung carelessly. It is not possible to override the precepts upon which Citizens United was decided without also fatally wounding the free speech protections that the First Amendment imparts. This not only for large corporations, but for you the individual as well.

Friend, the fact is that corporations are people. They are founded by people and controlled by people, and like people they can be as good as they are bad. Any act that is taken against a corporation prejudices the freedom of the people who control it. Sometimes this is necessary, especially in the cases where regulations are drawn up to provide for common protection against the harm that a single entity could do if it were to act in a reckless or uncaring or greedy manner. As insurance against those cases we have laws promoting worker safety and punishing pollution or market collusion. In these instances the intrusion against a single person’s or small group’s rights to own and exercise control over property is justified by the greater protection it affords to society as a whole.

In other instances, however, intrusions against corporate rights cannot be justified as promoting the common good because of the danger that such intrusions might pose to individual rights. For example, what couple could feel secure in the ownership of their marital home if Congress took it upon themselves to suspend the right to hold property in common in order to seize corporate assets? Might that couple then be required to one day board tenants against their will on the basis that what they own together could better serve the greater good by housing the homeless? This is obviously an extreme example which might be easily dismissed as improbable, but such dismissal in fact underscores the point. When the founding fathers amended the Constitution to include the explicit enumeration of protections that we now know as our Bill of Rights they did so because they knew that rights which were believed to be held only by inference or practicality or tradition could not be trusted to endure. Especially as they relate to the right of the individual to live a private life, rights exist as guarantees against every eventuality. They are not made to be withdrawn easily. If it is instead said that one enjoys protection only against most outcomes, if a right can be suspended on the basis of political expediency, then it cannot be said that a right exists at all.  

As far as opposition to the Citizens United decision is concerned, the common refrain is to concede that the point that overturning it will diminish rights of a sort while also arguing that those rights should never have been recognized in the first place because they attach to corporations and not to people. This is the line taken by Wolf-PAC, a group which has provided a model for an eventual constitutional amendment to counter the Citizens United decision. Though they haven’t yet advanced a specific proposal, their call for a change centers upon the demand that the offered amendment will hew to the principles that corporations are not people, and that they have none of the constitutional rights of people, and that they cannot raise money for political causes either directly or indirectly. Simply put, this is a terrifying statement of blind principle that, if enacted, would spell doom for the United States.

If you consider what a corporation is in its simplest form it is clear that the distinction which opponents of Citizens United hope to draw between people and corporations is ultimately unworkable. At its base a corporation is nothing more than a group of like minded individuals who have combined their assets for a common cause. Their cause may be business, or politics, or philanthropy, and all sorts of regulations have sprung up to differentiate these minutiae, but no matter the goals of a corporation, the underlying structure is nothing more than an expression of one’s right to association with others as one pleases.

This is the second half of the First Amendment which reads such that Congress shall not only “make no law… abridging the freedom of speech,” but also that “the right of the people to peaceably assemble” shall remain inviolable. Within those words are found the basis for our commonly held freedom of association which is itself the basis for the formation of a corporation. To strike out against corporate personhood is to strike against the foundation of our civil society. A labor union after all is a type of corporation. When they are formed it is at the behest of a group of people with the common interest of improving the conditions of their employment. In order to accomplish that task they legally bind themselves to each other so that one or a couple of representatives may speak for many in negotiations with management. Those few representatives are also charged with controlling the finances of the union, and in order to expand their influence and attract membership they may go so far as to host speaking tours or educational events or even pay for television advertisements with the money they collect from membership dues. What then would be the function of a union if it held no collective right to associate or speak freely under the guise of their corporate status?

Nor is it only unions which might be negatively impacted were it decided that people cannot exercise personal rights through the corporations which represent them. Charities, churches, trusts, and medical power of attorney arrangements (among others) would all be imperiled. Take for example churches or other religious organizations. Many are formed such that church assets are held in common through a corporate structure. This way congregants can be reassured that the money they donate to support their place of worship will be accounted for and used only according to the charter under which the church was incorporated. The corporate status is at least partial insurance against miscreants taking undue personal profit from donated assets. If we lived in a world where personal rights did not attach to corporations then it would be no violation of the freedom of religion to deny a church building permits because of distaste for the group it represented. In China, where religious protections exist only in name, this is already the case. Catholics, Baptists, Muslims and followers of the Falun Gong system of belief are among those who are forced to worship in secrecy in private homes and great fear.

