Monday, October 8, 2018

Is a Senate Hearing Really a Job Interview?

The Brett Kavanaugh hearings have generated two metaphors: the job interview and the trial. Those supporting Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS nomination repeatedly trumpet the “what happened to innocent until proven guilty” argument, insisting that the relative paucity of evidence shouldn’t disqualify him from a lifetime appointment to America’s highest court. Opponents counter by saying “this isn’t a trial, it’s a job interview, and the standards are much lower.”

I’d like to consider the latter metaphor. If a Senate confirmation hearing really does resemble a job interview, what forces go into similar interviews? Anybody who’s looked for work recently knows, tension exists between what hiring directors claim a job interview consists of, and what actually happens. Hiring professionals want us to believe they impartially consider an applicant’s qualifications, credentials, experience, and temperament, and choose the most qualified person.

That’s the theory anyway.

In practice, job interviews turn on invisible qualities. These qualities are both subjective, and completely anecdotal. After being denied the same promotion three times at my last job, I asked HR what had happened. They said, because I didn’t take my breaks in the company breakroom (which was crowded, noisy, and by Friday often smelled like a locker room), they didn’t believe I was a “team player” and wouldn’t participate in group decision making.

Many researchers have dubbed the most important factor “affinity.” This basically means that hiring professionals select applicants who most resemble themselves: shared values, common experiences, even physical resemblances. If you attended the same kind of college as the decision maker, or have a similar economic background, your chances improve markedly. This is also why men hire men, white people hire white people, and Harvard grads hire Harvard grads.

Yeah, it's safe to say Justice Kavanaugh resembles Senator Graham

Scholars have written extensively about the affinity effect. Two sources should be sufficient: here and here. The continued similarity of ethnic, racial, sexual identity, and gender outcomes in American business reflects that hiring still gets done by white, cishet, middle-class men with college educations. And these HR directors mostly pick people who resemble themselves. Fairness makes an admirable goal, but remains mostly unattainable.

We all do it. It’s hard not to. Chances are, your co-workers, best friends, and spouse all resemble you in age, race, economic background, and (within limits) gender. As researcher Alison Wolf writes, outside the single top economic quintile, most job fields are starkly segregated by gender. Most towns with multiple racial populations know weekends are heavily segregated: there tend to be White, Black, and Hispanic bars, restaurants, and churches.

This applies to Congress, too. Though the current 115th Congress is “is the most racially diverse in history” according to, that isn’t saying much. The current Senate is less than one-quarter female, and more than ninety percent white. Neither number reflects America’s actual racial or gender breakdown. Though an exact mirror of America’s demography is likely impossible, the gap nevertheless is remarkable.

Brett Kavanaugh resembles the Senate that narrowly confirmed him: White, male, heterosexual, Christian, college-educated, and relatively well-off. Based on the affinity principle, we shouldn’t be surprised. Of the nine current Justices, six are men; seven are White. Six are Christian (five Catholic), three are Jewish. The court has never had a professing atheist, Mormon, or Muslim; it’s had exactly one self-described agnostic, Benjamin Cardozo, from 1932-1938.

So yeah, the Court resembles the Senate. Kavanaugh is recipient of such continuing affinity.

In fairness, the Senate isn’t dominated by accused sex criminals. Al Franken, the only sitting Senator in the 115th Congress accused of sexual misconduct, resigned under massive bipartisan pressure. But a willingness to overlook sexual allegations has become an American political standard since 2016. President Donald Trump has seventeen pending allegations of unwanted sexual contact or peeping Tom-ism.

If a Senate hearing really resembles a job interview, therefore, that doesn’t instill much hope in me. Real-life job interviews since the collapse of 2007-2008 have seen me rejected as both underqualified and overqualified from jobs with no listed mandatory qualifications. They’ve seen me rejected as insufficiently extroverted from jobs that had nothing to do with being gregarious. They’ve seen me… well, the list continues. Basically, I don’t resemble the interviewers enough.

Future appointments like Kavanaugh’s need a better metaphor. He wasn’t on trial, so that tight standard doesn’t apply, but job interviews have loose, sloppy standards that also don’t apply to something so important as a Supreme Court seat. I don’t readily know what metaphor would make better sense. But we’d better decide that soon, because Justices Thomas and Ginsberg aren’t getting any younger.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Does “Nature” Really Exist?

Papa Pigeon hunts for scraps amid a refurbishment job

A family of pigeons has made its nest in a disused air duct at work. Mama Pigeon stays up high with her nestlings, while Papa Pigeon, a handsome specimen with beautifully marbled black-and-white plumage, wanders the premises, hunting scraps to bring back for the young. We’ll eventually have to turn the ventilation back on. But for now, there's an unspoken agreement to leave the birds alone until the young are ready to fly.

Nobody would mistake our jobsite for a natural environment. An air duct isn't a verdant branch; the dumpsters and trash cans make a poor analog to the forests pigeons once scavenged for food. Yet our environment provides shelter, warmth, protection from weather, and abundant cheap nutrients. Animals that adapt to live among humans, from rats and pigeons to dogs and cats, flourish and get fat, while their wild cousins struggle.

How much can wild animals adapt to human-made conditions and still remain natural? To get really pointy-headed about it, we haven’t yet created a meaningful definition of the word “natural.” When does this piece of wood stop being a natural tree and become an artificial object? When the tree is felled? When the lumber is milled? When the carpenter turns it into a table? You see the problem. The word “natural” means something, but we can't agree what.

We know that “artificial” describes what happens when humans get involved in our world. Houses, streets, and cities are clearly artificial. But wild influences inevitably make their way into our artificial environment, from crabgrass and ants to feral cats and, yes, pigeons. Some living beings flourish in environments moderated by human artifice, without being necessarily domesticated. Are these influences natural?

Mama Pigeon guards her nest from the intrusive photographer

I’m inclined to say yes, crabgrass and feral kittens are natural forces in an artificial environment, because they’re neither planned for nor controlled. We make salutary efforts to control both, spraying lawns with harsh chemicals to ensure only desirable plants grow, and trapping feral animals for rehabilitation or removal from the environment. But these efforts are minor and don’t stem the flood. Nature persistently clings to the artificial space.

So. If humans and their built environment are artificial, but nature adapts itself to the artificial environment, then humanity is no longer strictly artificial. We’ve become a moderating force on nature. Scientists acknowledge this influence when they speak of the Anthropocene, the proposed geological moment since around 1750, during which human activity has exceeded wind and water as the greatest force shaping Earth’s surface.

Nature, then, is an artificial thing. We cannot separate what exists before human involvement from what exists after. Even in places where humans have little or no involvement, our influence alters the environment, from pollutants in the air and water, to the sounds generated by our machines. Any hunter or outdoorsman knows the frustration of going into nature to escape humanity, only to find litter and noise scattered everywhere.

Our human illusion of separateness gets spoiled whenever we try to escape. Even just studying nature fixes it in a form, creating “laws” which reality must supposedly obey. Yet reality isn’t an algorithm; we cannot list nature’s laws and expect coherence. Whether we tromp out into nature to study it, or watch nature infiltrate our built spaces and adapt itself to us, we witness a supposedly non-human world adapting itself to human forces.

Papa Pigeon takes flight

So nature does not exist. If nature is whatever humans haven’t influenced, then we’ve never seen such a thing. The human influence on non-human space is pervasive, and we carry it with us wherever we go. Pigeons living inside a half-refurbished public building are one easy example of this, since a nesting family is adorable. The extinctions of passenger pigeons and western black rhinoceroses are more grim examples.

If nature adapts to humanity, it is no longer free of human influence; it is artificial. Humans have created the natural world around us. So far, we’ve done so mostly heedlessly, assuming wild species will simply accept our intrusion of cities, long-distance roads, and carbon-burning technology with peace and equanimity. Which, of course, they haven’t. We’ve fallen ass-backward into a changed world without planning anything.

Therefore, if humans create nature, we need to start doing so consciously. We need to keep ourselves aware of the influences we force upon the world, the ripples our actions cause on everything. We need to study the non-built world so we can steward it accordingly. The next creature moving into our space might not be as cute as a pigeon.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Conservative Anger Litmus Test

Brett Kavanaugh
This numbskull at work plays right-wing talk radio way too loud. And by “way too loud,” I mean much louder than necessary for him to hear it at ordinary sound levels, but not loud enough to hear over power tools and equipment. Clearly, unless he’s suffering severe hearing loss, he doesn’t need the radio at this volume. I wondered for weeks why he played his radio so loud. Then I realized: he does it for me.

He hopes I, or someone like me, will complain about him playing Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and other shouting nabobs of partisan hackery. Personally, I don’t mind this guy has politics that disagree with mine. I don’t even mind that he seeks sources that encourage a more extreme and divisive iteration of what he already believes. Everyone is entitled to their sources. I mind that the sources he chooses are always shouting.

During last week’s Senate testimony, a literal “she said, he said” where Dr. Christine Blasey Ford stated her case, then Judge Brett Kavanaugh called her a liar, we heard lots of shouting. Blue Facebook and Blue Twitter held virtual postmortems where they reminded fellow thinkers that, in a two-sided debate, whoever starts shouting first is usually wrong. Defensiveness, belligerence, and wrath are refuges for liars and cads.

Except conservative Americans didn’t perceive things that way. Point out that Judge Kavanaugh started screaming and crying even during his prepared opening statement, they’ll respond: “But she accused him on national TV.” Note that he responded to ordinary routine questions with petulance and spleen, they’ll answer: “Wouldn’t you get angry if somebody said things about you?” Rage, I’ve observed anecdotally, is their only reasonable response.

Lindsey Graham
Nor was Judge Kavanaugh alone in his fury. Professional hand-wringers in the punditocracy have made bank parsing the outraged displays from Republican Senators like Lindsey Graham and Orrin Hatch. The nominee to be one of America’s top judges gets angry at accusations, rather than trusting that facts will exonerate him, and legislators echo his choler. The people we expect to be rational debaters think shouting proves them right.

I’m reminded of linguist and political commentator George Lakoff. In his book Don't Think of an Elephant, Lakoff describes the mental framework separating conservative and progressive Americans in terms of family dynamics. Progressives favor the “nurturing parent” model, where parents encourage children to do more and better with their lives and choices. This dynamic, not gender specific, believes in rewarding fledglings for leaving the nest.

Conservatives, however, favor what Lakoff calls the “strict father” model. A stern, singular lawgiver, usually but not necessarily male, provides the source of moral authority, and brings the hammer down on anyone who strays from righteousness. This strict father might reward good and honorable behavior, but exists mainly to punish wrongdoers. The orderly, obedient home, is the source of justice. This is the dynamic of “wait till your father gets home” parenting.

To a certain form of highly public conservatism, indignation and rage aren’t deflections or shelters from responsibility. They’re expressions of paternal righteousness. If you aren’t angry, you aren’t honest, and more importantly, you aren’t serious. To this mental framework, fathers default to anger because anger teaches children the ways of righteousness. Being the first to become angry doesn’t make you weak or wrong, it makes you fatherly.

Alex Jones
Consider those talk-radio pundits shouting down the airwaves. Limbaugh and Hannity aren’t shouting at someone who disagrees with them; their core audience shares their opinions. Alex Jones is famous for becoming so outraged, while reaching an audience who already agrees with him, that he’s reduced to incoherent, wordless brays, screaming “Aaahhhhh!” into the microphone. (Some women, like Jeanine Pirro and Tomi Lahren, also share this quick-to-anger dynamic. But they’re outliers.)

The voting base that favors high-profile, demonstrative conservatism didn’t see Judge Kavanaugh’s outrage as deflection or retreat from facts. They saw a display of honesty and moral confidence. Psychology might say this interpretation doesn’t jibe with research and observation, but Kavanaugh’s intended audience doesn’t care. Anger, to their mindset, stands for truth and courage. Only the truly angry have moral courage to lead.

While progressives mock Judge Kavanaugh’s display as unbecoming of a judge, polls indicate that voters already inclined to believe this “strict father” model see Kavanaugh as more trustworthy. Pollsters are reluctant to attribute reason for this outcome, probably because more than one reason applies. I, however, feel confident in saying that, at least partly, conservatives love Kavanaugh because they endorse his willingness to get angry.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Growing Up While Going Nowhere

Jennifer Handford
Last week I reviewed Jennifer Handford’s third novel, The Light of Hidden Flowers, and I hated it. It’s a novel about a grown woman’s failure to do anything, to break outside the pre-written script she established as a sophomore in high school. Though I soft-pedaled that opinion in the review itself (the writing world is small and exclusive, and I still hope to publish), I’ll say now: this book wasn’t done baking.

But it got me thinking. The heroic journey, a sort of narrative manifestation of the psychological journey we all undertake to become adults, has been an obsession of mine since I first read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces in graduate school. We simply assume, reading novels, that our characters will undertake some journey; even if they remain rooted in place, the changes they undertake internally will fill the role quests played in medieval myth.

Though Campbell didn’t craft a writers’ guide, many writers have used his book thus. George Lucas famously wrote the original Star Wars with two books on his desk: a dictionary and Campbell. Although Campbell only intended to describe patterns he and others identified in comparative religion and world folklore, subsequent readers have found his description sufficiently insightful that they’ve consciously mimicked what past storytellers did unconsciously.


In his introduction, Campbell quotes several case studies in psychological literature of people who, for whatever reason, failed to become adults. They retained childhood identities, repeated patterns they established in high school, never transcended the family dynamic they began with. Symbolic dreams of oedipal inclinations, wounds that replicate Christ or the Fisher King, and other Jungian forms abound. Campbells point is, adulthood remains astonishingly rare.

Joseph Campbell
See, Campbell really did have prescriptive intent. He didn’t write for writers, but for psychologists, hoping to provide ancient insights into the modern phenomenon of people who, lacking religious adulthood rites, stayed trapped in childhood. People like Jennifer Handford’s protagonist, Missy, who never had a clear break from adolescence, and therefore continues enacting household roles that brought comfort and satisfaction when she was fifteen.

Maybe I missed Jennifer Handford’s point. Maybe her book isn’t about a character who fails to grow up. Maybe her book is about the protracted adolescence that defines modernity. French philosopher Alain Badiou recently wrote that permanent adolescence has become modernity’s default setting, especially for men: “The adult becomes someone who’s a little better able than the young person to afford to buy big toys.”

That’s Handford’s story. Missy affords a big house, lavish dinners, a nice car. She has her own office with elaborate IT setup and her own receptionist. She inherits her father’s status as Richmond’s leading voice in financial planning for the extremely well-heeled. Yet somehow, she never does anything; resplendent gold-plated inaction defines her life. She spends hundreds of pages failing to start… as, arguably, do we.

Because that’s life today, isn’t it? College or trade school provides a chute to transition us from dependence on parents, to dependence on employers. The rise of automation means fewer low-skilled jobs even exist, while technology races ahead so fast that high-skilled workers need constant retraining. An IT specialist I know tells me, if he doesn’t have regular continuing education, his skills become obsolete and unmarketable in just eighteen months.

Several years ago, I critiqued Harry Potter for having his journey largely internally. Harry goes to school, and enemies and monsters assail him there; his journey doesn’t involve actually going anywhere. Even in book seven, when he finally does journey, or more accurately meander, his path returns him to school, where he confronts the bugbears of adolescence, avenges his parents, and apparently, marries his high school sweetheart.

J.K. Rowling
I intended this as commentary, not criticism. Hey, I figured, it’s a new kind of journey. But Rowling, like Handford, understands something I largely missed: today’s society isn’t about the journey. Though we’re more mobile than ever, with cars and air travel and space tourism, we’re rooted, from adolescence, in an identity and role we never wholly shake. If I could describe modernity in one word, it’s certainly “stationary.”

This doesn’t excuse Handford’s writing style. As her protagonist narrates hundreds of pages of waffle, I struggled to care. She tells a story of somebody who sabotages herself, then seeks our sympathy for it. But setting aside Handford’s book as artifact, maybe she understands something us willful myth-makers keep missing: that life today isn’t about the journey. Somebody else needs to finish the thought, but Handford’s gotten it started.

Friday, September 21, 2018

The Verses of War and Fatherhood

Martin Ott, Lessons in Camouflage: Poetry

Themes of “who I am” regularly permeate Martin Ott’s poetry and fiction. As a writer, a father, and a former soldier, he has alternated among identities with the urgency of an actor trying roles. So, like many of us, he sits down quietly with himself, as poets have to, and he doesn't know exactly who he’s sat down with. This struggle becomes the driving force behind his quiet, introspective verse.

The tapestry of identities Ott draws upon to create this collection may seem familiar, especially to anyone who’s read his previous books. The rural Michigander living in the city; the working-class boy in a creative-class job; the quiet introvert with an energetic family. As in previous collections, though, Ott’s history as an Army interrogator looms large: the man assigned to extract truth, like a tumor, in situations of hostility and violence.
A retired interrogator walks
into a bar with himself,and asks for bold spirits,
untraceable in the lineage
of fevered fermentation.
Who is greater than gods,
creator of zealots and fools,
apocalypse of every shade,
architecture of storm and awe,
maker of mountainous tombs?
Saying a poetry collection turns on themes of “identity” has become almost cliché anymore, since poets write for self-selecting audiences rather than mass publics. Everybody writes about identity, because they write about themselves. But Ott takes this a step further. The question-and-answer tone of the poem above permeates this book. Many of his verses stride forth boldly, then interrupt themselves with questions that reverse everything that came before them.

Martin Ott
This probably reflects his own rapid transitions in life. At various times he’s needed to nurture and to kill, to discern truth and to obfuscate, to create and to destroy. Who hasn’t, of course, even Solomon wrote something similar; but having served in the military, at a time when the moral certitudes of the World Wars have fled us, this conflict between Ott’s present and his past forces him to constantly re-evaluate himself. The past isn’t gone, but the present changes it:
The older I get, the less well I do at hide
and seek, my kids able to see the bulges
poking out, fewer places for me to disappear,
the essence of fatherhood to be in plain view.
(“33 Lessons in Camouflage”)
Most of this collection’s early poems deal explicitly with Ott’s military experience, littered with references to basic training, maneuvers and orders, the disciplines necessary in war. After the first twenty or so pages, this theme recedes, becoming not a driving force, but an implicit piece of background radiation. Like a musical theme in a symphony, it becomes a necessary part of a larger composition, no longer demanding attention, but fundamentally part of the structure.

This happens with several concepts throughout this collection. Themes introduced in one poem achieve maturity in another. Hide and seek, mentioned in the stanza quoted above near the end of the collection, refers to another poem near the beginning. In that one, he writes about being so good at the game, in childhood, that even police tracking dogs couldn’t find him. This seems a momentary blip, until Ott unexpectedly completes the arc, over thirty pages and twenty poems later.

Readers weaned on the way poetry is taught in high school, with each poem essentially a separate specimen considered in complete isolation, may require some time to get accustomed to this. (Hell, I have a graduate degree, and it threw me at first.) For Ott, poetry collections like this aren’t anthologies of individual verses, written separately and brought together for publishing purposes. He constructs his poetry collections as consciously as any novelist.
When I was a boy, my family and I took
long forays into the woods for berries,
Dachshund in tow, pinging our haul
into pails, sometimes searching for morels.
Mom’s body is pale, tumors nestled between
windpipe and heart, five days since she collapsed.

Motifs of gravel, and fire, and morals/morels crop up throughout the collection. They seem to have the randomness of everyday life. Yet suddenly they’ll come together in an explosion of clarity, sometimes in a poem’s closing lines, sometimes later. Like Beethoven’s Ninth, this collection progresses toward its final movement, in this case the mini-epic that provides the title for the collection.

Like us, Ott’s identity isn’t monolithic. It comes together in a sudden explosion of insight, not always looked for, but forever impending. We wait for clarity, and aren’t disappointed. And we’re grateful Ott invited us along on his personal journey.