Jan 15

No Jobs in January: A Glance at Seasonal Adjustment of Unemployment

I was curious to analyze the seasonal adjustment data after the last post I made about unemployment data and under-reporting from 2007-2013.

Basically, seasonal adjustment follows a similar shape every year. Not the exact same shape, which is interesting, but my initial inclination to post the graph of each of the years from 2007-2013 individually wound up looking like a well-tread rut line with a couple of alterations high and low in weird outlier months. So the average of the last seven years seems more useful in looking at what’s really going on with unemployment as it cycles through the months.

Here it is:

I realize I may have done this graph upside-down from what you’d expect – being high on this graph means that actual unemployment (i.e. not seasonally adjusted) is that much higher than the reported seasonally adjusted rate, whereas lower means that the actual unemployment is lower than what’s reported. In other words, in the average January, BLS is shaving a percentage point off the unemployment tally, while in July, they’re adding about 0.6%.

Unsurprisingly, July is the best time to get a job. There’s seasonal work, more people (mostly young whipper-snappers) enter the job market, the weather’s good, people are buying ice cream. Okay, so it’s mostly seasonal work. Summer camp opens and teachers aren’t considered unemployed during their well-earned rest. Everybody celebrate.

January, by contrast, is a disaster. I think December would be too, except there’s seasonal work there to combat that as retailers add tons of temporary workers for the Christmas rush, making that and April the statistically least adjusted months. Basically, winter is bad, summer is good, and fall kind of bumps along being okay.

This is a footnote to all my other posts about how crazy you should feel when the numbers come out. It’s also a really bad sign about what’s going on right now in the economy, because ain’t nobody hiring in January. The numbers are going to take a point off the figure, plus all the people I’ve discussed who are coming off unemployment with Congress putting them off long-term benefits. So we’re in for a heck of a gap this month between what’s reported and what’s real. Honestly, the report could say that January unemployment is 5.5% and that the US lost jobs. That’s probably about what’s going to happen.

Jan 10

Unemployment Reporting Gap Hits New High to Close 2013

Happy New Year, everyone. There haven’t been posts here for a long time, but that’s probably going to change again soon. Hopefully a lot of things will change soon.

Regardless of which, a new milestone has been set: the all-time high gap between the reported unemployment figures and the actual unemployment figures in the United States of America was reached in December 2013, according to data gleaned from the BLS report out today. This gap is 5.85%, slightly eclipsing the previous record of 5.82% set in October 2013.

With unemployment reported as being 6.7% total, we are approaching the point where under-reporting of unemployment leaves out fully half of those actually unemployed. With the recent cessation of long-term benefits extensions by the federal government, we could see that point reached as early as the January 2014 report, due out in a month.

If you’re confused about this, it’s part of a series of reports I’ve done analyzing the crash in employment as hidden by the diminishing size of the labor force as a percentage of the overall US population. The previous reports are from August 2012, September 2012, and April 2013.

The numbers in the below graph will look a little different from those three previous reports. There are two reasons for that. One is that, in today’s report, the BLS adjusted seasonal adjustment for several months dating back to January 2009. All of their adjustments in 2013 reduced reported unemployment, but it did adjust up in a few past months as well. I have used the updated figures. The second, more important, reason is that I miscalculated somewhat in my previous reports. I used a compounding formula where I added the under-reporting percentage to those already counted in unemployment, which slightly increased my actual unemployment figures more than they should be. The average miscalculation was by 0.38% from January 2007 through April 2013, peaking at 0.74% in March 2013. I apologize for this miscalculation and assure you that the new formula is correct, as reflected in this graph:

Graph showing real and reported unemployment in USA, January 2007 - December 2013.

Graph showing real and reported unemployment in USA, January 2007 - December 2013.

The miscalculations led me to erroneously report that unemployment reached its Great Recession high at 13.8% in July 2011. This is inaccurate. The all-time Great Recession high for US unemployment is actually a mere 13.17%, reached in June 2011. While October 2013 nearly reached that high, at 13.02%, we’re way off that heady pace in December 2013, at only 12.55%. Unemployment had reached its Great Recession low in July 2013, at 12.28%, the lowest since unemployment was sky-rocketing in August 2009, when it was 11.76% and on its way up to 12.36% the next month.

Unemployment has been between 12.2% and 13.2% for the last four and a quarter years.

Does this make you feel like you’re crazy, when the media has reported a decline from 9.6% to 6.7% over that same period, with a brief high at 10% flat?

The craziness has been steadily increasing up till the December 2013 high, as reflected in this graph:

Graph showing gap between real and reported unemployment in US, January 2007 - December 2013.

Graph showing gap between real and reported unemployment in US, January 2007 - December 2013.

As observed in the prior posts, this meteoric rise in the difference between reality and the reported reality has corresponded very well with the meteoric rise in the stock market over the same period of time. Not that corporations really want to employ people, but that a lot of the euphoria over the alleged recovery which has strangely yet to actually manifest on Main Street is generated by this under-reporting.

Given that today’s report offered a crash in the officially reported unemployment rate even though fewer jobs were added than in any report for the last few years, the media explanations are finally bringing a tiny bit of attention to the reality of the unemployment rate’s inaccuracy as a metric for, well, the state of employment in our economy. In other words, it’s become impossible to hide the gap between reality and the fairy tale being told by how the official statistics are calculated. And surely that will only increase when the tsunami of long-term unemployed lose their benefits and are correspondingly omitted from the labor force.

Nonetheless, the scale of magnitude is breathtaking. For the BLS to represent that we had one month of double-digit unemployment when we’ve been suffering under more than four years of it is beyond the pale. And the picture of a steadily improving job market when we’ve had no such thing at all during that span is nearly as unforgivable.

The more you can spread this truth, the more you can help your friends who have been left out by the consistently failing American job market understand that it is BLS and the media that are crazy and wrong, not them.

Aug 21

The Limits of Surveillance

The videos taken of apparent/alleged/possible/probable chemical-weapons attacks in Syria got me thinking. No one, at least as of this morning (I haven’t heard updates later in the day) seemed to know what to think of them. Are they trumped up by the rebels to curry favor and sympathy with the West? Are they authentic? Are they misrepresenting their time, place, or manner in some way that’s hard to track? Are they the result of the rebels themselves using gas? There was discussion in some of the reporting that “metadata” was insufficient to really determine whether the videos were created today or not. No one quite seemed to know what to do with the information that there was apparent video of an apparent chemical attack. Because we live in an era where one cannot simply believe what one sees on the screen.

Which makes you wonder: is that the check on surveillance culture? I know I’ve said in the past that there is no check meaningfully, except to let go of the possibly antiquated concept of privacy. But this could be premature. I may be attributing a terminal victory to one side in something that’s a lot more like people curing one disease and just needing to wait a couple years for the next one to crop up and start infecting people. (Not to pass judgment on which side is “right” here – maybe you’d prefer the analogy of one disease starting to kill off huge numbers of people and just waiting a few more years for the cure.)

What if the response to surveillance is that it gets so easy to make such quality fake imagery or data that it doesn’t matter how much you survey?

Now there does seem to be a fundamental problem here, which is that if the surveillance is good enough, then it would pick up on people creating the fabrication that they would then be passing off as something real. If someone knows your every move, association, viewpoint, and whereabout, they will be able to tell when you’re filming some highly elaborate ruse, or even manufacturing it on some super-ultra-blue-ray-green-sun-high-def computer drafting software. But maybe, despite this apparent flaw, creating the simulation of virtual reality that’s compelling enough to look like the real thing is the counter-play to watching every door, window, and exit in real reality. We’ve probably all seen a heist movie, even recently, where some elaborate slide or video recording was slid in front of the monitoring security camera to make it look like things were more or less okay within than they truly were. How hard would that be to pull off on a computer with the right hacking technique?

Certainly I don’t know exactly where I come down on this, being as opposed to privacy as I am and feeling that we might all just be better people without it. Crime has been crashing all over the country and people are having trouble putting their finger on exactly what’s changed, especially in an era when the economics of the situation would otherwise state that crime ought to be surging. While New Yorkers are discussing whether it’s about “Stop and Frisk” and the NSA would certainly have you believe it’s because they’re listening to your phone calls, I think it’s about a much softer version of the Surveillance Society, namely all the private awareness that’s going on. After all, neither NYPD nor the NSA are out there actively preventing most of the crime, yet it’s falling nationwide. It seems like the advent of social media, the personal expectation that your whereabouts are constantly accounted for, the integrated use of cameras not from the NSA, but from every storefront and business and cell phone, this is creating a collective culture where people just know what’s up with everyone else and crime is much harder to pull off. It’s no wonder that so many of the high-profile criminals still trying (i.e. school shooters) aren’t even trying to get away with it. Why bother? A video will emerge and the electronic trail will lead to your doorstep regardless.

So part of me feels sad that privacy might resurge and bring all this bad action with it. At the same time, as I’ve discussed repeatedly, the end-of-privacy project really only works when it’s universal and the people are able to check the government with its own lack of privacy just as much. Otherwise, it’s transparently just tyranny. This is the difference between 1984 as written and a world where you can switch on a camera and see the operations in Miniluv as depicted. Obviously double-speak becomes a lot less effective when everyone can see right through it.

Which is probably why governments are working so hard to cover up their actions right now, crushing Bradley Manning and Glenn Greenwald in as intimidating a fashion as they can muster. They’re telling you it’s to keep you safe, but we don’t need a one-sided monopoly of information in order to do that. We just need the information out there to keep us safe. The effectiveness of a spying program on terrorists isn’t that the terrorists might not suspect you’re spying on them! (Who could possibly see that coming??!?) It’s that you, um, get the information you’ve spied from them. And I’m sorry, but if the worst impact of the recent leaks is that the terrorists can now only use carrier pigeons to communicate, that sounds fairly disruptive to me. Rather more disruptive, frankly, than hoping they pick up a tapped phone and give you, at best, a Coventry problem.

Also, you can probably steal a carrier pigeon. Just sayin’.

Leaking information doesn’t compromise safety. It is safety. But it has to be a two-way street, or a seven-billion-way street to be effective. So if governments are, in fact, going to effectively clamp down on the way that’s pointing to them and hide from all this information-soaking that’s making us all much safer, then perhaps it’s good that CGI and virtual reality could give us a way out of the one-way surveillance state. For you youngsters out there, I recommend a couple classes in computer science posthaste.

In the meantime, can we please stop arguing that we are made safer by a government that knows everything but divulges nothing? Or that people who disagree with that type of government are somehow trying to compromise or jeopardize our safety? Most people, when talking about safety, are discussing the safety to be free. The safest people in America live in solitary confinement, if you want to be technical about it. Ideally, our society would tip the scales at least a little back toward freedom on this freedom-safety continuum when claiming to “protect” the average citizen.

Two-for-one solution:  mask that protects you from both chemical weapons and government surveillance!

Two-for-one solution: mask that protects you from both chemical weapons and government surveillance of your identity!

Aug 19

The Problem of Being a Person

There is immense suffering in the world.

Almost all of it is unnecessary. Preventable.

Most of it is borne entirely of decisions that we, as human beings, make about other human beings. Problems of distribution, problems of belief in artificially constructed institutions (e.g. nations, money), problems of the sense of entitlement and superiority. We believe, almost as a rule, that we deserve what we have earned and that we don’t deserve what we have suffered. All rewards are just, while all punishments are unjust. And we proceed, thoughtlessly, every day.

I’m going to shift to “I” statements now, and not just because it’s recommended by most mediators. The above I feel confident in saying about the planet, or at least the United States, but the rest of this will be about a personal journey and perspective that I’m not even sure I hope is relatable to the rest of you. In some ways I do, because it’s a lonely and difficult set of issues and it would probably be reassuring to have some company, but it’s also a little like hoping someone has debilitating migraines or perhaps more incurable cancer just so you can have some counterparts on the road to doom. In other words, totally unfair. And yet, arguably, the only fiction I write is in the hopes that others will join me in this sick-bay, in the vain (both senses?) wish that ten heads or twenty are better than one or two in solving what I see as the key dilemma of modern existence in a rich country.

The suffering of others is something that is hard to look directly at. It’s like the sun in that way: omnipresent, potent, driving the life that we live, and yet impossible to witness for too long without doing major, significant damage. And yet the knowledge of this suffering is never far… you can avoid thinking about the sun all you want for days or weeks, but it never really corrodes the true knowledge and understanding that the sun is up there, beating down, changing your physical chemistry for better and worse, haunting your daily move. And you notice when it’s gone or especially bright, you notice these shifts. I notice these shifts. I am haunted every day, no matter how much I try to wear hats and sunglasses and the various layers of alleged protection.

Just to be clear what suffering we’re talking about, it’s mostly that which arises from the disparities in wealth and security that come from me living a whole life in the United States of America and others, well, not. The suffering of the poor, the starving, the war-torn, the plagued. And also, to a lesser extent, the suffering of the poorer in the US as well, the abused, the neglected, the molested, the addicted. Compassion is also there for those who suffer from betrayal and the loss of love, from crippling loneliness, from overwhelming sadness of all kinds, but I won’t be focusing on that because it seems categorically different. As does, probably, anything I’ve suffered directly. I’m talking about the kind of suffering that strikes at birth, that is in no way the result of decisions a person makes in their life, that is fundamentally unfair.

It is obviously ludicrous to think that I am in any way better than the people who suffer as described above. By definition, there is nothing they did to earn their position on the world’s ladder and nothing I did to earn mine. The decisions that sowed the seeds of my success and their failure were cemented long before any of us got here and at no point could they control or steer their fate out of this, except perhaps by blind guesses and luck. Indeed, luck is the fundamental arbiter of all of this equation. Luck separates those in countries of safety from those in danger, those in wealth from those in poverty, and all down the line.

Of course, if you want to get picky, part of it isn’t fundamentally luck. It’s the cacophony of wills, a series of decisions so vast and multifarious that it becomes sufficiently complex as to simulate luck, especially when the decisions are made entirely by other people, people with far more power and control than oneself. To make this more concrete, the fundamental decisions that impact a young mother in Iraq were made by Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush, and to a very small extent by more local leaders and by the soldiers on the ground on both sides who fought over and around her territory. Perhaps the most crucial decision was made by an American soldier sitting in a cubicle in Nevada playing a video game with people’s lives. Perhaps it was made by an aid worker who chose another village over her own.

You can start to see why I call it luck. Theoretically, the woman had a couple of choices as to whether to try to stay or flee, but the meaningful distinction between outcomes therefrom are basically akin to shuffling a deck of cards and picking red or black as the next to come up. The odds of making it out safely as a refugee are indistinguishable from the odds of surviving in place, and a place like Iraq makes clear the perils of running, even if you can stomach leaving every contact, family member, and friend behind (something most people, I daresay, can’t truly contemplate). Where are you going to run? Syria? Iran? That’s where most people fled Iraq to and we can all imagine the outcomes there. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are better, and Turkey if you can get in, but the plight of such people is still one of poverty and the kind of suffering that Americans just don’t really understand or internalize on a daily basis.

Back to me, back to the abstract. It’s luck that separates me from this Iraqi woman, luck that separates me from a malarial child in Africa or any of the two-billion people in poverty worldwide. Sheer, unadulterated luck. And while I enjoy a good game of poker from time to time, I think we can all agree that luck is a lousy differentiator for who has a good life and who has a bad one. By definition, luck is arbitrary. Luck is random. Luck is entirely disconnected from desert of any kind.

So we live on a planet where I have vastly more resources, wealth, freedom, and access than 99% of the rest of the planet. Maybe it’s 97%. This is immaterial. I am vastly steeped in privilege compared to the average person, let alone those at the bottom. I have been handed a winning lottery ticket that I didn’t even pick the numbers for. The question, of course, is what do I do with it?

This is not a new awareness or a new epiphany for me. I’ve been peripherally aware of the depths and implications of this luck and my advantages since adolescence. I can remember the first time it really hit me full-force was at an Easter brunch sometime in my (I believe) early teens. We had just been to church, in the times that we still went, so maybe it was when I was 11 or 12 and still living in Oregon. Regardless, we were dressed up and looking good and went out to a slightly nicer place than we could generally afford and it was piled high, as per expectations in a holiday brunch, with all manner of delectable food and treats. The place practically glimmered with excess, lined up for the insatiable all-you-can-eat tastes of contemporary America.

I lost it. I fell into a deep, inconsolable funk. I struggled to even precisely convey to my parents what was bothering me so much. There was a part of me that didn’t want to ruin their day, their excitement, their expenditure for us to be there and celebrate. I was young enough not to realize how my mood and emotions alone were already spoiling the event. I finally mumbled out something about how much we had and everyone there had when others were going without, how truly deeply wrong it felt to display excess when people on the planet, just as worthy and smart and human as the rest of us, went without. I couldn’t eat.

I have never meaningfully left that Easter brunch.

I have merely learned to try to control how much I think about it and fill in justifications for myself to assuage the painful panging guilt of not being a starving homeless refugee. To this day, I am triggered by displays of excess of any kind, especially around food. Grocery stores are the worst. I wrestle, almost constantly, with something that plagues me with crippling depression and guilt, yet I do massive amounts to keep the understanding of this at bay. And then, when aware of it, when in the throes of excess or an article on Syria, I feel guilt about my defensive efforts to not spend every waking minute thinking about these problems as well.

It’s a survival mechanism, of course. It is very hard to go on eating and living in an excess-laden society when one is crippled by feelings of how wrong it all is and how wrong one’s participation and part in it are every single second. So the mind creates games and distractions and ways of not thinking about it so that one can shut off the self-conscious and real part of one’s awareness and focus on whatever (truly meaningless) task is at hand. It’s the old analogy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, the middle of the Narnia series and one of my favorite metaphors to cite of all-time. Every night for one hour, the guy who is otherwise mild-mannered and normal has to be bound up in the silver chair while he goes through his episode of raving and raging, essentially being crazy. But the big reveal at the end (spoiler alert!) is that he’s crazy 23 hours a day and the time in the silver chair is his only moment of sanity as he rebels against his enchanted curse. The self-defense that allows me to be a functional American is the curse. The real me is the one looking at piles of croissants and donuts and weeping. This is the better me, the truer me, the me that’s aware of the real reality of life on this planet.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t come out very often. And most of the time it does, I stand torn between trying to resolve to live in this state permanently and making the very radical changes that would stem from that and trying to repair to my defenses and justifications and ride it out till the next attack of reality.

The main line of justification that has been getting me out of this dichotomy for over fifteen years goes like this: Yes, I have been extremely fortunate to be born in the United States at this point in history. Even moreso, I have been lucky to be born relatively talented, intelligent, capable, and with enough resources to do something within the context of this insanely rich and lucky society. And I have had the right bounces in my life to be influenced to be a self-conscious person who aspires to be good and not entirely selfish. As such, I am uniquely poised to influence others for the better. Were I in almost any other situation, be it poor in this society or of any class in almost any other society, I would feel deeply jealous and resentful of those in my current standing, wishing away almost anything to be able to trade places with actual me and stand on that pulpit of being a persuasive American. Granted, I’m not a millionaire or in charge of hordes of people; I lack standing at the actual absolute tippy-top, but I am close enough that such distinctions are not really meaningful. As such, if I devote my entire life, not to fleeing from this position of potential power and prestige and influence for betterment, but rather to embracing it and maximizing it for good, then it will be okay that I bought clothes and books and food in America for so long, it will be all right that I frittered away money on a trip to France or a poker tournament or new socks. It will all be okay, because the ends will justify the means.

The problem is that I think the ends justifying the means is total crap. It’s not something I accept in any other context. I don’t even believe in a physical right to violent self-defense because I’m so against it. I know, deep down, fundamentally, that this is not how morality works. Morality is about using the right means, damn the consequences. Because consequences are unknown and unpredictable. And I butt up against this reality every day that I’m navigating this overwhelming debt to the moral luck of the planet and its dominant species.

I feel driven to be a writer. I feel writing is perhaps the most influential profession that exists, especially among those not using coercive force to express persuasion. I also have been told from time to time that I’m good at it and have worked very hard to improve my talents and abilities as a writer. And as a successful, well-known, and/or well-regarded author, I feel I would have a great ability to influence others to do good as well as to do some direct good myself. Given the ability to launch this campaign from the US and not from, say, Botswana, I must not squander this opportunity to do this.

But this path is full of pitfalls, of unknown outcomes that an abridging of proper means is hard to justify for. On face, there is no certainty that I will ever “make it” as a writer, that my work will ever be read by more than a handful of friends and a very few strangers. In fact, statistically, there is near-certainty of the opposite, that I will fail and wind up with a drawer full of manuscripts that go largely unknown. And even if I make it in a way that far outstrips the odds, the chances of being read by more than a small following of people is fairly minimal as well. We have to get to several standard deviations out before there’s a real chance of having the kind of voice that moves mountains in this society. And then, say that I have that platform. There’s then the inscrutable problem of how writing even influences people in general. Certainly any given book thoughtfully read will push the reader a little bit. But how much? Once in a while, a book can start a revolution or a firestorm or change an industry or a whole society. But even among popular books, only a fraction get even close to this. The realistic outcome, in well over 99% of cases, of all my moral sacrifice and compromise, is next to nothing. At best, it’s a lottery ticket for a very moderate degree of influence over a very moderate number of people. And that’s at the almost very best.

For many years after college, I tried to hedge against these absurdly long odds and depressing likelihoods of failure by working more directly with people suffering in my neighborhood. I worked with emotionally disturbed adolescent victims of abuse and neglect, unquestionably those who have suffered the most in our own society, those who can probably be deemed as much in need as most in poorer countries from the sheer depth of their individual suffering at such a young age. And when that almost killed me (literally), I shifted to doing administrative work for an agency that helped the nearly-as-needy poor and homeless living in the shadow of the successful excesses of San Francisco. I watched their ranks swell in 2008 and documented the changes, appealing to those with more to give more and help us out.

But all the while, I questioned whether even this was good work in a way. Sure, it was better than making widgets or suing people, but was it really helping the people in the most need? And wasn’t failing to help the people in the most need just a way of shuffling around excuses and justifications and comfort anyway?

Well if I could feel that way working for a non-profit that fed hungry people every day, you can imagine the qualms that come up when working for a university debate team. Don’t get me wrong – I’m passionate about debate and its ability to lift people up and improve people and I’ve always felt that being persuasive is part of what gives me the possibility to do good in the first place. And heck, as one of my students notably discussed in her TED Talk at Rutgers’ TEDxRutgers event, I even have the opportunity to lead by example between my discussion of why I refrain from meat and alcohol and drugs and my barbed critiques of America’s de facto oppression of the rest of the world. But this is way small potatoes compared to helping those who are suffering the most, or even those who are suffering way less than the most. And maybe I needed to just excel at something for a while in the wake of the rubble that my life was rendered in 2010, but maybe that was also the potential jumping-off-point for what I really should’ve been doing all along. Namely, giving it all away and becoming a relief worker, an aid worker, an ascetic, a refugee from society, or even a hermit.

Which brings us to the next problem of being a person with the crippling awareness of how much better one has it than everyone else: what is to be done? What is the best way to do the most good? Abiding by the overriding principle of first doing no harm seems to inspire the life of a wandering monk, or a hermetic self-sufficient absentee. I wrestle with the temptation every week to donate every cent I’ve accumulated and go live in the woods on roots, berries, and my wits. Of course, I wouldn’t live very long, which brings up the question of whether survivalist skills are the most important things to actually be learning, but even then, life is both unappealing and likely to be short. I recently read The Other, a meditation of sorts on what someone confronted with this perspective and increasingly alienated from society chooses to do, which is go and live in the woods. He is ironically and self-defeatingly reliant on a friend bringing him supplies for his cave dwelling from what he dubs “Hamburger World” and as soon as his friend is unable to get through one winter, he dies. Which itself, frankly, has kind of an appeal.

There comes a point when wrestling with moral questions and the need to continue consuming food and slave-labor clothing and a first-world lifestyle becomes so debilitating and induces such self-loathing, that offing oneself starts to feel like a potential service to do for the world. One less mouth to feed, one less person to displace, one less occupier of the richest land and opportunities such that others may rise to a chance at something vaguely resembling equality. Of course it’s the easy way out, and not actually all that marginally helpful. And then there’s the question of the damage one does to friends, family, compatriots, people who had hoped to enjoy one’s company and camaraderie for however long one otherwise would dodge traffic accidents and cancer. No doubt that suicide does a net harm in itself that is hard to justify as a means-based person, no matter how much psychological relief may feel like the byproduct.

So then what? Becoming a missionary without the church, a monk without the habit? It seems obviously right in some way, were it not for the nagging feeling that going to the slums, the refugee camps, the hardscrabble drought and doing manual labor is precisely not what I am suited to do. I have no special penchant for using my hands, no particular gift for moving bags of grain or checking someone’s pulse. Is it not ignorant and even slightly evil to walk away from one’s gifts and talents and devote oneself to something at which one is vaguely below-average? Or is this just an excuse, another justification, and is there actually something noble and right about walking away from opportunities at success to accept a role as a menial bystander, a day laborer in the journey of human equality, to willingly forsake the benefits one is offered and choose to be as close to the bottom 1% as one can muster?

What holds me back? Why don’t I just do this already?

There is fear, there is inertia, there is laziness, there is the paralyzing anticipation of regret. Even though I can anticipate how alive and right I would feel in so many ways, I would also miss video games and poker and baseball and friends and family. Especially those last two, sticking in one’s throat, for at a certain point the only difference between shedding everything to move to Congo to live in poverty and suicide is the esoteric knowledge of loved ones that I’m not actually dead, yet, though I am putting myself in a vastly more dangerous position. And while I’ve always been able to stave off my own suicidal instincts with the knowledge that disappearing and starting over at something is marginally better, the difference is really pretty marginal. As someone with so many close friends and the hope of ongoing contact and connection, the idea of throwing it all overboard ranges between disheartening and insulting to those loved ones.

And yet, how much do I see them anyway? One could still compromise and make a provision for a once-a-year return to the land of milk and madness. Still hedge and promise to return and share bounty and stories of the desperation one tried to help stave off for others. There is a way to do this that is not sheer abandonment of all one grew up with and cared about at one time. It could be done. If only I had the conviction that it was certifiably the rightest thing to do.

Because when one is on the brink of sacrifice, one wants to be absolutely sure that one is getting the maximum marginal benefit for the world out of such sweeping sacrifice. And this raises one of the many large problems that people are facing around the thoughtful world today – how does one do the most good for those who are suffering so deeply? Just yesterday, I heard a “This American Life” episode entitled, fittingly, “I Was Just Trying to Help”. You should go listen to it now, or after finishing this, especially the segment on relief workers and aid programs and whether giving the poor money directly or a cow is better and how that can be measured. It took me straight back, not only to my non-profit work in San Francisco and my battle with so many program managers to let data be part of, if not the whole story of, the good we were trying to do for people, but also to the question asked by this entire post. How do we even help?