We already live in a world where Donald J. Trump might become President, and the power that he could wield if Citizens United were overturned would be disastrous. Already he has expressed interest in closing up the internet, loosening up libel laws to target news media,  prosecuting political opponentsand he has barred reporters from covering him because he takes umbrage at their tone. If Citizens United were no more, and if corporate personhood were no more, and if corporations were prohibited from exercising the right to free speech, then Donald Trump would be free to go ahead with his plans to muzzle dissent against him. The New York Times, a corporation, would have to tread carefully if its right to free speech was not guaranteed because without the guarantee of that personal right its reporting could be censored according to the whim of government power.

The example might seem far-fetched, but it is exactly what is invited by the abolition of the rights which were confirmed under Citizens United. And, if we were to go so far as to say that corporations have none of the rights of people, then the New York Times would have far more than censorship to fear. Lacking the protections against unreasonable search and seizure which are afforded by the Fourth Amendment, the New York Times might find its presses and computers seized. An antagonistic government could even demand the ability to freely inspect corporate mail in order to identify and punish whistleblowers who might have approached the newspaper in order to expose wrong doing. Less dramatically, the proposal that a corporation should have no right to influence elections would prohibit the New York Times from writing and printing editorials that cover political figures or topics. They could be prohibited from endorsing or even criticizing candidates for office. Stripping corporations of the right to free speech would muzzle the press in the United States.

This even before considering the absurdity of the construction that it is somehow possible to prevent corporations from raising money for politicians either directly or indirectly. As a statement of principle, the idea that money and politics can be entirely dissociated is vague to the point of incomprehensibility. Michel Foucault was once asked why he was interested in politics, and his response illustrates the depth to which politics infiltrates every aspect of life about us and therefore the impossibility of approaching politics as if it can exist in an unencumbered and pure state. He questioned “what blindness, what deafness, what density of ideology would have to weigh me down to prevent me from being interested in what is probably the most crucial subject to our existence, that is to say the society in which we live, the economic relations within which it functions, and the system of power which defines the regular forms and the regular permissions and prohibitions of our conduct.” Everything about the way in which we conduct ourselves is in some way a political act.

This is seen clearly in the recent controversy which has embroiled North Carolina. Among other places, the state took it upon itself to pass discriminatory laws in an effort to castigate transgender men and women that have been arbitrarily slandered as dangers to society. The motive behind these laws, besides being a reaction to a perceived deviancy encroaching upon ‘normal’ society, is founded in a broader intuition about the role of religion, gender, and sexuality in American politics. In reaction many corporations have decided to dissociate themselves from North Carolina. By making a choice about how to spend their money, or in this case by refraining from spending money, the corporations that have boycotted North Carolina are using their finances to make a political statement. What’s more, some of them have donated to political action groups like the Human Rights Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union in order to support those organizations’ efforts to overturn discriminatory laws. For some corporations that pride themselves on supporting progressive ideals, opposition to the North Carolinian law was a natural choice. No doubt the choice was made easier by the pressure to act which was levied against them by consumers and shareholders.

However, no matter how you cut it, a prohibition against corporations raising money either directly or indirectly for political causes would prohibit such action. Whenever a corporation decides to fly the rainbow flag or fire off a supportive tweet from a corporate Twitter account or sponsor employees that wish to march in a gay pride parade, they are using money to directly and indirectly support political causes. The crux of the matter is that despite the pronouncements to the contrary, money and its use is an act of speech. Whether it is a choice between buying local organic produce or mass market frozen dinners, or else a choice between buying shoes that are made in America by well paid workers as opposed to shoes sourced from Bangladeshi sweatshops, the choices that any of us make in how and why we spend money are wholly imbricated by politics. A world where the act of spending money is not protected as an act of speech in one in which government could prohibit people from buying Bernie Sanders stickers to display on their cars and water bottles.

