Sunday, August 21, 2016

Women Are From Venus; Trotskyists Are From Pluto

It's usually rude to comment on somebody's appearance. An unspoken rule among college professors is to never do that, especially to women and not even when it's complimentary. That's professional courtesy augmented by a dose of political correctness. The pretense is that appearances aren't important--it's what shows up in a person's soul that counts.

Of course the pretense is wrong. We are all physical beings, and our lives depend crucially on what we look like. My life's chances are significantly reduced because I'm not a 6'5" NFL football player. Similarly, most women aren't beautiful enough to be a movie star or a famous fashion model. Those are extreme examples, but tall, handsome men earn more money and have more beautiful wives and more successful children than us shorter, fatter fellows. Similarly, beautiful women are more likely to snag the tall, handsome, wealthy husband.

So when Trotskyists knock on doors politicking, they think it is only the issues that count: low wages, unemployment, evil cops, etc. But of course that's not true. Whenever two people meet, especially when they are of the same gender, there is a status competition. And who wins depends very much on appearance, whether Trotskyists realize that or not.

They obviously don't realize it, as illustrated by the cover article in this week's Militant. Entitled Socialist Workers Party: 'Defend Voter's Rights!'it's obviously intended to further working class politics. It tells the story of Comrade Ellen Brickley, who knocked on the door of Miss Renee,* identified as a hair stylist. They're shown in the picture, reproduced below. Zero points for guessing who Ms. Brickley is.



Of course it's risky to judge an interaction based on a still photo--that's a millisecond slice easily taken out of context. Yet The Militant's editors saw fit to publish this photo, so presumably it represents something they think is both typical and flattering.

The obvious irony is Ms. Brickley--who has likely not visited a hair stylist in years, if ever--is now soliciting one. It's not clear what she expects to accomplish. The Trotskyist view (explained by Evelyn Reed) is that women doll themselves up only to entertain men and for no other reason. Miss Renee, by this account, is totally in hock to the patriarchy, completely hypnotized by us evil guys.

Of course that's not true. While men are certainly part of the picture, fashion is as much a status competition among women as anything else. Beautiful women have every reason to flaunt it, and even less attractive women do their best. Most people call it self esteem.

So Miss Renee wins this status competition hands down. Not only is she naturally more attractive, but she obviously takes care of herself and looks as good as she can. She emphasizes her femininity to the point of provocation. Ms. Brickley, meanwhile, has just thrown in the towel.

So now it's easy to write a caption for this picture. Miss Renee (who as a hair stylist is only rarely the high-status female in the room) is definitely the top dog in this encounter. That's why she's enjoying it so much, smiling broadly as she looks down, patronizingly, at her visitor. She's doing her best to extend the encounter for as long as possible, which is why she feigns interest in Trotskyist politics.

Ms. Brickley, meanwhile, looks very uncomfortable, even angry. At some level she knows she's being had.

It is inconceivable to me that somebody like Miss Renee would ever join the SWP. At very least she'd have to shave her head and give up her career as a hair stylist. She'd have to voluntarily renounce whatever status she has and become an ugly bitch. Of course she's not going to do that! Ms. Brickley, apart from humiliating herself, has also wasted her time.

You think I'm kidding about the haircut? Ms. Brickley's coiffure is similar to the Trotskyist comrades of my youth. Women comrades tended to be homely, and accordingly disavowed any interest in beauty, as less attractive women are wont to do.

It holds true even today. This picture dates from 2013, and shows Margaret Trowe campaigning for Des Moines city council, visiting Miss Essie* sitting on her porch. Miss Essie is a retired hotel cleaner.



The status gap between the two women is not quite so obvious. Still, at least Miss Essie is recognizably female, which is more than one can say for Ms. Trowe (at least from the picture). Further, Miss Essie was likely quite attractive in her younger years. I'll hazard that she has children and grandchildren, unlike Ms. Trowe. So I'll count Miss Essie as the more successful, higher status woman. Ms. Trowe's subservient posture suggests as much.

