I’ve changed the theme around these parts to match the above poster for my upcoming summer travel plans. I’m not in love with the title, but I like all the T’s and I really like the imagery and all those skylines. At the very least, I’ve solved the minor dilemma outlined at the end of last month. If you don’t see the new theme, refresh the page.
This whole thing may look a bit dark to you. I prefer the term “dramatic”. Your mileage may vary. I was actually toying with the idea of getting a new theme altogether for this blog. Not a new name or anything, but a new WordPress theme style with a different arrangement of dates and titles and maybe even sidebar changes. The problem is that I really like the sidebar the way it is and had also just spent a fair bit of time crafting the new header image and needed to ensure that there was space for my 800×350 pixel creation, which is the size I’ve been working with since shutting down Introspection and replacing it with this.
In any event, this is a pretty extensive tour, including my first stop in Europe since 2008 (and that was only for a few hours in London!). Obviously, an alternate theme for this whole venture could have been about fish, since most of the travel is related in some way or another to Fish’s wedding, which is the whole purpose for the European jaunt, of course. Somehow the “Gone Fishin’ 2013″ concept just seemed a little too much like I’d abandoned vegetarianism, though. It’s a shame there isn’t an activity with the summer implications of fishing that doesn’t involve killing or at least significantly injuring creatures. It seems like it would be fun to fish without the whole death/maiming angle.
Other possible plans for this tour included, at one point, the Bay Area, Seattle, and Alaska. These destinations will all have to wait, or more properly, I’ll have to wait to get to them. There’s only so much one can gallivant if the intent of the summer is to be somewhat restful and, with any luck, productive.
Regardless of which, even if this summer isn’t going places, I’m going places this summer. Neat. If we haven’t made plans to meet up in an above-listed city where you’re going to be, let’s fix that, shall we?
I’ve seen Counting Crows and the Wallflowers before. I’ve even seen them together before. I was invited to sometime in mid- to late-high school before I knew either of them well and it was a time I couldn’t really have appreciated it. I still regretted not going for a long time for all sorts of reasons. But later, I did see them, in December 2003, which is an alarmingly long ten years ago now. You can see the setlist here and what I thought of the show here.
A decade is a long time. It’s actually been almost 14 years since what I dubbed “the perfect show” at the time, still one of the best I’ve ever seen, which was the first time I saw CC ever. That was at the Hammerstein Ballroom in 1999, when they played this set in the midst of the release of This Desert Life, still my favorite of their albums. I could’ve seen this show at Hammerstein Ballroom as well, and would have loved to commemorate that full-circle, but I’ll be taking a train from LA to Albuquerque on that day. Then they’re playing at the Borgata in AC, where Fish and I saw them in the summer of ‘09, but I’ll be in Albuquerque that day too. They’ll be in California in late July, but on those days, I’ll be in New Jersey.
So there was really nothing for it but to pack up the car and head four hours to a place called Big Flats, New York, where they were playing on Saturday a couple days back. I haven’t been as in to concerts lately as I once was, but this is, I believe, the twelfth time I’ve seen Counting Crows live in my life and virtually none of the shows fails to be a religious experience of some kind. The eleventh show, the last one, in New York sometime last year (Google tells me it was April 24, 2012 at the Roseland Ballroom) was altogether forgettable, being a day when I was sick and exhausted and overworked and we were far far away from the stage. But this one was a good comeback and made the first time I think my girlfriend enjoyed the show, though she was touched up with a bit of sickness probably deriving from the roadside country restaurant we hit on the way.
The Wallflowers set was among the best I could hope for from them. I’ve listened to their new release a couple times and it’s fine, but I was still hoping for a much older set of songs to be immersed in what I assumed would be about half new stuff. I was pleased to be very wrong and find that only one or two of the songs were off the new album, while some really old favorites, most notably “I’ve Been Delivered,” made the set. With that and “Three Marlenas” being my two favorite songs of theirs and both being played, though the latter still in the upbeat style they prefer for playing it live, I was really happy with their song selections.
But CC reminded me why they top my list of concerts seen and why I drove four hours to get there. Adam seemed sadder than usual, or perhaps just more immersed in what they’re now calling dissociative disorder for him, but I think must truly be some combination of his itinerant loneliness and the wonder of truly becoming famous and still being able to solve the larger puzzles of life. It has to be bizarre to feel so isolated and crazy most of the time and have adoring fans screaming your words back at you like some solipsistic echo-chamber. I don’t know what becomes of the people who connect most deeply through feelings of isolation, but I do know that David Foster Wallace said that “Fiction is one of the few experiences where loneliness can be both confronted and relieved … Fiction, poetry, music, really deep serious sex, and, in various ways, religion — these are the places (for me) where loneliness is countenanced, stared down, transfigured, treated.” It is notable that music is among the five keys to DFW’s possible escape from being, what he calls in the same passage, “a one-by-one box of bone no other party can penetrate or know.” I also know that a lot of the songs CC sang on Saturday referenced cutting and bleeding.
It’s hard to know how much of any given selection sample of Counting Crows songs sounds extra-sad or how much that’s just their style. As the otherwise worthless movie High Fidelity put it, “Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” It makes you wonder, after a time, how much of your personal romantic narrative is tinged with the failures of people like Adam Duritz, how much you’re relating because he’s speaking to you or because he’s persuading you. I still feel a weird sting of how the song “A Murder of One” turned on me and made from the singer to feeling like it may just be an anthem of enabling morally dubious behavior that was being stabbed into my back. How many of these things are justifications for behavior like I just discovered in DFW’s bio, going through women like so many energy drinks on an unending binge? And does it make it any less meaningful to you if what you’re relating to is different for how you relate and what was intended to be related to? So much for bridging our bags of bones to find common experience.