Again, the protestation might be made that the true target of campaign finance reform are soulless corporations and not individual acts, but the principles which best protect individuals also protect cooperative action by their very nature. What’s more, there is good cause to allow corporations to be formed so that people can anonymously support political causes. Not one of us knows what views might be in vogue even a year from now, but looking to the past it is clear that some of the views that are now gaining common currency were extremely dangerous to express even a couple of decades previous.

On the issue of gay rights, it was not long ago at all that someone who spoke out in favor of gay, lesbian, transgender or any other non-normative individuals would likely face extreme personal criticism. They would be risking their job, their social connections, and even personal physical danger for daring to advocate on the behalf of others or themselves. The amazing thing is that people were willing to risk all that, but it is unreasonable to expect everyone to be so brave. However, so long as an individual is able to form a corporation with others of like minds then they can veil their identities and thereby remain secure while also advancing the causes that they find just. The corporate right to free speech allows people to advocate for controversial ideas like gay rights without exposing themselves to personal danger. As before, no one among us knows what ideas might be controversial in the future. It could even come to pass that vitriol against Muslims might rise to the level that speaking up for them would attract accusations of sympathy for terrorism. Considering the slanders that Khizr Khan has already endured, it’s clear that such an eventuality is not impossible. Should this bleak future be realized, it would be essential that mechanisms like corporate personhood existed to shelter advocates for unpopular ideas from personal risk.

It is frankly conceited to demand that government apply its power to discriminate between acceptable and unacceptable speech. Even when the Koch brothers have raised enormous amounts of money to advance causes that seem ridiculous, proposing to counter them by prohibiting their speech altogether assumes that one’s own views will never be targeted for similar treatment. If we were to concede the principle that some speech by some groups can be prohibited because of the influence it exerts on politics, then it might be possible to prohibit petroleum companies from advocating for new pipelines or fewer restrictions on drilling because of the danger that those activities pose to the environment. However, in winning that victory we would expose ourselves to the possibility of far more painful defeats. Should the political winds shift, and without the protection of the principle protecting the corporate right to free speech, Planned Parenthood could be forbidden from advertising on the basis that their advertisement promotes the murder of children.

For all the harm that might be attributed to it, the Citizens United decision ultimately protects our rights. It is still illegal for corporations or individuals to donate more than a limited amount to a candidate or their campaign. It is still illegal for candidates to accept bribes to change their positions, as it is illegal for such bribes to be offered. It is even illegal for third party advocates to coordinate with candidates or their campaigns in order to ensure consistent messaging. Of course there is room for better enforcement in all of these arenas, but that is a failure of the application of law rather than the law itself. Ultimately, voters decide the fate of the United States. No matter how much David or Charles Koch or other titans of political advocacy might spend to advocate for their preferred political positions, their votes count exactly as much as anyone else’s. Votes might be swayed one way or the other, but that is after all the point of democratic politics. Should you wish for more votes, be more convincing.  


And some of them, I assume, are good people

Today in American politics there exists an amorphous coalition of hate which has increasingly adopted the title of the alt-right. Ideologically there is very little that binds them beyond the certainty that they have been wronged, and that the source of the transgression against them is identifiable and expungable. While they often decry identity politics as a leftist invention which was fomented in order to prey upon divisions of race and class, they are themselves among the greatest subscribers to those modes of thought. The identities which they have created for themselves are purely negative constructions. Absent any sense of concrete being they have relied upon a categorization of the world which casts them apart from all those things that they have identified as sources of evil. They are not Muslims, they are not immigrants, they do not benefit from social programs, they are not socially degenerate, and they do not surrender to the attenuation of gender and sexual roles which they see to be purely binary. They are not, according to their conception, leeches upon the American system, but they nonetheless feel themselves to have been betrayed by the same. They hold tribal allegiances wherein the world is defined not by tenets of principle, but by the far less rigorous sense of belonging which accompanies the strict divisions of in-group and out-group.