So many efforts at helping seem transparently like continuations of imperialism in different forms. It is just like the overly guilty white person to feel they can be a messianic figure to poor, darker people in far-flung nations by simply coming and offering support, be it menial or, perhaps worse, institutional. How can one’s sincere offerings of selfless giving not be laden in the horrific trappings of Kipling’s “burden” and that same resurgent sense of entitlement and superiority? And the challenge is to not just give up on the enterprise and smugly accept a better standard of living and not ask these questions because there’s difficulties in navigating classism, racism, imperialism. The challenge is to confront those issues head-on and try in the humblest way possible anyway. But it’s clear that so many “development” efforts are just fronts for American capitalism and exploitation. We even have the average person in the US starting to feel that sweatshop culture is good because it eventually raises the standard of living in the long sweeping arc of time for people whose mothers and fathers were suffocated in the factories or burnt up on the assembly line. The idea that everyone, every country and society, needs to do it the dumb way in a grand race to get to a standard of living sustained by burning up the earth, burning up the land, burning up people. It’s almost as sickening as just being in the US on any given Tuesday and looking at grocery stores’ wares or the miles of pointless temporary goods we equate with happiness.

So how to be a good man in a bad state? When that state is humanity or the planet at large? How does one do unequivocal good, having the courage to forsake all that is comfortable and familiar and falsely reassuring? And how, if I struggle so much with this and still can’t bring myself to even donate more than a pittance to charity and relief efforts, let alone commit my whole self to doing so, could I possibly expect to inspire anyone else to make any sacrifice to be any better? How crappy am I to be so torn up by guilt and awareness of all of this suffering and still do essentially absolutely nothing to help?! I would hate myself so much if I were any other person in the predominantly suffering world. Almost as much as I hate myself now.

So I’m putting this here, as a reminder to myself to look at the sun. That I have to do something about this, lots of somethings, that the time of excuses and justifications has got to be on the wane. That despite being robbed blind by my ex-wife, I can still afford to offer those who actually have nothing something. That despite my aspirations for a comfortable life and recovery, life is not supposed to be comfortable and no one ever fully recovers from anything they endure. That I can’t just wash away or brush aside the urgency of any given second of life. That tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow is merely the grave. And that while I belief in tomorrows after the grave, that does little to help the people present now. That someday I believe I will have to relive this life in its entirety, on slow-motion mostly, having to answer for each decision and awareness and shortcoming and that it will be even more clear then than it is now how much I am failing every day to be a good person. That life is a gift that is borrowed, not an entitlement that is earned. That I am not paying my debts to the planet, to the species, to the overseers. That I can work my whole life and still fall short of the debt, but that’s no reason to not start working all the same.

I don’t know how to do it. I don’t have any idea how to confront these problems without being overwhelmed. The biggest answer to why I haven’t done enough is probably that every time I do, I wind up collapsed in a corner in the fetal position, sobbing, unable to confront the din of suffering and helplessness that I feel. But this is no excuse. This should be worked through, fought through, reasoned through to get to a point where life feels livable even in the light of the suffering that abounds. Not through self-justification, but through the real effort to tackle things and improve them. I have no earthly idea what to do. I am terrified as I look into this abyss and every part of me that leans toward self-preservation is telling me to withdraw. But I cannot live with myself this way. I have to do something and I have to know it is moving things in the right direction.

I am, perhaps optimistically, creating this post title as a new category of posts here. That’s right folks, it’s going to be Birthday Party Central at StoreyTelling. I am going to keep confronting this and trying to figure out what to do. Because this nagging feeling of the last twenty years is there for good reason. And it’s not going anywhere until I try harder, much much harder, to fix it. I pray for the strength to follow through.


Jul 26

Facial Recognition

It’s not often that someone like me is told to smile less.

Today, I got a new New Jersey Driver’s License, proving that I have officially spent too long in this state. I remember actually looking at the September 2013 expiration date four years ago with a bit of a smirk thinking the license would be invalid and replaced by another long before that far-flung month came to pass. So it goes. And lest any RUDUers freak out about what this means, rest assured that only this job and my love of it could keep me here for so long. There are an increasing number of things I like about this state, though being asked not to smile was not among them.

I was wondering for a while, as I was when my girlfriend renewed her license a few months back and got the same instructions, what could possibly motivate them to ask you not to smile when posing for your license photograph. But since I could do a little comparison of the two photos, having received my old license back and three-hole-punched, it quickly became evident to me what at least one of the motivations might be…

Which one of these people would <i>you</i> trust?

Which one of these people would you trust?

I guess it’s worth stating for the record that the media reports the reason as being that smiles interfere with their official facial recognition software. Which, if you were the kind of person who was surprised by Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA, might send you into a bit of a tizzy about cross-referencing of government agencies and robots deciding our fate and similar Orwellian scenarios. But I actually think the software excuse is cloaking a couple variations on a more interesting theme that might be the true motivation.

So the less sinister version of this idea is that people aren’t usually smiling when they’re arrested or about to be arrested. Basically, the situations in which someone is about to be handcuffed feature natural appearances that are anything but a smile and, in these instances, such people aren’t likely to even begin to be able to be coaxed into smiling. Thus big-smile photos on DLs might be misleading or actually defy identification in some cases, which is their ostensible purpose. Indeed, even for routine traffic stops, which must be the primary concern of Driver’s License distributors, people are unlikely to be wearing their most fabulous grin to match whatever would normally be on their picture. So, fair enough. You want to make it easier to ensure a correct ID on the… ID.

But I think there may be something additional, though similar going on here, after seeing all brouhaha over… gulp… Trayvon Martin’s photographs in the media (I really do promise that there will be posts at some point that don’t reference this man or his killer). A great deal was made over his precise age and demeanor in the photograph promulgated by the media, as well as the one of his killer. Why was it selected? Did it accurately reflect how he looked that night? And so on.

Now imagine, say, an Edward Snowden. Or an Anwar al-Awlaki. Someone never arrested by the United States and its authorities, thus denying the government and its media wing access to one of those begrudging, early-AM mugshots that would make your grandmother look guilty of high treason before even being charged. What is a society to do when hoping to put out a legally binding identification photo that portrays this person as a proper villain? How do we ensure we have such standoffish, dislikable file footage of every potential suspect so we can cast the proper aspersions when it comes to light that they need to be rendered into parts unknown? Couldn’t hurt to have a mandated scowl in the database, right?

Now if this all sounds too tinfoily for your liking, you should probably go read last week’s post for the context of the mood I still seem to be in about this country. I think we can all be forgiven for looking at what the media chooses to report and how our society chooses to behave and envisioning that CNN will soon be showing Guy Montag and his evasive run from the fearsome mechanical hound, or perhaps O’Brien revealing himself to a beleaguered Winston. (Fahrenheit 451 and 1984, respectively, for the uninitiated.) Just the way the media talks about Snowden makes me physically shiver in the noonday humidity of a Jersey summer. And meanwhile Manning is about to be sentenced and the drone strikes continue to fall in lands we don’t care to even see and all anyone can talk about is an unmentionable anatomical feature of the front-running candidate for mayor of New York City.

We are not too far from a time when lowly Representatives will contemplate the realistic odds of their future career trajectories and make the cold, empowering decision to embroil themselves in a sex scandal (either contrived or undertaken solely for fame) in order to resign horribly but notably, only so they can make a ribald comeback some few years hence and have a shot at real, legitimate national office. All so we can continue to think more about this than we can about something that actually impacts the country with more than eye-rolling moral despair.

Maybe I’m just holding out for a stormy refuge in the Falklands, windswept and lonely and writing-friendly. Or maybe I’ll find a reasonable facsimile in France a few days hence.

Jul 18

What is Wrong with US?

This is a sign of distress.

This is a sign of distress.

In lieu of actual journalism, Facebook is pretty good. There are a fair number of people out there who are trying to keep things real and pay attention to things that are actually going on and they cobble together the few sources of online writing that are actually providing actual insights and thoughts these days.

And one of the things that has been making the rounds the last few days is this article about what it’s like to get some perspective on America having spent some time away from it. One of my first thoughts when reading this was to redouble my excitement about going to France at the end of the month because it made me feel like there would be breaths of fresh, sane air and the kind of isolation I talked about yesterday may not have to be constant if I spend some time abroad.

You should go read that article. While not perfect, it’s interesting and insightful in its own right and I’m going to talk about it a bit and that will provide context. If you really don’t want to, I’ll try to sufficiently quote so that you can still follow what I’m saying without reading it.

So what struck me most about this article, after the France thought above, is how many pains the author took to avoid saying that he didn’t love America. Despite the fact that he enumerates in scorching detail what is wrong with the country and how broken our way of looking at the world is from within these borders, he constantly distances himself from dislike of the nation. He says, among other things:

“I will always love [America].”

“And that’s OK. Because that’s true with every culture.”

“So as you read this article, know that I’m saying everything with tough love, the same tough love with which I’d sit down and lecture an alcoholic family member. It doesn’t mean I don’t love [America]. It doesn’t mean there aren’t some awesome things about [America].”

“There are things I love about my country. I don’t hate the US and I still return to it a few times a year.”

And while a lot of the rest of the article is excoriating, or at least excoriating by standards from a blog that isn’t this one, there’s something about the above series of disclaimers that reminds me of the prerequisite that all candidates for high office in this country must constantly affirm that this is the greatest country that ever was, is, or will be. I know why he made these claims, and it’s the same reason that candidates who ostensibly must have studied history or logic for at least five minutes of their lives still make such outlandish proclamations. They want an audience. They want to be taken seriously. They want views/votes. They don’t want to be instantly disregarded by a society so in love with itself that it can’t even hear criticism that is not bathed and sandwiched in announcements of love.

There is something damning and fascinating about an article whose main purpose is to call attention to a country’s self-absorption and inflated sense of itself still couching itself in declarations of that country’s greatness and, above all, lovability.

I’m not criticizing author Mark Manson’s decision to take these steps, exactly, so much as asking people to ruminate on them. They are all the more understandable in the modern era of the Terror State, where a lack of deeply held patriotic fervor is associated not merely with neglect but with the possibility of actual treason. The assumption has increasingly become than anyone who is not actively out there waving the flag (right-side-up) is inclined to be building bombs in their basement. It’s the same love-or-hate mentality that Manson outlines in the first two points of his ten things we don’t know about ourselves. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. There are no sidelines in today’s America. There are patriots and there are traitors.

Which is why, for example, the media can only process Edward Snowden as one of those two and is taking such efforts to portray this binary as the interesting question of his leak (rather than, say, what he actually leaked and what that might say about our society). Or why the anti-war movement, as discussed yesterday, insisted on “supporting the troops.” Why “peace is patriotic” was another plaintive cry you would hear, as the movement ran in fear of its own shadow from associations with Vietnam, spurious allegations that protesters spat on returning Vietnam vets, and only slightly less spurious aspersions that same were rooting for North Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh. The modern climate of the United States has so successfully made everyone who dissents so concerned with how they are perceived that they, essentially, cannot say anything at all.

In David Foster Wallace’s extremely popular commencement address to Kenyon College in 2005, later printed in full as This is Water, a short book designed to be purchased for similar occasions, he outlines just how hard it is to understand the context of the place where one lives. This notion is more dramatically stated as the idea that “one can never see the prison from the inside,” the production concept of my one-act play, Before They’re Allowed to Be Free, which was performed at my high school in late 1997. Like a prisoner born in the cage and unable to see the bars and imagine another way of living or a fish asking “What’s water?,” America’s approach to everything is so American that we can’t see the brokenness in it. We can only assume that everyone is swimming in this self-aggrandizing ether, that the whole world is as high on America as the nation is on itself. And that such an environment, far from being artificial, is beyond expected, is the unquestioned norm.

But the context we take for granted is clinically insane. Let’s imagine that America were not a nation of 300 million people, but rather a person. We’ll envision a society of about 200 people, one for each country, a new village constructed from one holistic representation of each current nation-state. The UN General Assembly, without the wrangling and the representation and the geopolitics.

The United States would be unable to stop talking about itself. And would talk about itself in only the rosiest, most glowing terms. The US would brag and exaggerate, would insist on its fellow villagers paying homage and respect, would walk about assuming that everyone had the same kind of adulation for it that it constantly insisted on saying it had for itself. You guessed it, folks. The US is totally that guy.

We’ve all known people who are a little like this. Whose every conversation point wends back to how awesome they are, whose every story is a self-serving little vignette on their triumphs or plucky accomplishment in the face of adversity. Who tell you how much other people like them. These people are terrible listeners, are genuinely uninterested in you or what you have to say or think. They are tireless self-promoters who wonder, laying awake at night, why they are so ineffective at actually forging real friendships or making actual connections with human beings.

That’s America. But even worse, most of the people I describe still have moments. They may be confronted about these issues and try to recant, try to listen and empathize for a new experience. They may let their guard down occasionally and let go of the constant buzzing need to build up their ego and image. But not the US. The US is listening only for whispers of something other than the chorus of unending adulation so they can pounce on the potentially traitorous naysayer. The US not only insists on constantly talking itself up, but it expects a ceaseless drumbeat of same from all its constituents.

My friends, this is pathological. It’s nuts. We would never tolerate it in a human being. Why on Earth would we accept it in what is supposed to be the amalgam of all our efforts, that which represents our collective will?

And I hear you out there, those who still enjoy and join this chorus of adulation, saying “Hey! Look! You have the right to say things like this on a blog, no matter how treasonous I may think they are. In North Korea, you’d just be shot. In Iran, you’d disappear. But here, you can get hits and pageviews and discourse! And that’s why we unflinchingly love America!”

So, okay, maybe. But there are an increasing number of counter-arguments to this starry-eyed self-perception of our little fifty-state empire. The Red Scare and the subsequent era of McCarthyism were hardly eras when you could say anything you wanted about the state of the States. And while the sixties and seventies may have afforded a more holistic liberalism, the Reagan era and especially the 9/11 era have taken substantial steps away from unmitigated speech. There’s Aaron Swartz to consider. And Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden. But also what happened to Michael Hastings, the journalist who broke the story on Stanley McChrystal that brought the American military to another series of shameful disgraces. How many people do you know that would be described this way in our society?:

“Michael was a great, fearless journalist with an incredible instinct for the story and a gift for finding ways to make his readers care about anything he covered, from wars to politicians. He wrote stories that would otherwise have gone unwritten, and without him there are great stories that will go untold.”
-BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith

I’m not the only one wondering who might want those stories to go untold. The only possible explanation for him driving as fast as he did at the time that he did was a suicide, and contacting lawyers about his rights when breaking a huge story don’t sound like the actions of someone who is suicidal. Hastings was 23 days older than I was the day he died.

Oh, and who did he do that whistleblowing profile of McChyrstal for? Rolling Stone. Yes, the same magazine now in all kinds of national hot water for daring to even discuss the alleged Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. While it’s obvious that the primary goal of Rolling Stone’s decision to put Tsarnaev on the cover was to drive controversy, notoriety, and sales, at least a little credibility must be given to the people who both printed Hastings’ McChrystal story and continue to run Matt Taibbi exposés on Wall Street. Arguably, Rolling Stone is trying very hard to be the last offline journalistic outlet in the country willing to lend America an unvarnished mirror.

And while not everyone has embraced the outrage levied at RS in the last 36 hours, the tirade they’ve suffered is quite similar to that which anyone can expect for being unpatriotic. They’ve been accused of glorifying Tsarnaev, elevating him to rock-star status, declaring him a hero and potential martyr. All for an article that declares an only alleged terrorist to be a “Monster” on its cover. The presumption of innocence has, after all, become pretty passé in a world of Guantanamo Bay.

But the point that Rolling Stone is trying to make, other than that controversy sells, is that understanding Tsarnaev is actually the best way to “fight terrorism,” whatever that means. And this is the most dangerous idea of all. For just as America shudders at the idea that anyone might not love it, it is equally incapable of giving credence to the reasons why. It is absolutely essential to the American idea that there is no reason one could not love the US, let alone want to hurt it. Acknowledging the reasoning, even in an attempt to better understand and thwart it, of a terrorist, is unthinkable.

This is why acts of terror are chronically called “senseless,” “insane,” “unfathomable,” and other similar words. You may mistake all these synonyms for just being characterizations of duress and grief, but they are far more insidious than that. These words are carefully chosen to illustrate that the only cause for terrorism is not misused anger or understandable, if abhorrent, desire to stand up and kill for what someone thinks is right, but total incomprehensible craziness. Even though the news also begrudgingly (though decreasingly) reports our many actual crimes against humanity abroad (Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, drone strikes, civilian casualties, military rapes, etc.). Even though we use the exact same means as the terrorists in killing other people, often innocent people, for a broader self-interested cause. When we do it, it’s righteous. When someone else does it, we can’t even think about why.

And this is the real issue people are taking with the Stone cover. It asks why and even attempts to explain it. It attempts to apply human logic to human behavior, something we attempt to explore and extoll in every human pursuit other than anti-American terrorism. This is why so many people are arguing the article should instead have been about victims or first-responders. Those articles, already done to the max, are not efforts to explain why these things are happening in the US. This is why the Time Man of the Year in 2001 was Rudy Giuliani, the man who ordered fire crews to head upstairs in collapsing towers and thus increased the death toll of that day by 16%, instead of Osama bin Laden. America wants heroes and villains, but the latter with less sophistication than those in a summer Michael Bay explosion-fest. They want a monster to fear, to demonize, to shroud in mystery and terror, rather than having to think critically about why anyone would feel something less than adoring love for America.

And it is absolutely critical to understand, lest I too be hauled off to Gitmo or the pre-dawn streets of LA, that to explain why is not to advocate. Just as I can spend this whole post explaining why America is obsessed with being in love with itself without advocating such behavior, understanding something is actually at the root of breaking it down and unpacking it so it can lose its fuse. Again, maybe this is more intuitive from a debate perspective wherein the hardest skill to develop is understanding opponents’ arguments well enough to sufficiently deconstruct them. But bad listeners make lousy debaters. You must listen to and understand the opposition’s argument to beat it. And arguments, ideas, concepts, notions, these things are never beaten with force. They are beaten with countervailing arguments, ideas, concepts, and notions. That was supposed to be what this nation’s whole experiment was about in the first place.

I know it’s scary. I know it’s scary to think that someone could hate this country so much that they kill its people (even though you probably don’t think anyone in America really hates Afghanistan or Yemen, even though we do slaughter their people). I know it makes you want to say that any criticism of America may be shielding this kind of hatred, the killing bombing maiming shooting kind. Fear will do that. Look at Mark Manson’s point #7. We’re paranoid. We’ve been raised to fear and fear alike. The world beyond our doors will kidnap us, rape us, kill us, jump us, attack us. It’s this fear that created George Zimmerman (damn, I almost made it through the whole post without talking about him). It’s this fear that created the Patriot Act and the NSA’s current perspective and the collapse of real journalism, especially in wartime.

And there is something to this fear. There are muggings and rapes and murders, every day. There are terrorist attacks, even if they kill fewer people than bees or peanuts. But the key to preventing these things is understanding them. If we had a frank discussion about crime in our society, a lot of it would raise issues of power and equality and especially poverty and then we might feel compelled to do something about those things, to improve life for everyone, not just the paranoid and the wealthy. If we had a frank discussion about terrorism, our next reaction to an attack might be to change our policies, to open up to the world rather than invade it. These things are far less profitable than fear, far less empowering of those who already have done all they can to maximize their power. But they are also more right.

Does America even want to be right anymore? I’m not convinced. It seems, more and more, that America just wants to be America. And mighty. And that the distinction between what those concepts mean and some sense of doing the right thing is getting less interesting to people. But our process and our beliefs about ourselves only have any merit, even in their most optimistic and abstract manifestation, if the end goal is being right and doing what’s right. If the goal is anything else, we will fall down a perilous well of solipsism so deep and self-delusion that no one outside will be able to hear our cries.

Jul 17

Baseball and Society

There are days that I don’t know what this blog is supposed to be about. That’s okay. Life is like that too.

People have divergent interests and the odds that all those interests line up with any given reader’s interests are pretty low, given the diversity of the world. I’ve always been a little distrustful of blogs that focus on one very specific thing as though that were the only dimension of the personality doing the writing, or perhaps the only dimension they’d be willing to show to the public. I understand that those are the blogs most people like and read and follow these days, that it’s easier to say “I’m going to follow this woman writing about the Mariners” or “I’m going to read this guy’s knitting blog” than to actually holistically get into everything a person is doing and thinking and feeling.

And it’s understandable why. Unless you know a person personally, and consider them a friend, it’s just very hard to forgive them all their trespasses and embrace them in toto. I encountered this in reading about one of my literary heroes earlier this summer, but it happens all the time, even with friends. You’re going along with someone’s opinions on a baseball team or knitting and suddenly they start talking about how much they love George W. Bush or that all people of a certain inborn category are not to be trusted and you want to immediately stop reading, undo hours of past reading, and dissociate yourself entirely from anything to do with that person. In a friend, you could argue with this person and weigh the balance of a lifetime of time or the feeling of a lifetime’s worth of connection with that person against these transgressions, but with semi-anonymous online presences, it’s easy to press the discard button.

Heck, not to dredge up the national obsession of the last few weeks (already discussed it too much), but I have seen more references to unfriending people on Facebook over a socio-political issue in the past week to ten days than in probably all previous time on the site combined. Increasingly, it seems that the media-driven cause of exacerbating friction and deep divisions over apparent controversies and wedge issues has gained real traction in the daily lives of people I know. People not only are trying to self-select into the echo-chambers of people who feel and believe as they do, they increasingly are inclined to detach, defriend, and (by extension) dehumanize those who disagree. Which, again, given the diversity of thought innate to any person who is actually trying to think in a nuanced way about issues and not simply regurgitate a party line, becomes pretty isolating pretty quickly if one is going to stick to it. The number of people who believe exactly as you do is small.

Which, I suppose, is why people find it more marketable and advantageous to only talk about one or two things, to put their best foot forward into the world and hide those other less comely appendages. There’s less chance of exposure as being a real human being and more chance that they’ll just love your doily patterns and keep coming back. Which, I guess, is why friends or at least positive acquaintances are the biggest readers of personal blogs and why friendship remains one of the most essential concepts to a functioning society. It’s the only way we can give each other space to be who we are without railing against it all the time in a non-accepting manner.

Before this week, I might have added the caveat here that I just feel more judgmental than most and that there are others who can forgive anyone anything, any thought or deed and just accept them for, gosh darnit, being a beautiful complicated messy human being. I know a couple people like that, used to know a couple more, people who are so enamored with the species and its infinite sophistication that they just can’t find it in their heart to be judgmental of people beyond Hitler and Stalin and, okay, George W. Bush. I know I sound like I’m lampooning these people, but I do have a genuine respect and mild awe for their capabilities here. Part of me thinks making judgments about people is the essential backbone of morality. But I also have room to feel real admiration for the people who just accept everyone, messy and problematic as they are. After all, that’s kind of the Jesus model and he’s seen as pretty cool by a couple folks.

But after this week, I feel pretty non-judgmental on the overall scale. Which for me is a rare feat indeed. As a debate coach and someone who makes his living on the nuance of digging deep into both sides of an issue, into conceptual complexity, I feel like I’m one of the only people who isn’t ready to punt half the people from the country tomorrow.

Which may, admittedly, be because I don’t care as much as others about who deigns to be in this country as opposed to somewhere else on the planet. It’s no great honor to be an American in my perspective, and increasingly is becoming quite a shame. And yet I’m constantly barraged with a contrasting perspective, the knee-jerk patriotism of a nation that can see its descent ahead of it and is desperately trying to paper over a slow decline with the propaganda of hyperbolic empire. Most recently last night on the television, when watching Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game.

During the Iraq War, I went to a lot of baseball games. And they’d always be started by the national anthem, our ode to killing for a flag. And I refused to stand up, refused to remove my cap, refused in any way to pay homage to a society so in love with itself that it couldn’t see the cruelty of its own actions. I try not to stand to this day for patriotic anthems and tributes, though there have probably been a couple instances where I’ve felt vaguely shamed into doing so by people I was with and made a difficult judgment call about their comfort vs. mine and got off my feet, though I tried to look upset about it. There have been a few times when I’ve tried to quietly duck out to bathrooms or concession stands as a compromise between my feelings and making too much of an overt protest with someone who might be upset by it.

I was continually shocked, especially at San Francisco Giants games, by how basically no one else ever took similar (lack of) stands. And I get why – there’s this whole sinner/sins dichotomy that people have tried to cleave out. It’s one of the reasons the anti-war movement was so ineffective this time around as it kept tripping over itself to “support the troops” while decrying their every move. As I always would ask these people, what do you support the troops doing? Is it the killing you support? The volunteering to kill? The torture? The containment of people? The Americanization? And if you support zero of a person’s decisions or actions, how could you possibly call that support? And of course they had to appear pro-American, not wanting to confuse dissent with rebellion of some kind. But again, if America’s every move and decision seemed to be for ill, what did supporting America mean?

But everyone dutifully got up and doffed caps and sang their hearts out and felt really good about the stars and stripes for a couple minutes. While I fumed and sulked and prepared to give up. Sometimes in the company of a few friends who did the same.

I’ve been feeling like a crazy person, or a sane person in a nuthouse, about all this till I read this article that a former debater posted on Facebook, which dredged up my whole idea to make “Don’t Stand for It” a campaign to get everyone to sit during anthems at major events a part of my old vaguely failed One Million Blogs for Peace effort. The article, a brilliant work by sports writer Howard Bryant, carefully analyzes the corporate-government alliance that has made sports a bastion of a very specific politics, namely those of blind and adulating patriotism. And he calls for a little neutrality, a little circumspection, or at least recognizing that the mentality wherein we live every second like it’s September 12, 2001 should possibly stop by 2020.

Watching the All-Star Game last night was like watching a full-fledged exposition of the phenomena Bryant so thoroughly critiqued. The game felt more like a military rally than baseball with the announcers active participants in the flag-waving rather than sober or objective observers of the activity. It has occurred to me more than once that one of my childhood dreams of being a baseball announcer would probably have ended in disaster anyway as I choked on one more series of inane tributes to our “defenders of freedom” who voluntarily drop bombs on whatever kids their superiors tell them to drop bombs on. And here they were trotted out to stand on basepaths, flags were distributed, songs were sung. In the 7th inning, it was “God Bless America”. In the 8th inning, it was “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond himself (refusing to play ball with those who wanted to sing along), which seemed cute and fun for once until it was explained as solidarity with Boston, a city that lost 3 people earlier this year. I don’t recall everyone adopting a Rockies tradition for the rest of the season after Aurora or even a Red Sox (perhaps Yankees?) tradition after Newtown, but apparently we’re so conditioned to accept white American men firing the guns that these things do not trigger the same fears or solidarities in us. Perhaps we have to be restrained from cheering for their actions too, stopping only when we see that they are not in the correct uniform.

And of course, as Bryant recognizes in alluding to the gladiatorial roots of sports as spectacle, I have to question my own tendencies toward patriotism in the context of such relentless jingoistic displays. I criticize irrational adoration of a country, right or wrong, simply because one was born there. But what does it mean to be a sports fan, especially of one team? Is that no less insane? To choose the colors, emblems, and traditions of one entity within the pantheon, to devote countless hours and attentions to their rises and falls, forsaking all others and emotional stability in the process… is this not just as nuts? Surely I wouldn’t kill for the Mariners, but my exhortations at their successes and failures leave almost every other action for them on the table. Is not the patriotic bombast of Major League Baseball merely an extension of the devotion expected of (and granted by) any worthy fan?

It’s a thing I struggle with, deeply. It’s not that I’m worried I’m going to commit violence for the M’s or that my devotion to them is fully clouding my judgment. But this kind of loyalty to an utterly arbitrary entity and the time and energy that follow are obviously irrational. They are a waste in all senses except the human (especially contemporary American) need for fun and recreation. And I have mixed feelings nagging at me about baseball as well. While I adore the sport and its every hallmark (except for the aforementioned ties to nationalism), it’s based on the slaughter of tons of large mammals. And not just to feed its nationalistic masses, but to actually play the game, they harvest the skin of cows and horses. I find this highly problematic and usually convenient to push such thoughts to the recesses of my mind, only to jar me every time the announcer says “leather,” a word I’ve conditioned myself to be repelled by. There’s a part of me, a big part, that feels it would be most sensible to just go cold-turkey from baseball and perhaps sports altogether. To stop rooting, cheering, attending, subscribing, obsessing over a group of men assembled by the wealthy for the ostensible entertainment and unity of Seattle, Washington.

And if I’m unable to do that, if I aver and say to the critical voice in my head “but I like baseball and I like the Mariners and it’s not doing any real disproportionate harm,” am I any different than the jingoists I criticize? Perhaps in degree, with that whole killing thing, but really in kind?

I struggle with it. I struggle a lot. There are so many things I object to and take issue with and feel burdened by in the way society is structured and basic expectations that it can be exhausting to even process, let alone do something about. There are times that I wish, back to the blogging thing from the top, that I were a single-issue person, that there were just one thing about this country that needed tweaking and I could devote all my energy and angst to that and feel that if it were changed or overhauled, we’d really have gotten somewhere. And while I guess violence holistically is close to that thing, I could probably name 100 egregious violations of the way I think things should be in our society that are wholly unrelated to violence. It’s a lot of why I’m unimpressed with gradual change as a model and why it’s hard for me to fight my fatalism a lot of the time. The idea that I will ever live somewhere where I’m not constantly critiquing and sighing is unfathomable to me, at least if Russ is wrong about us being infused with immortal jellyfish DNA within our previously expected lifetimes.

So I guess I’ll keep rooting for the Mariners and watching baseball, if only to have that brief suspension of disbelief, that brief solace, that brief comfort that someone has designed something that, while inhumane, is beautiful in its way. And if I can ignore leather, I can ignore the flags and the uniforms and the willing masses of the gung-ho. And in those moments get from the fresh-mown grass and turn of a double-play what others must get from drugs, that moment of feeling a little less alone in a world of insanity, of feeling like something must be a little bit right if these things are happening as they are, if the species got together to put effort into this. Despite all its flaws that I’ll think about a second later, inevitably, no matter.

And then I get to add to the list of things I worry about being wrong that the Mariners’ front office used to be so incompetent, especially as I watch Adam Jones start in the All-Star Game and know that Chris Tillman will probably be in one soon. Not that the M’s don’t still have stars of their own.

Here are the Mariners’ 2013 All-Stars. They hail, respectively, from Venezuela and Japan. I wonder what they think of all this American propaganda and pride.

Jul 15

Legal Troubles

This is going to be a post about George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. In other words, I may be part of the problem. But the problem is that there is a problem and ignoring perceptual reality in today’s society is like not existing at all. Perceptual reality, increasingly, as it has been for over a decade, is reality, or at least a sufficiently hefty chunk that it bears grappling with.

Here is your picture for this post:

Look!  It's a metaphor. After all, another word for picture is illustration.

Look! It's a metaphor. After all, another word for picture is illustration.

I know why you think you care about the George Zimmerman murder trial. You think you care because of your sense of justice. You believe that this case says something about race in our country or whether you and yours have a right to defend yourselves, your neighborhood, your property, your livelihood, your freedom, or about what rights those who have less privilege among us actually can exercise and whether those rights are equal to those who have the most privilege. You believe that this case is a litmus test or a clarion call or a precedent or any number of the other things that we mistake court cases for in our society. You believe that justice is something meted out by judges with gavels in courtrooms. You believe that justice either was or was not done.

I believe that you believe any and all of these things (if you do) because you have been told to. Because the media has pumped these concepts and images into your brain to get you riled up into believing these things because it’s better than you thinking about larger issues of societal structure that affect the, y’know, actual reality.

I know I sound like I’m breaking out the tinfoil here. Bear with me.

There are myriad problems. I discussed last week why the media focuses on these kinds of dramatic race-baiting issues and brings them to the forefront in place of more systemic or larger societal issues. As alluded to in that post, you hear a lot about missing children. They are exclusively young white girls. Nearly a million people are reported missing in America every year. While most are found fairly quickly, a majority of those people are actually men and you can guess that the number of minorities is at least the statistical average percentage, if not disproportionately high. Now name or raise the issue of a single person you have ever heard of going missing who was not a young white girl. The girls they found in Cleveland earlier this year who were young but at least one was non-white don’t count, because they were only news (outside of Cleveland) because they were found, not because they were gone.

Now index all the names you know only because they were young white girls who went missing.

I’m not saying this is part of some vast conspiracy to get us to only care about young white girls. The problem is, most people care disproportionately about young white girls, either because we’ve been conditioned to find them the most attractive and vulnerable or because we actually do or some combination of them. Those related to young white girls also have the kind of money and influence you need to get your sob story in the media over the sob story of, say, a Pakistani woman whose entire family was just killed in a United States drone strike. And the media follows the audience, follows the dollars, then carefully augments and crafts the audience to create more dollars. It’s simple math. Simple, but profoundly insidious because it creates a perception of what kinds of people are and aren’t valuable in our society and how urgent a particular case that is actually relatively common is. This elevation of certain people over others is inevitable to an extent – we’re always going to have famous people and celebrities who enjoy more personhood than the rest of us – but it’s damaging when it creates a misperception about the nature of certain realities in our society, such as how many people go missing and what they look like.

Which brings us to George and Trayvon and the rapt attention they have commanded from America over the past weeks and into this very day, when social media is erupting in fence-building, line-drawing, and outrage outrage outrage. I’m not saying the verdict was right or the verdict was wrong. I’m not qualified to make that judgment, if for no other reason than I haven’t been drowning my attention in details of the case. Frankly, you and many of your cohorts may be just as qualified to make this judgment as the jury since you saw as many minutes of the trial as the jury did. Maybe you’re an expert and you know why this verdict was a travesty or a vindication. I can grant you that.

The mistake you may be making, though, is thinking, as this whole country does, that this case goes beyond this case. That this case sets a tone or a precedent for the whole society, enabling anyone to shoot down anyone they find suspicious. (Or, conversely, that it would have struck a blow against guns or racism had the verdict gone the other way.) This is the problem with a litigious society. We take what happens in one particular case, riddled with nuances and specificity and individual details, and cross-apply it to the whole world of laws, justice, and reality. All that was judged this weekend in Sanford, Florida, was what happened in this one particular instance. And not even one particular instance, honestly, but one shadowy legal interpretation of precisely what we can construct and admit about what happened in a particular instance.

There are two key distinct problems here – the cross-application of one case into a world of cases and the nature of what goes into a legal decision.

As far as the first, we can all be forgiven for making this leap. The court cases that are not murder trials that the media chooses to replace an entire 24/7 news cycle with which we follow most closely actually do set or change precedents. The entire legal system is founded on the baseline myth that we can interpret future interpretations of the law based on one we made in the past. I know a lot of you reading this are lawyers and aspire to be and are about to inundate me with protests of how precedent is the very backbone of legal theory, especially in a country with a Supreme Court. Yes, I know. This is the problem.

Most of lawyering, near as I can tell, is about mining the rich and over-documented history of law for cases that can be bent into seeming similar to yours and then finding favorable interpretations to proffer as precedent. And then people, be they judges overly steeped in legal theory or juries underly so, interpret the things you have offered as binding forethought and determine whether this holds water or not. Obviously this assumes that people were never wrong in the past, which is deeply problematic as a system, as well as assuming that past determinations are the most important factor in determining future behavior. Despite the fact that most of the world understands this to be one of the most baseline, if intuitively appealing, logical fallacies we can muster as a species.

And I know precedent changes and gets overturned all the time. But if so, why would it hold water in the first place? If tradition or past usage is a justification, but can be changed at will by courts, especially high ones, then what is this incredible weight we ascribe to tradition for its own sake? The only argument I could imagine is that it keeps the law knowable, but when we literally bar (get it?) lay people who have not paid their literal and figurative dues steeping their minds in arcane legal mystery from even approaching a courtroom to seek justice, how knowable is the law? I would submit, as I have in the past, that the law is literally unknowable – that no human being has the cognitive capacity to absorb the entirety of what we consider to be law in this country and apply that to daily living. The fact that we require our most well regarded and highly paid experts to navigate even rudimentary elements of this Law is a good indicator that this is true. You can’t possibly know the law when making daily decisions in your life, so precedent and past ruling should be no comfort.

At that point, while we know that the Supreme Court can whimsically choose which cases are worthy of possibly changing laws in our country and which are not, there’s nothing truly meaningful about the very concept of precedent, let alone its solubility in the long-term. To say nothing of the literal fallacy, even if you believe in legal theory and reject my critiques, of applying a non-Supreme Court case as a wider precedent to law and behavior. So other than in the perceptual media reality of exaggeration and the choice to focus on this case, there is no precedent of any kind being set by the George Zimmerman acquittal.

Nor, frankly, do these sorts of precedents make a lot of sense. You could argue that this case will ring in the back of someone’s mind the next time a member of the neighborhood watch of a gated community is confronted with an individual they find to be threatening. That they will be more inclined to shoot because Zimmerman wasn’t blamed for shooting Martin. I find this argument vaguely preposterous. The person is unlikely to think about long-term ramifications of their actions and rather be governed by fear, fight-or-flight, and their own personal moral backgrounds on killing, self-defense, desire to live, conflict resolution strategies, and so forth. If the long-term does enter their mind, they will realistically have to gauge the quality of lawyers they can afford, the absurdly low likelihood that their case will become even slightly noteworthy, and perhaps the nature of the local police and their likely gut-reaction to the incident, which will determine 95-99% of its outcome.

And if they are at all sophisticated about factoring in the Zimmerman precedent, they will also have to recognize that Zimmerman’s life is probably not going to be one they would want to survive to anyway. While he will not be imprisoned, the rest of his life will be dominated by this case and even the attempt to go underground and change his name will probably be thwarted by our corporate surveillance state. The best he can hope for is fame and book revenue from further publicizing the incident, but he will still be someone who half the country militantly regards as a murderer and will probably have to be nearly as fearful for his ongoing safety as he would have been in jail or on the night in so much question.

But the possibly more problematic question than precedent is the idea that what goes into a legal decision has anything to do with what the lay person would conventionally call justice.

There’s an increasingly common reality coming out of a lot of cases, most of them issues of corporate accountability and responsibility. One was documented in a recently rebroadcast NPR show about the suit of a casino that knowingly manipulated a gambling addict into owing them six or seven figures worth of money she didn’t have. Others arise every day in questions of manipulation, lying, cheating, and otherwise extorting people, the environment, or other common goods out of their money, property, safety, or health. This reality can be well summed up in this judgment from the transcript of the referenced show, a This American Life episode on blackjack:

From a moral standpoint, Caesars’ predation and prosecution of a pathological gambler is repugnant. … [But] [t]here is no common law duty obliging a casino operator to refrain from attempting to entice or contact gamblers that it knows, or should know, are compulsive gamblers.

Law is not about morality. It’s about the letter of the law being applied to a specific case. This is the system which we’ve constructed.

And many of you will think this is a good thing, because to you morality is whatever the Southern Baptist church says it is, and that means that gay marriage will always and forever be illegal and that would make you sad. Of course, no one has even been able to show what would be immoral about gay activity or gay marriage, and most of you are atheists who believe that there is a morality independent from God, yet whenever the word comes up you assume its most detrimental interpretation. I can’t understand this entire chain of logic, but if you believe morality can be separated from a hard-line originalist interpretation of religion, then what’s the problem with infusing law with morality? Why can’t these concepts have more in common than they do?

Many would respond that this is because morality can be individual and variable, whether there’s religion involved or not. Fair enough, but surely this is true of law and justice as well, especially as actually applied in a courtroom. Because at the end of the day, the written unknowable law doesn’t determine legal outcomes anyway. It’s just people. Flawed, human, mistakable people, making their own weird biased decisions.

I believe I’ve discussed here before the jury I served on in California a few years ago, involving a contract dispute between a sole proprietor who did events management and the quasi-non-profit who hired him to run an event. The case was really ambiguous and difficult and fascinating and hotly contested. And it hinged on one clear question: whether a sole proprietor signing his name to a signature as an individual also served as signing for his proprietorship or not. Did he have to sign twice, once for his business or once for himself? Or would just once work since it was a sole proprietorship, meaning he was basically the business?

(It just occurred to me, perhaps for the first time, how fascinating this question is in the context of corporate personhood… an aspect of the case I’d somehow never considered before. Ah well, for another time.)

Anyway, it was clear to most of the jury that this question was the hinge question for the case. If one signature counted for both, we’d side with the non-profit. If you needed two signatures, we’d side with the sole proprietor. But none of us felt qualified to make that legal determination. Surely there was something in the law library that could help us out. So we asked the judge to see the relevant statute so we could deliver the legally correct verdict.

We were all hauled back in from deliberation with the judge and both sides of the trial and their lawyers to have the question, which I’d phrased, read aloud by the judge. The judge then smirked and scolded us for asking it. He said he wouldn’t pull some statute from a law library even if the relevant one existed (he didn’t know – the law is unknowable!). He said that we’d been charged with making this decision, not the law. Whether one signature or two were necessary was up to us, not legislators or judges or even juries past.

So we voted, and on an 8-4 decision we decided that, in this case, two signatures were necessary. Largely because there had been two lines drawn up on the contract, one for the guy and one for the business, and the business one was blank. Had there been only one line, signed, we probably would have gone the other way.

Hopefully this case illustrates, at least a little, how variable and minute and interpretative the law is. And look, you may be a believer. You may look at my real-life parable and celebrate the wisdom of Jefferson and how the intent was always to have yeomen citizens deciding and interpreting the law on the daily and making flexible changes that went with the times and the individuality of every circumstance. Fair enough, perhaps. But confusing that process for some sense of “justice” seems misplaced to me. Justice is, as I understand it (it’s never seemed the most vital concept to me in the pantheon of lauded concepts, honestly) is supposed to be cosmic and righteous and ultimately fair. There’s very little of that in an individual decision hinging on a small biased interpretation of a few details. These jury decisions probably have almost as much to do with the hunger levels of the jurors and the past backgrounds of their own myriad flawed experiences as they do with some aspirational sense of justice.

So how can you confuse what American courts do with justice? Or injustice? I know we throw these terms around a lot, but is this even what the courts are attempting to do? I doubt it. They’re just trying to get things close enough to what seems legal (not moral, not necessarily even fair) at the time. And if the law says you can shoot someone because you’re scared, then they’ll try to uphold that. If the law says even the slightest nagging doubt in the back of your mind means you let the guy go, then they’ll try to uphold that. These jurors don’t want people to be able to shoot other people – these jurors are just hopelessly trying to apply an unknowable entity to an only partially knowable set of circumstances.

It’s a little like getting a bunch of people studying physics for the first time in their life to interpret a very complex set of circumstances and come up with some sort of equation to justify it. They’re in their first semester of physics and you tell them to write an equation for why a baseball flies off a bat in a certain speed, direction, and trajectory. They’re not going to be terribly sophisticated at doing this, they might get the question wrong, and in no way are they trying to do anything other than apply a set of rules within a given system (in this case, physics) to the circumstance they poorly understand (the baseball flying off the bat).

Now even this is probably a bad example because you’re likely less skeptical about the ability of physics to explain everything than I am. So let’s make the thing they’re trying to explain the existence of dark matter (something no one understands yet) instead of a baseball flying off the bat. We have no idea if physics can explain dark matter or if dark matter will rewrite physics. It’s unknowable and certainly not objective. But we’re asking these people to navigate the darkness and come up with the best equation to illustrate something we don’t know.

How could we possibly say if what they determine is right? Especially when the system we will use to help them is not a detailed course in physics from an objective perspective, but two angry professors arguing vehemently that physics is totally different than the other professor says it is? That they will present diametric and contrasting theories of physics and equations that both selectively take only a small portion of physics favorable to their side, then manipulate this information to their advantage? How on Earth could that system be confused for teaching or learning, let alone a moral outcome or even justice?

And yet we have structured almost our entire society around this system, willing to cede who lives and dies (literally, actually), who is free and who is tortured, who owes whom millions of dollars, all on this way of explaining physics.

It’s bad enough that so much hinges on these outcomes. It’s worse to magnify and augment that system by crediting it with also being a symbol of how the entire society views race or killing or guns or anything else that you care about. Do not misunderstand me – it’s good and right to care about those issues. Your passion is well-intentioned. But it is being badly manipulated by our legal obsessions and media motivations to create a firestorm. The media loves conflict, loves creating two polarized sides and exaggerating the differences between them. This is how you can be led to believe that George Bush and Barack Obama are polar opposites when they basically share beliefs and approaches on nearly everything that matters, something that is finally coming to a more common understanding after the revelations about the NSA. This is how you can be led to believe that there is political discourse in this country on real issues instead of shouting and grandstanding over deck chairs on the Titanic.

Take a step back. Breathe. Ask yourself why you care so much about these two people, this one night, this one situation. Ask yourself whether you would design courts the way they are if you were seeking justice and truth, or even (gulp) moral outcomes. Ask yourself if this is the best place to be putting your energy, your thought, your creativity, your anger.

3500 words in, I have to ask myself the same thing. Maybe I’m just as much a tool of what I’m trying to fight as any of us. Maybe that process is the all-too-inevitable reality of contemporary America.

Jul 8

No News is Very Bad News

Have you seen this woman?

Have you seen this woman?

I remember thinking in the summer of 2001 that the media’s obsession with the Chandra Levy case proved that the media was dead. There were those at the time, if memory serves, observing that the news’ insatiable focus on the story of the missing intern and her Congressman lover was proof that we’d reached the end of history, a now well discredited theory that once everyone had switched over to consumer-capitalist ostensible democracies, we’d just reach a point where nothing notable happened anymore. At least in terms of political upheaval and change. And then a few planes crashed and everything was different.

I’m not saying this is a summer like that summer. We’re twelve years out and the headline story is not a disappeared (dead) intern and her affairs. Instead, we have very real things going on. A maybe-kinda-sorta-nobody-can-tell coup in Egypt, the show trial of Bradley Manning and ongoing flight of comrade-in-principle Edward Snowden, the ongoing torture and unrest in Guantanamo Bay, to say nothing of the continual minor disasters that capitalism is leaving in its wake, most recently consisting of a plane crash and a train derailment, but you can insert oil spill or gas line explosion or similar deadly events in its place if they help set the scene better. There’s also a Supreme Court that just got done gutting a fair bit of the ostensible (endless?) democracy that they hadn’t already gutted in earlier decisions in past summers.

But the headline story, apparently, is the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon Martin and said he felt threatened. I don’t have to explain who those people are to you, because you know who they are. They are the people who are on the TV every single day. They are, dare I say it, the Chandra Levy of 2025.

It’s not that there aren’t important implications to the trial and perhaps even the outcome of that particular case. The implications for race in America are dwarfed by, say, the recent aforementioned Supreme Court decisions that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but y’know, there are implications. The implications are also probably dwarfed by the actual reality of what happens between most Blacks and most Whites in America out on the street, but CNN, MSNBC, and your news media are sure hoping your perceptions of same and even interactions will be colored (get it?) by this very trial.

It’s not shocking that CNN and MSNBC are devoting all of their time, energy, and reporting to the trial involving these two men, one living and one dead. CNN, truly made in Tienanmen Square and Berlin and Baghdad (the first time) believes it was made in Los Angeles in 1992 and again in 1995. I don’t have the data on the viewership or the ad revenue, but I can do the math that the earlier events in 1989 and 1991 pre-dated the later ones and thus probably didn’t capture the same audience. And at that point, probably, the shift was on, not just for CNN, but for all the media. Major world events are kind of exciting, but domestic disasters, especially with a racial angle, now that’s going to get people hooked to their screens for ages.

It feels shocking to me, for some reason, having not had cable television for several years prior to this one, that the only thing on the news during the day is George Zimmerman and the twelve people deciding his fate. I guess I could theoretically have BBCNews or Al Jazeera if I paid more, and I guess I could watch FoxNews if I cared less (maybe they’re showing the trial all the time too?), but ultimately none of it really matters. The fact that I don’t pay enough for those extra stations with an international perspective that can actually offer events of the world that matter is proof enough. The United States has successfully killed its news industry. Not with censorship and bribes and strong-arming (though no doubt, there’s plenty of that in the shadows of all this as well). But with the allure of the story more likely to grab viewership and suck them in. With George Zimmerman and his killing of a scared young kid in a hoodie, we’ve also fired the final bullet in the notion of real reporting within the friendly confines of the US borders.

Surely I’m focusing a bit too much on this one event, this one trial, and this one point in history (that has not ended, despite what CNN may tell you). I know that. This event is more symptom than catalyst, more the playing of Taps than the felling of the warrior. Culprits, as have been much discussed, include the Internet, the fragmentation of interests, the personalization and specialization of everything, and the consolidation of media as newspapers, radio stations, and even TV stations find themselves unable to afford this contemporary landscape. Each of these factors, already known to you in whole or in part, have dropped their pair of pennies in the well to mix with the already nauseating brew that has poisoned American journalism. If you want to tell a story in America, you have to go to a British newspaper/website or a rogue website run by an Australian Swede holed up in the Ecuadorian embassy. Being critical of the United States is otherwise impossible for a corporate-controlled media zeroing in on the fear and hate manifest on a February morning in a gated community in Florida.

Maybe we should all hack the NSA, so at least we have something real to watch.

That may be too glib and too sudden an ending, but there’s no pithy advice I can offer on this one. Despite the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, there’s no way individuals can devote their time to the kind of reporting we used to associate with a free society. And who would care if they did? There are new technologies to buy, new trials to analyze, new distractions for a culture that increasingly refuses to even believe there is a world beyond its own increasingly locked borders. And even I am not about to leave this country, even if I feel like maybe I should. How could I ask you to consider it?

Talking about individual power in the corporate kleptocracy is more amusing than inspiring. There are theories and possibilities and ways it could happen, but they aren’t going to involve generating a grassroots news organization. They aren’t going to involve demanding that CNN or MSNBC or FoxNews talk about something real, let alone the network nightlies (are there still 30-minute national news shows on the networks?). They’re going to involve something that we don’t even know what it looks like yet, and perhaps like nothing at all.

In the meantime, we all can be forgiven for holding our breath and waiting for news real enough to knock George Zimmerman off the air. Not hoping, mind, but holding. If it can happen in Egypt, if it can happen across much of the world, it can happen here.

Jul 7

33 at 33: The 33 Best Books I’ve Read in the Last 11 Years

I know a decent number of these numbers are going to appear random, or somewhat so. At first you might think that this is the list of the 33 best books I’ve read of all-time. This is not so. That list would be some sort of amalgam between the list that follows (the 33 best books I’ve read in the last 11 years) and the original list of the 25 best books I’d read to that point, which was the summer I was 22. That list actually probably has no right to call itself the “original list”, either, since I wrote a really original list four years prior, the summer before going to college. I’ve been making lists of books for a long time. This one happens to be exactly eleven years and three days after the last one I personally made, though I’ve of course been compiling a cumulative collective top list (most recently updated to 1,276 total books) here ever since.

In 1999, when I posted the 1998 list to my fledgling website, I wrote that “I’m sure that in 20 years, this list will have completely changed, excpet maybe the top ten.” It’s not 2018 quite yet, but the top ten didn’t even last four years. Tales of the Night, a book of Peter Høeg short stories, cracked the list at 6th in 2002, displacing the rest of the books. And John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany debuted there at 8th, causing further disruption. I’m reading a John Irving book currently, as I was for most of my trip west (which I should probably post about at some point). It is no Owen Meany. Nothing Irving has written comes close, in my opinion, though my second book on his list is A Widow for One Year. I’m currently meandering through Last Night in Twisted River. It may well be the last Irving I read. Irving, like Sherman Alexie, is a writer that gets worse the more of his books you read. Read 2-4 books and you think he’s brilliant. Read 5 or more and you start to realize he’s repackaging the same story and themes over and over again in increasingly tired ways. These concerns will not apply if you haven’t read Owen Meany yet because, despite the appearance of these same cornerstone themes, that book is special.

All of the books below are special. Probably only the top three are worthy of discussing in the company of the top ten from years past, though the overall top twenty-five would face significant alteration from the 33 upstarts below. I should probably consider compiling that updated top twenty-five, but it would be hard. And I want to let this list breathe a bit and have its day for a while too. How many times can you look at Watership Down, Brave New World, 1984, and Fahrenheit 451 in order? A lot, if you’re me. But it doesn’t tell you anything new.

This list below is new. Not all of the books, of course. A decent number were written in the 11 years in which they were read, but some are much older, like selection #2. I can only imagine that I’m going to get some flak for my #1 choice, but it wasn’t really even close for that spot. And probably even more flak for #2 being such a classic and being upended by such a young and oft-trivialized book. But I don’t care what people think, any more than I did when I declared my 1998 list “The Hundred Best Books Ever Written”. That’s kinda how I roll.

So here we go, 33 from the last 11 years – three for each year (though that’s not how I read them… I’ve actually included, with almost guaranteed accuracy, the year which I read them because online tools and a few of my files have helped track that information). Each year is represented at least once, though 2004, 2010, and the current year (really a half-year), 2013, are represented only exactly once. It’s harder to tell the impacts of things that are extremely close in temporal proximity, which may explain why 2012 is over-represented with four books (including two in the top five and three in the top ten) and also is ironic given the title of 2013’s entry. 2004 really barely made the list with its lone entry at 31st (I only read 7 books that year, probably my all-time low in my life) and 2010 may be suffering a bit from how awful that year was for me, though I also spent much of it reading Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, which may well be 34th and just out of this list. (Honestly, if I’d never learned that the whole last section was basically lifted from reality rather than actual fiction, it would probably be in the teens.) Meanwhile, 2005 and 2008 lead the pack with five entries each. Four from 2005 are in the top twenty, including #1 and #8. Given how long ago 2005 was, these have some real staying power. All right, enough analysis, on to the list!

Look, I even made you a graphic of the top ten:

1. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (read in 2005)
2. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (read in 2007)
3. The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (read in 2011)
4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (read in 2012)
5. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami (read in 2012)
6. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (read in 2006)
7. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (read in 2008)
8. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (read in 2005)
9. The Elephant Keepers’ Children by Peter Høeg (read in 2012)
10. Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley (read in 2007)
11. White Noise by Don DeLillo (read in 2010)
12. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (read in 2008)
13. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (read in 2006)
14. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan (read in 2003)
15. Eyeless in Gaza by Aldous Huxley (read in 2005)
16. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (read in 2003)
17. July, July by Tim O’Brien (read in 2002)
18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (read in 2005)
19. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (read in 2011)
20. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (read in 2012)
21. A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2006)
22. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (read in 2007)
23. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace (read in 2008)
24. One More for the Road by Ray Bradbury (read in 2003)
25. Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card (read in 2009)
26. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (read in 2013)
27. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (read in 2008)
28. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (read in 2008)
29. Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver (read in 2002)
30. Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2002)
31. Let’s All Kill Constance by Ray Bradbury (read in 2004)
32. Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons by Kurt Vonnegut (read in 2005)
33. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz (read in 2009)

It’s no surprise to see DFW lead the pack with three offerings (and his miniscule This is Water was in late contention for the list as well), in a tie along with old favorite Kurt Vonnegut. Though Wallace’s #3, #7, and #23 substantially outpace Kurt’s #21, #30, and #32. New friends (to me) Dostoevsky, Atwood, Murakami, and Rowling are joined by old friends Huxley and Bradbury with two each on the list. And I have no doubt that people will question The Pale King soundly out-ranking Infinite Jest, but I will defend that decision extensively to any who question it. Infinite Jest is surely a brilliant work of our time, but The Pale King has deeper and more poignant insight into the human condition, often speaking more incisively through its humility than the former does with its absurdity. Both, of course, are stellar.

Really, all of these books are worth reading, of course. And before I get to questioning too much too much more, I should just put the list out there and let you consider it for yourself. Happy reading! Or, given my taste, should I say… Thoughtful reading!

Jun 18

Trains and Translation Twenty Thirteen Tour


I’ve changed the theme around these parts to match the above poster for my upcoming summer travel plans. I’m not in love with the title, but I like all the T’s and I really like the imagery and all those skylines. At the very least, I’ve solved the minor dilemma outlined at the end of last month. If you don’t see the new theme, refresh the page.

This whole thing may look a bit dark to you. I prefer the term “dramatic”. Your mileage may vary. I was actually toying with the idea of getting a new theme altogether for this blog. Not a new name or anything, but a new WordPress theme style with a different arrangement of dates and titles and maybe even sidebar changes. The problem is that I really like the sidebar the way it is and had also just spent a fair bit of time crafting the new header image and needed to ensure that there was space for my 800×350 pixel creation, which is the size I’ve been working with since shutting down Introspection and replacing it with this.

In any event, this is a pretty extensive tour, including my first stop in Europe since 2008 (and that was only for a few hours in London!). Obviously, an alternate theme for this whole venture could have been about fish, since most of the travel is related in some way or another to Fish’s wedding, which is the whole purpose for the European jaunt, of course. Somehow the “Gone Fishin’ 2013″ concept just seemed a little too much like I’d abandoned vegetarianism, though. It’s a shame there isn’t an activity with the summer implications of fishing that doesn’t involve killing or at least significantly injuring creatures. It seems like it would be fun to fish without the whole death/maiming angle.

Other possible plans for this tour included, at one point, the Bay Area, Seattle, and Alaska. These destinations will all have to wait, or more properly, I’ll have to wait to get to them. There’s only so much one can gallivant if the intent of the summer is to be somewhat restful and, with any luck, productive.

Regardless of which, even if this summer isn’t going places, I’m going places this summer. Neat. If we haven’t made plans to meet up in an above-listed city where you’re going to be, let’s fix that, shall we?

Jun 17

Lost in the Corridors of the Arena in Blindfolds

Counting Crows and the Wallflowers are back on tour together again.  You should go see them!

Counting Crows and the Wallflowers are back on tour together again. You should go see them!

I’ve seen Counting Crows and the Wallflowers before. I’ve even seen them together before. I was invited to sometime in mid- to late-high school before I knew either of them well and it was a time I couldn’t really have appreciated it. I still regretted not going for a long time for all sorts of reasons. But later, I did see them, in December 2003, which is an alarmingly long ten years ago now. You can see the setlist here and what I thought of the show here.

A decade is a long time. It’s actually been almost 14 years since what I dubbed “the perfect show” at the time, still one of the best I’ve ever seen, which was the first time I saw CC ever. That was at the Hammerstein Ballroom in 1999, when they played this set in the midst of the release of This Desert Life, still my favorite of their albums. I could’ve seen this show at Hammerstein Ballroom as well, and would have loved to commemorate that full-circle, but I’ll be taking a train from LA to Albuquerque on that day. Then they’re playing at the Borgata in AC, where Fish and I saw them in the summer of ‘09, but I’ll be in Albuquerque that day too. They’ll be in California in late July, but on those days, I’ll be in New Jersey.

So there was really nothing for it but to pack up the car and head four hours to a place called Big Flats, New York, where they were playing on Saturday a couple days back. I haven’t been as in to concerts lately as I once was, but this is, I believe, the twelfth time I’ve seen Counting Crows live in my life and virtually none of the shows fails to be a religious experience of some kind. The eleventh show, the last one, in New York sometime last year (Google tells me it was April 24, 2012 at the Roseland Ballroom) was altogether forgettable, being a day when I was sick and exhausted and overworked and we were far far away from the stage. But this one was a good comeback and made the first time I think my girlfriend enjoyed the show, though she was touched up with a bit of sickness probably deriving from the roadside country restaurant we hit on the way.

The Wallflowers set was among the best I could hope for from them. I’ve listened to their new release a couple times and it’s fine, but I was still hoping for a much older set of songs to be immersed in what I assumed would be about half new stuff. I was pleased to be very wrong and find that only one or two of the songs were off the new album, while some really old favorites, most notably “I’ve Been Delivered,” made the set. With that and “Three Marlenas” being my two favorite songs of theirs and both being played, though the latter still in the upbeat style they prefer for playing it live, I was really happy with their song selections.

But CC reminded me why they top my list of concerts seen and why I drove four hours to get there. Adam seemed sadder than usual, or perhaps just more immersed in what they’re now calling dissociative disorder for him, but I think must truly be some combination of his itinerant loneliness and the wonder of truly becoming famous and still being able to solve the larger puzzles of life. It has to be bizarre to feel so isolated and crazy most of the time and have adoring fans screaming your words back at you like some solipsistic echo-chamber. I don’t know what becomes of the people who connect most deeply through feelings of isolation, but I do know that David Foster Wallace said that “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved … Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.” It is notable that music is among the five keys to DFW’s possible escape from being, what he calls in the same passage, “a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know.” I also know that a lot of the songs CC sang on Saturday referenced cutting and bleeding.

It’s hard to know how much of any given selection sample of Counting Crows songs sounds extra-sad or how much that’s just their style. As the otherwise worthless movie High Fidelity put it, “Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” It makes you wonder, after a time, how much of your personal romantic narrative is tinged with the failures of people like Adam Duritz, how much you’re relating because he’s speaking to you or because he’s persuading you. I still feel a weird sting of how the song “A Murder of One” turned on me and made from the singer to feeling like it may just be an anthem of enabling morally dubious behavior that was being stabbed into my back. How many of these things are justifications for behavior like I just discovered in DFW’s bio, going through women like so many energy drinks on an unending binge? And does it make it any less meaningful to you if what you’re relating to is different for how you relate and what was intended to be related to? So much for bridging our bags of bones to find common experience.

Regardless, CC highlighted why they still get to headline despite not joining the Wallflowers in having a #1 hit single at any point (though their albums always sell well in the charts). Jakob Dylan goes up there and sings and plays his guitar and the band does their thing and they even rock out on a couple of songs. Counting Crows, led by Duritz, performs. They put on a show. They remain the only band where I think the use of lights actually augments the overall performance – every move and line (often reworked) feels meaningful and powerful, every flash and tilt and tweak feels part of an orchestrated whole that creates an experience that I have never really found in the audience of anyone else’s music. I really love Weakerthans shows and that Simon & Garfunkel reunion concert gave me goosebumps, and seeing Bob Dylan always does the same in a way, but no one performs like Counting Crows.

It was an emotional and charged show, but for some reason I couldn’t get the echoes of the DFW bio out of my head while I was listening. I know I’ve drawn this very close connection between Wallace and Duritz for a long time and it may be totally something I’m seeing without it being there, like Saving Private Ryan being an anti-war movie. But I worry about Adam Duritz, I worry about how much and how deeply he feels, I worry about his meds. I worry about me too, sometimes, maybe a little bit more during a CC show, though nothing like that one time in summer 2010. I only cried during “St. Robinson” and a little bit during “Hospital” and “Rain King”. And maybe in that one moment of “Miami”. That one line gets me every time, even moreso now.

I think Saturday was the only day this month it hasn’t rained. I’m not quite sure that’s true – there must have been one other, but Rain seems to be the theme of June to go with Illness from May. It probably rained here while we were in Big Flats, New York under a mercifully sunny, if a bit chilly, sky. It started raining heavily while I was writing this, raising concerns about more flooding in our basement, or at least something renewed. We have to dry out the rug down there, excluded perfectly by the renter’s insurance we were obliged to get moving in, proving once again that the thing you’d need insurance for is the one thing that it won’t be covered for, just like cell phones in emergencies and pretty much everything touched in some way by American capitalism. Water damage is somehow in the category with earthquakes, legal demands, intentional destruction, nuclear hazards, and (I kid you not) war. Because when I think of water, I think it’s about as unlikely and dramatic as nuclear hazards or war.

It was really good to learn, however, that all bets are off for renter’s insurance in the following circumstances:

a. Undeclared war, civil war, insurrection, rebellion, or revolution;
b. Warlike act by a military force or military personnel; or
c. Destruction, seizure or use for a military purpose.

And just to be extra-clear, they added the following:

Discharge of a nuclear weapon will be deemed a warlike act even if accidental.

Something about the rising foment toward Obama’s first official war (to go with his endless unofficial one) makes these things seem a little extra relevant today. Or maybe it’s just the virality of war and unrest, as seen in Turkey stemming from neighbor Syria. It seems more and more these days that it just takes the power of an idea, the whisper of suggestion, to make realities spread like, well, the wildfires that could use some of this rain that won’t leave us alone.

But do we want to be left alone? Do we have a choice?

At least these days, we know someone is listening. All of you speaking out against the NSA have it wrong. Don’t we all want an audience?

15 June 2013
Tag’s Summer Stage
Big Flats, NY

Baby Don’t You Do It
Letters from the Wasteland
Three Marlenas
Everything I Need
The Letter
I’ve Been Delivered
Sixth Avenue Heartache
Closer to You
One Headlight
Misfits and Lovers
The Difference

Time and Time Again
Untitled (Love Song)
Four Days
St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream (Crimson and Clover outtro)
Black and Blue
Start Again
Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby
Daylight Fading
Perfect Blue Buildings (Miller’s Angels outtro)
When I Dream of Michelangelo
Friend of the Devil
Ghost Train
A Long December (with A Murder of One)
Return of the Grievous Angel
You Ain’t Going Nowhere

Rain King (with Lippy Kids)
Holiday in Spain

Jun 10

The Post-Privacy World

People and social media sites seem to like it when you start your post with a picture!  Here is a picture of Edward Snowden.

People and social media sites seem to like it when you start your post with a picture! Here is a picture of Edward Snowden.

A lot of people were shocked by revelations of the so-called PRISM program wherein the US government is spying on phone calls, Internet communications, and other online and on-phone activity of people around the world. I too was shocked. That people were shocked or even surprised.

I think it’s been pretty clear that this kind of stuff has been happening since 2001 and probably well before. It’s probably had different names, protocols, cooperation rates, and investment levels, but the fact that the government wants to know everything you’re doing online and be able to leverage that to its advantage (or “your safety,” I guess) is not a revelation. It’s not news. It’s something that has been an obvious reality for a long time.

I’ve visited my own thoughts on privacy fairly frequently in this space, but I’ve always advocated as much public living as possible and am very much against the illusion that people can hang on to key aspects of their privacy, especially against the twinned forces of corporations and government that are most driven to eliminate privacy in all its aspects. The big issue, though, is symmetry of information/privacy. When the government has a monopoly on both information access and its own privacy, then the world becomes incredibly scary and difficult quite quickly. This is the scenario outlined in “1984″ – no one knows who actually props up Big Brother, or about the underground movements to suppress dissent, or even what actually happens in the Ministry of Love. When everyone has equal access to information and no one has privacy, then we get a world of transparency and forced trust and all sorts of actually fun stuff.

What’s great about the Internet is that it keeps giving opportunities for human beings to blow whistles and level the playing field between the corporate desire for a monopoly of information and the impending reality that we’re all going to know everything. People like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning and Julian Assange make it possible for the corporo-klepto-government (CKG) to be held in check by the scrutiny of regular people. Certainly the corporate media isn’t going to do this job outright, but still seems sufficiently content with being scandal-driven that it will take its cues from underground reporters and whistleblowers if prompted to do so by their bravery and investigative spirit. Though it’s worth noting that the PRISM story was broken by The Guardian, a UK outlet, not by anything domestic in the US. And of course Wikileaks is based offshore as well. It seems increasingly clear that American media outlets are ready to walk in lock-step with the CKG until doing so would make them transparently derelict in their purported duty.

Perhaps I should back up, because you’re probably (or possibly, depending on your temperament) taking issue with my blithe labeling of the CKG and just assuming that this is the nature of what’s out there listening to our bleary blurry cell-phone calls. The problem is that just calling the government “the government” is sorely misrepresentative of what the government in the United States has become in the past decade and a half. And it’s not really the product of some vast shadowy conspiracy of ill-intentioned people so much as a system that enshrines insane levels of greedy self-interest at the detriment of anything that could possibly be confused for a principle, let alone an idea. And it’s getting to epic proportions that everyone should really be paying attention to.

The government is supposed to work in the interests of the people through representative democracy. By instating representative democracy, we are supposed to find upstanding and intelligent people who we think will make smart decisions, vote for them, and wait to reap the benefits of their wisdom. Fantastic.

Unfortunately, several factors have built to severely limit the quality of these potential representatives. Almost all of them involve money. The increasing scope of advertising as a model for appealing to over-entertained and extremely lazy voters, together with the increased entertainment- and laziness-focus of the media that is supposed to serve as the collective conscience of American people have combined to make money both the only thing that seems to matter in an election and especially a minimum prerequisite to running. So it may not be the case that the person who has the most or spends the most wins every election, but the twin parties who have a stranglehold on the anointment of potential representatives have agreed to decide that fund-raising ability and money-making is the determining factor in who will be considered eligible. As a result, everyone who could possibly be representing popular interests, save for a periodic perfect-storm rogue exception, is bought in (literally) to the system of money making the system go round.

Two classes of people have wealth in our society. The individually rich and the corporations. As a body, corporations are vastly more influential in their ability to leverage funds toward campaigns, and are infinitely smarter about targeting it toward their interests. After all, individual humans generally have a mixed bag of preferences and things they sort of care about as issues, often without perfect clarity on how to achieve these outcomes. Whereas corporations are ruthlessly efficient in profit-seeking and self-interest-maximization, in a way that is not only breathtaking but may actually be inconceivable to any given individual human-being. As Ambrose Bierce identified it in the ultra-modern year of 1906, corporation: n., An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility. Corporations take actions all the time in the name of profit-maximization and shareholder interest that any given individual, even those within the corporation, would probably find reprehensible as a single action, be it contributing to the deaths or mistreatment of those in all manner of other nations, undercutting the livelihoods of those in all nations including this one, throwing people out on the street, laying them off, and destroying their families. With the mask of the corporate fault, people are enabled to be evil without feeling like it’s their responsibility.

When applying this to the world of interacting with political figures and the world of “representatives,” the outcome becomes clear quite quickly. An individual may generally have qualms about buying influence (not all do, but many do), but overtly attempting to do so is an obvious corporate model, part of the mainstay practice of donating to both sides of a campaign in order to butter up both sides. And while this kind of soft amateur corruption has been around as long as money and democracy have been in the same place, the globalization and streamlining of corporate power has become and increasingly greased slide that shows no sign of leveling off in the last couple decades.

You see, the government is supposed to regulate corporations. Not just individual corporations through lawsuits and indictments and all manner of direct checks, but corporations writ large, as a concept, to prevent their power from becoming too great and their evil from becoming too pernicious. Part of this is the notion that there are barriers between public and private goods – that some things should be provided by the state and some should be provided by the private sector. But since the Reagan era’s advocacy of basically nothing beyond military force being best done in the public sphere, the move toward privatizing everything has become quite powerful. The mythology has been propagated that corporations do everything better (by which we mean more efficiently, or actually ruthlessly) than the government and thus their models or overt control of things should be how we proceed. The insidious part of the conversation that’s omitted from this step is that corporations are definitionally and tautologically profit-seeking utility-monsters, whereas the government at least theoretically ought be answerable to some notion of the collective public good.

Thus the main step of the privatization movement has been not to exactly actually sell the government in toto to the private sector, but to philosophically convert the notion of the public good to profit-maximization. And thus the rhetoric of both Republicans of the post-Reagan era and certainly the neo-Centrist Democrats Clinton and Obama have been to make government more fiscally responsible, by which we mean profit-driven. Even when exorbitant deficits have been run up, the entire evolution of the last few decades in government has been toward something that is altogether more corporate. Background in the corporate world is a key asset, corporate consultants are brought on to guide all processes and changes, and the bottom line has become the key measurement. And key fund-raisers and successful profiteers have been put in charge of both parties and their kingmaking operations for who is put in front of the people as potential representatives.

All of this has combined to make government a climate that is friend to the corporation and has forgotten, outside of a few young speechwriters, what the public good even looks like. This is how you get the movement of all retirement accounts, pension plans, and Social Security into the corporate casino of Wall Street, conflating the idea of a public good with the bottom-line of the daily close at the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Which itself was the cornerstone in the concept of “Too Big to Fail,” the public unveiling of the CKG for all to see, in 2009. Once the government had ensured that the average American was wholly vested in the outcome of big banks and corporations on Wall Street, with their credit-default swaps, mortgages, student-loan debt, and Internet finance all masquerading as public interest, then the conversion was complete and the corporate tail was free to wag the governmental dog. Those who ought be represented for something that competes with the ruthless bottom-line of corporations were only too happy to welcome our new corporate overlords as the dictators of policy.

All the while, of course, deregulation has eroded the ability of any non-elected group to serve as a check on both the caprice of the flavor-of-the-month elected officials and on the corporations they are actually supposed to be holding accountable. Regulation has been held up as an enemy of profits and efficiency, that nasty old government red-tape tying up red-blooded profit-driven Americans in their pursuit of greenbacks. And thus the last twenty years have been an unprecedented era of rollbacks, not just Republicans declawing the EPA, but both parties erasing all manner of restrictions on banks and corporations of all stripes. The surge in unemployment has combined with the propagated theory that jobs are created by corporations, especially big ones, and their ability to operate tax-free and unregulated on the corporate battleground, and suddenly there isn’t a single person advocating for reigning in the activities of the profit-utility-monsters. Any sort of check on their behavior is seen as a way of destroying jobs and ultimately hurting the middle-class and bringing down the little guy, so no sector of the class structure of the US will advocate for taking the corporations down.

This mentality has spawned two grass-roots movements in response, the last bastion of people clamoring against corporate consolidation of control of the government, made more obvious daily by the revolving door between private and public sector and the corresponding amassing of individual wealth and power for all outgoing government representatives and stakeholders (not to mention the lockdown that, say, Goldman Sachs has on financial [de]regulation). One such movement was the Tea Party, which was actually funded deeply by one of the most massive corporate interests, the Koch Brothers, and advocated for a corporate agenda, probably unwittingly among most of the people actually advocating for said approach. This agenda was anti-regulation, anti-government, and anti-tax, thus encouraging the corporations to proceed unchecked and unheeded in their consolidation of wealth and power.

The other movement was Occupy Wall Street (OWS), which directly sought to take on the private takeover by questioning banks and the financial industry directly, and then ultimately all levels of corporate power. I still don’t have my mind exactly made up on OWS. I don’t go to the point of believing that it was a corporate-planted self-parody, even though I think it functioned as same in the mind of the average American. But it largely illustrated the ineffectuality of standing up to the corporate draining of government power by showing how fringe, “out there,” and ultimately unserious the whole effort wound up seeming. The problem is that there was no groundswell of collective or majority outrage that was sparked by OWS. Rather, it demonstrated what a small minority of people actually question or distrust the CKG in its emergent form. Most people cling to the belief that either their government will spawn better representatives that will be heroic leaders who save them or that corporations still somehow serve our best interests by throwing us a few peanuts while we dance for our dinner.

So the corporo-klepto-government emerges as a belief and value system shift more than an overt shadowy conspiracy. It’s not a few private entities, or even a set of big empowered entities, that have taken over government. It’s the idea of corporate control and unchecked power, manifest lately in Citizens United and all it implies (the decision actually changing very little in terms of actual power, but signalling a sea change in terms of the public notion of the role of companies), that has taken over. So the actual corporation in charge at any given moment is less vital than the idea that it will be a corporation or network of them that has control and calls the ultimate shots. It’s not that Goldman Sachs has become the Cthulhu that eats the guts of government from the inside, but the entire DJIA that has convinced government to willingly sign over its innards to whoever is winning the corporate battlefield on this particular day.

This is why Facebook and Skype and Google and Verizon are only too happy to comply with government desires to spy. They are the spies and they are the government. At a certain point, the interests of the individuals in government mortgaging the farm for the notion of security that the post-9/11 world has proffered (put more succinctly here by David Foster Wallace than I could ever manage) becomes indistinguishable from the corporations whose data they enlist in the effort. All of them are playing the same game, wherein ferreting out would-be terrorists (or dissenters) and learning more about your buying history to maximize profit become synonymous efforts. And they all require leveraging their asymmetry of information and advantages in order to put themselves in control and you underneath.

The antidote is not somehow naively believing that you can protect yourself or your information. That shows a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the Internet, let alone humans. The antidote is blowing the doors off and going public with everything. Not only does this achieve the safety we so wantonly crave and chase after 9/11, by exposing anyone who might be planning anything nefarious, but it equalizes our power and understanding with those who would withhold and manipulate our data for their own ends. Privacy is your enemy, because it enables only those with the ability to protect privacy to lord it over the little guy, who couldn’t hope to.

Not only does this make Snowden and Manning and Assange pioneering heroes of the post-privacy age, but it makes the way you and you and you react to these developments critical. It is not the time to go back to 19th century saws about how the people are protected from their intruding government and keeping your forty acres and mule safe from prying eyes. It is time instead to turn the lens, like a mirror, on the big corporations and the small government it is cultivating. Private government information does not keep you safe. It is the tool of your oppression.

Let’s just examine the notion of private government information for one second. What could possibly make you safer about the government knowing something that everyone can’t? If they’ve found a terror cell or a would-be plot developing, how does exposing that not immediately make everyone safe? You think someone’s going to go through with a plan once it’s been publicly exposed? The only possible argument would be that they have inside moles who are funneling information and thus exposing the information exposes how you got it, putting those people at risk (the only argument, by the way, that anyone cogently made against Wikileaks). But this is actually the opposite of public safety. Because the CKG can easily fall so in love with that source of information that it chooses to prioritize this link over safety. This is the old Coventry problem, often enshrined in fascinating debate rounds in my era on APDA. The story (it’s still mired in controversy and uncertainty, as are most allegations that Churchill knew about things and chose to stay silent to manipulate his desired outcome) goes that the Brits had cracked the code of the German military, learned of a massive air-raid on Coventry that was about to commence, and chose not to alert the air defenses there so as to not reveal that the code had been broken. The calculus was that a future piece of information more important than that which would save Coventry would be coming down the pike later and it would be better to save the knowledge of the broken code (and that the Germans didn’t know the code had been broken) for said future time.

It doesn’t really matter whether the Coventry problem is/was true of Coventry itself (I happen to believe it was, but again, irrelevant). The point is that every private mole and spy and plant is a re-enactment of the utilitarian calculus weighed above. So every time that the CKG chooses not to reveal a spy or mole or plant, they are betting that there is some better piece of information coming later that is worth not blowing cover. Even though the short-term result may be people dying, an attack being carried out, or some other compromise of safety. This theme is played out countless times in modern dramas, movies, TV shows, and government decisions. The problem is that this is bean-counting, the same device corporations use in weighing their profits against your safety. And that’s the only thing that’s being protected by having covert government actions, rather than having them act completely out in the open.

Five-hundred and sixty-eight people were killed in the first severe raid on Coventry. The number slaughtered by corporate bean-counting or covert US action is probably much higher each year.

But hey, domestic terrorism has killed three people since 9/11. Or roughly half the number killed by, uh, going to baseball games each year. (No, seriously.) So, you know, this is all keeping you super-safe. Just like the War on Baseball.

I recently saw a new movie, one that I kind of wish I had written and reminds me of some things I did write, about a slightly less safe society. It was called “The Purge” and I have to recommend it, though I’ll note that it’s darker by about three times than anything I’ve ever written, so that should tell you something. In any event, this depicts a very-near-future America in which crime is legalized for 12 hours a year so that people can confine their violent tendencies to one orgiastic and cathartic night rather than hit unsuspecting people during the rest of the year. The eponymous Purge seems to fulfill two functions, both reducing population in a society clearly overgrown and redefining crime so that it seems that safety has been achieved all of the time. This last one is especially well depicted and insidious, since no one within the society shown process the 12 hours of mayhem as a threat to safety. They’ve also been propagandized heavily to see the whole process as patriotic and what keeps the society so great.

The allegory is powerful, jarring, and profound, if the execution (pun intended) is rather lacking in the movie as it evolves on-screen. But the tense mood and the ninety minutes of ruminating on the premise and its insane results are worth the what-ifs of the production being short of its potential. But rather than focusing you on what I’d normal focus on, things like the way the military serves the role of the Purge in the film, and so forth, I think it also fits as a metaphor for the privacy question discussed herein.

The main plot of the film centers on a man and his family whose new-found wealth is driven by his peerless talent for selling home security systems for use on the night of the Purge (it seems you don’t need them the other 364 in this cleansed society). And this illustrates another key facet of the allegory of the movie, that it’s the poor, homeless, and have-nots that are the prime targets of purging (arguably the shadowy purpose for implementing the whole system), since they can neither afford the weaponry needed to compete nor the security needed to defend. This makes them literally expendable, easy pickings for the top echelons of society who seem to all but raise them for sport hunting.

But now let’s shift the metaphor to privacy. The security systems are cloaking your information and the rest of the people are exposed, all their information floating around. It’s not the lack of protection that’s the real threat, it’s the asymmetry of it.

And the plot of the movie highlights this, as the vulnerabilities of the security systems are exposed and the movie devolves temporarily into a typical home-invasion thriller with lots of scares and blood. But the point that’s being shown is that we’re all ultimately equal. And the same is true not only of information, but of the new methods the Internet enables of obtaining and proliferating it.

I’m not here to say that as long as we have a handful of Mannings and Snowdens running around that everything’s going to be okay. There are a lot more reasons than privacy issues to fear the CKG and its consolidation of power. And I am here to laud their actions and encourage others to follow suit, regardless of the incredible crackdown hammer that’s coming for people like Manning (or, indeed, the not dissimilar Aaron Swartz). But more than anything, I’m here to try to channel your dissent and ensure that what we’re calling for and preparing for is coherent in the wake of this reality.

A world where you have the kind of privacy your civics textbook talked about is gone. It may never have truly been real, but it’s long past relevant in a land with the Internet and globalization. If something knocks all the power systems and ways of generating it offline forever, then we can again discuss that world. Stop calling for it, stop asking for it.

Your hope is in the world post-privacy. Or it has to be, because your future is guaranteed to be there. Making sure we know as much about the CKG as it knows about us is at least feasible and physically possible, and that’s something worth advocating. It’ll be a lot harder to be surprised by actions that we see coming from the planning stage, to be stunned by revelations that we learn of before they manifest.

Jun 5

The Need for Boredom

I just finished reading Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, the biography of David Foster Wallace that came out last year. I read it faster than most any book in recent memory, even though I’m not in love with how it was written. I never read biographies and it was at once too journalistic and too incomplete. Despite the use of footnotes (either common in bios or a nod to the subject matter), the style of the book probably deliberately lacked the sprawling, expansive approach that DFW took to his own material. And as a result, the book has a quality of feeling like it’s laying its subject extremely bare. DFW looks stripped-down, sad, pathetic, even ruinous in this retrospective portrait. It also makes it clear that this was not a particularly likable, or good, man. For a literary hero of mine, he can hardly be considered a hero in other regards. His struggles were human and (to me) relatable, but his behavior was frequently reprehensible and his relationship with life and others seems altogether willfully misanthropic. Perhaps most frustratingly, there was decidedly little on the last couple years of his life, the main thing I sought from said biography, still reeling from the absence of info I lamented four days after his death in 2008.

What the book did do, other than make me feel like DFW is decidedly less deserving of respect than previously hoped, is remind me of the urgency of my own writing life. It’s never far from my mind in general, but the period of time since my divorce has been so devoid of inspiration or motivation to write that it’s been like a thick layer of snow has fallen between myself and the searing parts of my desire to put thoughts into words. It’s explicable and reasonable that this winter has fallen, perhaps even that it’s lasted nearly three full years. And coming after the most productive year of my life in writing is both enabling of self-forgiveness (I can take it easy, I’ve done so much recently), but also extra tragic in the wake of feeling like I’d finally figured out and mastered how to write quickly, frequently, and with energy. And of course this resurrects the same guilt-cycles shared by both my protagonist in American Dream On and, apparently, good old Wallace himself, for not pursuing publication basically at all in the last three years, years during which the relevance of both 2009-2010 novels has, if anything, seemingly increased.

The point is that, facing the two months off I have built into my schedule, I’m at a bit of a crossroads. Part of me wants to buckle down and try to churn out most of a novel – I don’t really believe I could do a whole one in such short order, especially when essentially four of the nine or ten allotted weeks are booked with travel. But the other part of me wants to relax, have fun, take it easy, restore energy for the coming year of debate after the easily most exhausting annum on the personal record in my four at Rutgers. And the best idea seems to split the difference, to dabble on BP projects, sending out the last two novels to prospective publishing opportunities, and maybe wade into what the fourth novel would look like. It’s not going to be Project X (last discussed, sadly, in May 2011) as I’m still way too close to that idea to see it objectively and for what it could be. That novel seems a better candidate for the 2030’s at this point, something to cap a career with if I’m ever so fortunate. I’m much more motivated by an as-yet untitled work (Project X, it’s worth noting, is not a title, but a working codename for something that does have a title, but not that one) which would involve my first-ever foray into overt humor, as opposed to humor against a painfully dark backdrop which seems to be my current modus, or at least was in ADO. It’s been taking shape more and more each day and has distilled into something that seems super-relevant to the current state of things and could easily be made more so. But I am terrified, as always, of writing novels in multiple stretches. The 2-3 month binge-write when all other interests are cast aside still has been the only real successful model. But maybe I could construct a few scenes and map out the plot and come back to it in Summer 2014?

The biggest challenge to all these goals, even, arguably, taking fun seriously, is the need to dry out. Boredom is essential to the writing process. This, I fear, is what DFW never really grasped in his career, being so prone to addiction and distraction and never being able to quiet the nagging voices of self-criticism in his own beleaguered head. You need to force yourself to be bored enough to be truly creative. The problem is that a novel is far too abstract and two-dimensional, especially in its nascent phases, to be as captivating as a full-color Internet, as video games and movies and spending time with friends. And the project is far too extensive to be able to see in the same micro-gratification strategies by which most people of my generation and younger are able to complete any work at all. You can string yourself along for a 10- or 20-page paper with the tantalization of the inevitable satisfaction euphoria that comes from completion, but holding out that carrot across multiple months is unforgiving and ultimately ineffective. Yes, novel-completion euphoria is elating, but even the greatest burst of excitement in your life is hard to hold your attention for half a year of slogging.

So to make the process of writing a novel truly work, at least in my experience, it’s important to enforce a certain quantity of boredom upon oneself. One has to get to the point where the novel is truly the most interesting thing one has access to. Doing so enables the essential infusions of creativity and vibrancy that a novel demands, but failing to do so means that one will just end up distracted. So much of DFW’s bio is about his failure to get over this hump. The entire cascade of his life seems an endless bounce from women to drugs to teaching to TV, all shelving his ability to work as he felt he best could. And he also struggled with what I find to be a very tangible conundrum, namely that even if one knows that undivided focus and boredom is the best for the noveling process, the twin of this mindstate is solipsism, and the spiral of lack of human contact threatens to not only drown a person in self-doubt, but also something a little like going crazy. Withdrawing from life to provide insight into it is just the sort of irony fiction writers adore, but it’s a tightrope wire worthy of some far more entertaining act.

Wallace was doubtless aware of these acrobatics and their seeming impossibilities. Indeed, he wanted to directly tackle the subject not just of boredom, but of how boredom can be blissful and inspiring, in his final work, The Pale King. But he was no more able to effectuate it in his own existence than he was able to finish that piece itself, the mystery of boredom’s power ever dangling out of grasp like so much Gatsbian green light. D.T. Max (Wallace’s biographer) doesn’t put forward that the book killed him, but I still think the evidence is pretty clear. That and the electro-shock (*convulsive in new-speak), feller of writers everywhere.

So where does that leave me? I haven’t achieved sufficient boredom on this, the third day off of work, but then again I still have a couple small work projects to wrap up and even day three feels more like a long weekend that summer break. And the very nature of trying to do twelve small projects is almost antithetical to the long work model. It is precisely because such projects have the hallmarks of micro-gratification that they can string one along into doing things that don’t require a full dose of boredom to really get off the ground. It also makes them more appealing and, perhaps, more compatible with the idea of taking it easy this summer, just a little less easy than the last.

The only real urgency in all this, other than the innate writer’s desire to change the world that keeps seeming to get worse, or at least no better, is the sheer volume of stuff I have to write. It’s not competing with the amount I have to read, yet, but I still have four complete novel plots (by complete I don’t mean fully mapped and plotted, but rather general guidelines including beginnings, endings, characters, and general messages) unwritten, three of them without a word to their name. There are a handful of additional short stories in need of either writing or rewriting, as well as some simmering threads of things that could become novels but aren’t there yet. This, near as I can tell (and not to brag, just to observe), is more total novel notions than good old DFW ever developed in his life. But again, his distractable mind suffered more from the lack of ability to zero in and focus than to create. But one became the other.

And maybe I should stop comparing myself to Wallace at this point. For all the similarities I see between us, the differences have never been more clear than in the wake of reading so much about his life. It could also easily be seen as hubristic or egotistical, but it seems clear he was far more worried about such (mis?)perceptions than I ever will be. Indeed, thinking so much about what people thought of him may have been as much of his undoing as his final work. But for me, the issue has always been a shortage of time rather than a shortage of ideas. Ideas I’ve got, spilling out everywhere. It’s the execution, the patience to grind them out, the not letting the beautiful competing ideas of life and what to fill it with, get in the way. And thus so much relies on having the ultimate certainty that someone will pay for that time, or at least that someone wants to read its results, to justify the expenditure of that kind of time, mindspace and, yes, boredom.

Which of course DFW had in spades. He seemed to spend all of his post-publication life complaining that such early success had skewed his vision and rendered him unable to work sufficiently, despite the fact that it seemingly rendered such things more possible than ever. But then he was more of a ruminator than even myself, being able to think himself into a corner even in a wide-open field. Whereas I have experience with same, but am usually able to keep eyes sufficiently on the prize to find the escape hatch, most of the time. And all the while there’s the urgency of all the things those unwritten novels have to say, bubbling up and demanding their months of sequester, their months of suppression of all the fascinating distractions lurking in today’s world so they can have the stage and pass through the keys to fruition.

“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.”
-David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

He was writing about processing tax returns, but it’s hard to find a better mantra for the process of writing a novel, especially one whose fate is uncertain, whose outcome is not the surefire date with publication and readership that TPK and Wallace himself enjoyed. The inevitability, perhaps, is that such boredom is part of everyone’s structured life. And the key is to make more of it work for something that feels more meaningful. It is perhaps ironic (isn’t everything?) that my current day job is almost entirely devoid of such taken-as-given rote boredom, but what I aspire to be, truly, requires it.

May 31

May is the Worst

I just spent a fair bit of time re-reading my posts from past Mays on this blog. There are five years’ worth of them and they ain’t pretty. Actually, some of them are kind of pretty; I think a lot of the writing I did in May 2011 may actually have been some of my best in a while, even if it’s extraordinarily laden with pain. But you get the point. I’m almost never having a good time in May.

Things often end in May. People make jokes about the Harry Potter series always putting undue emphasis and tension on May because that’s the natural end of the school year, but I always feel like reality actually conforms to this pattern. And I know that somehow most people like April and May because they feel this bizarre boost in springtime, easily the worst season of the four for my money. I have lived long enough to know that early April through early June is the worst time in my life almost every year and by far the most consistently bad. Maybe I’m misaligned, but I know my alignment all the same.

This May hasn’t been trend-setting in its badness, but more indicative of the kind of malaise and slow descent this season always seems to mark. I was sick for most of the month – probably about 3 full weeks of it after getting sick on May Day. I suspect I had some sort of infection, though the doctors insisted it was either allergies or an especially lingering cold. I’m still not exactly 100%, but I’ve probably been 95 or 97% the last couple days, so I’m definitely through whatever it was. I’ll probably feel 100% on June 7th, because that’s just how these things tend to go for me. I don’t mean to be fatalistic, but I’m one of the only people I know who doesn’t seem to be a total determinist lately, so being resigned to a bad 70-day stretch every year is pretty good by comparison, right?

In any event, today is an event! My last day at work before my two months off till August (though I will have to come in a few days to tie up some loose ends and trade for the first week in August as you’ll see below…), the end of a desperately bleh month, and the return of my girlfriend from Costa Rica tomorrow. Things are looking up. And it seems to be a May tradition on this blog to post a little graphic indicating my summer “tour” for the year, or where I’m planning on traversing to with the opportunity to make use of the time that I’m given. So I don’t really want to make this exceptional, since this May hasn’t even been exceptional in its badness, just kinda averagely awful…

…But I don’t really have a theme for my summer travel. Part of this May has been just feeling totally uninspired. I am almost starting to get inspired for when I will be inspired and I have lots of resolutions for the summer. You’ve heard some of them before, things like actually sending American Dream On and The Best of All Possible Worlds to agents and/or publishers for the first time in 3 years, or actually writing new fiction for a similarly unprecedented stretch. I need to get more active, even if it’s just walking around Highland Park or something. Or doing yoga again. I would like to read more and more intensely, to spend more time deliberately and investing in projects I want to do. Heck, maybe the Song Quiz will finally happen this summer. Really.

So far all May has brought me is joining Twitter. Seriously. And I think the main thing I’m going to do with that is post links to posts here, assuming I actually start writing more. Which makes this all rather meta and self-referential. Which I guess goes well with starting to read David Foster Wallace’s recent biography last night, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. Best title ever and makes the synergy between he and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows (such connections discussed here) even more poignant. So far I’m up till DFW’s early grad school years and the writing isn’t really seeming worthy of DFW and CC, but maybe that’s just because I never read biographies and so the flat journalistic and presumptive tone is simply unfamiliar to me. Reading non-fiction, though, always convinces me even more that there’s far more truth in fiction. The things taken as given in non-fiction, the sweeping unjustified generalizations, are kind of shocking. It’s a way of transforming hearsay into fact. All the same, I’m enjoying the experience of the book. I think we all just miss Wallace way too much.

Anyway, I need a title for the tour and a theme because I like pretending my life is a book tour or maybe it’s just that the Summer Tour themology is fun. I think May was way too short on fun. This summer, the first order of business is fun.

But I can share the tour dates and the little graphic will have to wait till (gasp!) June. Thank God it’s going to be June. Soon.

15-16 June: Upstate NY (Wallflowers/Counting Crows show)
17-19 June: New Brunswick, NJ
20-27 June: Los Angeles, CA
28 June – 4 July: Albuquerque, NM

28-29 July: Helsinki, Finland
29 July – 3 August: Paris, France
4-8 August: Berbiguières, France
8-10 August: Paris, France

It doesn’t look too glamorous like that, maybe because it’s not a road-trip and thus the locations are few. But the durations are long and the locations are awesome. So let’s make plans! Let’s have fun. Let’s not revisit May for a while, shalln’t we?

May 24

Why We Feel Alone… Cosmically


When I was growing up, it felt like it was trendy to believe we were alone in the universe. Around the time I was sitting in my first-grade classroom watching the Challenger spin out of control and seriously questioning my desire to be an astronaut (full story here), it was popular to say that human beings on planet Earth were the only intelligent beings in the universe. This never seemed particularly viable to me and I recall getting into a few arguments with classmates and at least one teacher on the subject. And ultimately, this perception, whether it was actually widespread or limited to the sample size of my experience, basically disappeared.

It probably has something to do with the vastness of that picture up top there. Those are galaxies pictured that we’ve discovered and each galaxy is so unimaginably large that it could contain up to one-hundred trillion stars. And there are at least 150 billion galaxies in the observable universe, which is probably a tiny little fraction of the actual universe. Suffice it to say that when we contemplate how many planets this actually means, we’re approaching a number like 80,000! a lot faster than we think. In fact, I think it was Jake in 8th or 9th grade who originally tried to convince me that no self-respecting people in science had ever felt that we could possibly be alone in the universe as intelligent beings – the universe was simply too large for the math to be conceivable that we were one in several hundred quadrillion. After I got over being angry at the people who’d argued with me about this in the past, I was mostly relieved.

As education about the size and scope of the universe has become more widespread, as exploration of the local area has increased, and as we’ve discovered water-like substances on Mars, we’ve begun to project that life is not only not limited to Earth, but it’s actually likely to be quite common. There are planets with life everywhere, though most are still out of any reasonable reach for communication or travel at our current stage of technological development. But people are still wondering why we haven’t heard from any of them, now that we’ve realized they must be teeming with intelligent life. And while a few hubristic idiots have guessed that we’re just more advanced than everyone else and they haven’t figured out radio signals yet, most people realize that the same math that makes it so likely others are out there makes it beyond obvious that just as many species are way ahead of our curve as way behind it.

And so it’s become popular to posit a possible theory (really two, or the two in a binary as a single theory) as to why we have radio silence from what should be a cacophonous universe overflowing with extraterrestrial wisdom. I don’t know where the actual original source of this theory came from – presumably Stephen Hawking or one of his ilk, but like so many pop culture references, I’m only aware of it in its endless reflection in blogs and other sources rather than from the original material. So apologies to whoever’s idea this originally was, but you should know it’s become public domain. Anyway, the concept is that all intelligent life either wipes itself out (Cuban Missile Crisis, climate change, etc.) before it can sufficiently travel to or communicate across the stars or that it develops such compelling virtual reality that the intelligent life decides to retreat into a solipsistic delusion rather than reach out to others.

Never mind that this leaves out a third viable possibility also ripped from the last fifty years of our planet’s experience, namely that intelligent societies develop capitalism or similar selfishness-maximizing orders which eventually devolve into corporate kleptocracy and consolidation that enables entire planets to become slave-states that serve a small elite or even one entity… and that entity chooses not to expand horizons to seek out the only source which could possibly interfere with its power, thus choosing to make the planet self-contained and isolated. This post isn’t about that, I promise. But I do feel that should be included in the possible reasons if we’re projecting our current myopic view of ourselves onto a universe of hundreds of quadrillions of planets.

The actual problem with this theory is that it assumes the universe is as chaotic as we perceive it to be from our position of only really discovering it in the last couple-hundred years. Which is probably not surprising given the predominance of atheism and nihilism as guiding principles of most of the scientific community. But the notion that each planet is an utterly isolated society pinging randomly into the universe without ever hitting paydirt before succumbing to its own failings is profoundly short-sighted. Yes, self-destruction is a constant threat from a variety of sources, especially as the development of technology accelerates to the point where it can command enough space to cover the vast distances between galaxies. But given that the only intelligent species we know about has managed to avoid it to this point, it seems absurd to assume no one else has gotten to this point or even beyond.

And yet, not everyone does. We have beloved iconography of science fiction telling us that there are alternative possible outcomes, portraying vast starfleets of human progeny traversing the universe in hyper-speed-capable airships. Of course, since we are a hubristic species deeply in love with our own intelligence and capability, we always put humans on those ships and imagine tiny American flags or their descendants as what’s being proliferated across the stars. Because to not imagine ourselves at the forefront of this technology would be impossible, or at least treasonous. But let’s suspend disbelief for just a second, get our noses out of that truly adorable pond, and contemplate what might be the case if someone else were way, way ahead of us?

Stephen Hawking (I know this one is attributable to him) has made the same contemplation and warned us against calling attention to ourselves in the universe, predicting that the outcome would look a lot like Europeans landing on the shores of the Americas, the opening salvo in the largest known genocide in human history. But even Stephen can’t get beyond the projection of pettiness, selfishness, and greed onto other species to reflect our own. Even forward-thinking Star Trek envisions that the only intelligences sufficiently smart to compete with our own are imperial bastards, enslaving and crushing resistance to fuel endlessly infinite expansion to no end other than self-service. And while human history before, I don’t know, yesterday is basically an unending series of might-makes-right empowerment of those willing to do the most violence, it seems really reasonable to me that there might be alternate courses for societies advanced enough to actually get off their home planets and do some real exploring.

Which brings me to my actual theory as to why we haven’t heard from any of the hundred-quadrillion intelligent species out there. They aren’t letting us. They’ve put a bubble around us to protect us from contact until we’re good and ready for it.

I realize this sounds facially absurd to many of you, because it assumes a different picture of the universe than the one we see when we look out. We see all those stars and galaxies and (in an amazing stroke of self-awareness) are overwhelmed with how much we still don’t know about them. So we assume everyone else is in the same boat, despite our understanding of how much we now understand about, say, our own planet when a scant 500 years ago we adorned maps with “Here Be Dragons” in every other corner. Look at the global picture of technology and capability two centuries ago and compare it to this very Internet and space exploration and everything else that’s currently underway. And you really don’t think someone else could have had, I don’t know, a two-millennium head-start on development and have mapped and made contact with most of the Milky Way?

We’ve even made these connections, just putting ourselves in the driver’s seat, in a mere century or so of speculative science fiction. Back to Star Trek, we have the concept of the Prime Directive and the idea that we’re not to interfere with other societies in a primitive stage of development lest we overwhelm them and change their destiny or unwittingly destroy them in some unanticipated way. And while it’s narratively fun to play with breaking those rules, we see ourselves as the people running from the mystically painted primitive volcano people without realizing that we, of course, are the volcano people. We are the primitives. We still think intelligence is doomed to destroy itself and everything around it or withdraw and resign from reality in favor of unending hedonism.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we’re being pulled out of windows in the middle of the night by big-eyed green-guys who are occasionally too clumsy to properly wipe our memories. I would surmise that we’re being observed from beyond a safe distance. Imagine a cosmically-scaled police interrogation room window/mirror where those inside see only a reflection (or perhaps a pattern of stars). The level at which one can monitor from that distance is in some degree of question, but it seems hard to picture having the technology to travel many light-years, but not to magnify the view several million times from such distances. If for no other reason than travel at such a speed seems to require anticipating objects that might be in the way from that kind of distance with extreme precision. Despite the depiction of warp-speed travel in science fiction, there is so much debris in space that such travel as pictured would probably just lead to impossibly destructive collisions where the speed of travel made every bit of space dust or rock into a high-powered missile that brought down the ship. So either travel is slow or there’s some way of navigating from extreme distances with high accuracy.

So let’s assume the latter. It seems totally feasible. And right now, we’re failing our test of observation. Granted, we don’t totally know what the rules are or the goals. Those would have to be pure speculation. Maybe it’s merely a scientific advancement test. We have to be able to pierce our protective bubble, to get some Hubble-like telescope beyond the distance of the perimeter so it can suddenly start hearing all the signals and report back that we’ve made contact. But my guess is that any entity that would put such a barrier up around us is concerned enough with either our welfare or their welfare that we’re actually facing a moral challenge.

I would imagine that we’re still altogether too selfish, petty, and especially violent to be allowed out of the protective crib. There are probably rules that govern this part of the universe and whatever intelligences have overcome their infantile setbacks to survive and thrive and explore. Those rules would go beyond a Prime Directive that people actually followed and incorporate the extreme responsibility involved in stepping off one planet and on to another. They would note that species are like viruses, that once allowed to spread, they may be extremely hard to contain. And as a result, they would put a heavy burden and scrutiny on our species before we were deemed sufficiently trustworthy to play well with others.

It’s possible that we’re not even close. That some voyager cruised by, saw how desperately primitive we were, threw up the shield, and agreed to check back in a few millennia. We may not be under surveillance so much as having a pin in some interstellar map that says to look our way again in our year 4500. In which case, perhaps the urgency of this test is limited, though everything we do now has an obvious affect on the future that follows, even such a far-flung one.

But I’d imagine that if we can put up a thousand security cameras in a casino, every intelligent planet discovered has constant monitoring. Intelligence seeks intelligence; even we want to make dolphins do tricks even if we seem unconcerned with trying to decipher their actual language. We train dogs and cats and monkeys and seals, however pathetically. There’s little doubt that each sprig of smartness that whatever galactic order exists finds is tracked and watched and, who knows, perhaps even saved if the equivalent of the planet-destroying volcano starts to erupt. The implications of this idea are, obviously, enormous.

Not only does this idea restore something like a God concept to those who’ve long since stopped believing, for we have a higher power (albeit of a much different nature than God) observing our movements and making some sort of evaluation, but it also means that there is some sort of meaning to our existence, even if it’s only in the context of other intelligences and not necessarily a greater transcendence of lifespan. Problematically, we don’t know exactly what their criteria are for deeming us worthy of actual interaction or contact, but given that we actually have extremely little disagreement locally on what the actually correct values are, it seems the challenge is more one of discipline and dedication to ideals than discernment of them. We have known for a few thousand years that we should stop beating each other about the head and torso with sticks. Instead, most of human history is about the perfection and development of those sticks and the study of their impact on heads and torsos. Would you let such a people into your intergalactic community of species?

I think the only real counter-argument to this theory is that it would seem too utterly harsh and cruel to make a lifeform feel this alone and abandoned when one had the power to welcome them into a more universal community. This idea seems compelling for about five seconds before you realize the pitfalls of contact for a species that’s still so intolerant that it still regularly enslaves its own members to other members of the species.

We still have racism as a massive and prevalent problem throughout our societies, with developments in the last decade or so that have normalized racism and dressed it up in more acceptable clothing in the name of fear. The representatives of the wider galaxy probably look so, yes, alien, to us that we would instantaneously fear them no matter what they did or said or how they behaved. We even have science fiction that imagines that even if they came in total peace and offered us everything, it would merely be so they could farm us like cows and fatten us up for consumption (an old classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “To Serve Man”). Domestically, we have more fear of humans we call aliens than we could probably ever conjure up for actual aliens. And that’s only the first step, the first handshake of contact. The first five seconds, before we got into any discussion of rules, values, or what membership in a wider community would mean.

It would be a little like inviting a pre-lingual infant to serve as a key representative in the UN. And sure, maybe the infant couldn’t do much harm voting randomly whenever it wanted to be fed and totally misunderstanding the proceedings. But it would be a waste of everyone’s time. Surely it would be better to let the infant grow up and let you know what kind of person it is before letting it have a seat at the most important of tables.

Which brings me to the larger point of the whole issue of expanding our technology, our understanding of the universe. We have been hellbent on separating questions of development and advancement of science from issues of ethics, let alone (gasp!) morals. Those who attempt to infuse such questions are lampooned as fuddy-duddies, even amidst a backdrop of most scientists believing that failure to anticipate the consequences of rash technological action is literally threatening the survival of the planet and the species (i.e. failing to consider fossil fuel usage leading to catastrophic climate change). Yet we continue to plow on unheeded, not only maintaining past destructions but blithely inventing new ones at every turn, with only “oohh” and “aahh” drowning out the small soundtrack of dissent or caution.

But what if we have it backwards? What if our moral, ethical, and philosophical development is actually the key to unlocking the scientific mysteries of the universe? Surely whatever we could discover on our own is a pale shadow of whatever intelligence has us under observation has come to know about the area. Back to our pre-lingual infant example, would we rather let said newborn grow on its own in science and technology or teach it what we know? It seems the power of education, of collective knowledge and development, is powerfully better than just letting it flounder in its own misunderstanding. And maybe again this is an argument for intervention, but if the infant is punching every other entity it sees, maybe waiting till it learns the value of not punching is a valuable prerequisite to undertaking such an endeavor.

It would seem that caring about being good, about doing good, about proving ourselves to this larger intelligence, is the most important priority of our future existence.

And if you don’t find this feasible, if you think this is all far-fetched and cling to your belief in the original binary of selfish destruction or selfish withdrawal, your conclusions should probably be the exact same. For the only way out of this conundrum, the only way to invent a galactic order and fulfill the dreams of Buck Rodgers and Ray Bradbury and Star Trek, would be to be the exception to this newly imagined rule. And the only way to do that is to prioritize moral and philosophical development over technological. Or at least to keep it apace, to maintain enough of a moral check on technological behavior that one can prioritize the real world and its existence over the constantly nipping alternatives.

In either case, the message should be clear. If you want to meet an alien, you should first be good. And convince everyone else to be good too. We are almost certainly on a very candid camera. And right now, they’re unfortunately just filming a cautionary tale.

Apr 28

Stock Market, Misrepresentation of Unemployment Hit Record Highs

It’s been a while since I’ve been posting regularly, which is something that the extra time of summer will hopefully fix. And it’s been quite a while since I’ve revisited the issues of misrepresentation of the unemployment rate that have come from the disappearing labor market in the United States in the last few years. As a review, please check the original post from August of last year and the September follow-up.

Therein, I explain that by counting unemployment only as a percentage of the labor force and not the overall population, the unemployment rate leaves out millions of people who are functionally unemployed. Not underemployed or under-appreciated, but actually just straight-up not working when they could or should be. The labor force as a percentage of adult population has been crashing since the start of the financial crisis and it’s far outpacing the aging of the population.

I hadn’t posted about the data since August. And while the reported rate of unemployment has dipped from 8.1% to 7.6% during that span, the actual rate when factoring in the labor force’s hidden unemployed has only declined from 13.6% to 13.4%. And while the reported rate has steadily declined, giving an image of slow but consistent improvement in the labor market, the reality is more distressing: after a brief dip in October to as low as 12.9%, unemployment is actually very close to its peaks since the crisis began, just 0.4% below the recession-era-high of 13.8% in July 2011. And it’s on its way up, steady or increasing since October of last year.

Real and Reported Unemployment, January 2007 - March 2013

Real and Reported Unemployment, January 2007 - March 2013

That graph is scary enough, with trend-lines clearly diverging and painting an opposite narrative of the economy. And this narrative dictates almost everything (well, everything that isn’t overtly rigged) about how our economy functions and the decisions people make. Though it doesn’t reflect the reality for people on the ground, how hard it actually is or isn’t to get jobs. But when people are having just as hard a time to get jobs as they have for the last three years, but they’re being told that it’s getting easier, this is highly corrosive to their morale, hope, and ultimately way of life. They personalize and internalize something that’s actually a broader struggle. And more damningly, we make policy based on the assumption that these flawed narratives we are telling ourselves are true, that we’ve done enough to help the little guy because while seven-and-a-half percent unemployment is still a bit uncomfortable, it’s basically livable and showing signs of improving. When really, we’re still at the height of the crisis.

So here’s the money chart, the one that really tells the tale of this deception and how inflationary its impact is. This is the one that shows the gap, over time, between real and reported unemployment:

Gap between Real and Reported Unemployment, January 2007 - March 2013

Gap between Real and Reported Unemployment, January 2007 - March 2013

You could call this chart a lot of things. The Deception Chart. The Manipulation Chart, if you want to put a more sinister spin on why we use such an outdated version of unemployment and fail to track all the people who fall out of the ability to seek work or, more often, never have a real job in the first place from which to become “unemployed.” The I Think I’m Going Crazy Chart, to reflect the above phenomenon in starker terms, as people are unable to find work when the media is telling them that everyone else is finding it easier. And this chart, with a couple of bumps, is steadily upward. And hit a record high in March 2013 at 5.8%. At the same time the Dow Jones and other stock markets in the US started hitting their record highs as well, signalling the supposed end of the financial crisis.

5.8% may not sound like a big gap to you. It’s more than most economists think is a healthy total rate of unemployment for a society, so that should tell you something right there, but it still sounds like a manageable number. But when you consider that it’s a 76% increase in the unemployment rate from what’s currently being reported, that should probably put it in perspective for the skeptics out there. Unemployment is a 76% larger problem than people think, than the media reports, than the US imagines. We are approaching an easily foreseeable moment, if the general trends in each direction continue, when the actual rate of unemployment is double what the US perceives it to be. All because of how we choose a denominator in the most revered vital sign of economic growth for the little guy.

The most revered vital sign for the big guy is the stock market, and it’s hard to imagine that the big players therein aren’t aware of the data in this post. Of course for them, labor is not necessarily a sign of health or growth. Getting more done with fewer workers is the goal. And the efficiency achieved in this goal is a lot of why the market has been up when most people aren’t feeling any more well off. The problem is that when the market has so ruthlessly edited out jobs and labor, there’s simply not much reason they would bring them back. You have to be feeling pretty fat and happy to hire people that you don’t think will add value to your company. And by adding people who are going to work less efficiently, with their back less against the wall, then you risk the whole system. Ruthlessly keeping the jobs at a minimum is beneficial to all the big corporations at once.

The other big culprit in this phenomenon is the ongoing consolidation of wealth and corporations. The fewer companies, the more “efficient” (read: less labor) they can each be. The more that Wal-Mart and Starbucks grow, the more they can keep higher-wage lower-efficiency jobs from smaller firms out of the market. And this is before they even start colluding on what they’re going to pay or how thinly they’re going to stretch their workforce to ensure maximum efficiency across the board.

The theoretical back-end of all this is that eventually people will have so little money from not working that they will be unable to spend it at Wal-Mart and Starbucks and then the whole scheme will crash. The problem is that the very rich have been able to spend enough money that they make the overall economy seem much healthier than it is because it is relying so heavily on catering to the few people who have expendable income. But not in a way that creates more jobs for the middle or lower class so much as making those classes fight for a few jobs that largely cater to serving the super-rich. Of course, the US must somehow actually keep these people alive, through welfare or disability or unemployment benefits for those lucky enough to be counted, and at that point they also have the tiny bit of expendable income for a latte or a Wal-Mart gun.

The long-term implications of this general direction, though, look a lot like feudalism. Increasing power and influence and cash for those at the top, increasing revolving around the top for everyone in the middle and lower rungs, sufficient pressure on the working classes to make them put up and shut up with whatever they get in order to be among the few who actually have a job. Obviously we’re not to the crisis point of this general trend yet – eighty-six-and-a-half percent is still relatively high employment compared to some places in Europe or what things could be here in a bit. That still has most people working. But what happens if the real unemployment gets to 20% and they’re reporting 5%? Is that kind of internalized pressure sustainable? How wide can the gap between reality and surreality (or at least between the reality of the rich and the reality of most people) get before something breaks?

In the meantime, as we ponder that question, the trend-line of the reporting gap and the stock market continue to be roughly correlated. And the longer that correlation takes place, the less it feels like coincidence. That doesn’t make it causal, per se, but it does mean that both could be reflections of the very deep problem of the way our society is currently designed. Corporate capitalism isn’t a better system than others; we just haven’t seen how colossally this one fails yet. But it seems most of us will be lucky enough to see this one disproven in our lifetimes, if current trends continue.

Apr 26

Let’s Talk About Class, Baby

Yesterday, I tried to tell a story about what I saw on the last APDA weekend of the year, a story about debaters and debate and ideas and personal struggles and hopes and dreams and triumphs and disappointments. It was laden in my perspective and not attempting to be particularly objective – as I believe was clear throughout the 11,000+ words, it was couched in how I saw certain people and things and events and should not be taken as an objective record, any more than any piece that any individual writes, whether it’s labeled fiction or non-, should be taken as fully objective.

I actually thought when I finished it that it was too long and rambly for anyone to fully read and that it was ultimately probably going to fail at its initial objective, which was to weave a story about class background and competitive incentives into a human tale of competitive drama on the largest APDA stage of the year. For whatever reason, this self-assessment seems to be a bit short-sighted. Lots of people read the piece, in whole or in part, and (unsurprisingly) many people had objections. Fortunately, many people addressed those objections directly to me, enabling me to both fix certain things that were not intended (shortening or omitting names so that Googling someone wouldn’t lead to that post if they didn’t want it to) and to engage with people in 1:1 conversations about what bothered them, which I think was mutually informative.

But the biggest thing that kept coming up with people who wrote me seems to be essential to address on a larger scale. And because people felt the last post was at times too personal and too direct (some even called it ad hominem, which I disagree with but understand why they said that), I want to keep this post as abstract as possible so we can explore an idea rather than people specifically. Yesterday’s post was a story about people and events. Today’s post should be about an idea. The idea of class in contemporary America and how it affects people, their perspectives, and their decisions. And perhaps that’s even jumping ahead of the cart. The preliminary question, the one that many asked me, is whether class is even something we can or should talk about at all, especially on a personal level.

I felt it was important to tell the story of Nats Finals through the lens of class because that seemed to be clearly underlying a lot of the argumentation and perspectives that people were making. I feel it’s disingenuous and kind of crazy to tell the story of NDT Nats Finals without ever mentioning race, given the nature of the arguments that Emporia State made, the demographics of the participants, the larger question that the debaters themselves were asking. And I saw the same thing happening in APDA Nats Finals, especially in the context of semifinals (which is why I told the whole narrative that way); it was essential to what was happening in Hoff Theater last Sunday that there were people of privilege and people of less and it impacted their arguments and the way they made them. I want to be clear that I don’t think it necessitated the way the round played out – someone accused me of arguing that Syracuse couldn’t engage with arguments about high finance because they were from a lower socioeconomic background, which was not my intended argument. My argument was more that class struggles and conflicts and perspectives were visibly alive in the room and those things matter to how people approach daily life in this society, much less competitive debate.

So let’s back up a few steps. Is it reasonable or fair to say that class background innately impacts one’s perspective, or can? Is it impolite to even weigh income, privilege, access, and financial resources when looking at a person and how they interact with their environment? Several of you said it was. Unsurprisingly, I disagree.

I guess the first question is whether class is an immutable characteristic, something like race or gender. I don’t think that would mean that we couldn’t cite it or discuss it, but it would mean that making arguments or generalizations based on expectations of class would be more like stereotyping or saying something unfair than it would be like discussing something valid or valuable. I think it’s clear and obvious that one cannot often choose their class – one is born where one is born and one can’t choose what one is or one’s family or surroundings any more than one can choose to be male or female. So in that sense, maybe it’s a little like race or gender. But I think it’s also clear that class is, at least theoretically, flexible. One cannot have a childhood where one is Black for a while, then White, then finishes up Korean. But it is quite possible to have that kind of flexibility in terms of class and to experience a wide gradient of class standing. Many people have had this experience growing up, myself included. And certainly in childhood, that’s less about one’s own choice than the choices of others, but that flexibility separates it from being something innate about one’s identity. The older one becomes, the more clear it is that this is a changeable part of one’s identity. It’s complicated, because someone who is born into a fabulously and effortlessly wealthy family can probably never fully shed that – they probably don’t have the means or ability to spend themselves into being poor and it’s probably unreasonable to expect someone in that perspective to walk away from their family to shed their possessions and see how the other half live, a la Into the Wild. So, it’s mutable, but not always a choice. I think this puts class squarely in a gray area of sorts between race/gender and the decisions people make in their daily life. So, understandable that people feel uncomfortable, but probably not the same kind of third-rail that discussing race/gender and making assumptions based on that would be.

Next, there’s the politeness argument. I was raised, as most everyone was (I suspect), that it’s not polite to ask someone how much money their family makes. Many people just seem to have a visceral distaste for talking about people directly as though some have more money than others, however true it may be. There are two key arguments for this, I think: one, that it’s uncomfortable for the rich to have to admit that they have more access and more things and two, that it’s embarrassing for the poor to have to admit that they don’t. This argument and perspective is deeply embedded in American culture and is probably hard for people to question. But I think this argument precisely is where we get at the heart of why it’s so important to talk about class.

First of all, I would posit that this standard is impossible. There may have been versions of America with greater wealth equality or subtler ways of spending by the rich that made this standard viable or at least aspirational, but I simply do not believe that it’s possible to hide the amount of access and freedom that money buys the rich or denies the poor in modern American society, especially not in college. There are people who always stay in hotels when they travel, who always can fly wherever they want (and do frequently), who vacation in foreign countries and resorts rather than around the corner, and these people talk about doing these things in their life. And asking those people to never discuss such things is crazy and wouldn’t work. It’s their life; they should be able to talk about their expenditures of time and money. Meanwhile, others struggle to buy a dinner that’s not provided by a tournament, get uncomfortable when there are things that require money, quietly decline to participate in Secret Santa activities or other things with money as a checkpoint because they simply can’t afford it. It’s obvious to all observers why they can’t partake in these things that would otherwise excite them – some people are subtle about why this is happening and pretend they just don’t like anything, while others are open and honest about what the score is. But all make it clear to anyone paying attention why the barriers to access are where they are.

Some of these examples are about college and the debate world, but they date to times well before that. Despite being raised on a standard of not talking about these things, I couldn’t help but come back from a friend’s house in grade school and ask why someone had three game systems I’d never heard of and we were saving up money for a black and white television. My parents were always incredibly honest with me about what our standing was, especially since we went through phases of being relatively well off and then, when my parents’ business failed, not so much. But talking about it relative to others was still a bit uncomfortable and taboo. I’m old enough now to recognize this is mostly about parental self-consciousness and feeling bad about not being able to provide the same lifestyle that other children are living. But it’s not like anyone actually succeeds at preventing children from understanding, whether they discuss it or not, precisely what’s going on.

So at the point where people are going to figure out what’s happening, and something really is happening, then I would say that muzzling discussion on class in context is a form of oppression. In our society, money is freedom. Money has been used as the blanket under which everything is covered, access to everything is dependent on and proportional to money, with a few thin exceptions like voting and our crappy public education system (arguably, since there’s access to private schools, even this is just a rigid financial access question). Money affects the quality of what you get at every level, thus impacting your future abilities and access in a vicious upward or downward spiral. So the only question is whether we can confront this issue head-on in an effort to do something about it, to mollify, mitigate, or combat it in some way, or whether it proceeds unchecked and undiscussed as a silent force.

This may be a slightly extreme dichotomy I’m painting. I’m trying to proceed with this post in a robust and intellectually honest way as though someone were arguing against me. So you might say that we don’t have to discuss it interpersonally to think about it politically. That we can discuss the abstract motivations and impacts on a societal level without bringing the individuals around us and their particular place on the ladder into play. And that crossing that line is the gulf between appropriate and inappropriate discussion.

Several reasons why I think this is not a reasonable place to draw the line and why I think that’s an extension of oppression. First of all, I would analogize it to the privilege people experience from being white or male or straight or otherwise advantaged in our society. Advocates of greater equity and self-awareness everywhere regularly ask us to “check [y]our privilege.” To be aware of the subtle and omnipresent advantages one enjoys by being in a majority category or one that has traditionally enjoyed power or position. While this is not a reason to be biased against straight white males, per se, it is quite clearly to me for straight white males (or any one of those three) to consider that what they take for granted is not the experience of others and to make extra efforts to be understanding and inclusive of others who were born into a different category. And only the most defensive straight white males would be angry for being called out as belonging to those groups and being asked to consider how different it is to be otherwise.

You could argue that you can see white maleness innately, but you can’t see wealth or class. One, I think that’s laughable on face – wealth and class come out in the way one dresses, the things one does, the decisions one makes, the stuff one has, and often the way one talks about everything in society. Also, even if it’s totally cloaked, sexual orientation is also almost completely cloaked outside of witnessing relationships directly, which many people are quite successfully private about. And the thing about the “check your privilege” standard is that it’s not just something we rely on people to do for themselves. To keep people honest, it’s often important for people to say that phrase directly to each other, to remind people who take something for granted and overlook it that they’re in a different category and point out how that impacts what they’re saying or doing in the context of others. “Check your privilege,” in other words, is kind of meaningless if it’s on the honor system. It at times requires direct confrontation in order to be effective.

And maybe this is more the place of family and friends than someone further removed in order to be effective and not make someone defensive. That an outsider or someone distant asking someone to check privilege is less effective or appropriate than someone one knows will love them at the end of the day doing same. I’m mildly persuaded by that claim, but I think major public events cross the line into something owned and shared by a wider community and that discussing this privilege and the desire to check it is a wider point of access. For example, if someone straight made a claim in a Nats Final that was clearly heteronormative, I don’t think only their close LGBT friends could question them on that. I think it would be reasonable for anyone in the audience, gay or straight, to raise the issue in a public discussion.

But I also think that not talking about it is oppressive because it’s a way of pretending that it doesn’t exist. Quite simply, when it’s deemed impolite to discuss something, it’s a way of everyone pretending that things are not the way they are. And there may be places where this is in fact appropriate behavior, if the thing we’re discussing doesn’t really impact anything or would only be the source of some sort of cruel repercussion. For example, if someone had a disability or a handicap, it doesn’t seem meaningfully important to always self-awarely point this out at every turn, because the ideal is that it should not affect that person’s ability to compete or have access. However, if someone is wheelchair-bound and the round is in a place with only stairs, then it does seem reasonable to discuss. So the standard is probably where the question of background does or might affect one’s ability to compete or one’s ability to access certain things. And I would argue that class and wealth impacts literally every aspect of access. That it is so directly proportionally tied to questions of access that it is like a question of how many ramps you have for your wheelchair.

How is this the case? Well, for one, having money and a particular societal status just makes things easier. It makes it easier to have stuff, to have flexibility, to have the freedom to be unconstrained by having to work, having to sacrifice time and energy to do certain things to enable the life one wants to live. But the perspective of having money and having been acclimated to a certain class also tends to make one’s perspective on life much easier and more filled with possibility than someone at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Someone whose family lacks resources sees the world as less filled with opportunity and often has less access to opportunities than someone who is accustomed to getting what they want. And in a world where money and connections can actually often buy access, this only gets worse over time.

More perversely, in my opinion, and I understand that this is not a belief that is necessarily held by everyone who has wealth and/or privilege, the prevailing American ethos is that the people who are in higher socioeconomic positions deserve to be there. I recognize that a lot of people are trying to fight this perception at some level and that the financial meltdown of recent years did some good in combating this misperception about capitalism. But still the vast majority of Americans believe that wealth is correlated with effort and that people are rich because they worked harder than those who are not. And this is something that categorically separates issues of class, especially in America, from things like race or gender. No one would argue that someone is White and not Black because they deserve to be treated better in some way – the very typing of that text makes me cringe with how horrific and offensive it is. And yet those are precisely the types of assumptions that underpin class distinctions in society, especially for those born into their standing.

I’m not going to take the time to prove the many things about the diminished social mobility that are true of contemporary America and especially true of any society with large wealth disparities. But it’s pretty clear that mobility is highly limited in a society where the gap between rich and poor is widening daily, that this reflects the old adage of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Which innately precludes many of the poor getting richer or the rich getting poorer. And everything in such a stratified society is structured to ensure that people continue to pursue the widening of that gap. Even in a world with a couple exceptional billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, nearly all the rich will seek to enrich themselves further at the expense of the poor, while all the poor will be powerless to combat this trend, lacking the resources to do so. And even Gates and Buffett have only changed their tune in recent years after spending years in the capitalist melee trampling the little guy, be it rival businesses or consumers, so they could get ahead and enrich themselves. These are just sort of the rules of profit-driven capitalism, but they have a deep and real affect on everyone existing in the society governed by this framework.

What all this adds up to is that very few people who start out in lower or middle classes will ever reach the upper echelons of wealth. But those that do are going to likely have to play the capitalist game to do so. Which is where another aspect of class, the one I find least controversial, comes in. Which is what one chooses to do with one’s life, one’s aspirational class, if you will. Which is where the teachers get separated from the hedge fund managers.

Now I’m not trying to paint everyone working in a hedge fund with the same broad brush entirely and maybe I did a bit too much of that in my last post. You don’t have to lie, cheat, and steal to work in a profit-obsessed firm that puts no stock in human feelings or the impacts on the bottom rungs of society. However, it’s an environment where most people are fine with pushing the limits of whatever one can get away with, where most people are making decisions that create things like Enron or 2008 or bubbles or runaway compensation for people who do nothing that actually produces, creates, or enhances anything tangible in the world whatsoever. And, quite simply, it’s hard to be a good man in a bad state. It’s hard enough to care about anything in America writ large, between our distracted media and our obsession with money and our warmongering trashing of the rest of the planet. But it gets a lot harder when one self-selects into an environment where everyone else believes in the ruthless valuation of enrichment over people, values, or principles. And again, maybe not every hedge fund office or law school is like this. But most are.

And it happens insidiously, in the way that most oppression in America does. The phenomenon is all too common. Someone wants to go to law school to be one of the good guys, to stand up for the little guy. So they take out six figures of debt to cover the future education that will help them be an advocate for the good. But then they have all this debt they have to pay off, so they work in a firm for five years. And at that firm, they represent corporations using their leverage and weight and ability to afford a talented lawyer to either beat up small corporations or actual individuals, get away with violating their rights because the legal system is a place where money can often replace truth. And while they do that, they may feel conflicted or stomach-churny, but they feel the ends justify the means and they’ll make up for it standing up for the little guy someday. All the while, their entire peer group and surroundings are people with a different set of values, people who are unapologetic about their decisions, people for whom selfishness is the primary ethos. They get accustomed to this perspective, maybe tire of arguing for alternatives that feel especially hypocritical when one is representing Big Business in some capacity daily anyway. So slowly their conviction gets eroded. Meanwhile, they start getting used to a certain lifestyle, a certain amount of comfort and expectation of flexibility, mobility, access, stuff. And they start taking that for granted, having a hard time imagining going back to a harder life of sacrifice and discomfort when they and everyone they know now enjoys this comfort. So five years become ten years, twenty. Eventually they decide that it’s just easier to ride out life for the big firm and maybe donate all their riches at the end of their life to some worthy cause. Meanwhile, they continue to perpetrate the harms on the little guy they only went to law school in order to protect.

I can only imagine this story is played out even more often in hedge funds or other financial pursuits than it is law schools. And it’s pervasive in law schools and a huge part of why things don’t change in this society. The instrument of debt ensures that those few people capable of leveraging talent and ambition into social mobility are thus hamstrung by their financial disadvantages into becoming part of the machine they might otherwise change.

So, a bunch of counter-arguments probably stem from this. One is that the increased flexibility and options make it more likely that those in the higher classes actually resist the pull of debt (no need for it) and other things and are more able to think and behave independently and stick to their liberal convictions, if applicable. Maybe. I certainly think that’s possible for those who are choosing to avoid lucrative professions altogether. Certainly there are people who are well-off who intend to become public high school teachers or join the Peace Corps or TFA or work for lower wages in a non-profit. And those people are commendable for these choices. But the fact that those who are not pursuing these things are not seems to me like valid grounds for discussing or criticizing people who instead choose to be all about the Benjamins.

Another argument is simply to question everything I’m saying about the system of American capitalism and say there’s nothing wrong with it, that rising tides float all boats and that growth and positive change stem from everyone ruthlessly pursuing their own self-interest. It’s hard for me to engage with this argument because I find it so laughable and frustrating, but this may be at the core of the class issues I’m trying to illustrate. It’s easy to argue about engines of American capitalism and quality of life standards from the top. It’s a lot harder to do this from the streets of the Tenderloin in San Francisco or other drug-addled gang-ridden neighborhoods for whom opportunity is a four-letter word. Economics is ultimately a zero-sum game and the pursuit of profit and greed creates vast inequities for those at the bottom that requires either starvation and deprivation or a massive government safety-net to try to keep those people alive. The quality of life and standard of living for most Americans has actually declined in the last five decades, since these things are mostly on a relative scale. You can watch things like this super-popular and insightful viral video to get a better sense of what I’m talking about. People rarely have any real conception of how great the wealth divides are in this country and how meaningfully that detracts from the life of the vast majority of people. And the culprit is not just capitalism, but unchecked faith in capitalism.

The final argument against what I’ve been saying actually takes me back to another debate round, another one involving Harvard that was the final round of a title tournament, one that was everything the Nats Final was not. This one featured C. and Josh, mentioned in the earlier post and here vaguely anonymized per their request, against a team from Hart House, the University of Toronto’s debating society. The resolution was not chosen by the competitors as it was a “tight-link” tournament where the competition provides the topics, but I was told later that the four competitors were all debating for the sides they personally passionately believed. This was the 2013 North American Championship, and the resolution was that a humanitarian should choose a field where they will make the most money possible and donate money to charity rather than working directly for a less lucrative pursuit in a non-profit.

This round was excellent, and a clear win for Harvard on Gov. And while I have a lot of respect for the Hart House team, I think a lot of why they dropped was that they missed some of the best counter-arguments to the perspective endorsed in the resolution. They did question whether one will still donate as much money after a time or whether they will become disaffected and uncaring, to which Harvard responded by saying this was against the terms of the resolution. And I think that’s half of the best argument. But I think the larger problem is whether one will still care about charity at all after a certain amount of time lived in a world where most other people are ruthless selfish capitalists. Both sides in that round agreed that this would be the ethos of most of those surrounding someone in such a lucrative profession. And at that point, I think it’s even less about getting accustomed to a certain standard of living or expectation of comfort. It’s about being peppered constantly by a peer group that tells you, no matter how liberal and generous you are, that you deserve all your money, that you are better than other people, and that you should just be in it for you. That’s one of the biggest problems with these class environments and how they self-select for ensuring that people are, first and foremost, guardians of inequality and the societal structures that perpetuate it.

Undoubtedly, not every class environment perpetuates this. Of course there are exceptions. In talking about phenomena, one must sometimes generalize in order to be talking about anything; otherwise the conclusion of every statement or post or article would be “Well, sometimes this but sometimes also that; things are complicated! Let’s go get a sandwich.” I would rather err on the side of something sweeping and thought-provoking that offers a direction than contemplative sandwich-eating while marveling at the world’s complexity. This is, after all, my blog.

But I think most class environments do perpetuate the things outlined above because it’s just much harder for people from privilege to be aware of it constantly, to consider how their advantages affect others, and to constantly question or rail against everyone in their environment telling them that they deserve these advantages. And these privileges probably transcend the socioeconomic, though I think they’re most pernicious there. Surely an outsider to debate might question the entire enterprise as us pressing our intellectual advantage and elitism at the expense of those unlucky enough to be born with such talents.

But that’s precisely where I disagree and why I think it’s so important for debate to be pro-intellectual but class-mitigatory (and -aware). Because debate and public speaking and rational thought are things that can be taught. Anyone from any level and any background can learn these things and be good at them. Many have disbelieved me about the truth of this statement and I would like to think that I’ve helped to prove them wrong to the extent that I’ve had any success at all on the circuit as a debater or a coach. And, unlike the pursuit of wealth or privilege, the pursuit of knowledge and rhetorical skill are more or less unmitigated goods. We would prefer a world where everyone tried to press their talents and intellect to the highest reaches. We would not prefer a world (or I wouldn’t at least, and I don’t think you should either) where everyone based all their decisions off of profit maximization and tried to edge each other out on those grounds.

And I know many representatives of Harvard in the prior post would then say that their case was trying to be intellectually challenging and stimulating. I believe that many of them sincerely felt this was the case. A lot of what I was trying to do in yesterday’s post was illustrate sufficient context to show why many many people did not feel that way. Which has to do with history and tactics as well as class. Without 2005 and 2012 as backdrops, there’s no way that 2013 would have been perceived the way it was.

So all of that prompts a question about where the lines of what intellectual rigor is and isn’t, how much access people should have and knowledge and ability to keep up with speedier discussion and all that. I’m not looking to entirely rehash yesterday so much as explicate some of the more controversial stuff and why I went there. So we’ll leave that for another time and it’s probably better placed in quieter 1:1 discussions.

My point is merely to say that we all know class is there. We can all see its vast manifestations, how it comes across in the sense of entitlement and privilege of many people, the access they have, the expectations they have about their future and how they contrast with others with different upbringing. And this diversity of background, in the right attitude, is an asset to be celebrated and explored and examined carefully. One of the great things about APDA is that it does bring people, like the best college experiences, from widely differing monetary (and other) backgrounds together and shoves them forward into a marketplace of ideas. But we are doing ourselves a disservice if we ignore this diversity or deem it impolite to discuss, even in its personal manifestations. It is the failure to question profit as an end-all and be-all motive that has enabled the vast escalation of wealth disparity in our society. If we fail to point out how class colors our perspectives and access now, we are only magnifying the harms of past mistakes and dooming ourselves to a future where we can’t consider or correct the increasing divides between us.

Apr 25

The Battle of Hoff Theater: My Thoughts on APDA Nationals Finals 2013

Whenever I talk about APDA to prospective debaters, I almost always lead with how free-form and open our form of American Parliamentary debate is. I contrast it with debate styles like policy and even the big three of contemporary high school debate (Cross-Examination, Lincoln-Douglass, and Public Forum), citing how comparatively little research is necessary, how little repetition there is from round to round. The would-be debaters, future speakers and leaders of an age of public speaking, get wide-eyed looks on their faces.

“You mean… I can talk about… anything?”

Anything.” My emphatic response.

It takes about thirty seconds, maybe a minute for the most intrepid, for the fear to set in. They do the math in their head and stop considering what a privilege this is to stand up before judges, audiences, people of all kinds waiting to be persuaded, and talk about what one wants to talk about. They turn the tables, remember the harsh high school lessons of learning what bastards other people can be, and wonder aloud, “But what if I don’t know anything about the topic that someone else wants to talk about?”

And then, perhaps disingenuously, I explain to them that the standard is anything an average well-informed college student would know about. I offer them the checks our league has instated, things like Points of Clarification (absent during my debating career, but a mainstay of my coaching time) wherein the Opposition team can query the Government almost endlessly about the topic to ensure they have fair ground for debate, and norms that people not run anything too weighted to one side. I usually quietly omit the additional check of tight calls, the technical debate term for how the opposition asks the judge to adjudicate on the issue of fairness rather than the points in the round. I quietly omit that many teams deliberately play with the line of “spec knowledge,” the norm we have against basing arguments on technical or obscure facts and citations to give themselves an advantage. I focus on the fun rounds, the opportunity to discuss individual choices in everyday settings, the chance to explain to a stranger why you feel so passionately about an issue, large or small, that affects the way we live.

The hope is that this person is so intrigued and excited about debate that they will not mind so much when the inevitable round comes along that puts them to sleep, that makes them, if briefly, regret their decision to come to debate. The round about minute details of insurance law, the round about tiny variations in interest rates, the round about something truly interesting where the speaker spoke so fast it was impossible for anyone to keep up except, somehow, the Prime Minister’s partner and judge. These rounds take people inspired by arrival and training in a new debate format and make them want to leave the activity. They take something that is generally supposed to be a conversation and turn it into a lecture, a monologue, a one-way fight where the team presenting the case, theoretically to be interesting, persuasive, and engaging, cares merely about out-pacing their opponents than why they joined debate in the first place. Hopefully, by the time they are complaining to me about that round, these new recruits to debate are so hooked on the good stuff, the discourse, the really engaging and exciting rounds, the inspirational speakers who eloquently run circles around them on the basis of years of experience, that they stick around.

I am a coach on APDA. I have been coaching the Rutgers team, voluntarily and then professionally, for a full four seasons, three of them at an obsessive, daily level. I have failed to attend only three tournaments in the last three years on a “season” that offers a slate of 26-28 scheduled weekend tournaments a year. Each tournament is a grueling 36-hour affair from midday Friday to the end of Saturday with between two and ten hours of travel tacked on in each direction. Competitors and often coaches sleep on hard dorm floors in sleeping bags between the first three and last two preliminary rounds, dreaming of hopes of the “break,” advancing to quarterfinals (or, at the large tournaments, octofinals), the single-elimination playoff rounds that are all the more pivotal for being judged by a panel of adjudicators rather than a single decider. The Rutgers team has grown from a small huddled handful of 8-12 students to a team that regularly offers 60-65 students a year the chance to compete at official tournaments, while educating or training a couple dozen more who are considering competition when their schedule smooths out. The team has gone from unranked to 24th to 5th to 9th to 3rd under my tenure. Make no mistake, I want to win.

But, as I did in my four years competing for Brandeis, I want to win the right way. And, unlike a seemingly increasingly loud chorus on the league and perhaps US society in general, I believe there is a right way. There is no question that part of the strategy of the chess game that is debate is scouting opponents, learning and understanding the cases and subjects they tend to run, and anticipating their strengths while playing to their weaknesses. Playing the right way does not require one to disadvantage oneself inordinately, to run only economics against future financiers and only political theory against would-be presidents. However, there are limits to the advantage one should push, and these are not merely checked by the ability of the other side to ask Points of Clarification (PoCs) or to call a case “tight” (unfair) in a technical way during the round. And indeed, one of the greatest checks of all is often that people are not always expert at discussing their most well-known subjects. My most frequent college partner, on my team when we won the North American Championships, Adam Zirkin, famously melted down in a round the year prior about pharmaceuticals that the other team bravely ran against him. This despite Zirkin’s primary field of study and expertise being same. His explanations were far too detailed and technical to be accessible to the common judge and they lost the audience and the round. When we found ourselves in NorthAms quarters against a fearsome dino team, they chose the same strategy. But Zirk had learned the lessons from that prior contest and I was able to provide a sufficient general framework to fend off the Gov team and take the round.

This is not, or shouldn’t be, a post about me. It is about me, a bit, or a lot, because it’s about my perspective on what may prove to be the most pivotal round for the entire APDA league in my time coaching, however long that will be. It was a round that made clear, almost immediately, seconds into the second speech (LOC, or Leader of Opposition Constructive) that it would carry that kind of weight. It was a round that people couldn’t stop talking about for days after, until one of the league’s leaders asked people to stop talking about it, and then they only stopped talking about it on the league’s internet forum. It’s a round that has haunted me since it ended, that I wake up each morning thinking about, mulling, considering, repackaging in my head. Scenes from the final round have been with me in restless sleep and idle afternoons, now four days since the round’s conclusion. It was dramatic and riveting and polarizing, as debate should be in its best form. And yet almost everyone agrees that the end product was far from debate in its best form, each team and especially its supporters blaming the other side for the mangled, sad representation of the league that was ultimately displayed in its most-watched platform of the year.

This is about me, though, a bit. This is my personal blog. These are my thoughts. This was the eleventh APDA National Final I have attended, almost certainly a record for the league. I have, in person, judged, watched, or debated against every National Finalist since 1998, save one. That is Anish Mitra of Stanford, who I tabbed 2011 Nationals with. I have a pretty good grasp on the institutional evolution of APDA as a league and how it has changed and not changed over time. I am firmly of the belief, contrary to most shorter-term “dinos” (the semi-affectionate term for former debaters used league-wide since well before my time) that the overall quality of debaters is almost precisely fixed and stagnant. Many debaters suffer under the illusion that debaters were far better when they were novices and are far worse after they have graduated, simply because of their own relative evolutionary process and relative skill to the greats of the circuit.

This is an easily explicable, if flawed, phenomenon. One remembers being devastated by seniors when one was a novice and thus misremembers them as being perfect at debate, rather than one’s own shortcomings that made them see that way. One then remembers how bad the novices seemed when one was a senior, putting them two notches below the greats of their own novice year. Then one judges those novices as seniors, easily besting the current day’s novices, who can’t even give those seniors a challenge. And thus one concludes that each year’s novice class is substantially worse than the class before, simply because of one’s own biased perspective as an improving debater. I was never especially prone to this fallacy, but I certainly have excised it after fifteen years in some contact with the circuit and eleven National Championships attended.

This is all merely a way of trying to vouch for my credentials, which itself is another reason people like to say debate was better in their day, whether it was or not. Dinos are often remembered as greats and go to great lengths to preserve that reputation. In our own weird little culture of college debate, it’s cool and credible to regale present stars with stories of greatness, feats of heroism, funny anecdotes of triumph in the face of adversity. I do the same. We all do it. Everyone who debates has a part of them, large or small, that just loves talking and loves the act of being listened to. Some take this to an extreme of attention-seeking, while most are able to balance this slightly narcissistic tendency with concern for others and an equal amount of listening. We’ve all met tons of people who fall on each side of the line and keeping that line straight is one of the many challenges of being active in this activity for years on end.

This piece is getting long and I haven’t even really gotten to the tournament. I’ll admit that I’m taking some inspiration, both in tone and in approach, from Scott Harris’ incredible ballot for the 2013 NDT Final Round. Many of you debate types have probably already read that, in whole or in part, and you should go do so and return to my piece here in about a week, since that will take you on a journey down a debate rabbit hole far deeper than this probably will. NDT is one of two National Championships for the college policy circuit and this year, for the first time in history, both of them (CEDA being the other) were won by the same partnership, a team from Emporia State University in Kansas. I got an e-mail about this a few days after it happened, because one of the debaters from Emporia State is actually a Rutgers-Newark student on some sort of exchange to Emporia, one who came to New Brunswick for a public debate between Rutgers-Newark’s budding policy team and my own parliamentary Debate Union at the flagship campus. His name is Elijah Smith and he’s an immediately engaging, charming, brilliant capable individual who is very open about his views, as most debaters are. Rutgers-Newark was treating the victory like a win for Rutgers-Newark, which it is, in a way, since Smith was raised in Newark and reared on the training of Kurt Shelton, both in high school and especially college, before he left the Newark team before this season for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me, but probably, unfortunately, have something to do with institutional support. As someone who has enjoyed immense institutional support at his sister school, this fills me with a sad sort of empathy and wistfulness.

The policy circuit long ago decided how they feel about spreading, a late ’60’s invention in debate, that transformed that league and several others into a race of auctioneering-level speed-talking instead of eloquent persuasion. Which is not to say that people in policy debate are never eloquent or capable of persuasion, but what passes for argumentation on that league would sound like a literal low hum to the untrained ears of those outside of it. Policy or cross-ex style debate exists on both the high school and college levels. Phillips 66, who sponsors the National Forensic League (NFL, a joke that everyone has made already), famously sent corporate representatives to watch the final round of policy debate in the late 1970’s and were appalled that they could literally not comprehend a single argument in the round because they were all being delivered too quickly. They threatened to withdraw funding unless a new form of debate were created to cater to eloquence, persuasion, public speaking poise, and the things that most people unaware of policy associate with the word “debate.”

Thus was Lincoln-Douglass born. This was a format I devoted much of five years to, being able to debate in 8th grade as a novice amongst New Mexico high schoolers and going on to compete four full varsity years thereafter. During my time on the circuit, LD was starting to experience a schism wherein some people felt it was appropriate to start spreading, or speaking more quickly, to gain an advantage, while most maintained the original goals for which the event was literally created. Since debate is judged primarily on the “flow,” or the tracking of arguments and which are rebutted and which aren’t, most debate formats engage in a struggle of whether speaking faster to get more arguments in is a legitimate strategy or an abuse of the point of debating. This battle has been lost on the LD circuit since a bit after my graduation from high school, as all but a handful of regional pockets now utilize and expect the spread (the etymology of this is “speed-reading,” but now refers to any sort of auctioneer-level fast-talking, whether reading or speaking on the fly) and former LDers collide with parliamentary circuits like APDA expecting to race in more arguments rather than implement traditional techniques of oratorical persuasion.

Policy debate, interestingly however, has also implemented another check on this and other tactics, which is enabling a literally endless amount of meta-debate. Meta-debate, as you might guess, is debating about debate, wherein the idea of what is being debated and how are, themselves, debatable issues in the round. The amount of meta-debate which is appropriate for APDA has been the subject of much discussion (meta-meta-debate) throughout my time on APDA as a competitor and a coach, with a burgeoning group of former policy debaters encouraging more of it to enforce unwritten rules that some teams increasingly are trying to bend. For example, in my day it was an absolute taboo to re-run the same case at the same tournament. When the practice of people violating this taboo regularly came to my attention, I started what proved to be a bit of a firestorm in calling this out. The range of suggestions to check this practice was from nothing at all (the practice is acceptable) to absolute rules to shaming-based norms to just asking and hoping that people would be good about it. But one suggestion was that this itself should become an issue in the round to be debated, whether it was fair or not that someone was reusing a case to gain a tactical advantage when most people would not do so.

As a result of its embracing of meta-debate, policy debate in both high school and college has experienced a revolutionary backlash to the spread and the tubs and tubs of research (probably now being replaced by computer files in eras of faster computing and baggage fees on airlines) formerly required to compete. A number of debaters, many of them minorities, have begun meta-debates that critique the expected investment of time and energy and lip-loosening that traditional research-heavy spread policy requires. They have offered that even discussing the topic prescribed is unimportant in the face of inequalities and injustices that flow from the expectations of their league and its format. And, amazingly, they are winning. The Emporia State debaters, the first ever pair to unite the NDT and CEDA titles under one banner, use precisely this tactic. They do spread a bit, especially in opening speeches, but they often use plain language that is comprehensible, and even stand to deliver it (spread speeches are often given seated, something incomprehensible as a debate tactic in my eyes). The spread was justified initially by an “anything-goes” approach to debate, that truly any tactic or approach to debate was fair game. And now it has come full circle, home to roost, where the people are seeing what “anything-goes” really means.

You can watch the NDT final round and judge for yourself here.

You can’t watch the APDA Nationals final round, though. You can watch the Nationals Finals from every year since I graduated online, except and until 2013. You can watch the 2003 Final in which I cast the last and deciding vote of the judging panel at the tournament hosted by Brandeis. You can watch every year since, cases Goved by Cornell and Harvard and Princeton and even Boston University. (Although, interestingly, I just checked and many finals that used to be up seem to have disappeared. I’m assuming this is a technical glitch and not a deliberate decision by some debaters to revoke consent to those previously available rounds.) But you won’t be able to see 2013 because nearly everyone found it to be a disgrace to the circuit and the league and, for some, even the very idea of debate. And no one wants those prospective recruits I opened with deciding how they feel about debating on the basis of that as its example.

Example. Used often in debate to illustrate a point or to magnify the impact of an argument. Nationals Finals is supposed to be an example. It’s supposed to be the emblem of the culmination of what debate means to all its participants. It’s supposed to illuminate and inspire, to take the back-bench novices who barely clawed to Nationals and show them what they could be in a few years. It’s supposed to be immediately visible to outsiders as a showcase of eloquence, persuasion, intellect, and education. It should teach someone something about themselves, about others, about what it means to be alive on this planet. It should elevate debate beyond a contest of wills and an effort to win an argument, transcending what we do weekly and reminding us why we all spend so much damn time and energy on it.

There is a thread in the internet forum for our league that argues there are no such restrictions or expectations of Nationals Finals. That it is merely another round where people are trying to win and that, in short, “anything goes.” If you want to bore people, to spread, to insult and jeer, to make a round as pedestrian as possible, then that is your right by virtue of arriving on that stage. Those who advocate for anything not nailed down being in play are ardently calling for anyone criticizing a National Final case choice to be eternally muzzled. Don’t criticize unless you’ve been there, and even then, try not to. It’s all about the W, nothing more.

It should probably not be surprising that the rise in this belief pattern comes at the same time that finance and economics have become the dominant future field for most top debaters, replacing law. A cursory glance at the history of high finance, hedge funds, big banks, and economics in general reveals that the last decade in the United States has brought an unparalleled belief in the magic of markets and the power of greed to override any other concerns. 2008 would have been the clarion call to action, regulation, temperance, and sanity in almost any other society, but in the US it was a mere speedbump en route to ever increasing salaries for the rich and ruthless. Only a handful of left-wingers gathering overnight in parks were mounted as counterspeech to this burgeoning national ethos when all prior era political scientists would’ve predicted full-blown revolution. But the US and its citizens are too comfortable for revolutions, too self-satisfied and assured to question things at a fundamental level. It is both why I find debate to be one of the only intellectually satisfying pursuits in such a society and why part of me feels deeply ashamed to spend so much time and energy on it (3,500 words and counting here to top it off!) in the face of much more basic and fundamental human suffering elsewhere. It is the grand conflict that envelops my soul and keeps me honest and self-critical on a daily basis.

Is there a parallel between the bottom line of a hedge fund and the obsession with just getting the W in a debate round? To me, it’s beyond obvious. Do whatever it takes. Lie, cheat, steal, press your advantage, do what you have to do to secure the win. And while we haven’t actually gotten to the point where people are openly stealing casebooks or stabbing the MG (Member of Government, second speaker for that team) in the midst of the round, those who justify re-running cases or spreading or boring someone out of the competition are not making justifications that I find distinct from those that would justify the more extreme advantage-seeking in kind, merely in degree. And nowhere is this becoming more clear than in the last two Nationals Finals.

In 2005, Opp was riding an absurdly long winning streak in Nationals Finals. Gov usually used the platform of reaching the final round to do what everyone did with Final rounds in those days, to discuss something important, meaningful, and moving, OR to discuss something they truly believed in with implications for everyone. The arguments were passionate and profound and the last round of the year nearly always left people feeling whole and good about what they had the opportunity to behold. There was rarely an expectation of winning, though there was often a hope. My teammates, Jordan Factor and Adam Zirkin, made Nationals Finals my sophomore year and I heard their discussion right before they went to prep their case after they’d chose to Gov. “Everyone remembers who was in Finals,” Jordan told Zirk. “I want to give this PMR. I believe it. I don’t care if we win. People will remember.” They proceeded to run that race-based affirmative-action is the best kind of affirmative action, a case considered all but falsistic in that era when socioeconomic affirmative-action was a cutting-edge case that was widely believed. The round was won by the MO (Member of Opposition, second speaker for that side), Jeremiah Gordon, an African American, giving perhaps the best speech of his life on why race should not be the deciding factor in admission. Jordan, who was also top speaker at the tournament, was all smiles after the announcement they’d lost. He got to give the PMR (closing speech) he wanted.

In 2001, a liberal Princeton team advocated that the Welfare State was the best form of government, while in 2002, a libertarian NYU team advocated that the Libertarian State was best. In 2003, in the wake of sweeping societal cases, UVa went small with a case about a dollar’s worth of loose change and whether to give it to a homeless man, widely regarded as the best final round case ever for its simple ability to cut to much larger questions of life and living. In 2004, Cornell questioned a basic principle of our justice system and whether we should ever give up on people entirely. And then we got to 2005.

In 2005, there was a three-way tie for TOTY (Team of the Year), the annual ranking of partnerships in APDA. None of those teams, all known for their innovative cases, reached the final round, but a team from Harvard, both named Alex, did. Known for pushing the boundaries of tight cases, they selected a case about Harvard, one that they felt was tight, in the wake of the scandal dismissing their own school’s president. They advocated against the departure of their own school’s president in a National Final. While I wasn’t there, several sources have said the only preparation they did before the round was speculating on whether the case would be called tight and concluding that no one would have the guts to “ruin” the Nationals Finals by making a tight-call.

The shockwaves were large. Not only did the tactic pay off, ducking a possible tight call and winning the round for Gov, but no former members of the league, none of the cadre of dinos I discussed this with, could believe that Harvard had taken the platform of the Nats Finals stage and run a case about… Harvard. This wasn’t something whose simple elegance somehow applied to everyone. It was a team running a case about their school, mostly with spec knowledge about their president on an issue only cursorily followed outside of Cambridge. It was shocking, not only in its myopia, but in its obvious statement that winning was pre-eminent, at all costs.

Lest anyone think that I’m being hypocritical as a successful debater calling out others for winning, I will remind people that I had the opportunity to choose a Finals case at a title tournament once. Not only in my daydreams, where I entered sophomore, junior, and senior Nationals with open opp-choice cases about wide societal issues discussed in an accessible way. But also in real life, when Zirk and I chose to Gov in the North American Championships Finals in the last year that one could wholesale choose their case in that tournament. We elected to run a three-way opp-choice case, allowing Opp to choose just one of the three options and setting our burden as defending why both of the other two were preferable. We placed the speaker (judge) in the position of Simon Wiesenthal during his time in a concentration camp. An SS officer was on his deathbed of natural causes and had asked Simon to his bedside through the instructions to his adjutant of “bring me a random Jew.” The officer dismissed the adjutant and asked Simon whether “he could ever forgive him for what he had done to his [Simon's] people?” The choices we offered were to say “yes,” say “no,” or say nothing.

The round is the most cherished of my career, not only because of the case and not only because we won the round, but also because of how fairly and nobly the Opp, Columbia’s Harry Layman and the late Jeff Williams, engaged with the case. They chose forgiveness and argued passionately for it in the midst of a time when Jeff and I were bitter rivals and neither of us were choosing to be terribly forgiving. The round is a testament to his legacy and the fact that it was not recorded in audio or visual saddens me daily.

I raise this story not to get preachy or pat myself on the back, though I am proud of that moment, but to prove that I’m not just slinging mud at certain case choices without ever having been there. I’ve been there. I know the stakes and the pressure that takes over. I know the selfishness and the voice of the future you might be denying yourself by being 2nd in a title instead of first. But I also know that there are, ultimately, greater concerns than the W, greater concerns than giving yourself every chance to win.

The main reason this is true is because there is an audience. Because football is still more popular than debate, we do not have our preliminary rounds (outside of Nationals, which is quite well-attended) in front of throngs of people. Most rounds are five people in a room, with the only spectator also serving as adjudicator. As the break is announced and we proceed to elimination rounds, small crowds are visible, culminating in the final round, where a couple dozen people might attend. In my day, those numbers were much larger despite the somewhat smaller size of the circuit overall then, largely because there was an expectation that people stay for the entire tournament. As an added incentive, there was also a floor vote where each member of the audience chose to exit the room through the Gov door or Opp door at the round’s conclusion, both clearing the room for the judges to decide in peace and offering a public counter-weight to the opinions of the elite row of usually dino judges. People sometimes voted for their friends or teammates, but more often took their role as a judge seriously, flowing the round and deliberating heavily before choosing a door. Their votes were not weighted equally with the judging panel, of course – usually the entire floor vote constituted about a third of the final vote, with the panel getting two-thirds. But a close round could certainly be tipped by the proportional vote of the floor, which itself could be tipped by a handful of thoughtful individuals. It gave everyone an investment in the round and, in turn, required Govs to try to do well to impress people.

Of course, not every final was a showcase. Periodically, the teams on both sides were exhausted and short of energy and caring about what the round looked like, since all participants in the round had just qualified for Nationals by winning semifinals (this used to be the APDA standard before our current system of points accumulation for qualling). So there were some rounds that today would be called “trolling,” where people didn’t much care about the outcome as the 1st and 2nd place trophies were considered almost equally good. People would run cases about Santa Claus or the Cat in the Hat or even hold rounds where more cases were introduced each speech and the goal was to be funnier than the floor speeches that offer a break between constructives and rebuttals in a final round on APDA. Here many floor voters would express their displeasure by refusing to vote for either side, a last way the audience could exert their wishes over the tenor and quality of a final round.

These days, people don’t stay that often for final rounds at regular season tournaments. A whole team will stay to pound for their side, and sometimes people who are geographically proximate to the tournament in question. There are a wide range of reasons for this. The floor vote was removed sometime in the late 2000’s from the last few tournaments still using it, deemed as unfair for contests between large and small teams. The expectation of more teams being in the break has increased, somewhat commensurate with the size of tournaments and the league, but not entirely. My freshman year (1998-99), only one tournament broke to octos (including the title tournaments) and that was Swarthmore, which ran the gimmick of having four rounds on Friday and then breaking to octos after four rounds instead of quarters after five. They also ran this tournament during March Madness, printed the bracket, and allowed people to bet on it. It was fun, if not entirely without corruption. Nowadays, partial octos or octos are expected of almost every tournament over 60 teams. This is probably better for competitive fairness overall, with most all 4-1’s able to break, but it also fuels delays and exhaustion, and ultimately empty houses for final rounds.

But not at Nationals. At Nationals, everyone stays. Everyone. The -OTY awards (annual season-long achievement for Colleges, Teams, Speakers, and Novices) are given after Finals, the National tournament awards are given, the Distinguished Service Awards (always a surprise to their recipients) are announced, and usually someone (lately, me, though not this year) gives a speech about our fallen heroes, Chris Porcaro and Jeff Williams, before which the awards given in their honor are distributed. And, before all that, the Final is held. The National Final Round, the crowning glory of our league, the culmination of all our effort to distill the best in speaking, debating, strategizing, and thinking.

In 2006, one of the great teams of all-time, Johns Hopkins’ Jon Bateman and Michael Mayernick, wanted to contrast themselves with the previous final round, showing “what APDA can be” as Mayernick noted in his opening remarks in PMC (the opening speech). The founders of the league were in attendance, having been given some of the first DSAs. I was on the final round panel. They asked whether a redemptive or condemnatory ending was better for the Faust myth. It reminded me instantly of my NorthAms Final, the question of forgiveness, the question of what it means to do wrong in this world and how that should be dealt with. It was a weighty question with a touch of artistry, it was a beautiful case. The round itself, however, was not that pretty, as Opp chose to complain about the case, critiquing it for not being sufficiently clear in practical, everyday impacts. To my utter disbelief, Opp was rewarded for their complaining by a 2-1 margin on the very large panel, with me vehemently squirreling (to vote in the minority of the panel).

2007 saw a Princeton team with no expectation of even breaking at Nationals Gov in the Final, and they stated that every college student should be a vegetarian. A weighty moral issue that applies to everyone. In 2008, Princeton repeated their appearance and asked a question about the limits of debate itself, inquiring whether a scientist should deign to debate an advocate of intelligent design theory. In 2009, Johns Hopkins asked whether a Sunni Iraqi should join the insurgency, bringing the ethics of the ongoing war in Iraq home to roost in a profound and personal way that questioned our assumptions of what “terrorism” really means. Then, in 2010, Harvard got to Gov in Nats Finals again.

The Harvard team that Goved that Nats Finals is categorically different than most other Harvard teams that achieve at that level. R. Kyle Bean and Cormac Early had significantly more quirk and personality than the reputation of the typical Harvard debaters of their era (or most any era), with Bean especially being known for all manner of antics and flair. While I wasn’t in their huddle (I was at the round), I don’t doubt that the specter of 2005 loomed large over their decisions about what case to confront Johns Hopkins with. They didn’t want to be the Harvard team running a case about Harvard. They didn’t want to run something tight. They did, perhaps, want to demonstrate their lively demeanor in contrast to the extremely staid (but effective) team on the other bench, Vivek Suri and Sean Withall. So they ran a case about whether a religious family, given the opportunity, should give their child 18 years of the silent treatment if they would receive “magic empathy” for all other people at the conclusion of their childhood.

In retrospect, the case choice and the round were a bit of a bust. Aside from an amusing remark during PoCs where Bean told Suri “Surely even you must have felt empathy at some point, Vivek,” the round was a muddled mess and Opp won more by default than by skill. It was clear to me and to many watching that Harvard was valiantly trying to make a showcase round about weighty questions that are accessible and matter to people, but that this particular manifestation had gotten a little too weird and narrow and obscure in the translation to the spoken round. Perhaps that experience would color Vivek’s future choices as a coach of the Harvard team in the years to come.