Ms. Trowe has the same Trotskyist-style haircut as Ms. Brickley. She's obviously a low-status woman, and it's not clear to me why higher-status folks would want to join her organization. People want to move up in the world--not down.

*The Militant cites full names for Miss Renee and Miss Essie. I choose not to include those to save them any further embarrassment.

Further Reading:

Friday, August 5, 2016

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Author J.D. Vance's older half-sister, Lindsay, has a successful life: stable marriage, three children, a house in the suburbs.

Hardly the stuff memoirs are made of. Mr. Vance has been more adventurous: after a stint in the Marine Corps he got a law degree from Yale University, though again that's not material for a best-seller.

Yet best-seller is precisely what Mr. Vance's autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy, has become. The tale is not in the outcome but rather how they got there. Mr. Vance (and his sister) endured the Childhood from Hell. Their mother was a drug-addict, and J.D.'s father--one of a long succession of men who passed through his life as one of Mom's boyfriends or husbands--was an alcoholic.

So normally this book wouldn't interest me. Count me hardhearted, but tales of troubled children are not generally on my reading list. Tearjerker memoirs don't rank high, either. But Mr. Vance's book is not that, or at least not just that. It is a serious effort to understand the hillbilly culture in which he grew up. That I found fascinating, besides which it is beautifully written.

Mr. Vance credits his grandparents--Mamaw and Papaw--for his success. They were born in Jackson, Breathitt County, Kentucky, even today known as one of the poorest counties in America. As young adults Mamaw and Papaw traveled north along the "hillbilly highway" to look for work in the industrial Midwest, settling in Middletown, Ohio, where Mr. Vance was born. He has fond childhood memories of trips back to Jackson to visit his great-grandmother, Mamaw Blanton, along with other relatives.

It's a matriarchal world. The men come and go, and the women get pregnant as teenagers. Mamaw (a heavy smoker) lived only into her mid-seventies, but survived long enough to supervise a whole passel of great-grandchildren.

"Hillbilly" (the word used freely by Mr. Vance) is a slightly pejorative synonym for Scots-Irish. If you believe Scott Alexander, that term is also misleading, as there's no Irish blood involved at all. Instead hillbillies descend from the Scottish Borders, that lowland part of Scotland that was fought over for a thousand years ending in the 18th Century. Every summer one army or another would pass through, doing, I suppose, what armies of that era did: looting, raping and pillaging.

So no wonder the Borders people were clannish, deeply suspicious of outsiders, exceedingly sensitive to insult, and prone to violence. In North America they initially settled as far from authority as they possibly could, in the mountain fastnesses of Pennsylvania, Western Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. In the 19th and 20th Centuries economic deprivation forced them to wander--to Arkansas, Oklahoma and California, and then to the industrial Midwest along the trail that Mamaw and Papaw followed.

From a demographic viewpoint they are a successful people. And no surprise since they possess positive character traits as well: loyalty, courage, self-reliance.

Now if you believe authors like Nicholas Wade and Gregory Clark, then the concept of gene/culture co-evolution comes as no surprise. That states that cultures select for certain genes, and/or genes favor particular cultural attributes. Either way, over time (and a thousand years is certainly long enough) cultural attributes become inscribed in the genome. Thus hillbillies are, in some sense, born that way, at least as predisposition.

Mr. Vance, born a hillbilly, definitely shows the personality traits of his tribe. He is fiercely loyal to his family (insulting his mother is the surest route to a fistfight), served as a combat Marine in Iraq, and (justly) takes great pride in his ability to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Reading between the lines, I infer he has a tendency toward alcoholism (he drinks throughout the book).

But in one very important way--not mentioned explicitly in the book--he is very different from most Scots-Irish. He is very smart.

He is smarter than I am. Despite my upper middle class upbringing, I could never have aspired to attend Yale Law School. Even if I survived the IQ cutoff, I simply don't have the ability to work 16 hour days. In this he differs, not just from most hillbillies, but even from most people.