Most recently all the worst of this movement have attached themselves to Donald Trump. As has been widely reported, the support buoying Donald Trump is disproportionately strong among racists and authoritarians. In a Pew Research Poll from last month a strong majority of American voters reported that they felt that a diverse population made the United States a better place to live. Only 9 percent of respondents felt the contrary. However, among those who support Donald Trump 42 percent were ambivalent to diversity while fully 17 percent felt that it actively hindered the United States. In the previously linked column Dana Milibank presents these numbers and others at length, the culmination of his analysis being the stark conclusion that whether or not Donald Trump is a racist, he is number one with racists.

An explicit illustration of this fact is the example of the Tilly family from North Carolina. They were interviewed by PBS in order to gauge Donald Trump’s support and to put a personal face on it. The patriarch Pete Tilly reported that it was the first time he had ever worked on a political campaign, and for his daughter-in-law Grace it was in fact her first time voting. In order to express their support for Trump they related the tired banalities about his acumen as a businessman, his support for veterans, and the sense that they’ve been left behind in an unfair America. When she introduced the segment the host Judy Woodruff implied that the Tillys would be supporting Donald Trump despite the controversy which surrounded the campaign. However, there’s evidence that the Tillys, like many others, are supporting Donald Trump precisely because of the controversies he’s birthed about race, religion and prejudice. What PBS had neglected to investigate in their initial reporting was the meaning of the tattoos which adorned Grace Tilly’s arms. On her left hand there is a large 88 tattooed in gothic script. It’s a simple code for the eighth letter of the alphabet H repeated twice, and it translates literally as ‘Heil Hitler.’ On her other hand there is the Celtic cross, which is itself a part of the pantheon of neo-nazi symbology. It is particularly notorious as a part of the logo for the avowedly racist and Nazi supporting website Stormfront. When Grace Tilly speaks with disdain about the Black-lives-matter movement her reaction is not a matter of political difference. It is grounded in racial hatred. The controversies which Donald Trump incites are unlikely to deter the Tillys from their support because they support him precisely because of the the way that he nods towards the racists, towards the conspiracists, and towards hate.

Against all of this the Republican Party has embarked upon an epic display of hand-wringing. Ian Tuttle at the National Review has described Donald Trump’s tactics and the tactics of his supporters as mob-like, as a high-tech lynching, and as anti-democratic and dangerous. Jonah Goldberg, writing for the same publication, has described Donald Trump’s front runner status as the end of the line as we know it for the Republican Party. George Will over at the Washington Post has mirrored the sentiment with his prediction that if Donald Trump wins the nomination it will mean the end of the conservative party. Out of these fears the #NeverTrump movement arose with dire warnings about electoral defeats culminating in Democratic control of Congress.

But whatever establishment Republicans might say will have little effect upon the upwelling of support which they now decry. The people like the Tillys who are now supporting Donald Trump are largely unattached to traditional politics. They find their homes in the darker corners of the internet where freewheeling discussion allows them to express their most primal fears and insecurities without fear of consequences. On the whole the places where they congregate are, like Stormfront and the /European subdomain on Reddit, carefully curated experiences. Dissenting opinions which might point out the absurdity of their belief in racial superiority and inferiority are removed and banned so as to not disturb the echo chamber of resentment and hatred. The most recent entrant to this land of online hate is /the_Donald, another subdomain on Reddit which has recently gained the attention of national media.

John Herrman with the New York Times first reported on the phenomenon in an article titled Donald Trump Finds Support in Reddit’s Unruly Corners. As he represents in his article, the character of the forum is deadly serious. While the postings are nearly always tinged by a sort of faux irony and carefully cultivated plausible deniability, at a certain point irony becomes sincerity. The forum’s members “post material full of slang, insults and inside jokes” and are rambunctiously excited about whatever newest slander can be levied against their idol’s opponents. Their language is memetic, but their message is hardly lighthearted. It is, as John Herrman noted, relentless. Opponents are referred to as “cucks,” which is short for “cuckservative,” as in “cuckold” — now used as a derisive term for liberals and moderate Republicans recently popularized by far-right online commentators and white nationalists… Some members share open antipathy toward Muslims, sling insults with relish and mock anyone who takes umbrage.” In response to the idea that their forum was a hot-bed of racism, one moderator is quoted as saying that all such “white nationalists” had been banned.

That’s simply untrue, and if John Herrman had waited but a couple of days to publish his article he would have had the proof to contest the claim. In a since deleted post one of the same users as was quoted by the New York Times laid out the facts of the new regime in the forum. A creed which decried “the politically correct women’s lobby [which] has demanded that the men import rapists from other parts of the world to satisfy their needs” was added as a moderator’s note, visible to anyone who accessed the page. Users of and visitors to /the_Donald alike were told that “the culture which we created may not always be quite racist enough,” and restrictions against racism and the blanket bans on the white nationalists were consequently removed. The always latent vitriol was now openly invited back into the fold. The moderator’s final anticipatory note reminding people that all variations of nigger would continue to be removed serves only to demonstrate that he knew exactly what sort of audience he is catering to.

The originator of the notice, CisWhiteMaelstrom, who was now welcoming open racism was not only among those who were interviewed by the New York Times, but by MSNBC as well. Although both outlets failed to examine the personality of the subject that they were interviewing, CisWhiteMaelstrom’s online persona is perfectly representative of the small-minded, clannish nature of the alt-right’s ideology. Their world view can be described as nothing less than entitled. Not only do they feel themselves to be owed political, social and economic supremacy, but they also demand the attention and service of women, as per what they see to be the natural hierarchy of humanity. Men above women and the white race above all else.

CisWhiteMaelstrom is himself an admitted rapist, having mused in previous postings that he wouldn’t say that he had “never done anything that’s technically rape.” When questioned about what he meant by that statement, he responded by linking an article detailing the epidemic of sexual abuse that women suffer on college campuses and declaring himself to be “very normal.” In other forums he has related the idea that he “could definitely get away with raping the illegals near me.” And, in defense of a friend who had admitted a rape to him, CisWhiteMaelstrom wrote a short article titled “Real Rapists are probably not low value men” in which he deflected the responsibility of the “brutal” rape unto the steroids his friend was taking, declined to judge the act “since there are two sides to every story,” and dismissed the admitted and acknowledged crime of rape as something that happens when “a cycle [of steroids] gets out of hand and shit happens.”

Such is the character of the premier online representative of Donald Trump, and his is not at all an atypical example. When CisWhiteMaelstrom sought to correct a culture of support for Donald Trump which he had deemed “insufficiently racist,” he explicitly reached out to the users of the /European forum. They are a group exceptionally suited to the task of comingling particularly vicious right-wing vitriol with support for Donald Trump. Just today the following image was linked and captioned as “the proper punishment for non-white rapists.” One of the most popular posts of the month shows a swaggering chimpanzee in a zoo captioned to read “Muslim at the welfare office.” As is quite typical, the top comment made an attempt at humor by suggesting outrage at the implication that “the fine upstanding African American is a Muslim.” On April 20th the members of the forum celebrated Adolf Hitler’s birthday, and some weeks prior to that they linked to the following cartoon, which depicts a feminine, blonde, Europa kicking out racist caricatures of Jews, Muslims and Africans. The source was The Daily Stormer — a low-effort publication named after Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer, which was itself an official voice of the Nazi Party. Andrew Angling, the founding editor of the The Daily Stormer, once described the publication’s purpose as a “means to propagandize people…to get them to look at the world in a certain way.” And, in a telling example of the overlap between support for Donald Trump and support for the bankrupt ideologies of racism, Nazism and white supremacy, Andrew has been a constant advocate of both. Besides speaking on Trump’s behalf, Andrew has often been pictured wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. When his racist caricatures were linked to Reddit, the top comment was also distinctly Trumpian; reading “GET EM OUT OF HERE! OUT!” as a parody of Trump’s pronouncements when he is confronted by protesters.