Regardless, CC highlighted why they still get to headline despite not joining the Wallflowers in having a #1 hit single at any point (though their albums always sell well in the charts). Jakob Dylan goes up there and sings and plays his guitar and the band does their thing and they even rock out on a couple of songs. Counting Crows, led by Duritz, performs. They put on a show. They remain the only band where I think the use of lights actually augments the overall performance – every move and line (often reworked) feels meaningful and powerful, every flash and tilt and tweak feels part of an orchestrated whole that creates an experience that I have never really found in the audience of anyone else’s music. I really love Weakerthans shows and that Simon & Garfunkel reunion concert gave me goosebumps, and seeing Bob Dylan always does the same in a way, but no one performs like Counting Crows.
It was an emotional and charged show, but for some reason I couldn’t get the echoes of the DFW bio out of my head while I was listening. I know I’ve drawn this very close connection between Wallace and Duritz for a long time and it may be totally something I’m seeing without it being there, like Saving Private Ryan being an anti-war movie. But I worry about Adam Duritz, I worry about how much and how deeply he feels, I worry about his meds. I worry about me too, sometimes, maybe a little bit more during a CC show, though nothing like that one time in summer 2010. I only cried during “St. Robinson” and a little bit during “Hospital” and “Rain King”. And maybe in that one moment of “Miami”. That one line gets me every time, even moreso now.
I think Saturday was the only day this month it hasn’t rained. I’m not quite sure that’s true – there must have been one other, but Rain seems to be the theme of June to go with Illness from May. It probably rained here while we were in Big Flats, New York under a mercifully sunny, if a bit chilly, sky. It started raining heavily while I was writing this, raising concerns about more flooding in our basement, or at least something renewed. We have to dry out the rug down there, excluded perfectly by the renter’s insurance we were obliged to get moving in, proving once again that the thing you’d need insurance for is the one thing that it won’t be covered for, just like cell phones in emergencies and pretty much everything touched in some way by American capitalism. Water damage is somehow in the category with earthquakes, legal demands, intentional destruction, nuclear hazards, and (I kid you not) war. Because when I think of water, I think it’s about as unlikely and dramatic as nuclear hazards or war.
It was really good to learn, however, that all bets are off for renter’s insurance in the following circumstances:
a. Undeclared war, civil war, insurrection, rebellion, or revolution;
b. Warlike act by a military force or military personnel; or
c. Destruction, seizure or use for a military purpose.
And just to be extra-clear, they added the following:
Discharge of a nuclear weapon will be deemed a warlike act even if accidental.
Something about the rising foment toward Obama’s first official war (to go with his endless unofficial one) makes these things seem a little extra relevant today. Or maybe it’s just the virality of war and unrest, as seen in Turkey stemming from neighbor Syria. It seems more and more these days that it just takes the power of an idea, the whisper of suggestion, to make realities spread like, well, the wildfires that could use some of this rain that won’t leave us alone.
But do we want to be left alone? Do we have a choice?
At least these days, we know someone is listening. All of you speaking out against the NSA have it wrong. Don’t we all want an audience?
15 June 2013
Tag’s Summer Stage
Big Flats, NY
Baby Don’t You Do It
Letters from the Wasteland
Everything I Need
I’ve Been Delivered
Sixth Avenue Heartache
Closer to You
Misfits and Lovers
Time and Time Again
Untitled (Love Song)
St. Robinson in His Cadillac Dream (Crimson and Clover outtro)
Black and Blue
Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby
Perfect Blue Buildings (Miller’s Angels outtro)
When I Dream of Michelangelo
Friend of the Devil
A Long December (with A Murder of One)
Return of the Grievous Angel
You Ain’t Going Nowhere
Rain King (with Lippy Kids)
Holiday in Spain
A lot of people were shocked by revelations of the so-called PRISM program wherein the US government is spying on phone calls, Internet communications, and other online and on-phone activity of people around the world. I too was shocked. That people were shocked or even surprised.
I think it’s been pretty clear that this kind of stuff has been happening since 2001 and probably well before. It’s probably had different names, protocols, cooperation rates, and investment levels, but the fact that the government wants to know everything you’re doing online and be able to leverage that to its advantage (or “your safety,” I guess) is not a revelation. It’s not news. It’s something that has been an obvious reality for a long time.
I’ve visited my own thoughts on privacy fairly frequently in this space, but I’ve always advocated as much public living as possible and am very much against the illusion that people can hang on to key aspects of their privacy, especially against the twinned forces of corporations and government that are most driven to eliminate privacy in all its aspects. The big issue, though, is symmetry of information/privacy. When the government has a monopoly on both information access and its own privacy, then the world becomes incredibly scary and difficult quite quickly. This is the scenario outlined in “1984″ – no one knows who actually props up Big Brother, or about the underground movements to suppress dissent, or even what actually happens in the Ministry of Love. When everyone has equal access to information and no one has privacy, then we get a world of transparency and forced trust and all sorts of actually fun stuff.
What’s great about the Internet is that it keeps giving opportunities for human beings to blow whistles and level the playing field between the corporate desire for a monopoly of information and the impending reality that we’re all going to know everything. People like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning and Julian Assange make it possible for the corporo-klepto-government (CKG) to be held in check by the scrutiny of regular people. Certainly the corporate media isn’t going to do this job outright, but still seems sufficiently content with being scandal-driven that it will take its cues from underground reporters and whistleblowers if prompted to do so by their bravery and investigative spirit. Though it’s worth noting that the PRISM story was broken by The Guardian, a UK outlet, not by anything domestic in the US. And of course Wikileaks is based offshore as well. It seems increasingly clear that American media outlets are ready to walk in lock-step with the CKG until doing so would make them transparently derelict in their purported duty.
Perhaps I should back up, because you’re probably (or possibly, depending on your temperament) taking issue with my blithe labeling of the CKG and just assuming that this is the nature of what’s out there listening to our bleary blurry cell-phone calls. The problem is that just calling the government “the government” is sorely misrepresentative of what the government in the United States has become in the past decade and a half. And it’s not really the product of some vast shadowy conspiracy of ill-intentioned people so much as a system that enshrines insane levels of greedy self-interest at the detriment of anything that could possibly be confused for a principle, let alone an idea. And it’s getting to epic proportions that everyone should really be paying attention to.