So Mr. Vance did inherit something from his grandparents: a high IQ. It's pretty obvious from the book that Mamaw and Papaw, however uneducated, certainly were not dumb. Even Mom, helpless though she was, had some serious smarts about her. While his grandparents clearly rescued him from absolute disaster, his stunning success in life is less due to what they did, but more on what he inherited from them.

There are simple tests given to toddlers that measure an ability to defer gratification. The archetype is known as the marshmallow test. A child is offered one marshmallow now (placed on a plate in front of him while the tester leaves the room), but if he can wait 15 minutes then he will get two. There is a strong correlation between passing the marshmallow test and future success in life, e.g., SAT scores, time spent in jail, future earnings, etc. The marshmallow test also correlates with IQ.

So Mr. Vance clearly would've passed the marshmallow test, even as a child. But many in his family wouldn't have. His Mom would've failed. Maybe even Mamaw would've failed. The stereotype for hillbillies is precisely that they're impulsive and undisciplined. Which implies that on average they're not very smart (I don't know if that's true).

Mr. Vance and his family are obviously a huge exception.

Toward the end of the book Mr. Vance stops talking about "hillbillies," and begins to identify more with the "working class." These groups overlap, but they are far from being the same thing. "Hillbilly" refers to an ethnic group, while "working class" is an economic entity not defined by genes. "Working class" does not denote a cluster of personality traits.

Hillbillies, successful in many contexts, are dysfunctional in the modern, urban, service economy. Mr. Vance is right to be skeptical about various government programs to help them. But I don't think he's skeptical enough. For if you take the above arguments seriously, there is no way a bespoke pre-school program or some special third grade curriculum is going to magically give ornery hillbillies a personality transplant. A thousand years of gene/culture co-evolution can't be undone that easily.

The poor will always be with us

Further Reading:

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Principled Presidential Campaigns

Trotskyists put great store on principle. It shouldn't come as a surprise, therefore, that all of the grouplets I follow are principled in their attitudes toward the 2016 presidential election campaign. Despite the invective they'd likely throw at each other, all of them are loyal to the ideals of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of my youth.

In 1936 the SWP took the French Turn, imitating a tactical innovation first used by comrades in France. This entailed joining the Socialist Party (SP), an organization that today has evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America, among other splinter groups. But in the 1930s the SP was the premier, non-Stalinist exponent of Marxism.

The SWP maintained this was a tactic to recruit cadre to revolutionary socialism, which is what I always believed as a comrade. Hence this claim comes as a surprise:
Although party leader Jim Cannon later hinted that the entry of the Trotskyists into the Socialist Party had been a contrived tactic aimed at stealing "confused young Left Socialists" for his own organization, it seems that at its inception, the entryist tactic was made in good faith.
Whatever the truth, The Militant suspended publication for a couple years until the Party reemerged as an independent organization in 1937, having doubled its membership.

In the interim my ancestral comrades must have supported and/or voted for Norman Thomas for President in 1936. Or at least not opposed him.

I recite this history because the modern analog to Norman Thomas is either Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, or both. What is unprincipled is support for the candidate of a bourgeois party, e.g., the Democratic Party. But none of the grouplets advocate a vote for Hillary Clinton.

My friends in Solidarity are the most consistent in following the former SWP's lead. In a recent editorial they strongly endorse Jill Stein. The piece contains a stunningly clear statement of Trotskyist principles:
Looking not only toward November but also beyond, especially to Bernie Sanders’ supporters who reject the dead-end option of Hillary Clinton, we urge you to consider that you need more than a different candidate: you need a different party. Hillary Clinton, after all, did not “hijack” the Democratic Party. She represents exactly what the Democratic Party really is: Wall Street connections, militarism, and all. There was no way that Bernie Sanders was going to be the Democratic nominee.
A way to phrase this is that Solidarity is making a French Turn into the Green Party. There is certainly nothing unprincipled about this, nor is it inconsistent with Trotskyist history.

