So a lot has been made lately of Facebook putting an overly positive spin on things, shifting our perspective and making us seem and act happier than we actually are.
I think this is true, but largely for a much simpler reason than people are saying. It’s because of the “Like” button.
Here’s the thing. We like likes. They make us feel affirmed. They make us think that people are out there in the void, listening, taking us seriously. Most importantly, they bridge the divide of desperately lonely souls, making us feel that others empathize with our experience.
As such, consciously or no, we construct our posts on Facebook to cultivate likes. And thus we are uncomfortable posting anything phrased in such a way that someone would be hesitant to “like” it. If it would seem wrong or sick or weird or sad to like something, we alter the phrasing to be positive or silver-lining-y enough to gather likes.
I noticed this mostly when reading posts about people dying. People discuss the deaths of their loved ones, friends, people in Israel or Gaza, and they were gathering likes! This seems wrong, right? Who likes someone else’s beloved or cared-for dying? Isn’t that horrible?
But time and again, I would notice that people would find a Polyannaish closing thought or silver lining or positive little thing to say that would make a like not only un-reprehensible, but actually the appropriate response.
I don’t know what the fix is. Certainly a Dislike button would increase Facebook’s death toll decently and make it a far less pleasant and more ostracizing place to be. But I almost think there should be an “I Feel This” button that can express empathy or support without actually feeling positive about the sentiment expressed. Because that enables a full range of real human emotions, not just the parts of ourselves that are most obviously likable.
Cross-posted (of course) on Facebook.
He sits out on the high rickety wood porch, consuming pages like nutrients long missing from his diet. The movers, the cleaners, the gas company, everybody’s late, everybody’s nice. Except the moving truck driver from Astoria, Queens. Of course. He’s both the latest and meanest of them all.
People smoke too much and drink too often and constantly use endearments that sound like sexual harassment. They wink often and smile easily and take their time walking the sidewalks. The air is somewhere between a gas and a solid most of the time the sun’s out, surrounding with presence more than evading with absence like one might be used to.
The clouds start to gather, dark and thin, wispy strands like wand emanation from a fantasy world. They combine, swirl, lower, gain heft and weight and presence. Then there’s a flash, the world set alight, and a faint rumble, and the sky bursts open on this bold hard cue. Within minutes, there are pools of churning water at every curb and corner and the flashes and cracks are performing a grand orchestral opera that puts fireworks to shame. It is several minutes before the water becomes sufficiently dense on the porch to threaten the pages themselves and send him inside.
The streetcar sounds its bell and rolls along roads like they were designed for something other than pollution. Tired children are lifted off the boards and onto laps while excited tourists hang half their weight out the window and crane to see statues, balconies, flags of the fleur-de-lis. The conductor pulls a lever and we turn into the busy intersection, there are echoes of a hillside on the edge of the Tenderloin and a time before most of us were born.
The best a nomad can hope for is something that feels like home.
After watching Russia fall into a heart-breaking and eliminating draw against Algeria, I did at least acknowledge the quality of the story that would be coming up, which would be a rematch between Germany and Algeria, offering the latter team possible revenge for the 1982 arranged German win against Austria that prompted a good bit of my post two days ago suggesting how to keep the 3rd group match competitive. However, that match should not be happening. Germany is the 6th best group winner in an abnormally competitive field (four teams went 3-0-0, which is highly unusual) and Algeria is the 5th best runner-up. They are both getting easier draw than they deserve.
Here’s the bracket as it stands in real life for the elimination games in the 2014 World Cup, starting Saturday:
But that’s nothing like what it should be. As I predicted in my earlier post, the Netherlands and Mexico are both being treated extremely unfairly, though I didn’t know then that they’d each be literally the best of their set of teams and getting the worst possible draw they could face. This is why random grouping is inferior to a seeding system.
For reference, here is how the 16 elimination rounders (on APDA, we’d call them octofinalists) fared through group play:
Yeah, I hate to break it to you new soccer fans, but the US isn’t all that good.
So here’s what the bracket should look like under my new system:
I broke the Germany/Brazil tie (the teams have the exact same stats overall) on how much they won their group by, setting up a Brazil-Chile match-up in real life and what’s most fair.
When we look at the comparison, here’s the teams that got lucky in reality and those who got remarkably unlucky:
Greece (+7) – it probably doesn’t matter that much, because Greece had a -2 goal differential and only got through because of a dubious call in extra time in their last game, but Greece should be getting walloped by Netherlands (the best group winner) and instead drew the worst group winner, Costa Rica. Who will still wallop them.
Costa Rica (+6) – now I’m rooting for Costa Rica and they impressed in a difficult group, but they are objectively the weakest group winner. They should be facing the best runner-up (Mexico), but instead get the second-worst (Greece). For what it’s worth, their second-round match-up would be the same (#1 Netherlands), so that’s reasonable.
France (+3) – France gets Nigeria when they should be getting Uruguay. All that means at this point is that they won’t be getting bitten, though FIFA ensured that it is decidedly less likely that anyone gets bitten playing Uruguay any time soon. In any case, this will probably actually be a close match even though France should be getting an even bigger challenge.
Nigeria (+3) – Nigeria should be facing Colombia and they instead get France. Colombia would probably mow them down, and like I said, I think they have a chance against France.
Germany (+2) – not a huge deal, because Germany is likely to destroy either Switzerland or Algeria, but they should have the harder match-up after not doing all that well in their admittedly difficult group. Though they should be getting mighty #3 Argentina in the second round, but instead get #5 France.
Netherlands (-7) – the top team in the draw may be out in the first round because they’re facing the best goal-keeper and a team that very nearly won a group with the host country in it.
Mexico (-7) – the best runner-up has drawn the toughest team in the draw that rolled through its group. Whoever wins this game is going a long way, but this game is a mighty injustice for both of these teams.
Argentina (-3) – Argentina should be getting the bye that is the United States (sorry folks, it’s kinda true). Instead, they have to deal with Switzerland, who still isn’t prepared to win a knockout game in the heat of Brazil.
Colombia (-3) – Colombia should be getting Nigeria, but instead will be facing Uruguay. This would be a really tough break if Uruguay still had their star player, but they don’t, so Colombia should still have little trouble going through.
Not only does that Netherlands/Mexico match stand out like crazy (yes, I’m going to keep harping on this), but the second-round looming match between Argentina and Belgium pits two teams that went 3-0-0 in their group and should rightfully both make the semifinals. Admittedly Argentina would probably choose Belgium over Germany, but Belgium would definitely pick the France-Uruguay winner over Argentina and they should have that more fair match-up.
I’ve come up with two objections to this improved system that are reasonable, but neither of them do I find sufficient to be deal-breaking. One is that the schedule would be problematic, because we’d need to add off-days between group play and elimination play to ensure that each team had enough time off. And consequently, we might have some teams who play in the later elimination games have a really long rest if they were in group A or B. I still think overall fairness of who you draw as your opponents and the avoidance of any possible rigging are of higher value than a precise amount of time off, however.
My friend Frese came up with the other objection, namely that Group G and H could really set their match-up because they’d know exactly where every other team would stand. Again, I think this compares pretty favorably to every team already knowing that because of the randomness that currently sets the elimination rounds. But I also question whether anyone would choose to be a runner-up instead of a group winner because they prefer the first-round match-up they’d get. After all, this system ensures they’d get a much harder second-round match-up in that case, so they’re unlikely to tank their seed because of the long-term implications.
I’m open to other objections, but I think they all pale in comparison to what Dutch and Mexican fans have to face on June 29th.
Now back to packing.
I, like many sports fans, have been following the 2014 World Cup, though I share some misgivings about it as an institution (as do most conscious people). Clearly rotational hosting is both exciting and fun and showcases parts of the world that most of the developed globe doesn’t normally pay attention to, but it also extracts money from those least able to pay for it for stadiums that will sit dormant for decades and to line the pockets of the plutocrats that sit atop that particular society. This all also applies to the Olympics, which are great fun and give an outlet for nationalism that does not involve drone strikes. There’s a lot to ponder on whether the nationalism ginned up during world sporting events is actually a facilitator of dangerous jingoism or a kind of methadone for it – certainly the long-term likelihood is the latter and we should someday be fighting wars on the sports field if we still seem unable to resolve our differences through discussion. But then I see how people from the US get about their soccer team and it makes me just want to burn all the flags of every country. It kind of amazes me that our nation is still seeking validation.
In any event, this post will be driving by these political concerns which I think are important and going straight to the heart of how the World Cup playoffs are done. I didn’t used to like football/soccer very much and found it boring, but then playing FIFA video games taught me the complex strategy innate to the game and I realized that about 70 minutes of any given match are exciting, rather than three. And then, of course, I was hooked. I also have this weird thing where I specifically really like sports when the teams are nations because I like flags and other countries, even though the nationalism clearly embodied by this spirit makes me queasy. An unresolved paradox, but one that I usually set aside now to watch the World Cup or the Olympics.
I actually, parenthetically, did a pretty good review of my evolution with the so-called beautiful game last World Cup summer, in which I expressed excitement about an upcoming World Cup in Africa and Emily being in Liberia…. oops. Though I did, prophetically, conclude with the line “Anyone’s guess about where I’ll be in 2014 is as good as mine. Probably better.” I don’t think anyone will be bringing in their odds-laden tickets to exchange for a payout on that one anytime soon.
But here’s the point. The way the World Cup does playoffs is broken. You could argue that the way they do the whole Group staging is problematic to begin with, since they just make pots of countries and disperse them, but I actually think the status quo system of dividing teams for groups is pretty solid. If you’re not familiar, they make a “pot” of the top seven teams in the world, plus the host country, then three roughly regional pots for regional diversity, and each group is comprised of a random draw of one team from each of these pots. Given that part of the goal of the World Cup is mixing teams from diverse regions and this system prevents the top seven from facing each other in the first round (top eight this year since Brazil is hosting and is top-eight), I think it’s pretty viable as a system. Yes, every year someone gets anointed as the “Group of Death”, which, frankly, this year was probably not the USA’s group, but the one with Uruguay, Italy, England, and Costa Rica. Which Costa Rica, the only country therein not ranked in the top ten in the world, is assured to advance from, having beaten two prior champions. So the group thing clearly seems to work out.
The biggest problem with the World Cup draw is that the third game is often fixed. Okay, perhaps not fixed, but there are outcomes that are short of going all-out and trying to win that are favorable to a team. A team that knows it’s through to the next round might rest its starters. Two teams facing who both need a mere draw to advance might not fight it out that hard. In past years, there was overt fixing and agreements between teams to produce a certain result that would be mutually agreeable. In some instances, teams have even punted to really bad teams so that their knockout-stage competition will be weaker when they themselves are already guaranteed to go through. FIFA has recently instated a policy wherein the third-day games in each group will be played simultaneously to try to mitigate some of this problem, but not all of these adjustments depend on knowing the result of the other game. There has been rampant speculation in the US media, for example, that Germany and the US, helmed by a German coach, will agree to draw so that both teams can go through. Even the fact that people can discuss this openly, whether or not it happens, is a severe flaw in the system.
The problem is that there’s not much to play for beyond going through and especially nothing to play for beyond winning the group. This is because in the knockout stage, your opponent is merely someone else who went through from another group. Each first place team gets a second place team and that’s it. Even if this means, for example, that Mexico, a team that mightily impressed the world by collecting 7 of a possible 9 points from their group and drawing against Brazil in Brazil, just happens to get the Netherlands, defending finalists who crushed their opposition with all 9 points and a goal-differential of 10-3. Clearly this is a bad system.
There’s an obvious solution: seeding the playoff bracket. Instead of just putting A-1 against B-2 and B-1 against A-2, FIFA should rank the eight group winners as though they were all in the same group (i.e. points, then goal differential) and do the same with the eight runners-up. Then you pit the top group winner against the bottom runner-up, the bottom group-winner against the top runner-up, and so on and resolve the bracket like any normal sports playoff. Thus, every team will be directly incentivized to win every match by the maximum score, just as they are in the first two matches and every knockout stage match. The third group game is this bizarre competitive anomaly that at best gets people to play more weakly than they should and at worst creates actual rigging that cheats some teams out of the chance to go through.
We can’t run through an example of what this would look like for 2014 yet, since only two groups are finished, but I promise you that the horrifying Netherlands-Mexico match in the round of 16 would be delayed to a much later stage where it’s deserved. But we can take the example of 2010, which should be a good illustration:
I broke the one tie (South Korea/Slovakia) on how many goals were scored total, which is the prescribed method in the World Cup.
So this creates the following bracket:
For the purposes of comparison, here’s what the actual 2010 World Cup did with these 16 teams:
While the changes may not be obvious in all places (the two most exciting first-round games, Germany vs. England and Spain vs. Portugal, are actually intact!), the rubber really hits the road in the second knockout round. For example, real-life Germany vs. Argentina pitted the #5 seed vs. the #1, a matchup worthy of the semifinals, but happened in the quarters (and Argentina got trounced). Top-ranked Argentina deserved a much easier draw in the quarters, for example the winner of US/Japan. Similarly, the real quarters matched #2 Netherlands against #4 Brazil, surely creating a too-early exit for Brazil. Now, granted, the new quarterfinals create the blockbuster match of Brazil vs. Germany, but at least that’s the kind of #4/#5 matchup that we’re used to seeing as close and exciting in a quarterfinal. And #2 Netherlands can go on to get an easier draw, namely the winner of Paraguay/Chile.
Here we also see that Spain’s road to the Cup last year relied a bit more on luck than just pure skill. Maybe they would have beaten every team in last year’s knockout stage, but rather than drawing more deserved #3 Uruguay in the quarters and #2 Netherlands in the semis (their actual finals opponent), they instead got to face #7 Paraguay and #5 Germany, respectively. Not that Germany is some kind of pushover, but still. Having easier draw might have made it easier for them to have enough left to win it all by the time they faced the Netherlands.
Surely these matchups are just as exciting, but without the sheer injustice of things like this year’s Netherlands/Mexico match will be for whichever team gets eliminated therein. And more importantly, they prevent the greater injustice of collusion or strategic resting by teams that have no incentive to try to collect 9 points and maximum goal-differential. More competitive and contested games make life better for everyone – the teams, the fans, the nations. Why wouldn’t we do this?
I’m overdue to head back north, racing for the direction where things should be wrapped up tight in a nice little bow, or at least packed up in cardboard and covered over with tape. Progress on the move has been slow and steady and not fast enough and I’m facing the very real possibility of having to cancel some of my farewells so that I can ensure the movers have stuff to actually take with them, since I’m not enacting the Bonfire Plan for the move to New Orleans. In the meantime, I’ve spent another weekend in Atlanta for so many good reasons, one of which was the first of two opportunities this week to see Counting Crows.
I feel like Counting Crows show posts for me should already come preloaded with the emotional ramifications, baggage, and impact of all prior such shows. Lord knows you can find a lot of that background information already in here (just pop “Counting Crows” into the Search function on the sidebar and see what happens). But there’s a reason that “Awareness is never enough – it must always be wonder” is a seminal phrase in my life, a watchword for my experience of the divine, and a clickable tag/category in this here blog format. Because it’s true.
I should be getting coffee and on the road for ten hours soon, so I don’t really have time to do the full concert justice. Suffice it to say that they opened with a classic 10-minute “Round Here”, went on to do one of their better covers from the recent cover album, and then Adam announced to the crowd that he had written a song for me.
Okay, not really. But kinda really.
I’ve been trying to find the lyrics online to prove to you that I’m not making this up. But listening to “Cover Up the Sun” for the first time in my life brought back exactly the same chill that “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” did on the pre-release quasi-illicit MP3 back in Waltham so many eons ago. But (remember the phrase!) even more so. Way more so. The song includes the lyric “When I left California, I was 29 years old, and the world just spun me round.” Which, okay, maybe that’s something Adam Duritz and I inadvertently have in common, though I’d never quite put it together before, but sure. But when the next lines are “Now I just watch Louisiana scroll across the window pane, and I’m facing the direction I am bound”, well, it’s enough to make a solipsist of the best of us.
Yeah, the song is about leaving the west and moving to New Orleans. There’s only a couple of references to the New York City area just thrown in for fun.
Of course I am not the only person who feels this way about Counting Crows or their lyrics or their shows. The magic of the band, as I’ve said repeatedly here, is being able to gather together thousands of people for whom the songs were written and feel the absolute power of people belting along to songs that are about them and to share that experience with everyone else who feels the same way and yet somehow have none of the charm of the song being about them reduced by the shared gathering. If anything, it’s enhanced. It’s perhaps in these moments that we get closest to the Jewish idea of God (although I note the irony of that statement in print, because I’d have to cross out the o for it to really be Jewish, but I’m not gonna because I find the idea of an unnameable God so distasteful, no offense dear Jewish people), with the re-convergence of all our divided split light, that we are all the same in our unique brightness and by coming back together, we can drown out the sun.
There were a couple more covers than I would have chosen for the set (I could probably go without “Friend of the Devil” for the rest of my CC life, though the intro to it this time ’round was hilarious) and I’ve probably never cried less at one of their shows, though this is largely because I am happy, both in the moment and with the visible trajectory of the near future. But it was also a summer set of joy and energy and just the right amount of bitterness to recognize the year just ended. And while none of the other new songs quite lived up to the power of that first one, they all sound at least intriguing and at most like future sources of wonder.
Maybe Counting Crows shows are well written horoscopes, online quizzes, or tarot card readings, that we can find our own meaning in the deeply expressed emotion of Duritz and friends bleeding out on stage. You can take the cynical road if you want to and I’ve never lately begrudged anyone the cynical road. But at the risk of being the sucker who falls for the seventeenth time, I prefer a deeper, more fundamental explanation. In a recent debate round for a summer exhibition tournament, I explained how free will is compatible with a tri-omni vision of God, how I believe we are all offered free will as the ultimate sign of respect and love. Much of my third novel is about exploring this concept as well. And yet, somehow, there always seems to be room for this incredible sense of everything working out, coming together, being for a reason. I don’t think it’s absolute or as powerful as free will, since refugees routinely starve to death in diseased camps after watching their families die, but the feeling of a benevolent net from the universe is palpable. Maybe it’s first-world privilege, which was on display at an other-worldly level in the Chastain Park Amphitheatre in Atlanta last night, but maybe it’s just our best burning bush, coming to you live on a perfectly-lit stage.
The rant about people leaving CC shows complaining that he didn’t play “Mr. Jones” will have to wait till after Atlantic City.
22 June 2014
Chastain Park Amphitheatre – Atlanta, GA
with Toad the Wet Sprocket and Daniel and the Lion
new songs in italics
Round Here (Private Archipelago alt)
Untitled (Love Song)
Cover Up the Sun
St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream
Recovering the Satellites
Like Teenage Gravity
God of Ocean Tides
Friend of the Devil
Big Yellow Taxi
A Long December
You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere
Rain King (Oh Susanna alt)
Holiday in Spain
Moving is difficult. It’s not refugee-camp difficult or even traumatic-crisis difficult, which actually distinguishes it from a lot of this year, which has been harder. But it’s one of those things where the work is long and sloggy and contrasts highly with the ability to see the mission which is to go to a new place and have fun and exciting new adventures. There is nothing new-adventuresy about the process of taking all your accumulated junk and carefully nestling it in cardboard cubes so someone else can drive it across the country. It’s tiresome, exhausting, makes you question why you’re not a would-be monk with a penchant for arson, and, lately, kicks up enough dust to give me marginal respiratory problems (I’m going to the hardware store for a mask and goggles later this morning).
But, you might think, it’s worth it for the sentimental stuff. After all, who keeps all this garbage if it’s literally just a burden in every sense of the word? Surely the reason for keeping things is their reminder of past days of halcyon, times that shimmer in memory with an emotional gleam. Oh, this is when I got that. Oh, here’s the book I read when. And no doubt, there is some of that in my process. Ticket stubs from when Alex and I went to Tennessee on our first real trip together. Books from all ages. My turtle collection, though it’s been bound in the same plastic wrap in plastic tub from the last move (I know, I know). Debate cases from two different eras.
That is a mug, gifted to me circa 2002, bearing a statement that was true at the time.
Why have I kept it? What on Earth would possess me to go through my divorce and hold on to a cheesy undergraduate keepsake that was a half-joke at the time (we had friends who would seriously gift such items in part as the Ivy status symbols they were intended to be and that sentiment was not one we shared)? Why would I go to the trouble of keeping it, separating it from the mugs for daily use, and bunging it away to serve as a little land-mine for myself a year and a half later when it would spring on me, unsuspecting, while packing for the next move?
Pondering this question quickly gets me down a certain rabbit hole. Emily’s mother and I were standing in a dusty makeshift market in Monrovia in July 2010 at the conclusion of an absurd tour scheduled for us by a wife who couldn’t be bothered to take a minute off from work for her husband flying out to try to save their marriage. And the reality of suggesting some little trinket or souvenir immediately soured on Em’s mom’s tongue when she mentioned it, but the words were already out in the air, nearly as insensitive as the daily drivel of her offspring. She attempted a retraction, some quick sort of recognition that maybe I didn’t want to remember being here. As though that were an option.
She said “Maybe you don’t want a souvenir of Liberia.”
And I said, immediately, having thought about it for three seconds, “Everything I own is a souvenir of Liberia.”
To her credit, she started crying.
But it’s true, or it was true at the time. I revisited this seminal phrase, if not the precipitating incident, in a blog post fifteen months later, one that makes my webpage the only Google hit for the full-quotes search of said sentence. And while I do not expect that uniqueness to change, the reality of the statement has certainly diminished over time. I’ve lived and accumulated and not everything is a painful reminder of being married for seven years and suddenly having that revoked as though it had never happened. I’ve developed a relationship that I’m really excited about, excited enough to be the partial basis of a move several states away that necessitates all this packing in the first place. One that will surely make some people find this post itself to be unseemly and regressive, as though people become one dimensional when past hurts they feel are only a secondary aspect of their personality and not primary. I’ve even cut off communication, for three years, one month, and seventeen days, and counting, pretending that the object of my affection and ire is dead to try to find some semblance of peace. The illusion doesn’t hold, obviously, merely from blocking Facebook and asking friends not to inform me of her whereabouts (the emotional lift of knowing when she had left Princeton was tangible when I passed those haunted exits on Route 1). But the inability to interact with her cruel indifference has been a profound relief, one that tempers me every time I consider lifting the blockade.
And it’s the contrast between that cruel indifference of a woman trying to justify an affair as the first non-mistake of her life, a liquid personality who’d found a new solid container in which to imbue all her hopes and fears and immediately adapt to (thank you Ben Brandzel) and the mug that made me keep the damn thing in the first place. The mug is solid, physical, and literally bears writing which conveys the message she so viciously denied. You are loved. This feeling is real and shared and is worth proclaiming.
The idea that this mug is necessary to understand this message is patently absurd. I have, for example, our wedding rings. A DVD of the wedding ceremony in which she professes her love and undying commitment. And these items, no doubt, are landmines too, laying in wait as I sift through the sedimentary levels of papers of the last few years. But there’s something about this mug that is so unabashed and simple that it seems to give me the solace I crave and, simultaneously, fuel the rage I still have unresolved. And its roots are no doubt in a deeper past. After all, we are always fighting the last war.
When the person I used to call PLB betrayed me (it’s honestly just easier to continue using this moniker because it’s been a reference point here and among friends for decades, though most of my issues with this person have been resolved, though I still strongly question her ongoing judgment for, in part, other reasons), the most painful part (or maybe the most painful tied with the assumption that I couldn’t forgive her for lying) was that she denied that the feelings had ever been meaningful. Despite her last spoken words to me for years being “I still love you and we’re still getting married,” she told everyone at our high school who would listen that we’d broken up long before those words were said and that our relationship had been typical casual teenage fare in which she’d never emotionally invested. In short, I was a fool and an idiot and carrying on about nothing. And over time, it was this denial of feelings that outraged me so greatly, compelled me to routinely spit on the object I saw in front of me that reminded me of what cruel denial she was engaging in (her car), made me so untrusting of people in my future when they said that they felt something real.
And in October 2010, as I was scraping along rock-bottom and had nothing to lose, I saw PLB for the first time in fourteen years and she acknowledged the wrong she’d done, fully and completely, and gave me a solace I wasn’t even fully aware I needed. The irony of this timing will never be lost on me. But she said that her feelings had been genuine, that despite all the lies and uncertainty of everything else in her life, she had meant the promises she’d made to me. We were not just young kids fooling around. We were really feeling something real.
Somehow, this stupid inane trivial mug conveys that message to me, stands in counter to a person for whom making such an admission would crush her identity and make her narrative of tilting ever-upward in progress a sham. I have never understood the people who break up or get divorced (there is a difference, and people referring to divorces as “break-ups” is now a lifetime pet-peeve) saying “we really love each other, but timing/circumstances/life just didn’t work out,” but of late I envied them because they depart with a huge satisfaction of knowing that they didn’t feel and strive and love in vain. It is the feeling of standing out alone on the rock, of being the idiot who thought a marriage meant something when the other person is so callous and thinks and professes that the marriage is just obviously tissue-paper, that makes me want to hold up this mug and say “You lie! You loved me. Even if you won’t admit it, I know.”
I know, intellectually, that the evidence that she loved me is overwhelming. And I know that all her cruelty is just a series of defense mechanisms, the armor she embraced so she wouldn’t have to face the pain she was causing. Any third-grader with a two-bit interest in psychology could tell me that and they’d be right. I know. I know. But emotionally, it doesn’t make it any less damaging. Not one bit. Which is deeply unfortunate and prompts all this exposition.
And I hasten to add that all this obsession herein about the mug and the marriage does not undercut what I’m feeling about my current relationship and the future whose theme decorates this blog and most of my thoughts that are not angst about the mundane struggles of the moving process. I know that most people prefer to have an uncomplicated emotional perspective, whatever their feelings might be about the past, that it’s easier to disregard and diminish past loves in favor of the future so that one’s feelings about that future can appear uncomplicated. But this is dishonest and untrue, and I suspect not just for me. And I had a realization fairly early in my relationship with Alex and told her the next day, namely that if Emily came back and knocked on the door and begged for another chance, I would have to turn her away and say that I had new commitments and would have to see those through first and that if they never waned, she would never get that chance. It was a big moment, huge, and Alex sincerely told me she never expected it, let alone that quickly. So let’s not take anything away from the present with all this about the past.
But the past is real. That’s the whole point. It really happened and no amount of defensive denial is going to change that.
I’m going to discard the mug. Donate it, I guess, to Goodwill or someone, let someone use it in the absence of any emotional resonance or past feeling. It can be one of those discordant images of objects in the possession of the poor, like the T-shirts worn by homeless in the Tenderloin celebrating some tech conference that utterly failed to draw its expected audience. Or that proclaim the championship of a team that never won it, though those more often head to Africa where they are less likely to spur a confused reaction. The image of an Ivy trophy sitting in a thrift shop is almost as satisfying as one of Emily sincerely apologizing and admitting that the time we spent together actually meant something to her.
Besides, I have this post now. I have the image and all the thoughts that flow from it. Maybe I should do this with every sentimental object in my life. Make it a study, an object lesson, then let it go, send it on its way of being a metaphor for something meaningful rather than a collection of solid atoms I have to hold and transport. Everything in my life could be a mandala. And while my Dad’s voice in my head notes the possibility of an EMP or a paradigm shift that destroys our electronic virtual world, the Internet is generally perceived to be pretty permanent. Or sufficiently so for this life. Maybe this is a model for how to get rid of everything, to pack light, to meet the goal of getting everything down to a backpack.
But no matter what we own, we all have a lot to carry.
It’s been quite a week.
I would like to be poetic and hip and write one of those rambly but ultimately reflective and incisive posts that I aspire to write nearly every time I sit down at this screen. But I have a weird mix of energy and productivity and what (for lack of a better way of putting it) I would call morningness that actually debilitates the more loquacious and important post. When I wake up in the morning and want to be awake, my brain is trained for the pragmatic, the practical, the mathematical, the straightforward. This is why I do basically all of my fiction writing at night, when my brain has entered a state far different and more creative. Not everyone sees the morning this way, but I think it makes sense. The brain hasn’t had time to fog up and adjust to the more lyrical side of life… it’s about procuring food and sustaining itself and getting from point A to point B in the morning. And while I really prefer to be in the hazier more creative state all the time, the morningness certainly serves its purposes well, like in today’s dealing with bank accounts and furniture and all manner of practicalities innate to the moving process.
So this will mostly be about basic updates, the kind of things I want to chronicle but may not be in the mood to chronicle poetically.
I will be moving to New Orleans, officially. I know there was some equivocation before, but signing a lease and putting down a deposit is about as definitive as things get in my life, so that appears to be that. Alex and I will be living in the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans for at least the next year and very probably the one after that. No, I still haven’t settled on what I’m doing yet, but I couldn’t be much more excited to head to the city after spending a whirlwind 60 hours there.
I spent most of the time there with dear friends Ariel & Michael who’ve seen me near my best and at my absolute worst in a decade and a half of friendship (with Ariel at least). They are erstwhile New Orleanians who’d not been back since they traveled there to marry. I got to join them in Audubon Park, location of their nuptials, as well as all over the city as they remembered it fondly and frequently and compared it to itself both before and after Katrina. It may be the last time I see them before they are parents and this brief visit was full of things to tell their child, not least of which was a visit to pick up a sign bearing her future name.
Walking through the French Quarter at night not only made me giddy at how lucky I am to be moving to New Orleans, but reminded me how big an impact New Orleans Square in Disneyland had on my imagination as a young child. Ariel, Michael, and I talked a bit about influences on children and the extent to which parents can control them, an increasingly relevant concern for many of my friends as they all start to procreate. I think I am constantly amazed at something rarely discussed in person but often captured in fiction, the little inadvertent magic that happens to young children without design or motive as they encounter unexpected beauty or captivation in the world. Many influences can be traced to parental or societal direction, but others come trailing in on the whim of a particularly good day or a very memorable scene that strikes a young person’s fancy just so without clear explication. The results are often more powerful than all the deliberate guidance in the world. I have always adored Disneyland and New Orleans Square has always been my favorite stop therein and a bit of the French Quarter at night (more secluded, less Bourbony) hinted or overtly referenced the calm fireflies of the opening waters of Pirates of the Caribbean, the long shadows of intriguing homes of the Haunted Mansion, or the raucous bravado of the rest of the former ride.
It is rare that we get to reinhabit what felt magical in our childhood and live it even more robustly than the first whispered promise of unseen delight. I do believe this hope is why most of us have children. To be able to live this way, or even to imagine doing so, makes me so grateful and even more excited.
Okay, maybe there’ll be a little poetry in this post after all.
Of course, there’s also the concern with something like this that it will quickly become pedestrian. And by that, I don’t mean prone to walking, which this entire week was, because that was awesome. I walked more than 5 miles the first day in New Orleans, traipsing around from lovely to horrendous to so-so apartments and back again, ducking around the streetcar line that is sadly being repaired in long stretches and replaced by bus. It was hot and humid and exhausting and wonderful and got my mind in just the right setting as walking extensively always does. No, my fear is that like Sarah once said about living in the Grand Canyon, that one will become used to the most beautiful place on Earth, to lose an appreciation for it as it becomes the normal setting for existence. I think this is part of why I’m being careful about employment or commitments of time just yet as I head for Louisiana. I want to be sure that I keep the magic and excitement involved in the decisions that I make, that I can keep that fresh joyous feeling about life for a long time to come. It not only makes the days fuller and richer, but it preserves an amount of hope I haven’t felt in some time. I can’t remember the last time I felt I had chosen where I was and what I was doing, fully. And even here, terms were dictated by Alex’s employment and other forces. But I am finally digging out from under the oppressive weight of Emily’s decisions and the fallout therefrom. I’m doing something on my own terms and it tastes like liberation.
And a little bit, perhaps, like veggie gumbo. Something I still have yet to see outside of Anaheim. Though I might just see it in Orlando next, coincidentally my stopover city on my return flight from NOLA, since the plan involves a stop in that city’s various attractions between Atlanta and the new home.
The visit also entailed a trip to Atlanta to see Alex and whale sharks and the world of Coca-Cola. The Georgia Aquarium continues to be the most impressive in the world and probably my favorite… I could probably spend open till close staring at the largest tank in the world (the one that houses the whale sharks). A late discovery that they do have cuttlefish (Alex’s favorite and easily the most underrated fish in the sea) meant a lot of extra time and a brief audition of Alex as the ambassador from one species to the next as family after family tried to figure out why we were so obsessed.
Alex is living at Georgia Tech for the month of June and being back on that campus brought a nice round of memories up as well, even if my visit to see Jake there was relatively brief back in the day. Revisiting some of these cities reminds me how excited I am to see Austin, by far the city in America I’m most excited to visit that I never have to date. With the quantity of friends there and its proximity to Louisiana, I have no doubt it will be a new home away from home in the coming years.
This post was going to be part of Quick Updates and it now is too long for that and the rest of my morningness is probably better spent on the mundane tasks of moving on which I am already behind, though starting to catch up quickly. There will be plenty of time to weigh in on the political developments of recent days (including Iraq, the war that keeps on giving) and sports (the World Cup! The Mariners in playoff position!). But it will all have to wait. I must go and do, now that the future is taking a little more shape, a little more color.
We’ll start with yellow.
“I’ve been known to say that I live much of my life as though I can assume that some archivist will eventually come in and take an interest in my old papers. Granted, that archivist may just be an older me at some point, but I still see a paper discarded as a grave tragedy.”
-my post on this page, 28 April 2010
Hi, I’m Storey and I’m a pack-rat.
As mentioned yesterday, I’m moving soon. And besides seeing friends and thinking deeply about the nature of transition and being, that means confronting the unsettling reality of my materialism. The truth of the matter is that while I aspire to not be materialistic and I kind of disdain the acquisition of stuff, I feel an overbearing attachment to almost everything I’ve accumulated. Not just papers, as mentioned in the quote up top, but pretty much everything.
Part of this stems from the belief that I will someday be a known novelist and thus all of my papers will be interesting to archivists who want to understand the roots of my writing better. I am aware that this sounds fairly egotistical, but then, as I discussed once with debaters on a long car ride back from somewhere north (I remember Henry and Jasmeet were novices, so it was some time ago), writing is a slightly egotistical pursuit – one has to believe that one has something worthy of convincing others, worthy of saying to people, worthy of their time and attention. (Incidentally, this is part of why my writing took such a hit in the wake of the divorce – such a rejection is about the most crushing thing one can face to the idea that one has worth in the world or advice worth giving.)
But I have to admit that I found an eerie familiarity in a This American Life piece on Andy Warhol’s “time capsules” that I heard while sanding luminarias in the run-up to last Christmas Eve. In brief, he boxed 621 of these “time capsules” full of personal junk and passed it off as “art”. While the veneer is that Warhol was once again doing something transcendentally original and avant garde and before his time, the reality is decidedly more pedestrian and human.
“[His assistant] suggested to Andy that rather than viewing the boring old cardboard packing boxes as just ways to transport his stuff from one place to the next, he should think of them as time capsules. It was exactly the kind of trick you resort to when your kids won’t eat their vegetables by making a chore into a game. And it worked. Big time… He’d found the perfect outlet for his hoarding impulses. Instead of having to throw anything away ever again, he could just stick that thing into a box and call it art.”
-Starlee Kine, This American Life Episode 514
One of the problems with debaters is that we are notoriously good at justifying things. Anything. It’s even an exercise I have people do when they’re coming up in debate. Some people call it “defending the indefensible” but my version is called a Two-Minute Drill where you have to talk, no matter what, for two solid minutes on a pre-determined stance that absolutely no one would agree with. People get good at this in debate, to the point where if they lose sight of their moral compass or never had much of a functioning one to begin with, they can become truly effective awful people. More on this later (not today).
So I’m good at telling myself, every time it’s time to pick up, pack up, and move, why I have two land-line telephones or five ethernet cables or that string of Christmas lights that would probably work if I switched out the one bulb with that one from the set of extras. Why I have my entire archive of papers from Glide (multiple boxes) that I was going to use to put together a non-profiteer portfolio for possible use in future hires, but that has remained taped shut through two moves and possibly counting, depending on whether I can just get the gumption to get rid of it already, or significantly pare it down. Why I have a Gamecube that Fish and I bought a decade ago that I haven’t hooked up in seven years.
My first inclination when I make these embarrassing revelations about myself and have to confront them is to get red-faced and hot-necked and have my eyes water up a little and try to forget this knowledge. My second, better, inclination is to talk about it on a public website so maybe there’s a chance I will have to face it head-on, fully, and, you know, do something about it.
My Dad has spoken to me a lot lately about what he calls the “Depression mentality” wherein those who lived through the Great Depression in America all became hoarders out of a survival instinct that stemmed from an era when nothing was taken for granted. He cites it to contrast with what he sees as the contemporary sense of entitlement that those in my generation and younger carry, the disposability of an era when shortages aren’t real and durable goods, while perhaps not actually durable, are cheap and plentiful. And while I can see the point that he’s making sometimes, I think that somehow I inherited the Depression mentality straight from my grandparents. Part of it, I know, is an inborn frugality whose precise roots I can’t trace that I’ve only recently (probably post-divorce) been able to shake off enough to have a little fun and relax about money. But once I’ve plunked down money for something, I have a really hard time letting go of it, especially if the resale value is paltry in comparison to what was paid upfront. I don’t really care that much about money in the day-to-day, but confronting taking a heavy loss on an item or its purchase being wasted just seems intolerable to me for reasons I can’t fully grasp.
And some of the stuff, or a lot of it, carries a sentimental burden. I’m a more emotional and feeling person than most and was raised from a young age to anthropomorphize objects of all sorts (my mother was raised on “crying peas,” but pretty much every appliance in our household was capable of speech). There’s the box of photos that I’m sure no one would begrudge (though some might prefer to organize). There’s allllllll of the books. All of them. Which is an issue I revisit frequently. I care deeply about the books I buy, even though most of them are used to begin with, and keeping all of them like a little memory of everything I’ve read. I love the look and feel and heft of books and the feel they give when reading them and I am truly one of those people who believes this process can never ever be replaced by screens no matter how many trees it costs, even though I know there’s probably something wrong with that sentiment. But. But. When I really examine how often I’m going back to these books, it’s a little uncertain, a little fishy. I’m not a re-reader at all… I can count on two hands the number of books I’ve read even a second time. It just feels like opportunity cost to me in a world where I’ll never read a fraction of what I want to. So, why keep them all?
I have this fantasy I’ve long harbored around the idea of having a child or maybe even children someday and having a library, shelves and shelves floor-to-ceiling, all with ramshackle uneven copies of books in the editions that I read along my journey. And my not-yet-sleepy 12-year-old comes bounding into the library where I am typing away on my umpteenth novel and shyly asks if we can pick out a book together. And as we peruse the shelves for new discoveries, I tell stories of where the book came from and the layout of the bookstore or the friend who gave me that copy and what life used to be. And later, as I tuck the child in after they’ve long since fallen asleep, I slide a gentle bookmark into the place where they’ve sandwiched their index finger, look at the old worn pages and my child and feel that everything has been for a reason.
I spend an inordinate time thinking about this future, doubly so for someone who is still quite uncertain about the desire to have children and how good a father they might make. For one thing, I should probably first learn how to throw something out before I try to raise someone else to make decisions on this planet, no?
(Brief Pascal’s wagery aside: Hi, future child! I’m really glad I had you! Isn’t it crazy that we invented the Internet so you can read about all your father’s insecurities at an age when I probably am unsure if you should even have a computer yet? Love you!)
I think the deepest roots of all this accidental materialism come from a really fundamental irony. Namely, that my discomfort with throwing things away is rooted in the idea of a deeper discomfort with the notion of waste. It’s bad enough, it goes in my mind, that we have to have stuff at all or that I am often convinced to buy it. But to get it and then no longer have use for it, to fill the landfill with items whose purchase could have bought food for hungry people who were dying, this is unforgivable. But instead of make use of it or do anything purposeful, I pay still more to lug it around from one state to another, replacing one guilt with a slightly shallower one. It’s actually kind of sick when you think about it.
Wow, I just really figured that out when typing this thing out. The values of writing in an unbridled and on-the-fly fashion never cease to impress. Huh.
So, yeah, I’m carting around a lot of stuff I’ll never use so I don’t have to feel even worse for having never used it. When I think about it like that, it makes me a lot more optimistic that I will actually get out some trash bags tomorrow, or at least spend some time on EBay (there’s till a market for used land-line phones, right?).
And then there’s the in-between stuff, the occasional-use stuff, that’s harder to discern. Tabling for a moment the notion of whether I will someday have a great library of well-loved books to proffer to my offspring (and whether they will even read non-digital books), what of infrequently played board games? Papers of some greater significance than work archives but still uncertain use (e.g. movie ticket stubs, cards, ballgame tickets, scribbled concert setlists)? Halloween decorations that I decided to collect at some point because of a love of the holiday but barely manage the organization to actually utilize? Cheap but replaceable pots and pans?
And then there’s all the stuff that most people would probably not think twice about parting with that I feel most tied to. Old T-shirts of fondly recalled events or places. Oldish stuffed animals, somewhere between the oldest and most loved (obvious keepers) and the newest and most relevant (hey, I have a lot of stuffed animals, okay?). Did I mention books? Because there are a lot of books.
There’s a point in this process, every move, when I decide that I’m going to create a great pile in the yard and have a bonfire and that I will feel this immense liberation at seeing the last few items smolder and turn to ash that will override the pangs of remorseful sadness and loss that would no doubt accompany. But an hour spent lingering on certain books, stuffed animals, and photos convinces me this isn’t a realistic option. So too, of course, the need to not live in an empty box in polite society. The desire to have furniture on which to plop and tables on which to set things and dressers and hampers and dishes. Modern life is all about the stuff, even for those who don’t like stuff. You need stuff to function, you’re constantly interacting with it. So even the bonfire just means a big bill is coming as you replace it with more stuff. Cue the horrible guilt about waste.
So what is to be done? How do I navigate the relatively few days I have to convert this sprawling apartment into a neat row of folded, taped cardboard squares? Having not made it big yet, the Andy Warhol option is regrettably out. And the shed in the backyard looks a little too flammable for my more pyrotechnic plans. Finding the right balance in the middle, to find just the right blend of freedom, sentimentality, wastelessness, frugality, and reasonability is something I must face on my own. Unless, of course, I can interest you in a used ethernet cable.
You may have noticed a burst of color around here. If you haven’t noticed said burst of color, hit the “refresh” button on your browser.
Ah, there we go.
I’m moving to New Orleans in a little over a month. My girlfriend, Alex, and I are heading there so that she can Teach for America. We both acknowledge that there are some things TFA could do better for the way our society is headed overall, but she wants to be a teacher and this seems like an easy way to test that desire and do so in an awesome new place.
I will be leaving my job coaching debate at Rutgers, one that I have unofficially done for 5 full years and officially done for three and a half. I could not possibly be more conflicted about this decision. In fact, I was so conflicted that despite announcing to the team that I would be leaving at the Senior Banquet on May 7th, I did not officially submit my resignation letter until about an hour ago. And I still am kind of in a shocked awe of that decision. I actually decided to leave. I have loved almost everything about coaching the Rutgers team and watching their incredible hard work, dedication, and perseverance pay off in untold unpredicted ways, culminating in this year’s trip to the National Championship Finals. And yet there have been challenges, as there are with any pursuit, and I’m starting to feel restless, as I always do after 5 years anywhere. Anywhere, much less New Jersey.
My relationship with this state is weird and circuitous. I can honestly stay that no state has brought me more overall pain during my time here, but almost none have brought me more joy. I never would have predicted that I would spend so long living here, but I wrote two books, coached for five years, lost a marriage, and started another quite serious relationship. But I’m not here to just tick off milestones and put New Jersey in perspective. It will be a long time before I can fully do that.
Perhaps the better thing, as suggested by the glaring colors and header of this blog as of today, is to look forward to Louisiana. I’m not sure what I’ll do there, but I have lots of ideas. I will probably start out focusing a little bit on poker, since that’s been going really well lately and I hear it can be done as a job. But I’m considering very seriously doing more with writing, with this webpage, and possibly getting back into non-profits. I might take a job in a coffee shop or library to get involved in the community and support some creative pursuits. I might work at Tulane, doing something vaguely administrative. I think I’m done with debate for a while and I’d like my nights and weekends back, but that can always change… someone in Alex’s TFA cohort apparently went to my high school and started the Tulane debate team, which apparently will be seeking to join APDA next year. You can’t make real life up.
It is too strange, early, and overwhelming to contextualize all this transition, except that it feels right. RUDU is poised to be a self-sustaining force for the foreseeable future of APDA at this stage, with two National Finalists returning and a ton of talent convincing the administration to maintain its commitment to the team. My work there could continue, but is largely done. The five-year bells for a location in the back of my head are jangling hard. I have always been fascinated by New Orleans and even have a novel plot set there where I could do some of this alleged “research” I sometimes hear things about. Maybe I’ll finally manage to go on a ghost tour, or even start running them. I think my visions of New Orleans were long defined by its Square in Disneyland, easily the most random but enthralling part of the plastic kingdom. I mean, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and veggie gumbo? I think New Orleans Square might be the only place I’d be more excited to move than the actual city itself.
I will be doing a small tour of the eastern seaboard before I head out to make sure I see those I’m going to miss most before I go. I’ve contacted most folks about this, but please feel free to e-mail so we can hang out before I go. I’m also going to be heading down to the Maryland summer tournament on June 14th as sort of a last goodbye to APDA. Even though it won’t be a last anything, of course, because are we ever really done with APDA? I have every intention of showing up to a tournament or two next year to judge and see RUDU again and get back in the world that has been a bigger part of my life than any other single community.
There is still a tiny chance we end up in Finland next year, actually. And a still tinier chance that we end up in a third, indeterminate, place. But with Alex in training to teach in New Orleans as we speak and time passing just as quickly as ever, this seems like as good a time as any to call it. So there you go. Or, rather, here I go. Again.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
-Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
There is a place at Glide called the Maya Angelou Room. It’s warm and cozy and the perfect place for stormy summer San Francisco days, a place with plush green couches and a well-worn table and pictures of Maya herself and long-suffering people who have come through Glide’s doors seeking salvation, or at least a meal. It has wide windows looking out on the desolation row below, looking out onto the meal line and the pigeons and the occasional shouting or shoving that define the Tenderloin.
Here, why don’t you look at a picture to see what I mean:
We would have meetings in that room, serious ones or birthday celebrations, or planning for the next big project or visit. It’s a locked room much of the time, unlike most at Glide, with Vicky running around hectically with keys to open up one of the hidden little sacred spaces in the ramshackle earthquake-prone building at 330 Ellis. The room is the center of the internship program at Glide, where new fresh-faced students from surrounding universities come to learn about how non-profiteering is done, with hard work, sweat, love, and sometimes frustration.
I never met Maya Angelou, an apparently fairly frequent visitor to Glide and one of its most ardent supporters. Her room, though, felt like I’d imagine talking to her would have been. Somehow warm and simultaneously austere, comforting and reassuring but not immune to conflict and confrontation of the truth. I have no idea if she had a role in designing it or if it was simply named in her honor, but I’m sure she sat a spell there at least once and probably appreciated it. Maybe it inspired a poem or evoked a memory. I always felt like writing when I was in that space.
There’s a lot I have to write. At some point, I’m going to have to come forward with some untold stories that are burning a hole in my keyboard, stories of pain and betrayal and institutional failure and all the old tropes that seem to be a big part of what life is about on this planet. I don’t believe in battles between good and evil, but I do believe staunchly that there are people out there who want you to believe that life is just garbage. That it’s always been garbage and always will be, so why don’t you go out and get yours, whatever the cost. As I told some of my debaters recently, what keeps me going is the importance of not letting the message that life is garbage win. Life is hard, grueling, and filled with misdeeds. But it is more, far more than garbage. Maya knew it, and her life was way harder than mine will ever be. Glide knows it, every day, and inspires those whose lives are harder than Maya’s.
But life, as we are reminded in the ensuing online debates from recent events, is also not a battle over martyrdom, over whose pain is biggest or whose obstacles are greatest. It is, perhaps, an effort to see who can come the farthest through such setbacks that we all must face and try to bear. The most-quoted Angelou line of the time since her death and perhaps of all-time is this one:
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I think the ability to make people feel better, more positive, more hopeful, more understanding of each other and the life that we are trying to lead, that’s perhaps the greatest aspiration any of us can have. We all want to change the world, even if it’s only for the lowliest of reasons, but changing how people feel about going through this arduous journey is probably far nobler and more important. And the only way to find out how that’s going is to constantly communicate with those people, to engage, to offer stories of one’s own as illustrations for what could maybe be reached in the future.
Angelou was masterful at this. Through the spinning of words, in poetry and prose, she could keep people hanging on a thread and make her hard hard life relatable to anyone, inspiring to everyone. She was one of the first people I read in high school who made me realize that childhood was something stripped from many people, who alerted me to the fact that lives like those lived by the children of Seneca Center, where I would later work, existed. She reminded me of the power of a simple honest story and how it could resonate, reverberate, ripple into the memory and actions of others.
As I stand on the precipice of another transition, another move, another series of goodbyes already in progress, I think back to the foggy environs of Glide’s second floor, to the cavernous echoes of the neighboring sanctuary, to the peeling tile and hearty smiles of the last place I toiled. I miss you already, though I haven’t even left. In missing the last thing, I am missing now and missing things yet unmet. A full heart is a heavy one, and there is much to be grateful for about that, even if it feels like sorrow. Benevolent sorrow, but sorrow nonetheless.
Maybe I’m just trying to live up to one final quote from Maya:
“You can only become truly accomplished at something you love. Don’t make money your goal. Instead pursue the things you love doing and then do them so well that people can’t take their eyes off of you.”
There are some more detailed posts in the work since I’ve decided I’m going to re-energize this blog and start posting again, but I think it’s time for a quick continuation of our series on the misreporting of unemployment. (The latest in the series was in December 2013.
Before everyone became obsessed with the latest US mass-shooter, there was this big groundswell of celebration that the unemployment problem has finally been fixed in America as reported unemployment crashed in April to 6.3%, from 6.7%.
And yet those just graduating from college and facing the new job market don’t seem to have it any easier. People still talk in hushed tones about how this “recovery” seems sluggish and iffy even though the numbers have normalized to nearly pre-2008 levels and the stock market has gone through the stratosphere.
So what gives? Is there anything to this story that unemployment is starting to recede so greatly?
The good news is that unemployment in March 2014 was at its lowest level in four and a half years, since August 2009. That is no small thing. It seems there is some actual movement in the economy!
The bad news, of course, is that unemployment that month was still, uh, 11.99%. Or 1.99% higher than the highest reported rate of the whole “Great Recession”. That was in October 2009, when real unemployment was 12.69%.
Yeah, we just set a nearly five-year record low. At exactly 0.7% lower than the perceived height of unemployment during the Recession.
You can read past posts in this series to get an understanding of the rationale for the “Real Unemployment” figure, but it includes those who have left the workforce and are thus left out of American unemployment figures. People who have any sort of employment, even if it’s only a couple hours a week, are still included as employed. The only difference is that my Real Unemployment figure counts those who were in the labor force before the Great Recession as in the labor force now, based on a reasonable healthy-employment figure of percentage of the population in the labor force.
There’s more bad news, of course. As you can see on that chart, unemployment actually ticked up in April, to 12.17%, from that epically low 11.99%. Only a modest 0.18% rise, but that’s a big difference in the story from a 0.4% decline that was reported. And that 0.68% jump in the Reporting Gap led to an all-time high in that figure, of 5.87%.
As you can see, the reporting gap was actually declining all of 2014 before last month’s surge, with the reported figures closing in on the actual figures somewhat. Of course, this “closing in” is pretty relative, given that we are rapidly approaching the point where the under-reporting of unemployment eclipses the total figure for unemployment itself. Or, put another way, the point where more than half those unemployed in the US are not considered to be so by the official figures. With the reporting gap at 5.87% and reported unemployment at 6.3%, this very real tipping point seems reachable by year’s end.
I’ve discussed a lot how crazy this phenomenon makes people feel and how the surge in reporting gap mirrors that made in the stock market during the same period, so I won’t repeat myself more. Just wanted to give an update on where we stand and how insidious it is that people think April was a banner month for employment when it actually reflected regression.
Consider how differently people would be treating questions of employment, income inequality, and capitalism if they publicly discussed the fact that, from BLS’ own statistics and an understanding of what the labor force means, unemployment has been at 12% (if you’re willing to grant me 11.99% as 12%) or above since August 2009.
Every time there’s a mass-shooting or -killing in America, which is roughly constantly these days, there is a groundswell of effort to claim the event as political leverage for or against some particular cause that those behind it attribute to the source of the violence. This is a natural human reaction to tragedy and one that, unlike many people who observe this trend, I don’t dislike. People say that it’s about the guns or it’s about mental health or it’s about a lack of security or it’s about bullying or it’s about hopelessness or it’s about video games or, in the latest instance, it’s about misogyny.
All of these people are right, at least to an extent. There are tens of little causes that contribute to each one of these killing sprees that the United States churns out and it’s worth examining each one to try to see what could have been done to prevent any given incident. Tragedy is bad enough for people to experience, individually or collectively, but it is totally wasted if we fail to try to mine it for lessons about our past and future and ways we can change the shape of society to save lives and prevent similar future trauma. We are hard-wired to do this as an evolutionary species and we should embrace this reaction to tragedy as it prompts us to have hope in the midst of heartache.
Most of the time, however, we focus on entirely the wrong thing. The voices advocating conciliation after 9/11 were drowned out by those who said it was a lack of security that had caused the incident, not a policy that uniformly oppressed and incited people in foreign lands. And I think the entire emphasis on mental health in the wake of so many of these recent shootings is a bit naive, implying that somehow there is a regimen of mandated screenings we can pursue that will remove all potentially uncorked people from walking the streets ever again. The gun question is certainly relevant, but seems also to fall a bit short of the boat when it must be acknowledged that illegal guns are nearly as plentiful in this state as legal ones. And certainly arming the populous to replace mass-shootings with daily shoot-outs at the OK Mall seems a little short-sighted, especially in light of the recent sprees by police in my native Albuquerque and other cities that have embraced a culture of shooting first and obfuscating questions later.
The issue has always struck me as a little more fundamental than guns specifically, though I agree we certainly have a gun problem in this country. It’s about a culture and society that routinely honors and glorifies violence and, more damningly, specifically advocates violence as a solution to problems. Finland does not have a significant problem with mass-shootings, despite the fact that plenty of people are toting firearms up to Lappland to slaughter reindeer. Anders Breivik aside, this problem doesn’t seem to frequently plague the rest of Europe either. And despite their poverty and desperation, no developing nations not ensconced in civil war seem to be frequently beset by marauding young men taking arms against a sea of troubles and massacring their friends and neighbors.
America is not the only country that fights wars, has a military, or advocates killing for your country. I am often criticized for failing to see this, for failing to throw just as many proverbial stones at all the other nations who seek to subjugate the rest of the world with firearms and explosives as I do at my native land. However, the fact that America spends as much on its military as the next nine largest military spenders combined seems to indicate that we have a bit of a disproportionate issue. Nowhere else is violence so frequently lauded as the answer or is more energy, effort, money, and time expended to train people to use violence to solve the society’s perceived problems.
But more pivotally, violence is the only universal coherent explanation for what is wrong with all these mass-shootings. The biggest problem with the shootings is that they kill and injure people. That may seem like a really juvenile or mundane statement, but it is also transparently true and I think it’s a little profound. We can argue that if we had better mental health services or banned violent video games or washed racism or sexism out of our society that these incidents would be less likely. And maybe they would. But nothing would actually eliminate all of them other than getting rid of the urge and/or willingness to do violence. It is not the content of the message or frustration or even the precise means and weaponry that is problematic about killing sprees. It is the killing.
The fact that this is not the starting point of widespread discussions of this unending series of killings indicates just precisely how far down the rabbit hole of presumption of violence we really are. No one would question on a national talk show why Elliot Rodger would choose violence as his method of expression in this circumstance, because of course people take out their actions in the form of violence. No one turns the lens on how pervasive violence is in our societal values and our advocacy because it’s just a given that violence is necessary and honorable most of the time. People see these killings not as innate perversions of humanity by invoking violence, but merely a misuse of the tool of violence since everyone else who uses it is a “hero”.
I’m not trying to say that Elliot Rodger was a prime candidate for pacifism. I am more than familiar with the critique of my viewpoint as impractical in a world where wars are so common and the desire to damage the bodies of others is seen as innate to our nature. However, saying that these shootings are not, most fundamentally, about violence clearly seems to miss the point. Without violence, these would be uncomfortable screaming matches or maybe even fringey protests or blog posts, not tragedies that leave tens dead and hundreds more lives shattered in pain and loss. To defeat the rise of mass-killings and prevent them in the future, we really only have one option of what to try to limit, which is violence itself.
And since we can’t eliminate violence by imprisoning everyone and isolating them entirely from each other (or at least we probably shouldn’t), we have to try to convince people that violence is not the answer to their challenges. Which seems to start first and foremost at the top, with setting a new precedent for how the country is going to resolve differences with its rivals. And while I’m glad we didn’t invade Ukraine in the recent spring unrest, we still are a long long way from resolving our differences with others peacefully. And rarely is that more obvious than during Memorial Day, as especially augmented by the unending stream of enforced patriotism surrounding public events thereon, ranging from camouflage-style uniforms on the baseball diamond to jingoistic graveside speeches. Whatever you may think about some past wars in American history and those who fought them (I recognize that few of you are zealous pacifists like me), it is impossible to ignore that modern patriotism and militarism are manifest to convince vulnerable young men and women to kill in wars of convenience for economic imperialism. Even if you believe the “heroes of World War II” actually “died for your freedom”, that memory is being warped into an excuse for de facto drafting the poor and would-be noble of our nation into oppressive attacks on the innocent children of other countries.
Kind of like the oppressive attacks on the innocent children of our country.
I’m not saying, either, that if all displays of jingoistic militarism went away tomorrow that all the Elliot Rodgers of the world would too. But I think there’s a high correlation between the existence of both and that the causal links are strong and possibly measurable. (A future version of this post may try to track incidents like this on a graph.) I don’t think Rodger came up with the idea that violence was the best expression of his rage on his own. I think it was something he was taught, something inculcated in him by a number of influential and powerful sources from a young age, something we are raising people to believe in a society whose ode to bombs bursting in air begins each important event within it.
I also want to address the proximate cause du jour that so many are citing for the latest mass-shooting. It neither bears having its own post on the subject nor does it really dovetail perfectly with my above point, so I’m just awkwardly throwing up that dividing line and starting over on this subject. There’s been a lot of discussion of Facebook along the lines of this Guardian article, blaming the killings in Isla Vista on misogyny and the idea that he was entitled to female companionship.
While there’s no doubt that Rodger was a sexist, a misogynist, and a terrible human being, there’s something to be said for the idea that the article above and its ilk are a slight misinterpretation of the facts. I don’t think Rodger was upset because he was taught that he should be able to just have any woman who he wanted and that no one should ever reject him. Rather, I think he was frustrated with being a chronically lonely person in a society that promotes sex and sexuality, with being unable to connect with people when so many others around him were making so many connections, to feel like his college experience, when “everyone” is hooking up and getting it on, was punctuated by the worst time of his life, not the best.
This is in no way meant to justify or explain his actions. I have already done the explanation above that violence is the core issue. But I think that not enough is done in general in our society to examine how we treat the lonely and socially isolated. These people are not necessarily mentally ill, even if we set aside the fact that our culture slaps a “disorder” on top of anything that makes us uncomfortable or seems hard to explain or is different. And these people may have really unsavory aspects that prevent them from connecting with people, like being sexist or racist or jerks. But the hard part of this whole question is that there are honestly just some people who are lonely for things that are not fatal character flaws. They simply aren’t attractive, or are weird, or try too hard, or are socially inept. These sometimes fester over time and become larger problems that manifest in resentment and morph into sexism or being a jerk, but the characteristics themselves are often just unfortunate problems that don’t have an easy solution.
I’m not saying anyone is entitled to the company of their preferred gender of choice or to a relationship, per se. But doesn’t it seem like everyone should be able to experience companionship if they want to? Doesn’t it seem cosmically unfair if some people are just too hopelessly weird or awkward or unattractive to avoid eternal loneliness? And this does not obligate any one person or group to do anything about it… relationships are the most intensely personal, important, and choice-based thing in someone’s life – they are entirely up to the person and no one should be a martyr for someone else not being lonely. But what do we do with people who see a world that worships togetherness and romantic and sexual contact and can simply never have it on a meaningful level? This is not something that is easily washed away by saying they did something to deserve this loneliness. All too often, they didn’t. They just are on their own through no fault of their own.
Again, I stress that this is not Elliot Rodger’s story, almost certainly, but he’s enough like someone in this story that it’s worth discussing this conundrum. The person who provides the best example of this kind of phenomenon isn’t a person at all, but a fictional half-blood wizard, namely Severus Snape. Lauded as perhaps the most complicated, developed and intriguing character in the Harry Potter series, if not all millennial literature, Snape provides us with vast insight into what it means to be lonely and unable to do anything about it. And while his story is the more typical trope of unrequited love for one specific person, I see in Snape aspects of the modern lonely high school and college students who go without any connections and would be happy with a number of different possible people as long as they had someone to love, cherish, and connect with.
Snape is weird, vaguely unkempt, and deeply unattractive. And while his resentment of the bullying James Potter and the cool kids who get the girls leads him down a dark path toward revenge and elitism, Snape is not innately a sexist or a misogynist or a hater of any kind. He’s just a victim of losing the genetic lottery and being unable to make himself normal enough to fit in. His is the story of countless young people (disproportionately men, probably, because of the shape of our society, but not exclusively by any stretch) and their isolation is something we don’t like to talk about, think about, or even admit because of its deep unfairness. No one in America ever likes to admit defeat or the unfixability of anything, but the idea that some people are just doomed to loneliness by the nature of who they are and the choices that others will make about them is devastating. And while this conclusion may not be entirely true in an absolute sense, this country, like all countries, will continue to produce loners and outcasts.
Only by looking at these people head-on and trying to give them other things in life to be excited about and other ways to find connection and meaning can we have a hope of limiting the unfairness of their unfortunate circumstances. I won’t go so far as to say that this kind of active engagement will prevent mass-shootings, because we’ve discussed the only real way to do that, but it might just bring people off the ledge from believing that so little in their life matters that they can throw it away and, worse, use it as a platform for ending others.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.