The government is supposed to work in the interests of the people through representative democracy. By instating representative democracy, we are supposed to find upstanding and intelligent people who we think will make smart decisions, vote for them, and wait to reap the benefits of their wisdom. Fantastic.
Unfortunately, several factors have built to severely limit the quality of these potential representatives. Almost all of them involve money. The increasing scope of advertising as a model for appealing to over-entertained and extremely lazy voters, together with the increased entertainment- and laziness-focus of the media that is supposed to serve as the collective conscience of American people have combined to make money both the only thing that seems to matter in an election and especially a minimum prerequisite to running. So it may not be the case that the person who has the most or spends the most wins every election, but the twin parties who have a stranglehold on the anointment of potential representatives have agreed to decide that fund-raising ability and money-making is the determining factor in who will be considered eligible. As a result, everyone who could possibly be representing popular interests, save for a periodic perfect-storm rogue exception, is bought in (literally) to the system of money making the system go round.
Two classes of people have wealth in our society. The individually rich and the corporations. As a body, corporations are vastly more influential in their ability to leverage funds toward campaigns, and are infinitely smarter about targeting it toward their interests. After all, individual humans generally have a mixed bag of preferences and things they sort of care about as issues, often without perfect clarity on how to achieve these outcomes. Whereas corporations are ruthlessly efficient in profit-seeking and self-interest-maximization, in a way that is not only breathtaking but may actually be inconceivable to any given individual human-being. As Ambrose Bierce identified it in the ultra-modern year of 1906, corporation: n., An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility. Corporations take actions all the time in the name of profit-maximization and shareholder interest that any given individual, even those within the corporation, would probably find reprehensible as a single action, be it contributing to the deaths or mistreatment of those in all manner of other nations, undercutting the livelihoods of those in all nations including this one, throwing people out on the street, laying them off, and destroying their families. With the mask of the corporate fault, people are enabled to be evil without feeling like it’s their responsibility.
When applying this to the world of interacting with political figures and the world of “representatives,” the outcome becomes clear quite quickly. An individual may generally have qualms about buying influence (not all do, but many do), but overtly attempting to do so is an obvious corporate model, part of the mainstay practice of donating to both sides of a campaign in order to butter up both sides. And while this kind of soft amateur corruption has been around as long as money and democracy have been in the same place, the globalization and streamlining of corporate power has become and increasingly greased slide that shows no sign of leveling off in the last couple decades.
You see, the government is supposed to regulate corporations. Not just individual corporations through lawsuits and indictments and all manner of direct checks, but corporations writ large, as a concept, to prevent their power from becoming too great and their evil from becoming too pernicious. Part of this is the notion that there are barriers between public and private goods – that some things should be provided by the state and some should be provided by the private sector. But since the Reagan era’s advocacy of basically nothing beyond military force being best done in the public sphere, the move toward privatizing everything has become quite powerful. The mythology has been propagated that corporations do everything better (by which we mean more efficiently, or actually ruthlessly) than the government and thus their models or overt control of things should be how we proceed. The insidious part of the conversation that’s omitted from this step is that corporations are definitionally and tautologically profit-seeking utility-monsters, whereas the government at least theoretically ought be answerable to some notion of the collective public good.
Thus the main step of the privatization movement has been not to exactly actually sell the government in toto to the private sector, but to philosophically convert the notion of the public good to profit-maximization. And thus the rhetoric of both Republicans of the post-Reagan era and certainly the neo-Centrist Democrats Clinton and Obama have been to make government more fiscally responsible, by which we mean profit-driven. Even when exorbitant deficits have been run up, the entire evolution of the last few decades in government has been toward something that is altogether more corporate. Background in the corporate world is a key asset, corporate consultants are brought on to guide all processes and changes, and the bottom line has become the key measurement. And key fund-raisers and successful profiteers have been put in charge of both parties and their kingmaking operations for who is put in front of the people as potential representatives.
All of this has combined to make government a climate that is friend to the corporation and has forgotten, outside of a few young speechwriters, what the public good even looks like. This is how you get the movement of all retirement accounts, pension plans, and Social Security into the corporate casino of Wall Street, conflating the idea of a public good with the bottom-line of the daily close at the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Which itself was the cornerstone in the concept of “Too Big to Fail,” the public unveiling of the CKG for all to see, in 2009. Once the government had ensured that the average American was wholly vested in the outcome of big banks and corporations on Wall Street, with their credit-default swaps, mortgages, student-loan debt, and Internet finance all masquerading as public interest, then the conversion was complete and the corporate tail was free to wag the governmental dog. Those who ought be represented for something that competes with the ruthless bottom-line of corporations were only too happy to welcome our new corporate overlords as the dictators of policy.
All the while, of course, deregulation has eroded the ability of any non-elected group to serve as a check on both the caprice of the flavor-of-the-month elected officials and on the corporations they are actually supposed to be holding accountable. Regulation has been held up as an enemy of profits and efficiency, that nasty old government red-tape tying up red-blooded profit-driven Americans in their pursuit of greenbacks. And thus the last twenty years have been an unprecedented era of rollbacks, not just Republicans declawing the EPA, but both parties erasing all manner of restrictions on banks and corporations of all stripes. The surge in unemployment has combined with the propagated theory that jobs are created by corporations, especially big ones, and their ability to operate tax-free and unregulated on the corporate battleground, and suddenly there isn’t a single person advocating for reigning in the activities of the profit-utility-monsters. Any sort of check on their behavior is seen as a way of destroying jobs and ultimately hurting the middle-class and bringing down the little guy, so no sector of the class structure of the US will advocate for taking the corporations down.
This mentality has spawned two grass-roots movements in response, the last bastion of people clamoring against corporate consolidation of control of the government, made more obvious daily by the revolving door between private and public sector and the corresponding amassing of individual wealth and power for all outgoing government representatives and stakeholders (not to mention the lockdown that, say, Goldman Sachs has on financial [de]regulation). One such movement was the Tea Party, which was actually funded deeply by one of the most massive corporate interests, the Koch Brothers, and advocated for a corporate agenda, probably unwittingly among most of the people actually advocating for said approach. This agenda was anti-regulation, anti-government, and anti-tax, thus encouraging the corporations to proceed unchecked and unheeded in their consolidation of wealth and power.
The other movement was Occupy Wall Street (OWS), which directly sought to take on the private takeover by questioning banks and the financial industry directly, and then ultimately all levels of corporate power. I still don’t have my mind exactly made up on OWS. I don’t go to the point of believing that it was a corporate-planted self-parody, even though I think it functioned as same in the mind of the average American. But it largely illustrated the ineffectuality of standing up to the corporate draining of government power by showing how fringe, “out there,” and ultimately unserious the whole effort wound up seeming. The problem is that there was no groundswell of collective or majority outrage that was sparked by OWS. Rather, it demonstrated what a small minority of people actually question or distrust the CKG in its emergent form. Most people cling to the belief that either their government will spawn better representatives that will be heroic leaders who save them or that corporations still somehow serve our best interests by throwing us a few peanuts while we dance for our dinner.
So the corporo-klepto-government emerges as a belief and value system shift more than an overt shadowy conspiracy. It’s not a few private entities, or even a set of big empowered entities, that have taken over government. It’s the idea of corporate control and unchecked power, manifest lately in Citizens United and all it implies (the decision actually changing very little in terms of actual power, but signalling a sea change in terms of the public notion of the role of companies), that has taken over. So the actual corporation in charge at any given moment is less vital than the idea that it will be a corporation or network of them that has control and calls the ultimate shots. It’s not that Goldman Sachs has become the Cthulhu that eats the guts of government from the inside, but the entire DJIA that has convinced government to willingly sign over its innards to whoever is winning the corporate battlefield on this particular day.
This is why Facebook and Skype and Google and Verizon are only too happy to comply with government desires to spy. They are the spies and they are the government. At a certain point, the interests of the individuals in government mortgaging the farm for the notion of security that the post-9/11 world has proffered (put more succinctly here by David Foster Wallace than I could ever manage) becomes indistinguishable from the corporations whose data they enlist in the effort. All of them are playing the same game, wherein ferreting out would-be terrorists (or dissenters) and learning more about your buying history to maximize profit become synonymous efforts. And they all require leveraging their asymmetry of information and advantages in order to put themselves in control and you underneath.
The antidote is not somehow naively believing that you can protect yourself or your information. That shows a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the Internet, let alone humans. The antidote is blowing the doors off and going public with everything. Not only does this achieve the safety we so wantonly crave and chase after 9/11, by exposing anyone who might be planning anything nefarious, but it equalizes our power and understanding with those who would withhold and manipulate our data for their own ends. Privacy is your enemy, because it enables only those with the ability to protect privacy to lord it over the little guy, who couldn’t hope to.
Not only does this make Snowden and Manning and Assange pioneering heroes of the post-privacy age, but it makes the way you and you and you react to these developments critical. It is not the time to go back to 19th century saws about how the people are protected from their intruding government and keeping your forty acres and mule safe from prying eyes. It is time instead to turn the lens, like a mirror, on the big corporations and the small government it is cultivating. Private government information does not keep you safe. It is the tool of your oppression.
Let’s just examine the notion of private government information for one second. What could possibly make you safer about the government knowing something that everyone can’t? If they’ve found a terror cell or a would-be plot developing, how does exposing that not immediately make everyone safe? You think someone’s going to go through with a plan once it’s been publicly exposed? The only possible argument would be that they have inside moles who are funneling information and thus exposing the information exposes how you got it, putting those people at risk (the only argument, by the way, that anyone cogently made against Wikileaks). But this is actually the opposite of public safety. Because the CKG can easily fall so in love with that source of information that it chooses to prioritize this link over safety. This is the old Coventry problem, often enshrined in fascinating debate rounds in my era on APDA. The story (it’s still mired in controversy and uncertainty, as are most allegations that Churchill knew about things and chose to stay silent to manipulate his desired outcome) goes that the Brits had cracked the code of the German military, learned of a massive air-raid on Coventry that was about to commence, and chose not to alert the air defenses there so as to not reveal that the code had been broken. The calculus was that a future piece of information more important than that which would save Coventry would be coming down the pike later and it would be better to save the knowledge of the broken code (and that the Germans didn’t know the code had been broken) for said future time.
It doesn’t really matter whether the Coventry problem is/was true of Coventry itself (I happen to believe it was, but again, irrelevant). The point is that every private mole and spy and plant is a re-enactment of the utilitarian calculus weighed above. So every time that the CKG chooses not to reveal a spy or mole or plant, they are betting that there is some better piece of information coming later that is worth not blowing cover. Even though the short-term result may be people dying, an attack being carried out, or some other compromise of safety. This theme is played out countless times in modern dramas, movies, TV shows, and government decisions. The problem is that this is bean-counting, the same device corporations use in weighing their profits against your safety. And that’s the only thing that’s being protected by having covert government actions, rather than having them act completely out in the open.
Five-hundred and sixty-eight people were killed in the first severe raid on Coventry. The number slaughtered by corporate bean-counting or covert US action is probably much higher each year.
But hey, domestic terrorism has killed three people since 9/11. Or roughly half the number killed by, uh, going to baseball games each year. (No, seriously.) So, you know, this is all keeping you super-safe. Just like the War on Baseball.
I recently saw a new movie, one that I kind of wish I had written and reminds me of some things I did write, about a slightly less safe society. It was called “The Purge” and I have to recommend it, though I’ll note that it’s darker by about three times than anything I’ve ever written, so that should tell you something. In any event, this depicts a very-near-future America in which crime is legalized for 12 hours a year so that people can confine their violent tendencies to one orgiastic and cathartic night rather than hit unsuspecting people during the rest of the year. The eponymous Purge seems to fulfill two functions, both reducing population in a society clearly overgrown and redefining crime so that it seems that safety has been achieved all of the time. This last one is especially well depicted and insidious, since no one within the society shown process the 12 hours of mayhem as a threat to safety. They’ve also been propagandized heavily to see the whole process as patriotic and what keeps the society so great.
The allegory is powerful, jarring, and profound, if the execution (pun intended) is rather lacking in the movie as it evolves on-screen. But the tense mood and the ninety minutes of ruminating on the premise and its insane results are worth the what-ifs of the production being short of its potential. But rather than focusing you on what I’d normal focus on, things like the way the military serves the role of the Purge in the film, and so forth, I think it also fits as a metaphor for the privacy question discussed herein.
The main plot of the film centers on a man and his family whose new-found wealth is driven by his peerless talent for selling home security systems for use on the night of the Purge (it seems you don’t need them the other 364 in this cleansed society). And this illustrates another key facet of the allegory of the movie, that it’s the poor, homeless, and have-nots that are the prime targets of purging (arguably the shadowy purpose for implementing the whole system), since they can neither afford the weaponry needed to compete nor the security needed to defend. This makes them literally expendable, easy pickings for the top echelons of society who seem to all but raise them for sport hunting.
But now let’s shift the metaphor to privacy. The security systems are cloaking your information and the rest of the people are exposed, all their information floating around. It’s not the lack of protection that’s the real threat, it’s the asymmetry of it.
And the plot of the movie highlights this, as the vulnerabilities of the security systems are exposed and the movie devolves temporarily into a typical home-invasion thriller with lots of scares and blood. But the point that’s being shown is that we’re all ultimately equal. And the same is true not only of information, but of the new methods the Internet enables of obtaining and proliferating it.
I’m not here to say that as long as we have a handful of Mannings and Snowdens running around that everything’s going to be okay. There are a lot more reasons than privacy issues to fear the CKG and its consolidation of power. And I am here to laud their actions and encourage others to follow suit, regardless of the incredible crackdown hammer that’s coming for people like Manning (or, indeed, the not dissimilar Aaron Swartz). But more than anything, I’m here to try to channel your dissent and ensure that what we’re calling for and preparing for is coherent in the wake of this reality.
A world where you have the kind of privacy your civics textbook talked about is gone. It may never have truly been real, but it’s long past relevant in a land with the Internet and globalization. If something knocks all the power systems and ways of generating it offline forever, then we can again discuss that world. Stop calling for it, stop asking for it.
Your hope is in the world post-privacy. Or it has to be, because your future is guaranteed to be there. Making sure we know as much about the CKG as it knows about us is at least feasible and physically possible, and that’s something worth advocating. It’ll be a lot harder to be surprised by actions that we see coming from the planning stage, to be stunned by revelations that we learn of before they manifest.
I just finished reading Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, the biography of David Foster Wallace that came out last year. I read it faster than most any book in recent memory, even though I’m not in love with how it was written. I never read biographies and it was at once too journalistic and too incomplete. Despite the use of footnotes (either common in bios or a nod to the subject matter), the style of the book probably deliberately lacked the sprawling, expansive approach that DFW took to his own material. And as a result, the book has a quality of feeling like it’s laying its subject extremely bare. DFW looks stripped-down, sad, pathetic, even ruinous in this retrospective portrait. It also makes it clear that this was not a particularly likable, or good, man. For a literary hero of mine, he can hardly be considered a hero in other regards. His struggles were human and (to me) relatable, but his behavior was frequently reprehensible and his relationship with life and others seems altogether willfully misanthropic. Perhaps most frustratingly, there was decidedly little on the last couple years of his life, the main thing I sought from said biography, still reeling from the absence of info I lamented four days after his death in 2008.
What the book did do, other than make me feel like DFW is decidedly less deserving of respect than previously hoped, is remind me of the urgency of my own writing life. It’s never far from my mind in general, but the period of time since my divorce has been so devoid of inspiration or motivation to write that it’s been like a thick layer of snow has fallen between myself and the searing parts of my desire to put thoughts into words. It’s explicable and reasonable that this winter has fallen, perhaps even that it’s lasted nearly three full years. And coming after the most productive year of my life in writing is both enabling of self-forgiveness (I can take it easy, I’ve done so much recently), but also extra tragic in the wake of feeling like I’d finally figured out and mastered how to write quickly, frequently, and with energy. And of course this resurrects the same guilt-cycles shared by both my protagonist in American Dream On and, apparently, good old Wallace himself, for not pursuing publication basically at all in the last three years, years during which the relevance of both 2009-2010 novels has, if anything, seemingly increased.
The point is that, facing the two months off I have built into my schedule, I’m at a bit of a crossroads. Part of me wants to buckle down and try to churn out most of a novel – I don’t really believe I could do a whole one in such short order, especially when essentially four of the nine or ten allotted weeks are booked with travel. But the other part of me wants to relax, have fun, take it easy, restore energy for the coming year of debate after the easily most exhausting annum on the personal record in my four at Rutgers. And the best idea seems to split the difference, to dabble on BP projects, sending out the last two novels to prospective publishing opportunities, and maybe wade into what the fourth novel would look like. It’s not going to be Project X (last discussed, sadly, in May 2011) as I’m still way too close to that idea to see it objectively and for what it could be. That novel seems a better candidate for the 2030’s at this point, something to cap a career with if I’m ever so fortunate. I’m much more motivated by an as-yet untitled work (Project X, it’s worth noting, is not a title, but a working codename for something that does have a title, but not that one) which would involve my first-ever foray into overt humor, as opposed to humor against a painfully dark backdrop which seems to be my current modus, or at least was in ADO. It’s been taking shape more and more each day and has distilled into something that seems super-relevant to the current state of things and could easily be made more so. But I am terrified, as always, of writing novels in multiple stretches. The 2-3 month binge-write when all other interests are cast aside still has been the only real successful model. But maybe I could construct a few scenes and map out the plot and come back to it in Summer 2014?
The biggest challenge to all these goals, even, arguably, taking fun seriously, is the need to dry out. Boredom is essential to the writing process. This, I fear, is what DFW never really grasped in his career, being so prone to addiction and distraction and never being able to quiet the nagging voices of self-criticism in his own beleaguered head. You need to force yourself to be bored enough to be truly creative. The problem is that a novel is far too abstract and two-dimensional, especially in its nascent phases, to be as captivating as a full-color Internet, as video games and movies and spending time with friends. And the project is far too extensive to be able to see in the same micro-gratification strategies by which most people of my generation and younger are able to complete any work at all. You can string yourself along for a 10- or 20-page paper with the tantalization of the inevitable satisfaction euphoria that comes from completion, but holding out that carrot across multiple months is unforgiving and ultimately ineffective. Yes, novel-completion euphoria is elating, but even the greatest burst of excitement in your life is hard to hold your attention for half a year of slogging.
So to make the process of writing a novel truly work, at least in my experience, it’s important to enforce a certain quantity of boredom upon oneself. One has to get to the point where the novel is truly the most interesting thing one has access to. Doing so enables the essential infusions of creativity and vibrancy that a novel demands, but failing to do so means that one will just end up distracted. So much of DFW’s bio is about his failure to get over this hump. The entire cascade of his life seems an endless bounce from women to drugs to teaching to TV, all shelving his ability to work as he felt he best could. And he also struggled with what I find to be a very tangible conundrum, namely that even if one knows that undivided focus and boredom is the best for the noveling process, the twin of this mindstate is solipsism, and the spiral of lack of human contact threatens to not only drown a person in self-doubt, but also something a little like going crazy. Withdrawing from life to provide insight into it is just the sort of irony fiction writers adore, but it’s a tightrope wire worthy of some far more entertaining act.
Wallace was doubtless aware of these acrobatics and their seeming impossibilities. Indeed, he wanted to directly tackle the subject not just of boredom, but of how boredom can be blissful and inspiring, in his final work, The Pale King. But he was no more able to effectuate it in his own existence than he was able to finish that piece itself, the mystery of boredom’s power ever dangling out of grasp like so much Gatsbian green light. D.T. Max (Wallace’s biographer) doesn’t put forward that the book killed him, but I still think the evidence is pretty clear. That and the electro-shock (*convulsive in new-speak), feller of writers everywhere.
So where does that leave me? I haven’t achieved sufficient boredom on this, the third day off of work, but then again I still have a couple small work projects to wrap up and even day three feels more like a long weekend that summer break. And the very nature of trying to do twelve small projects is almost antithetical to the long work model. It is precisely because such projects have the hallmarks of micro-gratification that they can string one along into doing things that don’t require a full dose of boredom to really get off the ground. It also makes them more appealing and, perhaps, more compatible with the idea of taking it easy this summer, just a little less easy than the last.
The only real urgency in all this, other than the innate writer’s desire to change the world that keeps seeming to get worse, or at least no better, is the sheer volume of stuff I have to write. It’s not competing with the amount I have to read, yet, but I still have four complete novel plots (by complete I don’t mean fully mapped and plotted, but rather general guidelines including beginnings, endings, characters, and general messages) unwritten, three of them without a word to their name. There are a handful of additional short stories in need of either writing or rewriting, as well as some simmering threads of things that could become novels but aren’t there yet. This, near as I can tell (and not to brag, just to observe), is more total novel notions than good old DFW ever developed in his life. But again, his distractable mind suffered more from the lack of ability to zero in and focus than to create. But one became the other.
And maybe I should stop comparing myself to Wallace at this point. For all the similarities I see between us, the differences have never been more clear than in the wake of reading so much about his life. It could also easily be seen as hubristic or egotistical, but it seems clear he was far more worried about such (mis?)perceptions than I ever will be. Indeed, thinking so much about what people thought of him may have been as much of his undoing as his final work. But for me, the issue has always been a shortage of time rather than a shortage of ideas. Ideas I’ve got, spilling out everywhere. It’s the execution, the patience to grind them out, the not letting the beautiful competing ideas of life and what to fill it with, get in the way. And thus so much relies on having the ultimate certainty that someone will pay for that time, or at least that someone wants to read its results, to justify the expenditure of that kind of time, mindspace and, yes, boredom.
Which of course DFW had in spades. He seemed to spend all of his post-publication life complaining that such early success had skewed his vision and rendered him unable to work sufficiently, despite the fact that it seemingly rendered such things more possible than ever. But then he was more of a ruminator than even myself, being able to think himself into a corner even in a wide-open field. Whereas I have experience with same, but am usually able to keep eyes sufficiently on the prize to find the escape hatch, most of the time. And all the while there’s the urgency of all the things those unwritten novels have to say, bubbling up and demanding their months of sequester, their months of suppression of all the fascinating distractions lurking in today’s world so they can have the stage and pass through the keys to fruition.
“True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care—with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world.”
-David Foster Wallace, The Pale King
He was writing about processing tax returns, but it’s hard to find a better mantra for the process of writing a novel, especially one whose fate is uncertain, whose outcome is not the surefire date with publication and readership that TPK and Wallace himself enjoyed. The inevitability, perhaps, is that such boredom is part of everyone’s structured life. And the key is to make more of it work for something that feels more meaningful. It is perhaps ironic (isn’t everything?) that my current day job is almost entirely devoid of such taken-as-given rote boredom, but what I aspire to be, truly, requires it.
I just spent a fair bit of time re-reading my posts from past Mays on this blog. There are five years’ worth of them and they ain’t pretty. Actually, some of them are kind of pretty; I think a lot of the writing I did in May 2011 may actually have been some of my best in a while, even if it’s extraordinarily laden with pain. But you get the point. I’m almost never having a good time in May.
Things often end in May. People make jokes about the Harry Potter series always putting undue emphasis and tension on May because that’s the natural end of the school year, but I always feel like reality actually conforms to this pattern. And I know that somehow most people like April and May because they feel this bizarre boost in springtime, easily the worst season of the four for my money. I have lived long enough to know that early April through early June is the worst time in my life almost every year and by far the most consistently bad. Maybe I’m misaligned, but I know my alignment all the same.
This May hasn’t been trend-setting in its badness, but more indicative of the kind of malaise and slow descent this season always seems to mark. I was sick for most of the month – probably about 3 full weeks of it after getting sick on May Day. I suspect I had some sort of infection, though the doctors insisted it was either allergies or an especially lingering cold. I’m still not exactly 100%, but I’ve probably been 95 or 97% the last couple days, so I’m definitely through whatever it was. I’ll probably feel 100% on June 7th, because that’s just how these things tend to go for me. I don’t mean to be fatalistic, but I’m one of the only people I know who doesn’t seem to be a total determinist lately, so being resigned to a bad 70-day stretch every year is pretty good by comparison, right?
In any event, today is an event! My last day at work before my two months off till August (though I will have to come in a few days to tie up some loose ends and trade for the first week in August as you’ll see below…), the end of a desperately bleh month, and the return of my girlfriend from Costa Rica tomorrow. Things are looking up. And it seems to be a May tradition on this blog to post a little graphic indicating my summer “tour” for the year, or where I’m planning on traversing to with the opportunity to make use of the time that I’m given. So I don’t really want to make this exceptional, since this May hasn’t even been exceptional in its badness, just kinda averagely awful…
…But I don’t really have a theme for my summer travel. Part of this May has been just feeling totally uninspired. I am almost starting to get inspired for when I will be inspired and I have lots of resolutions for the summer. You’ve heard some of them before, things like actually sending American Dream On and The Best of All Possible Worlds to agents and/or publishers for the first time in 3 years, or actually writing new fiction for a similarly unprecedented stretch. I need to get more active, even if it’s just walking around Highland Park or something. Or doing yoga again. I would like to read more and more intensely, to spend more time deliberately and investing in projects I want to do. Heck, maybe the Song Quiz will finally happen this summer. Really.
So far all May has brought me is joining Twitter. Seriously. And I think the main thing I’m going to do with that is post links to posts here, assuming I actually start writing more. Which makes this all rather meta and self-referential. Which I guess goes well with starting to read David Foster Wallace’s recent biography last night, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story. Best title ever and makes the synergy between he and Adam Duritz of Counting Crows (such connections discussed here) even more poignant. So far I’m up till DFW’s early grad school years and the writing isn’t really seeming worthy of DFW and CC, but maybe that’s just because I never read biographies and so the flat journalistic and presumptive tone is simply unfamiliar to me. Reading non-fiction, though, always convinces me even more that there’s far more truth in fiction. The things taken as given in non-fiction, the sweeping unjustified generalizations, are kind of shocking. It’s a way of transforming hearsay into fact. All the same, I’m enjoying the experience of the book. I think we all just miss Wallace way too much.
Anyway, I need a title for the tour and a theme because I like pretending my life is a book tour or maybe it’s just that the Summer Tour themology is fun. I think May was way too short on fun. This summer, the first order of business is fun.
But I can share the tour dates and the little graphic will have to wait till (gasp!) June. Thank God it’s going to be June. Soon.
15-16 June: Upstate NY (Wallflowers/Counting Crows show)
17-19 June: New Brunswick, NJ
20-27 June: Los Angeles, CA
28 June – 4 July: Albuquerque, NM
28-29 July: Helsinki, Finland
29 July – 3 August: Paris, France
4-8 August: Berbiguières, France
8-10 August: Paris, France
It doesn’t look too glamorous like that, maybe because it’s not a road-trip and thus the locations are few. But the durations are long and the locations are awesome. So let’s make plans! Let’s have fun. Let’s not revisit May for a while, shalln’t we?
When I was growing up, it felt like it was trendy to believe we were alone in the universe. Around the time I was sitting in my first-grade classroom watching the Challenger spin out of control and seriously questioning my desire to be an astronaut (full story here), it was popular to say that human beings on planet Earth were the only intelligent beings in the universe. This never seemed particularly viable to me and I recall getting into a few arguments with classmates and at least one teacher on the subject. And ultimately, this perception, whether it was actually widespread or limited to the sample size of my experience, basically disappeared.
It probably has something to do with the vastness of that picture up top there. Those are galaxies pictured that we’ve discovered and each galaxy is so unimaginably large that it could contain up to one-hundred trillion stars. And there are at least 150 billion galaxies in the observable universe, which is probably a tiny little fraction of the actual universe. Suffice it to say that when we contemplate how many planets this actually means, we’re approaching a number like 80,000! a lot faster than we think. In fact, I think it was Jake in 8th or 9th grade who originally tried to convince me that no self-respecting people in science had ever felt that we could possibly be alone in the universe as intelligent beings – the universe was simply too large for the math to be conceivable that we were one in several hundred quadrillion. After I got over being angry at the people who’d argued with me about this in the past, I was mostly relieved.
As education about the size and scope of the universe has become more widespread, as exploration of the local area has increased, and as we’ve discovered water-like substances on Mars, we’ve begun to project that life is not only not limited to Earth, but it’s actually likely to be quite common. There are planets with life everywhere, though most are still out of any reasonable reach for communication or travel at our current stage of technological development. But people are still wondering why we haven’t heard from any of them, now that we’ve realized they must be teeming with intelligent life. And while a few hubristic idiots have guessed that we’re just more advanced than everyone else and they haven’t figured out radio signals yet, most people realize that the same math that makes it so likely others are out there makes it beyond obvious that just as many species are way ahead of our curve as way behind it.
