Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Calvin and DeVos

In a show of uncharacteristic clarity the POTUS-elect posed in public beside Betsy DeVos as he unambiguously presented her as his pick for Education Secretary. Though I applauded the casting off of vague innuendo as the official form of executive communication I am a bit confused as to what DeVos brings to the post of Education Secretary. She will only be able to throw lavish parties in her 22,000 square foot waterfront home in Holland Michigan if the more inebriated guests take Uber home as it purportedly only has three bedrooms. The confusion morphs into concern when I examined where she was coming from as the position most consistent with her views and background is that of a general in a potential war on science.

She certainly carries a carpetbag full of potential conflicts. She is daughter-in-law of the Amway billionaires whose multi-level-marketing empire was built on the backs of a cult-like following. The far-right-wing foundation named after her father and mother “the Edgar and Elsa Prince Foundation” has donated considerable sums to organizations that teach that homosexuality can be cured. The Family Research Council co-founded by her father Edgar, James Dobson, and George Rekers (among others) actively pushed a rather heinous highly-homophobic social agenda; it is interesting, if tangential, to note that Rekers was removed from the FRC after being spotted on a 10 day vacation with a male prostitute from “”. Betsy’s brother Erik Prince is the creator of the controversy-studded security contractor Blackwater. It appears as if the more one digs the more controversy wells up around Betsy.

You would think that those would be enough encumbering controversies to recuse Becky from federal service even if there was a large campaign contribution obscuring the vetting process. Becky is actively involved in some of these questionable sources of ickyness; she is a guiding control to the foundation named for her parents, and would have been a likely deciding voice when it pumped large sums of money into California’s Prop 8 and Florida's Amendment 2 in 2008 since her father passed away in 1995.

Betsy’s controversial entanglements would make for an interesting blog post in and of themselves, but they might obscure aspects of her relationship to education that could be more informative towards the agenda she may be working in her new job (she does still need Senate confirmation). Several mainstream media outlets have described her as a proponent of school vouchers (she is), or a proponent of charter schools (she is that also). Though I fall on the opposite side of the fence on these two issues I recognize that there is a spectrum of proponents, and that we can learn a bunch about Betsy’s spot on that spectrum by finding out what she might mean by “school” and what those schools might do with vouchers.

"Just imagine if each student in these school systems was given a scholarship for this amount of money – allowing them and their family to choose the public or private school of their choice." --President Elect Donald J. Trump from a speech transcript he had on his website

Betsy herself had a highly religious school experience. Through High School she attended Holland Christian Schools which is a private Pre-K through 12 school system in Michigan. The HCS teaches bible classes and is “united by a common mission to equip minds and nurture hearts to transform the world for Jesus Christ”. The current banner for the HCS website features a line of 8 smiling middle-school-looking kids of whom two are African-American; this is a greater percentage than Michigan’s state-wide 14.2% African-American percentage, but far greater than the 0.7% African-American percentage suggested for HCS middle school by Zillow. The less-posed pictures of the HCS student body suggest that Betsy may have spent all of her pre-college education is an almost exclusively white highly religious setting.
"I would like to see the ideas of intelligent design -- that many scientists are now suggesting is a very viable alternative theory -- that that theory and others that would be considered credible would expose our students to more ideas, not less." -- Dick DeVos (Betsy's Husband) Republican candidate for Michigan governor in 2006

HCS operate under the iron fist of their controlling board. This is similar to many charter schools, and is often given as a reason why charter schools can be better than public schools. In December of 2014, just days after HCS middle school principle Mark Van Dyke’s mother passed away, he and Troy Stahl (High School Principal) were let go for undisclosed reasons. HCS superintendent Dan Meeser said there were no criminal activities and no students were involved so it suggests that the problem may likely have been in the form of words or ideas.

Evolutionism is more than a scientific theory. It is a worldview, an answer to the essential questions of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Consequently, evolutionism functions as a quasireligious perspective, a worldview that is in fact anti-Christian. – CRC Synod 1991 Report 28 Committee on Creation and Science p 392

Betsy went on to graduate from Calvin College where words and ideas have a much more transparent impact on the employment of its professors. Tenured professor John Schneider was terminated for suggesting, in a tediously theological scientific paper, that Adam and Eve “may” not have been historical humans. Just before fall term in 2009 the Calvin College Board of trustees sent out a memo to all employees that said that faculty were prohibited from teaching, writing about, or advocating on behalf of homosexuality or homosexual issues such as same-sex marriage; presumably they saw this as a issue in other colleges and wanted to nip that problem in the bud.

