Choice, Binary Matters, and Projection

Another cool, mostly overcast, party sunny day. This is winter in the Bay Area: lows in the 40s, highs in the 50s. We walked the Montclair Railroad Trail, and checked various shops in the village for Christmas lights. One of the strings of lights we put out on our balcony has failed. But no one in the village — not Lucky (the supermarket), not CVS or Rite-Aid — sells such lights. Well, maybe a trip to a hardware store tomorrow.

  • Politics and philosophy: NYT essay about how transgender matters inform our ideas about personal choice and how living a genuine life requires the possibility of regrets;
  • Politics and psychology: Fox News’ go-to themes for how to hook viewers on envy and fear;
  • More: How GOP politicians trust Walmart customers about the economy over evidence and statistics, to justify their charges against Biden;
  • More: And a brief item about how Fox thinks *Democrats* are destroying democracy. Projection.

NY Times, Opinion, Lydia Polgreen, 1 Dec 2023: Born This Way? Born Which Way?

Long essay, posted online two days ago and published on the front page of today’s Sunday Opinion section of the NYT. It’s ostensibly about transgender matters, but raises larger issues about personal choice, binary matters, and how living life requires the possibility of regrets.

Print title: “Who You Are Is a Choice” with subtitles “The panic over transgender children is driven by the fear that they’ll regret transitioning” and “But the freedom to make mistakes is core to discovering your identity.”

I’ll quote just a couple key para’s.

Many major identity categories, like race, gender and ethnicity, seem absolute and immovable. But dig a little deeper and quickly you realize how malleable and mutable they are. Indeed, the freedom to participate in the way you are viewed through these identities is a basic part of being a modern human. So is the right to change your mind about them over time.


How do we know who we are? This may seem like a profound, philosophical question. The exhortation to know yourself is, after all, one of the most famous and ancient utterances in Western civilization. But it is also an interesting question to ask yourself in a more literal sense. Because what we discover, if we are really honest with ourselves, is that most of the time we know who we are because someone told us.

The writer didn’t realize she was “black” until, at age 10, a boy at school called her a racial slur. Having grown up in Kenya, she “knew nothing of the American binary between white and Black, the core identity concept of race.”

The right claims that transgender people want to impose gender ideology on the world. But as the saying goes, every accusation is also a confession. We are already living under a gender ideology: It is called the gender binary, and transgender people are hardly the only ones suffering from its crushing weight.

And near the end of the piece:

I understand the impulse to protect children from regret. The fantasy of limitless possibility is alluring — who wouldn’t want that for their child? To forestall, for as long as possible, throwing the switches that will determine your destination in life, is tempting. But a life without choosing is not a human life.

And conservatives don’t want you to choose, they want you to conform.


I have no strong opinions, or stakes, in these matters. On the one hand, every person should be entitled to live their life as they wish (conservatives, despite their invocations of freedom, disagree); on a second hand, it seems absurd when someone claims they “identify” as a chair, or as something they’re obviously not. I also note Jerry Coyne’s insistence that sex (as opposed to gender) is, with rare exceptions (intersex children) a simply biological binary.

Some issues like this come down to thinking about the larger issue. Why does anyone care? Because blurring of binary boundaries disturbs the conservative mindset? That would be my answer. (Deep memory: my grandfather, sometime around 1970, as a TV show came on with some singing group that included men with long hair. Grandpa: You can’t tell whether they’re girls or boys. My instinctive reaction, which I did not say out loud: why does it matter to you?)


Fox News is such an obvious example of how to manipulate people psychologically.

Salon, Michael Bader, 3 Dec 2023: Fox News’ 7 Deadly Sins: How the network hooks viewers on envy and fear, subtitled “Fox isn’t reporting the news or making logical arguments. It’s building a paranoid narrative targeting deep anxiety”

Both the left and the right have their narratives — progress toward a better future, vs. return to a golden past — but this piece outlines the near-term conservative narrative that drives the way Fox News chooses and covers stories. I’ll quote.

The world according to Fox News invariably seems to involve some combination of the following seven deadly sins:

  1. “Illegal aliens,” i.e, undocumented immigrants, are flooding into our country and pose a threat to our everyday life.
  2. Democratic-governed cities are exploding with homelessness and violent crime.
  3. The FBI and Justice Department have been weaponized by Democrats and are persecuting innocent public officials — the most noteworthy one being Donald Trump,
  4. The current administration, under the leadership of criminal gangsters Joe and Hunter Biden, has surrendered power and influence to America’s new primary enemy, China. (In contrast, our former archenemy, Russia, turns out to be not so bad, making aid to Ukraine a complete waste of time and money.)
  5. Medical treatments offered today in the form of gender-affirming care, especially when it comes to helping trans youth, amount to a ghoulish form of castration and butchery.
  6. Too many schools are teaching kids to feel guilty about America’s history of racism, sexism and homophobia, brainwashing children with leftist “woke” ideology and disempowering parents in the process.
  7. Poor people just want to get something for nothing, and government programs only make things worse.

The writer goes on:

There are other common themes, of course, including mocking climate science, exaggerated and excited fixations on the evidence of criminal behavior and debauchery found on Hunter Biden’s laptop, and even outrage at the fact that the Biden family’s dog, Commander, has bitten Secret Service agents. But I would argue that some combination of these seven deadly sins, each one part of a larger paranoid narrative, can be found in every single news or opinion show on Fox News and in the right-wing blogosphere. Delivered with some combination of humor, sarcasm and outrage, this view of the world is clearly compelling to many people.

The common thread running through all seven deadly sins is the evocation of fear and envy, fear that the powers that be — often described as “liberal elites” — are threatening “our” freedom or otherwise trying to control us, and envy that these same shadowy forces help and support everyone else but “us.” If we fail to understand these deeper emotions, we can’t possibly understand or influence the loyalties of the MAGA right. Instead we will continue to believe that by disputing and refuting each of these claims on objective factual grounds we can change minds, only to be frustrated, over and over again, that such arguments have no effect.

Again, politics is all about psychology. Not facts, not philosophy.


Fox News, via Joe.My.God, 3 Dec 2023: Comer: We Have The Votes To Launch Impeachment Inquiry Because Reps Talked To Customers At Walmart

This is a consequence of those stories about people who think the economy is terrible despite all the statistics saying otherwise.

“We were in Washington, D.C. for 10 weeks, and there are about 10-15 moderates. They really worry about what CNN says, or what The Washington Post writes, and they were getting in their head, Maria.

“But then, a great thing happened during Thanksgiving: the members went home. Many of ’em for the first time in over 10 weeks, and they met people in Walmart, and people on Main Street, and they’re like ‘What in the world have the Bidens done to receive millions and millions of dollars from our enemies around the world, and did they not pay taxes on it?’”

So if mis- or Fox-informed constituents at Walmart think one thing, ditch the data that says otherwise. Despite recent admissions from Republicans (see my Nov 29th post) they have no evidence for what they’d like to charge the Bidens with. (The story later quotes Comer about “the mountains of evidence we’ve accumulated” — OK, by all means, show us. If it *is* evidence, and not just hearsay or wishful thinking, then your case should be clear. Some of us really do believe in evidence!)



Joe.My.God, 3 Dec 2023: Fox Host: Democrats Are “Destroyers Of Democracy”

More projection. Which party is trying to overturn elections and limit voting rights? Not the Democrats.

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