But the next year, Vivek was coaching the Boston University team of Alex Taubes and Greg Meyer that won TOTY and were expected to triumph at Nationals. Meyer had his best career tournament, winning second speaker over the more highly regarded Taubes, and the team rolled to Finals, where they ran the case that all drugs should be legalized against an unbelievably unexpected pair of Yale sophomores. They won handily while still offering a case about something that mattered to everyone in the room, relied on accessible arguments, was spoken in a clear and comprehensible tone.

Then came 2012. In that year, last year, Harvard ran a case to challenge the limits of 2005’s capacity for obscurity, boredom, and this time, introducing a bit of spreading for good measure. This team was already developing a bit of a reputation for using the tactics of boredom and fast-talking to their advantage and had begun attempting tab-scratches and receiving at least scratches (the way debaters can avoid being judged by certain people) on me for comments I’d made about the creeping infiltration of spreading into APDA. Seeing myself as a guardian of the style, I have advocated against spreading creeping into APDA after seeing how LD was gutted by it, how Public Forum had to be created for eloquence and slower speaking just as LD was made before it. I envision an era when high school debate carries 37 debate styles, 36 of which are spread debate in various formats and the 37th of which has recently been invented to combat spreading.

Every time I’ve critiqued spreading on APDA, most people have either chided me that debate on APDA isn’t nearly fast enough to be spreading (yet) or insisted that there is something innate to the APDA format that will prevent spreading from succeeding, because too many orators can just make fun of the tactic and talk about big picture issues. Most judges still don’t adjudicate entirely on dropped points, despite the efforts of spread debaters to get them to do so, but rather on a holistic impression of the round. But the last two Final Rounds, especially 2013, have challenged the veracity of this statement in my eyes. But first, some context. As though the 6,500 words currently in this post were not context enough!

In 2012, C. and (another) Alex ran that the exclusionary rule should be replaced by a tort system. Depending on the reports, it was either the second or third case about small aspects of the exclusionary rule they’d run that tournament. The case was presented in a way that most found to be confusing, and all found to be incredibly boring. And while theoretically any of us might at some point be facing a situation wherein we’re accused of a crime and the police cheat to get us put away, I don’t think most people on APDA imagine themselves there. Most people do not find procedural justice at this minute a detail to be that vital. And almost no one found the way Harvard argued it in this round to be worthy of the interest, spark, and inspiration that we expect from a Nationals Final Round.

The round was ugly and few were at their best. The crowd was dissatisfied in the extreme and expressed it. The case made no sense to me until Vivek’s now-becoming-annual coach floor speech in which he explained a key facet of the case that had eluded sufficient background until that moment – one could practically see the lightbulbs illuminating over the heads of each in the audience. The Opp floor speech roundly excoriated Harvard for their case choice. The decision, by the slimmest margin, went to the Government. My de facto Assistant Coach that year, Dave Reiss, and I discussed the round shortly before the decision was announced and agreed, through pained and gritted teeth, that Gov had probably done just enough to win despite the desire we both would have had as judges to penalize them for ruining Nats Finals.

So, now, finally, we get to 2013. Last weekend. The day that won’t leave me alone, albeit only 100 hours or so after it was over. Again, the context is critical.

Rutgers had brought a school-record five teams to Nationals and they slowly thinned out over the course of the longest day that exists on the APDA circuit, the second day of Nats, the day when rounds 3, 4, 5, and 6 drag on almost endlessly amidst the sturdiest competition and most stressful stakes of the year. To make the cut of the top 16, the octofinals, one needs a 4-2 record with very good speaker scores – it’s usually the top half of the 4-2 field, but speaks have escalated at Nationals lately (not like they have in policy, but a fair amount), to the point where the breaking 4-2’s must average scores that would make them top ten speakers at most tournaments during the regular year. Going into round six, we had three teams still in the hunt, one on 4-1 and two on 3-2. One of the 3-2 teams (correctly) assumed they were already out of the race on speaker points, however, while the other figured (again, correctly) that they were very much in the race. All three were Gov in round six and went in with high hopes of securing a winning record and giving themselves at least a slim hope of hearing their name announced at the Banquet that night.

After Senior Speeches, in which Syracuse senior David Kopel called on the entire league to be more entertaining, gutsy, and intriguing in rounds, especially final rounds, and two of our own seniors, Chris Bergman and Bhargavi Sriram, also bid farewell to the circuit, the break was announced. While two of our three teams had won, the high-speaking 3-2 had been tanked out of the break. But the 4-1 was the other winner and they had clinched a 5-1 record and what we would later find out was the 6th seed in the octofinal draw. Euphoric, we gathered for pictures, offered condolences to non-breaking teams, and prepared for the fastest, most exciting day of debate on APDA, the Nats out-rounds.

We drew Syracuse, who was assigned to Gov by virtue of having had fewer Govs throughout preliminary rounds. Bergman, Ashley Novak, and I huddled around discussing the myriad of fun, philosophical, religious, and open-ended cases that Syracuse (Kopel and Samm Costello) were known to employ. We were excited having drawn this team, knowing that Kopel would never run something dull in light of his moralizing speech the night before, knowing how he’d come to Rutgers just this semester and won top speaker by running fascinating philosophical explorations as cases. We knew that not only would this play to our strengths, but it would make for a great showcase round, a great way to go out if indeed we did.

But something happened on the way to that Gov for Syracuse. Initially, my suspicions were that it was a strategic move, that they knew Rutgers was strong on philosophy and fun and they thought they’d zag to boring. In retrospect, I believe they were instead concerned about the panel, chaired by one V. Suri, who’d opped magical empathy with derision, who’d helped write exclusionary torts and choose it for Nats Finals just the year before. Flanked by judges who were not known for their sense of fun, the panel probably intimidated ‘Cuse out of their normal file and led them to choose obscure aspects of medical malpractice insurance. We lost on a 2-1, with both judges voting against us saying it was a narrow decision that we were winning until late in PMR.

We were of course stunned and devastated, then immediately felt conflicted. In many ways, we would normally root for Syracuse, an underdog school who runs fun cases, to at least go on and carry our banner if we could not do so ourselves. At the same time, what Syracuse team was this that had just given us something about medical malpractice when we were expecting ancient kingdoms or a clash of big ideas? Confused and bewildered, the team scattered to various quarterfinals, most choosing a Yale civil war between four highly touted seniors in what would be half of their last rounds. I was lucky enough to be judging that round, a true showcase about how individuals should donate their money.

In semifinals, I was judging the Syracuse team, who’d employed a fun philosophical opp-choice case to handily carry their quarterfinal against Brown. They were Opp against this year’s TOTY, Yale’s Robert Colonel and Ben Kornfeld, known for their penchant for cases about economics as future hedge fund employees. In a move that surprised no one, Colonel opened his speech with a discussion of economics, leading to the case that there should be a consumption tax instead of an income tax.

The round was not great. The case, despite the trappings of somewhat obscure econ, was actually slowly delivered and quite clear, relying less on jargon than on the common sense logic that is supposed to be the mainstay of argumentation in our format of debate. However, Kopel had no interest in the case, delivering an LOC that went less than seven minutes of an allotted eight-and-a-half, something unheard of for good novices, let alone varsity seniors in the National Semifinal. He looked bored, defeated, and frustrated, making relatively weak arguments against something that seemed not to interest him. Left little to fight against, Kornfeld then retorted with a highly repetitive MG, making the same somewhat jargony claims again and again to fill time and reaffirm Colonel’s statements.

Then Costello got up to deliver the MOC. And things changed in a hurry.

She made it personal, nearly yelling at the panel and the assembled audience of over a hundred. She screamed “This is my coming-out party, APDA, because I am [bleeping] poor.” She excoriated the Gov for making assumptions about the rationality of economic incentives when her family didn’t know how to spend money and just did whatever they could to try to get by. It was a moving speech and it took people out of the round and made them think about larger questions than what was being discussed right there. While I was very certain by the end of the round, after LOR was again underwhelming and PMR was rather persuasive, that Gov had won, I briefly considered casting a protest-vote for the Opp on the grounds of their bravery and the importance of calling the attention of an all too ivory-towered academic league to the issues that truly affect real people. While I’d found Gov persuasive, they had also seemed incredibly out of touch with the plight of the people they were allegedly trying to help in their case and this seemed worthy of observing. When I cast my ballot ultimately for Gov, I had no doubt that all six other panelists would do the same.

I was wrong. The decision was a 4-3 for Syracuse.

Vivek was one of the other two in our camp of three squirrels. He intoned in his trademark withering Snape voice that “I found the MO’s personal appeals uncompelling,” as the judges began their return to General Assembly to deliver the verdict. The other judges assured him they had voted less on personal appeals than the argument that Opp had most compellingly made, that rich Americans would escape a consumption tax by spending money earned in the States overseas, thus depleting already washed out American tax rolls further. I had found that to be the one argument on the flow Opp had won, but that it was ultimately marginal and insufficient to override Gov’s other benefits.

Vivek then went to huddle with his Harvard team, junior Josh and sophomore Ben, who were soon announced to have won their semifinal on a 5-2 split. I was excited to learn that the Brandeis team who’d Goved that round, Keith Barry and Russell Leibowitz, had run a case I’d originally written, a case I wanted to desperately run in a final round and eventually got to in my last final round of my regular career, at Rutgers Pro-Ams (the first RUDU APDA tournament) in 2002. The case asks how a devout religious believer ought live if their soul were reversed such that good acts would send them to hell and bad acts would send them to heaven. I’d given the case to a Brandeisian many years after my graduation, who then tweaked it and passed it on to Keith and Russell, who tweaked it further still. The case remains one of my absolute favorites for cleaving the question of motivation and reward from doing good for good’s sake. It made me proud of my Brandeis roots all over again to know that this was how one of their best teams in recent memory chose to go out.

And thus the stage was set for Nats Finals. The teams could not be much more different in background and shape. Despite their decision in octofinals against Rutgers, Syracuse carried a reputation of debating for the right reasons, of showcase cases, of bending minds and perceptions both of topics discussed and what it meant to be a small, under-funded and relatively new school on APDA. Meanwhile, Harvard represented a tradition of great success, though also of dry subjects and the fastest speaking on the circuit. Syracuse was represented by two seniors who would be in their last rounds. Harvard was represented by a junior who’d put up one of the best individual seasons on APDA ever and a totally unsung sophomore in just his sixth career APDA tournament, a fast-talking high school hero who most people still had never seen. There was no question what side people wanted the teams to have. Everyone wanted Syracuse to be Gov.

Everyone. Except perhaps Harvard.

Indeed, other than some mop-up discussions from semifinals and earlier rounds, all anyone could seem to talk about while we stood waiting around Hoff Theater for the auditorium to be prepared for Nats Finals, was who was Goving and how the round was about to be either wonderful or terrible. People whispered about Syracuse cases they’d seen, only boggling at how Platonic the case they might run in such a venue as Nats Finals would be. Meanwhile, they feared what Harvard would do with the forum, having been rewarded for boring the crowd in the previous year, having debaters with less career accomplishment in the round, which might only lead them to make a cautious move of running something extremely imbalanced to their side.

When we entered the gigantic theater, majestically laid out with glittering trophies, two tables, and a podium, people were impressed by the classiness of a Nationals that had not exactly spared every expense to impress us. But then it became clear which table each team was going to. And the lamentations began.

Harvard was Gov. The collective held their breath and wondered if the case would be a repeat of 2005 and 2012, something inaccessible, quickly delivered, unfair to the Opp, roundly unfair to the crowd.

On face, when Ben opened his remarks, after a dry thank-you to the rogue taxi driver who’d scuttled them out of Boston when it was ostensibly on lock-down, the case he offered was probably better than those in both 2005 and 2012. It was about a question that mattered more, certainly. But he also, out of nerves or that just being his style (I’ve never seen him debate before), shotgunned out details of the case in a rapid-fire way that made the case feel inaccessible to most of the audience. And certainly to Syracuse, who a bit impatiently asked him to repeat all of his remarks.

His advocacy was that the US should break up the twelve largest banks in the country, those that have been deemed “too big to fail.” In PoCs, he offered clarifications of asset quantities that were hilariously played out as hard for Syracuse to understand and contextualize. It is likely that both Harvard debaters are en route to careers in hedge funds or other similar economic pursuits, while the Syracuse pair are interested in Russian translation and medicine, respectively. The Harvard debaters look like a prep school catalog, while the Syracuse debaters often show up to tournaments in ratty T-shirts and speak their minds loudly. I won’t speculate on the total asset holdings of each of the four, but I want to contrast myself with those who have said this final round was not about class or earnings. Everything in America at this point in history is about class and earnings. The wealth disparity is beyond the limits of anything ever deemed acceptable by a free society and it is directly jeopardizing our ability to call it a free society. And if you’re not paying attention to that, or how it plays out to almost every interaction you have, I’m sorry, but you’re not paying attention.

Then Kopel asked what would happen to banks that didn’t comply. And Ben assured him this was not an option, that they would. The case had fiat power and there was no way around compliance if they wanted to do business in the United States.

Clearly uncomfortable, Costello eventually said, “Okay, I think we’re ready” and Ben proceeded to rattle off a metric ton of arguments about breaking up the banks. The delivery was so uninteresting and uncompelling that it sounded like a parody of policy debate. I whispered to my team that was in earshot “Do you want to ask Siri a question?” and many cracked up. Nationals Finals was opening with a speech that could only even begin to be interesting to the judging panel and those accustomed to the faster ranges of debate, one that could only leave the vast majority of the audience as cold as the delivery itself.

Several things occurred to me while listening to this speech. The first was what a brilliant ploy it was, in light of the semifinal round between Yale and Syracuse, to force ‘Cuse to defend the big bad banks while Harvard had reasons to break them up. It was a total reversal of perspective for this David (literally) and Goliath match-up, to foist defense of the hedge funds and those who play with other people’s money onto the small guys who were less well off and didn’t run in that crowd. I have no idea how many teams they would have run that case against from the octofinal draw, but whether deliberate or accidental, this was a clever strategic play.

The main thing I was thinking, of course, was whether this was even an event I recognized anymore. In light of the prior year’s Final, Harvard had jumped headlong into doubling down on their strategy of boring everyone out of the round, of making obscure, quick, esoteric arguments that challenged the Opp not to engage or counter but to merely understand. And after Kopel had shut down against a far slower, more accessible series of arguments for the semifinal case, I wondered what he would possibly do against this one.

I tried to place myself in his shaky shaky shoes at that moment, to try to imagine how I would try to take back this round for those who sought the entertainment he’d discussed in his own Senior Speech. To try to turn the tables so that Harvard felt as uncomfortable as he now did, trying to defend big banking’s ability to destroy lives with impunity and rule society without fear of check or repercussion. At some point, I whispered to someone that he had to counter-case, that he had to maximize clash by refusing to defend the banks and run a sweeping counter-case that bordered on socialism, a counter-proposal along the lines of nationalizing all banks or criminalizing Wall Street. I don’t doubt that the whole crowd was with me in the breathless anticipation of how Kopel, spokesperson for intellectual rigor on APDA this year, would respond.

He said this:

“I want to begin, surprisingly, with a little bit of meta-analysis. So, I think that you’re decision in this round functionally ought to be based on the fact that Nats Finals is a different kind of round from the average sort of APDA round. So we would ultimately argue that if you are lulled to sleep by Harvard, then you ought not vote for them, because we all spend a great deal of time coming out to these debate tournaments and giving up our weekends, giving up our time. And if we’re not actually really learning anything new and we’re just talking about banks the entire time, I actually think we should hold this league to a higher standard.”

He then discussed how this would affect future decisions by future debaters and how that mattered to people. And how the case was an embarrassment, something he has since retracted in all the fallout from the discussion of this round. And then he called the case tight, something never done in 32 prior APDA National Championships.

All of this was done amidst raucous cheering and “hear-hear”s, not just from fans and friends of Syracuse, but from an audience angered by a PMC with no vocal intonation or attempt at rhetorical persuasion whatsoever, tired of a reign of expectation that people put up with and laud that sort of debate, and excited to see someone risk everything they had worked for four years to earn on the bet that this was APDA’s “mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore” moment.

The round got ugly. Really ugly. Harvard called Syracuse and their decisions “anti-intellectual” and “a disgrace” and defended their decision to run the case on the basis of pointing out that this was an important topic with impacts on the world. People cheered for their side and heckled against the other. People felt uncomfortable and were drained. The round developed into the metaphorical train-wreck from which no head could turn. Harvard’s arguments defending the tight-call were poor and the responses were poor. Both sides simultaneously escalated and tried to slip out of the meta-call about the quality of the case as it became clear that the quality of the round overall was disastrous.

Mercifully, the round ended, but the arguments had only just begin. People across the crowd were listless and failed to move. They looked like they’d just watched a documentary on Somalia rather than a Nats Final. I told people I felt this was a turning point for the league and how it felt about certain cases and an approach to debate. Most replied they just felt this was a stain on the league that would hopefully be forgotten. I held some hope that people would vote Opp, but most everyone expected a 7-0 for Gov.

It was not a 7-0 for Gov. It was a 5-2 for Gov. The two dissenters were Robert Glunt of Cornell and Kate Falkenstien of Yale. These were the LOs, respectively, in the 2005 and 2012 Nats Finals against Harvard.

Among the five were Omar Qureshi and Reid Bagwell, people who relied on eloquence against careers that spanned many high speaker awards, as well as Jon Bateman, the MG in the Hopkins case in 2006 Nats Finals when he ran the case about Faust. Omar told me after the round that most of the panel was open to the case entirely being a meta-call about the nature of final rounds and Nats Finals especially, but that calling the case tight alienated much of the panel, which also included Adam Goldstein and Mike Childers, and isolated their decision to the tight call only. All seven said they adjudicated solely on the tight-call.

In retrospect, I don’t think the decision matters all that much. I could spend the rest of my space here (though you’ve noticed it’s unlimited, I’m sure) arguing why I think the seven judges all should have considered the meta-call about the nature of the case, that such is the only check the league or its members have against pressing the advantage of getting to Gov. But the problem is also that whether they considered it or not, Syracuse didn’t do it perfectly. They fell into several traps about the case, criticizing the case topic itself more than how the case was constructed and delivered. This enabled Harvard to argue, quite correctly, that the financial crisis and bank regulation actually are important topics of the day. And when this discussion exploded out into the wider forum, involving many APDA alums who were not at the Nats Finals, they overwhelmingly echoed that the case was interesting and accessible without having seen the PMC, PoCs, or the nature of the way Harvard has debated much of the last two years.

We ought give both teams some slack. Obviously, some of the harshest mudslinging on both sides has been retracted and can be chalked up to the heat of the moment. The crowd is being criticized for heckling, though I noticed very little of this so much as some of the most ardent and active clapping and cheering I’ve ever seen in a Nats Final. I maintain what I said early on, that Kopel’s LOC was the bravest speech I’ve ever seen on APDA, that crossing the threshold to a meta-call on the nature of Nationals Finals and tight-calling a case he believed was tight in that venue were incontrovertibly brave and difficult things to do for which he should be forever proud. And I can’t help but think, while I respect them both as imminently fair judges, that the memory of their own LOCs helped prompt Glunt and Kate to decide as they did.

But the larger question has been called and a team has sacrificed most everything, including, if the forum is to be believed (it shouldn’t – internet forums and APDA’s especially are notorious for unwarranted vitriol of which I myself have sometimes partaken) their reputations as people on the circuit, to call it. What sort of debate league is APDA? What do we want to see here? How do we want to discuss issues and what sort of issues, in what way, are appropriate for Nationals Finals, or any final, or even any round?

I think it is absolutely vital, as a simple conclusion to over 10,000 words of rambling historical recounting and diatribe, that we expect more of teams. Harvard doesn’t want this video to go up because they don’t want prospective debaters thinking that round is representative of APDA. But it is representative of APDA, both in their case choice and approach and in the backlash it received. This is a conflict that is breaking out all over the league. And it doesn’t have to be fought as harshly or inartfully as it was in Hoff Theater, but it does have to be discussed. Is it reasonable to escalate the speed and unpersuasiveness of argumentation to get more arguments in that one hopes to pull through in PMR for a narrow victory? Is that APDA? Is that what we want it to be?

People have always assured me that APDA rounds are judged holistically and that no one could simply spread and spec their way to a win in this league. I think that reassurance has been called into serious doubt by this final. And while I don’t think Syracuse losing is the deathknell of my perspective about this circuit, I have no doubt that Harvard and other teams who favor spreading and obscurity will proceed undeterred with this strategy as they have been rewarded. I fervently hope that I’m wrong, that enough backlash was built from the groundswell of vocal support for Syracuse, that they do draw back from the ledge and challenge themselves to be more interesting, to care about the audience, and to slow down.

I have the deepest respect for Josh and Ben. How could you not respect someone winning Nats in his sixth APDA tournament? Many people said his quarterfinal MO against top-seed Princeton deserved a 27.5, the highest score our league now offers. And Josh has impressed me with his true dedication to the league and interest in issues of equity, despite his lofty background. (I’m sorry, but where people come from does color their perspective and this is part of any cogent discussion on these issues.) I am duly impressed by Vivek Suri’s ability to be a part of four consecutive National Championship squads. I only wish he and his cohorts had challenged themselves in the last two years to not use every advantage available to them in this relentless pursuit.

Eventually, people are either going to have to voluntarily step back from the brink of escalation on spreading and speccing, or they are going to have to be dropped for failure to do so. There have been instances of such dropping. Perhaps the most famous speech of the year was Kornfeld’s 30-second LOC tight-call against Josh and C., critiquing not only the case itself but the very way that Harvard was choosing to debate at the time, and exposing its flaws. This Nats Finals felt like a moment like that, but had a different outcome. The jury, I daresay, is still out.

But I would posit that it is reasonable to consider such drops. It is reasonable for judges to consider fairness in all its aspects, and indeed the spirit of debate, when making a call about who won and who lost. I think it’s appropriate for Opp teams to raise these issues, and increasingly may be very important that they do so. This does not mean making assumptions or dropping people on face. It’s quite possible that Josh and Ben will return to the circuit next year with open, fun, rhetorically elocuted opp-choice cases and they should be rewarded and lauded if they do. Don’t assume that the school or the people will do what they have done before.

But if there’s a time when you’re gritting your teeth about a decision, when every part of you wants to drop a team for being unfair to the other, for squeezing every last second of advantage out of situation, maybe you should just drop that team. Or at least consider it. And maybe it’s up to Opp to raise that question first so you’re not intervening too much in the round, but maybe it isn’t.

Just as companies ruthlessly pursuing profit will only respond to financial penalties, my deep concern is that teams who only care about winning will not start caring about anything else until they stop winning. It is perhaps even less surprising from people who see themselves at the helm of those companies in future. But winning is a reward and it should be doled out for greatness, not merely finding some way, any way, to best the other team. Debaters of the future, let greatness be your standard, not doing just enough to win when anything goes.

Ed. note: A few of the debaters mentioned in this post asked for their last names to be removed so they could not be Googled in association with this post. While I personally prefer this to be a documentation of important events, I understand their concerns and have agreed to their request. If you are mentioned in this post and would also like your last name removed, I will do so. Just send me an e-mail at storey@bluepyramid.org. Given that the results of the tournament are publicly available, it probably doesn’t actually detract from the information of the post’s content.

Additionally, it seems like many of the other National Final Round videos were removed by request of the participants, so 2013 is not as much of an outlier as originally discussed.

Apr 5

Alma Mater

Andy Tirrell and I at what I thought would be my last tournament ever, UMBC Nationals 2002.

Andy Tirrell and I at what I thought would be my last tournament ever, UMBC Nationals 2002.

It’s hard to believe that I’m about to wrap up my fourth year of coaching debate, matching the length and breadth of my APDA career when I actually debated the rounds myself. I have spent as many years teaching, supporting, cajoling, and cheering on Rutgers as I did speaking for Brandeis. It’s hard to put in perspective.

Of course, because of the ever-present reality of the sensation that time is speeding up, a universal for temporal beings that I once explained in depth on this blog, it’s felt like less time. And that first year was shorter, as was my first year of debating for Brandeis, the product of the rule that novices could only go to certain tournaments due to limited funding at the latter at the time. But the first year at Brandeis may have been the longest as I was establishing myself in a new field, a new arena despite my debate experience from earlier schooling, while the last four years have been ensconced in a community with which I could not be much more familiar.

I went to 73 tournaments as a debater. Plus two trips to Worlds to make 75. Plus, if you want to get technical, four Brandeis-hosted tourneys at which I judged, making 79 total. And I guess the one comeback tournament at BU makes a nice round 80. This weekend, I will return to Brandeis for the third time in my coaching career, to attend my 87th tournament as a coach. Plus four Rutgers-hosted tournaments, to make 91 in total. While I competed in 444 rounds as a debater, I have probably judged somewhere in the neighborhood of 550 rounds as a coach. And I’m not done yet. While you only get four years on APDA to make your mark in competition, there’s no upper limit on how much you can coach or judge.

Of course, the season is longer than it used to be. I had a 50-tournament streak that took me from late sophomore year through graduation; now the schedule routinely schedules 28 weekends a year of competition, or 54% of the available weekends in an annual calendar. The league is larger, there are more tournaments on average in a weekend, and the overall weight of APDA is heavier. The competition has probably never been deeper and the breadth of impact of the league overall is at or near its peak, despite whatever other experienced debaters would tell you about how the quality of competition has always been declining since they personally got good at the activity.

But as I’m about to head up to what I used to affectionately call The Beans and its “mining town” suburb to again traverse the hills and brick halls of alma mater, it’s impossible not to get philosophical about an event that has brought me one-thousand rounds of competitive two-on-two debate, and probably close to half that many practice rounds. It may not strictly meet the ten-thousand hour rule of mastery in terms of actual time in an official match, but with weekends being 36-hour minimum commitments counting travel time, we’re in the neighborhood of 6,000 hours of tournaments and another 2,000 of practice.

One of my debaters asked me yesterday if I could do this job for twenty years. I told him it was hard for me to picture doing anything for twenty years without getting bored, without feeling like life was somehow falling away into repetition and drudgery when other opportunities were waiting to be explored and teach me things. In contemplation of what eight years of college debate on one end or the other of the round has looked like, twenty years seems even less possible to fathom. How anyone can return to a job for decades on end totally defies my sense of imagination. I can picture people crossing the Sahara with no water and only the will to live, but a fifth of a century at the same workplace utterly boggles me.

But preparing to drive up the well-worn path from central Jersey to eastern Massachusetts, I still feel inspired, excited, alive with the possibility of a new day of debate. 171 APDA tournaments in, I’m not done yet.

The first time I prepped a Rutgers team for out-rounds, with Dave Reiss and Chris Bergman at American University's Pro-Am tournament in November 2009.

The first time I prepped a Rutgers team for out-rounds, with Dave Reiss and Chris Bergman at American University's Pro-Am tournament in November 2009.

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