StarPower: the Game That Shows We’re All Doomed

StarPowerA couple of years ago, I wrote, Inequality: the Monopoly Analogy. It involved a social psychologist’s experiment where he had people play Monopoly. But instead of the usual rules, some players were “rich” and so got twice as much money as the players who were “poor.” And what he noticed was that the “poor” players got discouraged and the rich players exhibited feelings of entitlement and felt happy about the the poor players bad “luck.”

I was over at Digby’s Blog today, where I found a fabulous article by Batocchio, Lucky Duckies and Fortunate Sons. I recommend reading the whole thing, because it is rather wide ranging. But it introduced me to the game StarPower. It was invented in 1969 to study exactly these kinds of class issues. Based upon how they start, people are placed into one of three groups: Square, Circle, or Triangle. These correspond to rich, middle, and poor.

The structure of the game is such that if you are a Triangle, you’re going to stay a Triangle. If you are Circle and you get lucky, you might make it into the Square group. Similarly, someone in the Square group with bad luck might fall into the Circle group. At least, that’s the case for the first half of the game. But then, the game allows the rules to be changed by the Square group. It should come as no surprise that the people playing the game don’t choose to make the game more fair; they change the rules to give themselves even more advantage.

Donella Meadows described her experiences playing the game all over the world, Why Would Anyone Want to Play StarPower. And she described one incident that actually did shock me, but I don’t know why:

Those few who don’t [act according to their “class”] are easily handled. Once I watched a Square try to convince her fellow-Squares to even up the rules. “This game is unfair, and unfair games are boring,” she pleaded. The other Squares appropriated her points and demoted her to a Triangle. They weren’t mean people, they were just Squares.

I think the reason I found this shocking is that you would think that in a game, a rational appeal like this would work. But if it doesn’t work there, how can it possibly work in the real world with actual money. I hate to think that it requires revolution, but it is true that in the real world, there are a whole lot more Triangles. Meadows deals with the real world consequences:

Who wants to play that kind of game? The Squares, maybe, but even Squares discover that games where the score is not occasionally set back to 0-0, where the starting line is not even, where the outcome is always predictable, and where winning is no sign of real merit, are deeply unsatisfying.

The wise Squares whom we call Founding Fathers, who set up the rules of our national game, knew that. They invented ingenious devices for giving everyone a chance to win—democratic elections, universal education, and a Bill of Rights. Out of their structure have come further methods for interrupting accumulations of power—anti-trust regulations, progressive taxation, inheritance restrictions, affirmative action programs.

All of which, you might note, have been weakened over the past decade or so. We have moved a long way toward a StarPower structure.

She wrote that in 1986. In the 28 years since then, it has gotten so much worse. And along with that, we have gotten a class of Squares who have convinced themselves, not that the game is fair, but that it is unfair—to them. It’s frightening to think about. But it ought to be even more frightening to them. They are living in delusion. And I hate to think what the Triangles might do if all the rhetoric about “job creators” starts to sound as hollow as it actually is.

We are all doomed.

Fox News Not Interested in Ferguson

Fox Not NewsI just got to spend about a half hour watching Anderson Cooper, Chris Hayes, and Bill O’Reilly. Actually, only Chris Hayes was on his show. It was that old white guy on CNN and one of the blond women on Fox News. But it was striking. I don’t mean the tone of the shows; I mean the content. Not surprisingly, MSNBC is doing blanket coverage of Ferguson, where things look almost celebratory now that law enforcement duties have been taken over by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. But CNN is doing the same thing, in their tired way.

So the liberal and centrist cable news networks are paying a lot of attention to the situation in Ferguson that has been getting international attention. But for Fox News, it is pretty much a non-story. Or rather, the murder of an unarmed teen was a non-story. The many peaceful protests was a non-story. Militarized police use of excessive force against protesters was a non-story. Pretty much everything about Ferguson was a non-story except for some looting that took place Sunday evening.

This is an interesting contrast with the Bundy ranch crisis where the story got blanket, hysterical coverage. But it also got pretty much blanket coverage on the other two stations. What I think we are seeing is that if a story can’t be molded to a conservative narrative, Fox News just isn’t interested. I’m sure that in their story meetings, executive producers have said, “Unless there are a bunch of black people breaking windows, none of our viewers will care!” And maybe they are right, but it seems to me that the basic narrative is of wide interest: police shooting a young man about to enter college when he had his hands raised above him.

It would have been different if it had been a white suburban boy killed by a black officer in a police force that was over 90% black with a history of harassing whites. Then they could rant about “black anger” and the “out of control” government, but also regular things like actual news sources are discussing about the Michael Brown murder. When it comes to a black or brown skinned person, however, it just isn’t interesting to Fox News. Their key demographic—The median age is 68 years old!—might be upset to hear any news that conflicted with their belief that racism was solved in 1865.

So what was Fox News offering up instead of details about the Michael Brown murder and the situation in Ferguson? Well, they had a sequence about the supposed fight that’s going on between Obama and Clinton. And there was speculation about Robin Williams. And I’m sure they had a segment on Ferguson earlier on; I didn’t get to a television until a bit into the hour. I mean, Fox News can’t be that bad. Well, maybe it can.

Dog Whistle Politics

Dog Whistle PoliticsI recently read Ian Haney Lopez’s excellent Dog Whistle Politics. The subtitle of the book is, “How coded racial appeals have reinvented racism & wrecked the middle class.” It is an important book because it gets at the fundamental political problem in America: how is it that white middle class voters continue to vote against their long term interests in so much of the country? Thomas Frank tackled this question in What’s the Matter With Kansas? So it isn’t surprising that Lopez deals with a lot of the same issues. But whereas Frank saw no racism, Lopez sees plenty.

Based upon things that Frank has written since Kansas? I suspect that his thinking has changed. But in that book, he dismissed the idea that racism wasn’t the reason that people were voting Republican. He based this on the fact that the people he interviewed and observed were not racists. But as I discussed recently in Modern Racism, racism is always changing. It bugs me that people make such a big deal when someone says, “Let me tell you about the negro.” Because that isn’t where the power of racism is.

Lopez sees two kinds of racism: common sense and self-interested (although that may not be the term he uses). What’s surprising is that he doesn’t shy away from the latter. He fully admits that whites have something to lose with racial equality: as bad as a white man’s life may be, at least he is still white—still a member of the ruling race. And I do think that is something that we should talk about more. Of course, it is common sense racism that is most pernicious. It is the kind of racism that everyone has that is based upon historical racism and its continuing effects. It is what made Reagan’s “welfare queen in a Cadillac” work as a racial appeal—everyone knew he was talking about a black woman, because everyone “knew” that blacks are on welfare.

Parts of the book are downright encouraging. For example, he discusses polling of the Bush-Dukakis campaign. When the Willie Horton ad came out, there was a quick shift of support toward Bush. But after Jesse Jackson publicly pointed out that the ad was a racist appeal, the polling went back to where it had been. Racial appeals are only effective as long as they remain hidden. Just the same, it can be difficult to call such things out. As it was, when Jackson pointed out the racial appeal in the ad, the right pushed back—of course Jackson would see it that way! But in that case, people thought about it and decided they knew how it had effected their thinking. (Or non-thinking.)

As much as parts of the book are optimistic, the overall story it tells is deeply troubling. What we see is that every generation comes up with new racist appeals. It is like a human with a disease that has a certain symptom. We treat that symptom but then a different symptom shows up, because the underlying disease hasn’t changed. And what is especially bad here in the United States is that the racist appeals work largely because of the economic inequality we have in this nation that is very clearly racial in its makeup: if you want to be rich, it is a very good idea to be born white. At the same time, we can’t do anything about the economic inequality because of how well the racist appeals work.

Lopez makes one really important point that I think liberals need to think a lot about. That is that we can’t sit back and let demographic changes sweep liberals into power. And the reason for this is that who is defined as “white” changes over time. At one time in this country, Italians weren’t considered white, but they sure are now. Think of Antonin Scalia. So eventually, the conservatives will go about defining Latinos, for example, as white and crafting their language so that the Latinos know which group it taking what’s theirs (as opposed to which group is really taking it). And given the shocking success of the conservative movement over the last five decades, I see no reason to think that they won’t succeed.

But I think that Lopez offers us, especially those of us who are white, with some good advice moving forward:

The most basic step is to consciously consider race. The research is clear that colorblindness does not help us overcome racism; on the contrary, colorblindness as a strategy (rather than as a goal) forms part of the problem. Attempting to ignore what one has inevitably already noticed only makes it more difficult to recognize and thus control internalized racial stereotypes. Likewise, averting one’s eyes to how race might be operating only makes one more susceptible to dog whistle manipulation. The racial subterfuge of coded appeals that has done so much to wreck the middle class is easy to pierce, but only if one consciously mulls over how race might be involved.

Once the basic step of watching out for race is taken, the next is to raise one’s voice. Rightwing racial attacks on liberalism depend on cowing into silence those opposed to continuing racial demonetization, thus allowing dog whistle calumnies to spread unchallenged. Connected to this, colorblindness also operates as an etiquette that treats talking about race as impolite and even racist. Those who discuss racism are accused of being the real racists—again, as if pulling a fire alarm means one set the fire, or dialing 911 means one committed the crime. Refusing to be silenced, to defeat dog whistle racism and restore government to the side of the middle class will require as many of us as possible to go ahead and sound that alarm.

The claims that the United States is post-racial (or anything even close to it) are as absurd as the Stephen Colbert claim that he doesn’t see race. In the early 1960s, when blacks were murdered with impunity and widely denied the right to vote, 80% of white people claimed there was racial equality. This is always the claim. So don’t be afraid to raise your voice. Those claiming the only racism is against whites will all be proven wrong within a generation. Just like always.


Many of the reviews of the book on Amazon are like this one, “The author of this book actually is beating the drum for reverse racism, and not equal opportunity.” It doesn’t help that such people have not actually read the book. Anyone bring up these issues will be blasted by the right in this way, because the right understands that dog whistle racial appeals are their primary weapon.

A Soul Is Not a Personality

Matt WalshChristians and other theists believe in the soul. Or at least they claim to. But even fairly sophisticated believers have what is an incredibly simplistic idea of the soul. One of the most extreme ideas of this comes from the Jehovah’s Witnesses who believe that there will be heaven on earth (quite a reasonable reading of the Bible), with everyone living in the idyllic conditions we know so well from The Watchtower. But it is just silly to suggest that the essence of our being is our personality. How can it be when chemicals can fundamentally change how people behave?

This came up this morning when I read Andrea’s article at Nice Atheist Girl, Suicide Deconstructed. It is a response to Matt Walsh’s incredibly presumptive article, Robin Williams Didn’t Die From a Disease, He Died From His Choice. Andrea does a good job of dealing with him on the issue of suicide. I just want to talk a bit about this bit about his simplistic theology:

I can understand atheists who insist that depression must only be a disease of the brain, as they believe that our entire being is contained by, and comprised of, our physical bodies. But I don’t understand how theists, who acknowledge the existence of the soul, think they can draw some clear line of distinction between the body and the soul, and declare unequivocally that depression is rooted in one but not the other.

This is offensive on so many levels. For one, the implication here is that Robin Williams died because of a defective soul. But it doesn’t matter. Walsh is a small minded commentator whose brain was apparently born without much in the way of empathy, who writes articles like, “I’m Spoiled and Lazy but Walmart Should Pay Me More Money Anyway!” What does matter is that he thinks there is that secret sauce of the “soul” that makes us who we are.

The Greek idea of a soul was that it was our essential nature. But when added to the idea of immortality, the idea get distorted. It is the thing that will live forever if one is a good little girl or boy. But how can that have anything to do with personality? People can be given drugs that totally change their personalities. People can be given experiences that totally change their personalities—for example, childhood abuse. Just on the simplest level, nice people are sometimes turned mean when they drink.

I think this idea that one’s consciousness will be transported to heaven on death is simple wish fulfillment. It is the basis for most religious belief: people are afraid of death. But this is religion as comforting fairy tale. It provides no kind of insight into the nature and paradox of existence. That is bad enough.

But Walsh’s argument curses not only the vagaries of brain chemistry but also the vagaries of the soul. This is an implicit indictment of God. Why did God give Williams’ that soul? And the Bible-as-user’s-manual doesn’t work either. I don’t know Williams’ spiritual thinking, but I assume he was not a Born Again Christian. So why did God give him a soul and brain chemistry that didn’t allow him to find comfort in the One True Word™? This leads us to issues of free will that I absolutely don’t have time to go into, other than to say that I don’t believe in free will and I don’t understand why anyone does.

The thing is that I don’t think Walsh has ever thought much about what the soul is. He’s just a typical cultural Christian who knows his side is right and when he dies he’ll go to the nice place with all the candy and ice cream he can eat. And that’s fine! I hope he’s happy. The truth is that I don’t think he has any more choice about being a shallow arrogant jerk than Robin Williams had with being depressed and finally killing himself. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Williams’ death was sad and Walsh’s thinking is childish.

Howdy, Howdy, Howdy Gary Larson!

Gary LarsonThe great The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson is 64 today. He has an absurdist sense of humor. Good examples of this are the boneless chicken ranch and the polar bear disguised as a penguin, And now Edgar’s gone. And he has a unique cartoon style. Certainly he is no Bill Watterson (Who is?) but his work is immediately recognizable. And it rather suits his sense of humor.

Because he wrote so much about science kinds of things, I think he has probably had a bigger positive impact on science than Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s not that anyone learned science from him. In fact, as we see with his combining penguins and polar bears, he was often wrong. But he normally dealt with science related stuff. And his portrayal of scientists themselves was always charming, as in the comic of all the scientists running outside for the ice cream truck.

All there is left to do is present to you my very favorite The Far Side cartoon, “Hey! Look at me, everybody! I’m a cowboy! … Howdy, howdy, howdy!”

Vulture Cowboy - Far Side

Happy birthday Gary Larson!