The Church confesses that both general and special revelation, each in its own unique way, address us with full divine authority. We affirm, therefore, that the whole of life must be lived in obedience to God and in subjection to his Word, that faith and life must be of one piece. This is true as much of science as it is of personal relationships, business practices, or politics. We reject any view of the Christian faith which limits its scope or any view of science which in principle excludes from its practice the influence of faith and the light of Scripture. On the contrary, we actively encourage the kind of Christian scholarship which challenges the secular assumptions of the academic mainstream by advocating the integration of Christian faith and learning. -- CRC Synod 1991 Report 28 Committee on Creation and Science Declaration A page 409

Calvin College is named after the same 16th-century Protestant Reformer that motivates the Westboro Baptist Church to call themselves “Calvinists”. The Calvinists of Calvin College are the equally backward, but far less flamboyant, Evangelical Christian Reformed Church (CRC). Members of the CRC live in a separate but equal world which they would love to fund with vouchers and unmonitored privatization. It is highly likely that, as Education secretary, Betsy will attempt to funnel tax dollars into centers for religious indoctrination. Education dollars are a huge source of public funds, and funneling them into churches which are also highly motivated to meddle in politics, like the CRC, could facilitate some scary long-lasting changes.

The CRC theological studies have repeatedly declared that true understanding of the world must be in accordance with biblical scripture, and that supporting biblical scripture is a test by which truth is measured. Although Betsy claims membership in a "non-denominational" mega church led by a slightly more mainstream pastor who is the son of the late Moral Majority leader Ed Dobson, her Calvinist roots still hold her to positions she nurtures by tending to them with hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations. Education is just one front in the developing executive branch war on science, but it is an important one, and a war on science is a war on Atheists.

'Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.' -- George Orwell from 1984

'The New Religious Freedom is the freedom to teach that two plus two can make five. If that is granted, all else follows.' -- AOA

I am not sure what my less rabid Trump supporting friends have to say about all this. Is it enough that we will probably not find out if there is a private email server in Trump Tower, or will they just go silent like all those voters who overwhelmingly voted for Bush over John Kerry in 2004?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Emperor has no clothes and a funny hair pattern on his back

It is truly amazing that Donald J. Trump president-elect of the United States of America won less than 50% of the vote (46.28% with still a few votes to count) in Utah. This means that he beat the Democratic challenger by the slimmest majority (who at 27.72% of the vote only lost by 1.7 to 1) in decades. Trump would have won by a larger majority had not a third candidate -Evan McMullin- taken away 189154 of Trump’s votes to win 20.89% of the vote. However, even if Evan’s votes had gone to Trump the Donald would only have a 2.4 to 1 majority; still the slimmest Utah margin for a republican presidential candidate in decades.

The early results looked like they might be even more shocking as Evan had over 27% of the votes with 87% of the votes counted; a result that a Yahoo search still brings up. Back in late October polls had Evan leading Trump and Hillary. Evan was flying high and then crashed and burned.

Just as October was drawing to a close William Daniel Johnson (notable Mormon activist and chairman of the American Freedom Party) paid for a couple hundred thousand robo-calls attacking Evan, and Evan's numbers plummeted. I was told, by some of the same people that had originally suggested to me the possibility of voting for Evan, the specifics of the attack calls, and these specifics were confirmed by newspaper stories. Gone were the glowing descriptions that had begun shortly after he announced his presidential bid on August 8th; details of Evan’s Mormon mission in Brazil, his degree from BYU, and hints at bravery during his still classified work for the CIA. Instead they were talking about how his mother had “ left his father to become a lesbian”, and how Evan was “obviously a homosexual since he had been a bachelor for 40 years”; all of the people who changed their tune (to me) about Evan stated they were planning on voting for Trump. The new anti-Evan spiels had a staleness to them like parroted positions sometimes do.