Solidarity was certain that Bernie would never be the nominee, and it turns out they were right. In their editorial they go out of their way to be as friendly to Bernie supporters as they can be, e.g., in the lede:
Bernie Sanders' campaign for a “political revolution” lit up the 2016 primary election season like a meteor across the sky. Contrary to conventional wisdom that he’d peak and fade early, Sanders’ challenge to the Democratic party machine lasted throughout the primaries. Surpassing all expectations, he won 23 primary and caucus contests, raised an astonishing $222 million almost exclusively in small donations, and gathered over 1800 pledged delegates.
Louis Proyect (not a grouplet, but a blogger of some renown) gives no credit to Mr. Sanders.
After it became clear that the Sanders Political Revolution was history, the pro-Clinton propagandists redirected their fire at Jill Stein. The contrast between Sanders and Stein could hardly be greater but that made little difference to those who not only favored the two-party system but the hegemonic role of ruling class politicians like the Bushes, the Clintons and Barack Obama within it. Even though Sanders never had any intention of making a breach with corporatist Democrats, he was considered a trouble-maker for pointing out the obvious, namely that the system was rigged in favor of Wall Street.
It's not clear to me what the programmatic differences were between Bernie and Jill--indeed, Jill even offered to give up her candidacy if Bernie would run on the Green Party ticket. Bernie's sin was never programmatic--instead it was his commitment to the Democratic Party.

Solidarity understood this, and may even have supported Mr. Sanders during the primary. However confident they were he would lose, had he won they would've dropped him like a hot potato. Fighting for socialism and supporting the Democratic Party are incompatible no matter what flavor of Trotskyism you subscribe to.

Socialist Viewpoint, very oddly, has almost nothing to say about the 2016 election. The only relevant article in the July/August issue is a very weird piece by Robert Meeropol, entitled Trumpophobia. He is completely convinced that Trump is the second coming of Hitler, but nevertheless he can't bring himself to support Hillary.
A willingness to vote for the status quo because Trump is worse is also a subtle form of cognitive dissonance. It is a refusal to acknowledge, or to act on the knowledge, that we are about to run out of time and so must make climate change the number one priority. Instead of confronting a longer-term, but qualitatively deadlier, environmental impact, some progressives propose we vote for Clinton, a candidate whose policies make that end result more likely, in order to avoid the more immediate sociopolitical threat of Trump. I admit this is not an easy choice, but choosing the latter over the former could be our worst mistake.
Fine. That is consistent with Trotskyism. But nowhere does he tell us who he will vote for--there is no endorsement of Jill Stein or anybody else. And while I have not read every article in the magazine, I detect nothing but abstentionism.

So if Solidarity and Louis Proyect advocate a French Turn into the Green Party, then Socialist Action (SA) and the SWP do not. Of course the French Turn decision is totally tactical--there are no principles at stake. So I accuse nobody of violating their historical consciences.

The SWP's strategy is perhaps a riff on the French Turn theme. They certainly are not supporting Donald Trump, but they are cozying up to his supporters. Their candidates, Alyson Kennedy and Osborne Hart, are specifically addressing the concerns of White, working-class Americans. For the Left this is a very unusual and risky strategy, but the potential payoff could be large. The risk is that they cross a line of principle, though I see no indication of that happening. At least they have a more accurate assessment of what the Trump campaign actually represents, unlike, say, Mr. Meeropol.

The SWP has an advantage in that it's the only grouplet to disown the climate crackpottery enthusiastically embraced by the other comrades. And further, they've rejected antisemitism, which is more than you can say for Jill Stein.

The silliest instantiation of Trotskyism (perhaps barring Mr. Meeropol) is the tactic followed by SA. They are running their own fearless leader as president. This is doubling down on being a really tiny, little, insignificant sect. No intelligence. No leverage. No outreach. It's a complete zero.

Further Reading: