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a blog by Ann Althouse

Is Putin "rational actor"? — Jake Tapper asks Biden. Biden answers "he is a rational actor... I just think it’s irrational."

You have to separate the "he" and the "it" to make sense of it.

Here's the video. I'll quote from the transcript:

Tapper: So, French President Macron told me that he doesn’t think that Putin is acting rationally. And he said that he thinks a lot of this is because of how isolated Putin was for two years during the pandemic. And others who have dealt with him, Condi Rice and Bob Gates and James Clapper have used words like erratic and unhinged to describe Putin’s behavior today. Do you think Putin is a rational actor?

Biden: I think he is a rational actor who has miscalculated significantly. I think he thought… You may recall, I pointed out that they were going to invade, that all those hundred thousand were troops there, and no one believed that he was going to invade Ukraine. You listen to what he says, if you listen to the speech he made after, when that decision was being made, he talked about the whole idea of he needed to be the leader of Russia that united all of the Russian speaker… I just think it’s irrational.

So, according to Biden, Putin is rational, but he came up with an idea that happened to be irrational. The idea, as put by Biden, was that Russian speakers should be united under one leader. To call that irrational is to set a low threshold for what counts as irrational, so then why isn't Putin irrational? Presumably, it's just not pragmatic to reject the person when you need him to listen to you. Impugning his idea is a better move.

But Tapper didn't notice this move:

Tapper: So if he’s not rational and...

Biden: No, I didn’t say he’s not rational.

Tapper: You said the speech is [not rational].

Biden: I think the speech, his objectives were not… Jake, I think he thought he was going to be welcome with open arms, that this has been the home of Mother Russia and Kyiv, and therefore he was going to be welcomed. And I think he just totally miscalculated it.

Tapper: So, you talked about this a few days ago, the search for an off-ramp for him, because his back is against the wall, there are questions about how rational he is. He already was a brutal dictator. What is the off-ramp? Is there any acceptable way that he can leave, in his mind, without seizing territory in a way that would not be acceptable to Ukraine?

Biden: I don’t know what’s in his mind, but clearly he could leave. He could just flat leave and still probably hold his position together in Russia. The idea that he’s been able to convince the Russian people that this is something that he thought made sense, but now he’s accomplished what he wanted to do and it’s time to bring Russians home....

Tapper: When people hear the word Armageddon, they get scared, used by a US president, they get scared. Do you think in any way discussing this type of thing publicly, openly, Putin’s possible use of nuclear weapons might have the opposite effect of what you want? It might make some of our wobblier European allies be even more scared of confronting Putin?

Biden: Well, no, I don’t think so at all. I think, look, it was a directed… What I’m talking about, I’m talking to Putin. He in fact cannot continue with impunity, to talk about the use of a tactical nuclear weapon as if that’s a rational thing to do. The mistakes get made and the miscalculation could occur. No one can be sure what would happen, and it could end in Armageddon.

Tapper: And you still are afraid of that though, that it could?

Biden: Well, no, I don’t think any rational person is saying the initial use of a nuclear weapon killing thousands of people does not have the prospect of leading to something that can be way out of control....

He said "no," but you can see in context that he answered Tapper's question "yes." He is warning that if Putin uses a tactical nuclear weapon, we might end up in a full-scale nuclear war.

Was it rational of Biden to speak about nuclear war like that — calling it "Armageddon" and saying "mistakes get made" and you never know what would happen?

"Protest is a kind of theater, as abortion rights activists who dressed as characters from 'The Handmaid’s Tale' outside the home of Justice Amy Coney Barrett know."

"The performance is not just for the target of the protests but also for anyone who sees it via news images or video or social media. The fact is, a group of people targeting just one person, at home, particularly at night, appears menacing.... Florida’s lawmakers went so far as to ban 'picketing and protesting' at any person’s private residence.... I believe such bans to be unconstitutional. The right of all Americans to peacefully assemble must be protected. But that doesn’t mean that protesting at the homes of public officials is effective.... I expect that those who gathered outside my home also felt shut out from power when they screamed at me [in December 2020]. But showing up at my home to shout falsehoods about an election because they didn’t like the results did not help their cause.... These protesters attempted to bully me into abdicating my duty to protect the will of the people of Michigan. But the people who made me fear for my family that night also emboldened me to do my job with integrity.... [P]rotesting outside an official’s home is rarely if ever effective at achieving the goals of those gathering — and oftentimes, it backfires."

From "Protesting at Judges’ Homes Must Remain Legal. That Doesn’t Make It Effective" by Michigan secretary of state Jocelyn Benson (NYT).

If sensible people realize that a protest outside of a public official's home is likely to backfire, then we may infer that people who protest outside a public official's home are irrational. That's an idea you might want to use if you need to argue that the bans on these protests are constitutional. Benson makes a good argument, but if it works, it won't work on 100% of the protesters who would otherwise take to the street right outside someone's house. The ones that are left are those who are least likely to care about lawful, peaceful persuasion.

But also: Protests are not really about rational persuasion. They're about stirring up emotion, and emotion is inextricably intertwined with even the most earnest efforts at rational decisionmaking. I assume that the elite, educated, accomplished Ms. Benson endeavors to "do [her] job with integrity," but I don't believe she can exclude all feeling. In the case of the pro-Trump protesters screaming at her house, she felt "emboldened" — that is emotional. The protesters stirred up her fighting spirit. Yes, it backfired for them, but — by her own report — she was not impassive and solidly grounded in neutrality.

"If you wanted to kill a bunch of MAGA voters in the middle of the heartland, how better than to target them and their kids with this deadly fentanyl?..."

"It does look intentional. It’s like Joe Biden wants to punish the people who didn’t vote for him and opening up the floodgates to the border is one way to do it." 

Said J.D. Vance, quoted in "J.D. Vance’s claim that Biden is targeting ‘MAGA voters’ with fentanyl," a WaPo Fact Checker piece by Glenn Kessler.

I know this is a "4 Pinocchios" review, but I haven't read it yet. I just want to make some observations of my own before seeing how Kessler frames this.

1. Vance did not say what the headline attributes to him. The Yale Law School graduate has careful weasel words: "If you wanted.. how better ... ? ... It does look intentional. It’s like Joe Biden wants to punish... and opening up the floodgates... is one way." He's speculating. What Biden is doing makes it look as though he has the intent to do what is the predictable effect of his actions. 

2. Vance's reason is the same kind of reasoning that Critical Race Theory analysts and radical feminists use to find systemic racism and sexism. You hypothesize that those in power achieve nefarious goals by adopting policies that are superficially neutral but have a disparate impact that is intentional. That's something else you learn at Yale Law School.

3. If that kind of reasoning is used against conservatives, conservatives ought to dish it back. It's interesting. Thought provoking. Why unilaterally disarm? If the left does it, why not the right? And I would like people to be more sober and rational. But the call for Vance to set aside his fiery rhetoric is what I call "civility bullshit." 

So... I give at least 3 Pinocchios to the headline writer, and now I'll read Kessler.

Kessler looks at whether more fetanyl is coming into the country under Biden. More is getting seized, but that doesn't tell us how much is getting through. He also looks at the number of deaths, which have gone up under Biden but also went up under Trump — and the rate of increase was higher under Trump than under Biden (63% compared to 8.5%). Moreover, fetanyl deaths among black men have spiked more than among white men.

So Kessler didn't get into the problem of attributing intent based on outward facts. He stuck to saying that Vance got the outward facts wrong.

It’s bad enough to suggest that the president is deliberately trying to kill off Trump voters with illicit drugs. But it’s especially appalling to make such hyperbolic claims based on zero facts.

Vance needs to defend himself, but I checked Twitter and I don't see anything yet. Kessler's piece went up at 3:00 a.m. EDT. That's 5 hours with no push back. Is J.D. a late riser?  I presume his answer will hinge on "opening up the floodgates to the border."

David Mamet talks to Joe Rogan about why we need the Bible.


"To go back to the Enlightenment... If the human being is the measure of all things, what does that mean? Our reason. And our reason is completely flawed. All of us do things every day which are unreasonable, sinful, wrong, and absurd. Right? And the reasonable person says, wait a second, why'd I do that? What do I have to refer to in my confusion and my self-loathing? Well, the Bible was a pretty good bet.... Let's talk about human nature: You really aren't that smart. You really aren't in charge of the world. You really aren't. Although you think you are. You think that 'cause you're human. But God's in charge of the world, and there's a certain way things are, and if you'd like to get out of your wretched self-consciousness and self-delusion, you'd better get your ass into church."

"Let’s say Putin realizes he’s in deep trouble. Russia has become a pariah state. His reputation, not great to begin with, is blackened."

"And if he achieves nothing, he faces the risk of being overthrown by his own security and military elites. He may feel, then, that he has little to lose by fighting on. Things can’t get much worse for him than they already are. And if he somehow manages to succeed, things might get much better for him. Gambling for resurrection can be a rational behavior. But it’s the rational behavior of a man who has become desperate and will try almost anything to save his skin."

 From "Here Are Three Reasons Putin Might Fight On" by Peter Coy (NYT). The 3 reasons are: 1. sunk cost fallacy, 2. golden spike theory, and 3. (discussed in the quote above) gambling for resurrection.

In "Index, A History of the," Dennis Duncan "gives a surprisingly vivid explanation of how the two foundations of the contemporary index — alphabetical order and pagination — themselves had to be invented."

"Alphabetical order requires us to pay attention not to meaning but to spelling, ensuring it would stay rare through the Middle Ages, disdained as an arbitrary imposition that was 'the antithesis of reason.' As for numbering pages, the notion of something so 'ruthlessly disinterested' from the text — impertinently insisting on a number for every page, regardless of its tendency to cleave paragraphs, sentences, even words — made it an intrusion that took some getting used to; the number’s allegiance wasn’t to the argument or the story but to the physical book itself...."

From "A Smart, Playful Book About the Underappreciated Index/Dennis Duncan’s entertaining and informative 'Index, A History of the' moves from the 13th-century origins of the form to the world of digital search engines" by Jennifer Szalai (NYT).

I'm going to buy this book when it's available, 2 days from now, and maybe you will too: "Index, A History of the: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age." 

This is right up my alley! As proof of my intense interest, I remind you of this post of mine from last December, "The Order of Orders." Excerpt:

But I'm going to give alphabetical order credit for doing so much with so little. It's random, but agreed on, and insanely useful. 
Alphabetical order was first used in the 1st millennium BCE by Northwest Semitic scribes using the abjad system. However, a range of other methods of classifying and ordering material, including geographical, chronological, hierarchical and by category, were preferred over alphabetical order for centuries.

If I was going to make a Disney movie out of characters representing the different forms of order, I'd make alphabetical order the hero.

"It would hit Alina Black in the snack aisle at Trader Joe’s, a wave of guilt and shame that made her skin crawl. Something as simple as nuts."

"They came wrapped in plastic, often in layers of it, that she imagined leaving her house and traveling to a landfill, where it would remain through her lifetime and the lifetime of her children. She longed, really longed, to make less of a mark on the earth. But she had also had a baby in diapers, and a full-time job, and a 5-year-old who wanted snacks. At the age of 37, these conflicting forces were slowly closing on her, like a set of jaws.... Eco-anxiety, a concept introduced by young activists, has entered a mainstream vocabulary. And professional organizations are hurrying to catch up, exploring approaches to treating anxiety that is both existential and, many would argue, rational... [M]any leaders in mental health maintain that anxiety over climate change is no different, clinically, from anxiety caused by other societal threats, like terrorism or school shootings. Some climate activists, meanwhile, are leery of viewing anxiety over climate as dysfunctional thinking — to be soothed or, worse, cured. But Ms. Black... needed help right away... The plastic toys in the bathtub made her anxious. The disposable diapers made her anxious. She began to ask herself, what is the relationship between the diapers and the wildfires? 'I feel like I have developed a phobia to my way of life'...."

From "Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room/Ten years ago, psychologists proposed that a wide range of people would suffer anxiety and grief over climate. Skepticism about that idea is gone" by Ellen Barry, dateline Portland, Oregon (NYT).

"[S]ince around 1980, English speakers have been more given to writing about feelings than writing from a more scientific perspective."

"From around 1850 on, [researchers] found, the frequency of words such as 'technology,' 'result,' 'assuming,' 'pressure,' 'math,' 'medicine,' 'percent,' 'unit' and 'fact' has gone down while the frequency of words such as 'spirit,' 'imagine,' 'hunch,' 'smell,' 'soul,' 'believe,' 'feel,' 'fear' and 'sense' has gone up. The authors associate their observations with what Daniel Kahneman has labeled the intuition-reliant 'thinking fast' as opposed to the more deliberative 'thinking slow.' In a parallel development, the authors show that the use of plural pronouns such as 'we' and 'they' has dropped somewhat since 1980 while the use of singular pronouns has gone up. They see this as evidence that more of us are about ourselves and how we feel as individuals — the subjective — than having the more collective orientation that earlier English seemed to reflect."

Writes John McWhorter, in "Don’t, Like, Overanalyze Language" (NYT), discussing a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that purported to detect a "surge of post-truth political argumentation" and a "historical rearrangement of the balance between collectivism and individualism and — inextricably linked — between the rational and the emotional.” 

McWhorter thinks the authors of the study are overdoing it, because, he says, often "the process by which language changes is that something starts out being about objective observation and drifts into being, as it were, all about me." He focuses on the question: "Why would this have happened to such an unusual extent since 1980?"  

And he guesses that it's a matter of increasing informality, which naturally entails being "more open about the self, less withholding about the personal, more inclined to the intimate." In that light, it's hard to believe the researchers think they've shown a move from individualism to collectivism. 

Something McWhorter doesn't talk about is that some people adopt a rationalistic tone for rhetorical purposes. They're not actually more rational, just trying persuade other people by posing as reasonable and unemotional. Ironically, that's an emotional move, and it can work if we respect the speaker's sincerity and good will, but it can stimulate wariness and irritation if we mistrust the speaker. And it's entirely rational to mistrust all speakers in the American political discourse that's developed in the last 40 years. In that light, it's not surprising that speakers have been abandoning the less effective rhetorical strategy.

"This article was written by a semi-rational leftist using traditional rhetoric to persuade his perceived comrades."

"He has grossly misjudged his intended audience. The modern, hard left will conveniently ignore him and probably classify him as a conservative fellow-traveler."

 Writes Richard Dillman, commenting on this post yesterday.

I'm making a new post about this because it's so provocative, and it rings true to me — not just about the specific article he's talking about but about public discourse generally.

"There are four main goals for TikTok’s algorithm: 用户价值, 用户价值 (长期), 作者价值, and 平台价值, which the company translates as 'user value,' 'long-term user value,' 'creator value,' and 'platform value....'"

"The document, headed 'TikTok Algo 100'... offers a new level of detail about the dominant video app, providing a revealing glimpse both of the app’s mathematical core and insight into the company’s understanding of human nature — our tendencies toward boredom, our sensitivity to cultural cues — that help explain why it’s so hard to put down.... It succeeded where other short videos apps failed in part because it makes creation so easy, giving users background music to dance to or memes to enact, rather than forcing them to fill dead air. And for many users, who consume without creating, the app is shockingly good at reading your preferences and steering you to one of its many 'sides,' whether you’re interested in socialism or Excel tips or sex, conservative politics or a specific celebrity. It’s astonishingly good at revealing people’s desires even to themselves.... The app wants to keep you there as long as possible. The experience is sometimes described as an addiction, though it also recalls a frequent criticism of pop culture. The playwright David Mamet, writing scornfully in 1998 about 'pseudoart,' observed that 'people are drawn to summer movies because they are not satisfying, and so they offer opportunities to repeat the compulsion.'"

From "How TikTok Reads Your Mind/It’s the most successful video app in the world. Our columnist has obtained an internal company document that offers a new level of detail about how the algorithm works" by Ben Smith (NYT).

This article downplays the importance of ownership by a Chinese company (ByteDance): 
Many, many other products, from social networks to banks and credit cards, collect more precise data on their users. If foreign security services wanted that data, they could probably find a way to buy it from the shadowy industry of data brokers. 
“Freaking out about surveillance or censorship by TikTok is a distraction from the fact that these issues are so much bigger than any specific company or its Chinese ownership,” said Samm Sacks, a cybersecurity policy fellow at the research organization New America. “Even if TikTok were American-owned, there is no law or regulation that prevents Beijing from buying its data on the open data broker market.”

What I'm most interested in here is whatever David Mamet wrote back in 1998 about pseudoart. The NYT had a link, and it went to an Amazon page for a book, "Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama" (which I'll make an Amazon Associates link that works for me).

Here's the context of the quote you see above:

True art is as deep and convoluted and various as the minds and souls of the human beings who create it. We may return to the pseudoart again and again, like the compulsive eater or gambler, hoping that next time our choice will be correct. But the purpose of compulsion is not a search for peace; it’s an enforced strengthening of the compulsion itself. (People are drawn to summer movies because they are not satisfying—and so they offer opportunities to repeat the compulsion.)...

The film car chase and even the cry “there is too much violence in the films” reveal this: art, the organic medium for arbitration between the conscious and subconscious, has been pressed into service of the compulsion mechanism itself. Art, no longer the province of the artist, has become the tool of the entrepreneur—which is to say, the tool of the conscious mind. The conscious mind asks, “What is art good for?” and responds, “It is good for pleasing people.”...

Artists don’t wonder, “What is it good for?” They aren’t driven to “create art,” or to “help people,” or to “make money.” They are driven to lessen the burden of the unbearable disparity between their conscious and unconscious minds, and so to achieve peace....

The artist has to undergo the same hero struggles as the protagonist. If you’re sitting in the writers’ building on the Fox lot and getting paid $200,000 a week, you know that you’d better stop daydreaming and start coming up with Benji: The Return

But if you’re sitting all by yourself in the coffee shop, smoking that cigarette, you’re much freer to follow your own bizarre, troubling thoughts. Because all of your thoughts, at bottom, are bizarre and troubling. (If they weren’t, not only wouldn’t we go to the theater, we wouldn’t dream.) So there you sit in the coffee shop, talking to yourself. “Oh my God, is this the real thing? Has someone thought of this before? Am I insane? Is anybody going to like it?” 

David Mamet talks to Joe Rogan about why we need the Bible.

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