Although /European represents a separate sub-forum from /the_Donald, there can be no doubt about the significant overlap between the two. Upon hearing that CisWhiteMaelstrom had again made /the_Donald an open forum for /European style vitriol, one user named EMPEROR_TRUMP_2016 applauded the move by saying that “seeing two of my favorite subs come together is great.” Another named DerEwigeWolf88 – a play upon an anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda film Der ewige Jude and the previously discussed numeric code for ‘Heil Hitler’ – declared the move to be “H I G H E N E R G Y.” The top comment of them all came from the user scientistthrowaway23 who identified himself both as a moderator of the /the_Donald forum and a frequent poster to the /European domain. He compared the formal reconciliation between the two to a reunion between himself and his estranged children. And, although acute expressions of reactionary hatred are less common on the /the_Donald forum than /European, there are more than enough to be found. The visual style of the forum alone hints at the fascistic tones which can be found therein. For some time the moderators of /the_Donald had decorated their forum’s interface with a portrait of Donald Trump modified so that his name was repeatedly written across his face. The seemingly innocuous image is actually a direct homage to the façade of Mussolini’s Fascist headquarters which was once decorated in much the same manner.

As for the actual submissions to the forum, they often reveal the extreme sense of alienation and distrust manifested in irrational prejudice which seems endemic among supporters of Donald Trump. One widely popular post is a simple picture of the Italian, German, Dutch and German Defense Ministers with the title “Europe is being destroyed by soft invasion, and these are the Defense Ministers. Europe is a mess!” Not coincidently, the pictured officials are all women, and the top level comments reacting to this fact finely mirror Donald Trump’s casual sexism. One poster ironically thanks feminists for the supposed crises of European identity. Another predicted Europe’s death and entreated them to get used to Islam. A third warned that “this is what happens when women get in charge. Never go fullCUCKED.” The obsession with cuckoldry is actually particularly revelatory because of how it is bound up within the broader idea of impending doom and loss of power or status which so occupies the attention of these disconnected right-wingers.

In terms which evoke the paranoid prophecy of William Pierce’s The Turner Diaries, supporters of Donald Trump turn time and again to the idea of imminent, encompassing and emasculating defeat. Where the previously highlighted post associated Europe’s ills and its certain doom with the weakness of femininity and the degradation of traditional gender roles, others have taken an explicitly racial tone. One extremely popular submission titled “Europe in 10 years” and captioned “deport Islam” by the moderators was nothing more than the comparison of idealized images of white, European beauty with an assortment of images that purported to represent the minority populations of England, Denmark, Germany and Sweden, but were in fact nothing more than pictures of actual terrorists and people with dark skin. The byline presented the choice as existing between “nationalism” and “multiculturalism.” Top comments question whether the “men of Europe [are] dickless?” With or without commentary the message of the image is clear: support for a pluralistic society will lead only to the rape of innocents by degenerate foreigners, and liberal advocates for refugees and multiculturalism are cuckolded fools who are incapable of perceiving the danger.

On the other hand, users of /the_Donald fancy themselves to be ultimately perceptive of and prepared for the coming storm. References to an imminent race war abound, and another extremely popular post links to this video posted by Edward Lawrence, a supporter of PEGIDA. It shows nothing more than apparently Muslim children walking to school in England. Nonetheless, the moderator scientistthrowaway23 re-titles it as a “Video showing the spread of radical Islam through the British school system. EUROPE HAS FALLEN. DEPORT ISLAM.” In the comments users embrace the idea of genocide, quipping that perhaps it’s “time for Fourth Reich?” In the discussion of the cause and outcome of the Second World War which followed, one user is careful to point out that that it was little more than “a reason to create Israel and take large sections of Palestine, also six million weren’t gassed.” Such contributions were felt important enough that the post was ‘stickied,’ the term for a moderator action which pins the submission to the top of the forum for increased visibility.

In many ways online support for Donald Trump is something of a Rorschach test for insecure bigots. His flexible attitude towards policy, or for that matter the truth, has created a political canvas upon which people can project their suspicions about the world. The result has been an enormous up-swelling of political activity that is not so much attached to reality as to an individual’s unrigorous ideas of “what is ‘out there’ beyond one’s own territory.” When Donald Trump talks about his supporters, he’s not talking about his best. He’s not speaking about you. He’s not speaking to you. He’s speaking about people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems into the open. They’re bringing hate. They’re bringing prejudice. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.