Trump’s relationship with anti-gay crusaders predated the robo-calls on his behalf by Willie Johnson, or his choosing Michael Pence as his running mate. Roy Cohn was a famous New-York and DC lawyer who fought directly against legislation for gay rights, and, as lead counsel for the McCarthy witch hunts helped craft the “Lavender menace” scare that justified the persecution of gays as the committee scorched the earth eradicating the “red menace” of suspected communists. In a 1952 interview Joe McCarthy boasted about removing 145 sexual deviants (Gays) from government employment because perverts like them were morally unfit security risks. Donald was Roy’s apprentice, and many who knew both suggest that the strength of their bond is displayed as much in the Donald’s aggressively brash style of discourse as in his words of distinct praise for his former mentor. Roy died of AIDS in 1986, and a panel of the AIDS quilt was dedicated to him; it read: “Roy Cohn – Bully, Coward, Victim”. According to Peter Fraser, Roy’s lover at the end of his life, Roy contracted the HIV virus from one or several of his many male lovers. In addition to being a homophobic homosexual it has been suggested that Roy was also an anti-Semitic Jew.


Shocked analysts have been stumbling over themselves since last Tuesday trying to explain why so many Americans could vote against their own self-interest and elect Trump. There is a large minority of LGBT individuals who supported Trump in this election. Despite being a minority of their demographic the Trump-supporting LGBT people are interesting because they voted against a self-interest that may include the fundamental ability to legally exist in the open in addition to a desire to be treated equally once they left the closet. I was treated to all sorts of pretzel logic to justify Trump support by some LGBT people. One of my favorite was that electing Trump would “put Pence into the largely symbolic position of vice president instead of allowing him to wield more dangerous power as a state governor”.

About one in five LGBT people, a notoriously difficult demographic to get mainstream information about, especially from exit polls, may have voted for Trump. This looks to be close to within the margin of error to the number of LGBT people that appear to have voted Republican in the last several elections. There are a few exit polls that suggested that a number of of Trump-supporting LGBT voters changed their mind at the last minute and did not support him with their votes, but whatever the most precise numbers it is clear that an awful lot of LGBT people voted for Trump. 

The stone-cold-crazy voting bloc, as I suggested before, could have both elected Trump in this election and confused the polls. Almost every demographic has people plastering their cars with stickers proclaiming the allegiance to “” or questioning Obama’s birth status. Some even go so far as to write paranoid declarations of impending alien invasion , the cover-up of WTC 7, or chemtrails all over their cars in big white letters; I find the idea of chemtrails particularly amusing. This crazy block is distributed throughout all other demographics in the American electorate, but they do not, as many will want to contend, make up the majority of those that eventually did end up voting for trump in any demographic other than the one they define. What I mean is that in every demographic there were people who thought about what was best for the country and themselves, and came up with the idea that they should vote for Trump.

Trump has picked Steve Bannon as his chief stratagist. This is a powerful position, and it puts into the spotlight both Bannon’s Brietbart News agency and all the poser demagogues who work there. Amongst these is the man that would be the face of LGBT Trump support; an English bleached blond self-titled “Dangerous Faggot” by the name of Milo Yiannopoulos. Milo had the distinction, in July of 2016, of being one of the few non ISIL members permanently banned from Twitter for allegedly making disgusting racist/sexist/possibly homophobic attacks in 140 characters or less. Milo was an early passenger on the Trump train, and his (late 2015 to early 2016)  “Dangerous Faggot” speaking tour would often draw feminist or Black Lives Matter protestors whose protests would be shouted down by chants of “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!” by others in the audience. In a perverted way Milo has become an important face for LGBT activism, and if LGBT concerns are given a seat at the table in the Trump administration it should come as no surprise if Milo is sitting in that chair.

Trump said little that was substantial on the campaign trail. He even lapsed into disjoint sentence fragments at times so some of the ephemeral stuff he dished out was incomprehensible as well. This allowed the actively delusional to hear whatever they wanted to hear in what he said.

What can be expected from a Trump presidency? There are real clues in who he has begun staffing his transition team with. These appointments, which are still being revealed, are being carefully, and more responsibly, analyzed by many other analysts. Sam Harris described the transition team as:

A clown car of ideologues and incompetence with a couple of religious maniacs thrown in. – Sam Harris from his 12 November 2016 podcast “Waking Up With Sam Harris #51 - The Most Powerful Clown

Amongst this menagerie are people like Kris Kobach, and the Vice President elect Mike Pence, both of whom support the effectiveness of “gay conversion therapy”. Though there may be a push for re-education of white males with college degrees there has not yet been open discussion of shoving electrical cords in our ears and zapping us whenever we react positively to David Bowie or Tilda Swinton. LGBT Trump supporters may literally have been voting against the open existence of their demographic. Perhaps they were channeling their inner Roy Cohn?

To be perfectly honest I do not personally think that there is a pathway to re-criminalization of homosexuality even if members of rapidly forming Trump administration may want it. However, that desire to eliminate openly gay people from the fabric of American culture is a clue that bad things that can be done might be attempted. With a GOP majority in the House and Senate, and a few Supreme Court justices thrown in, there is a distinct possibility that bad things that are attempted will be successful.

My favorite candidate on the Utah ballot won about as much of the popular vote as Evan. Misty K. Snow contested a seat in the US Senate held by Mike Lee. She had a wonderful platform whose main plank –the fact that she was not Mike Lee- earned her my wholehearted support.


Misty was not the perfect candidate. She had about as much experience in politics as our new president-elect, and significantly less education. I listened to her single debate against Lee and was irritated by her conciliatory and deferential tone. I wanted someone who would go after Lee tooth and nail. It was literally impossible for a Democrat –especially a woman- to defeat Tea-Party darling Mike Lee, but I wished that she could have taken a bigger bite out of him as he used wandering trivial patronizing metaphors as stand ins for opinions or answers in the debate. Instead of ripping out his jugular and leaving him bleeding on the stage she was cordial and polite; I wanted blood.

There are certainly places for being “nice”. One could reasonably argue that it is good to be “nice” almost everywhere, but there have to be “nice” ways of eviscerating people who represent the worst in society. There is way too much “nice” in Utah amongst those caused harm by the culture here and the religion that encourages and protects some of the more hurtful parts of that culture.

Sometime recently passed was apparently the one year anniversary of the LDS church’s decision to make apostates of people who are connected by family ties to people in same-sex marriages. Normally the process of getting your name removed from Mormon church records is involved, and my immediate reaction to the Church manufacturing new groups of apostates is to imagine them mailing “get out of jail free” cards to unsuspecting members.

Instead of shouting “YAY!” many Mormon LGBT wring their hands and suggest the church rethink its position.  I ask you: why don’t people simply point out that LDS magic underwear is decidedly unsexy and everything else in the church is based on wacky stupid ideas? There is no shortage of good reasons to want to become an apostate to the LDS church. If the premises of something are stupid then what does it make you sound like when you testify that they are true? The opinions about LGBT issues by the LDS church should not matter because the LDS church itself should not matter.

There appears to be a barrage of art that is, in part, concerned with reconciling the LDS stance on LGBT people with their “right” to be Mormon. There were endless articles, a bunch of films, a play called “Facing East”, and a documentary film about gay missionaries called “Latter Day Glory” is currently being filmed. It might be interesting to see film footage showing people the gay missionaries converted during their mission telling their former mentors that they were going to suffer some kind of eternal damnation because they were gay. I realize that there is some sort of special “Mormons don’t believe in Hell” slippery pseudo explanation, and that the “Latter Day Glory” film will probably be saccharine with niceties for currently believing LGBT Mormons, but I want the disillusioned masses of fence-sitting Mormons to rise up and shed some metaphorical blood, or at least say something like: “The Emperor has no clothes and a funny hair pattern on his back”.

Monday, November 7, 2016

I think Sally is voting for Trump

The election tomorrow culminates a season of expletives. Prominent amongst them is the, usually exasperated, rhetorical question: “How could you think that?” This suggests more than a simple belief that large sections of the voting public are simply wrong; it suggests that there is a new way of thinking (or not thinking), and that this mystery process is incomprehensible to many who do not practice it.

Understanding how someone could think something is not mind reading. It is instead a form of empathy. It is putting one’s self into another’s metaphorical shoes and “walking a mile in them” or “trying them on for size” to understand how some particular thoughts are possible. This incredibly complex task sounds casually obvious as it is one of the more profound ways the mind works.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) suggested that all development was a process of increasing layers of internalization, and we have discovered a class of neurons (mirror neurons) that facilitate subtle learning by firing during the process of mimicking the activity of another human being. The process of becoming like others in order to understand and learn from them has also been described and mapped.

The specific activity of recognizing another person’s point of view by internalizing it is called “theory of mind” (TOM) or, more pedantically “Theory-theory of mind”. Far from being a pre-loaded activity for the brain TOM develops at a particular developmental stage in a child’s life. Somewhere between the ages of 3 and 4 a child changes their responses to a series of “false belief” tests. The easiest way to correct the false belief test response is to begin viewing the potential answer from another person’s point of view; to develop a recognition that a different person would see things differently from one’s self. Let me describe the two most famous false belief tests to help illuminate what I am trying to say here.

The first test is called the “Sally-Anne” test. There are several variations, but all of them involve a story where one actor “Anne” creates compartmentalized information that is unknown to the other actor “Sally”. It usually goes something like this: Sally and Anne are in a room with two boxes and a toy and Sally puts a toy in box one, then Sally leaves the room and Anne moves the toy to box two. Sally does not see Anne move the toy, but you do. Where does Sally look for the toy when she comes back into the room? Almost all children close to their third birthday will say that Sally thinks the toy is in box two, and will look there first; shortly after their fourth birthday almost all children will say that Sally thinks the toy is in box one, and will look there first.
The original Sally-Anne illustration by Uta Frith
From "Does the autistic child have theory of mind"
Baron-Cohen, Leslie and Frith (1985) Cognition 21;37-46

For the second common test (The “Unexpected contents” test) the child is presented a container with some sort of known visual clue affixed to it. The classic example is a cookie jar of the type the child has experience retrieving cookies from. The child is asked what they think is in the jar, and sometimes asked what some other child thinks is in the jar. The answer is universally: “cookies”. The jar is then opened to reveal that it does not contain cookies; it contains something else the child recognizes, like pencils or crayons. The jar is closed again and the child is asked what they had previously thought was in the jar: “what did you think was in the jar before I opened it?” The answer for three year olds is almost universally “crayons” (or pencils or whatever the child now knows is actually in the jar). When asked what other children might think is in the jar the answer is almost universally “crayons” as well. Sometime after their fourth birthday children will be able to recognize that people can believe stuff that is not true, and the children will answer “cookies”.

This is not simply because children are not exposed to simple false belief situations before their fourth birthday. There are map-able regions of the brain that must develop this TOM functionality in order to internalize the experiential information. The superior temporal gyrus (STS), the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), the precuneus, and the amygdala are all thought to be critical to TOM development. In other words effective TOM relies on a bunch of cognitive stuff (STS, TPJ, MPFC, and the precuneus) and the lizard brain (amygdala).

On first blush those uninitiated into the sacred rites of developmental psychology, like myself, are struck by the irony of so much of TOM development conclusions being based on answers to the question “what is going on in a child’s mind before they develop theory of mind?”. In addition to being delightfully ironic this question critically analyzes such things as what the child actually thinks is being asked in the Sally-Anne test.

TOM is a factor in abnormal brain function as well a critical element of a normal development. Severe alcoholics can, apparently, leverage the neurotoxicity of ethanol to drink themselves out of the capacity to recognize that other people can have a point of view. Many diseases on the autism spectrum reduce or eliminate TOM. Depression and dysphoria can also cause a reduction in TOM.

Depression, dysphoria, and stress cause measurable changes in the amygdala. This current campaign cycle has relied heavily on free-floating anxiety as a critical campaign issue. Certainly those internalizing the liberally slung rhetoric have amydalas that are all out of whack, and this should have an effect on TOM. Because TOM is evolutionarily tied to the ability to create social structure, or culture, or societies, then there must be some sort of synergistic effect on whole groups of people.

I know that when I try and understand what close to half of the voters in the USA are trying to think I come away with strange versions of the Sally-Anne test question.

“If Dick Cheney moves Obama’s birth certificate from an undisclosed black base to Hillary’s email server, while chemtrails are seen over Afghanistan, then what really happened to World Trade Center 7?”

And, unfortunately, the answer many people are coming up with is: “Vote for Trump”.

It may be necessary, for the continuance of our culture, to distribute some sort of psychological brannock device on Wednesday.