And so it’s become popular to posit a possible theory (really two, or the two in a binary as a single theory) as to why we have radio silence from what should be a cacophonous universe overflowing with extraterrestrial wisdom. I don’t know where the actual original source of this theory came from – presumably Stephen Hawking or one of his ilk, but like so many pop culture references, I’m only aware of it in its endless reflection in blogs and other sources rather than from the original material. So apologies to whoever’s idea this originally was, but you should know it’s become public domain. Anyway, the concept is that all intelligent life either wipes itself out (Cuban Missile Crisis, climate change, etc.) before it can sufficiently travel to or communicate across the stars or that it develops such compelling virtual reality that the intelligent life decides to retreat into a solipsistic delusion rather than reach out to others.
Never mind that this leaves out a third viable possibility also ripped from the last fifty years of our planet’s experience, namely that intelligent societies develop capitalism or similar selfishness-maximizing orders which eventually devolve into corporate kleptocracy and consolidation that enables entire planets to become slave-states that serve a small elite or even one entity… and that entity chooses not to expand horizons to seek out the only source which could possibly interfere with its power, thus choosing to make the planet self-contained and isolated. This post isn’t about that, I promise. But I do feel that should be included in the possible reasons if we’re projecting our current myopic view of ourselves onto a universe of hundreds of quadrillions of planets.
The actual problem with this theory is that it assumes the universe is as chaotic as we perceive it to be from our position of only really discovering it in the last couple-hundred years. Which is probably not surprising given the predominance of atheism and nihilism as guiding principles of most of the scientific community. But the notion that each planet is an utterly isolated society pinging randomly into the universe without ever hitting paydirt before succumbing to its own failings is profoundly short-sighted. Yes, self-destruction is a constant threat from a variety of sources, especially as the development of technology accelerates to the point where it can command enough space to cover the vast distances between galaxies. But given that the only intelligent species we know about has managed to avoid it to this point, it seems absurd to assume no one else has gotten to this point or even beyond.
And yet, not everyone does. We have beloved iconography of science fiction telling us that there are alternative possible outcomes, portraying vast starfleets of human progeny traversing the universe in hyper-speed-capable airships. Of course, since we are a hubristic species deeply in love with our own intelligence and capability, we always put humans on those ships and imagine tiny American flags or their descendants as what’s being proliferated across the stars. Because to not imagine ourselves at the forefront of this technology would be impossible, or at least treasonous. But let’s suspend disbelief for just a second, get our noses out of that truly adorable pond, and contemplate what might be the case if someone else were way, way ahead of us?
Stephen Hawking (I know this one is attributable to him) has made the same contemplation and warned us against calling attention to ourselves in the universe, predicting that the outcome would look a lot like Europeans landing on the shores of the Americas, the opening salvo in the largest known genocide in human history. But even Stephen can’t get beyond the projection of pettiness, selfishness, and greed onto other species to reflect our own. Even forward-thinking Star Trek envisions that the only intelligences sufficiently smart to compete with our own are imperial bastards, enslaving and crushing resistance to fuel endlessly infinite expansion to no end other than self-service. And while human history before, I don’t know, yesterday is basically an unending series of might-makes-right empowerment of those willing to do the most violence, it seems really reasonable to me that there might be alternate courses for societies advanced enough to actually get off their home planets and do some real exploring.
Which brings me to my actual theory as to why we haven’t heard from any of the hundred-quadrillion intelligent species out there. They aren’t letting us. They’ve put a bubble around us to protect us from contact until we’re good and ready for it.
I realize this sounds facially absurd to many of you, because it assumes a different picture of the universe than the one we see when we look out. We see all those stars and galaxies and (in an amazing stroke of self-awareness) are overwhelmed with how much we still don’t know about them. So we assume everyone else is in the same boat, despite our understanding of how much we now understand about, say, our own planet when a scant 500 years ago we adorned maps with “Here Be Dragons” in every other corner. Look at the global picture of technology and capability two centuries ago and compare it to this very Internet and space exploration and everything else that’s currently underway. And you really don’t think someone else could have had, I don’t know, a two-millennium head-start on development and have mapped and made contact with most of the Milky Way?
We’ve even made these connections, just putting ourselves in the driver’s seat, in a mere century or so of speculative science fiction. Back to Star Trek, we have the concept of the Prime Directive and the idea that we’re not to interfere with other societies in a primitive stage of development lest we overwhelm them and change their destiny or unwittingly destroy them in some unanticipated way. And while it’s narratively fun to play with breaking those rules, we see ourselves as the people running from the mystically painted primitive volcano people without realizing that we, of course, are the volcano people. We are the primitives. We still think intelligence is doomed to destroy itself and everything around it or withdraw and resign from reality in favor of unending hedonism.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we’re being pulled out of windows in the middle of the night by big-eyed green-guys who are occasionally too clumsy to properly wipe our memories. I would surmise that we’re being observed from beyond a safe distance. Imagine a cosmically-scaled police interrogation room window/mirror where those inside see only a reflection (or perhaps a pattern of stars). The level at which one can monitor from that distance is in some degree of question, but it seems hard to picture having the technology to travel many light-years, but not to magnify the view several million times from such distances. If for no other reason than travel at such a speed seems to require anticipating objects that might be in the way from that kind of distance with extreme precision. Despite the depiction of warp-speed travel in science fiction, there is so much debris in space that such travel as pictured would probably just lead to impossibly destructive collisions where the speed of travel made every bit of space dust or rock into a high-powered missile that brought down the ship. So either travel is slow or there’s some way of navigating from extreme distances with high accuracy.
So let’s assume the latter. It seems totally feasible. And right now, we’re failing our test of observation. Granted, we don’t totally know what the rules are or the goals. Those would have to be pure speculation. Maybe it’s merely a scientific advancement test. We have to be able to pierce our protective bubble, to get some Hubble-like telescope beyond the distance of the perimeter so it can suddenly start hearing all the signals and report back that we’ve made contact. But my guess is that any entity that would put such a barrier up around us is concerned enough with either our welfare or their welfare that we’re actually facing a moral challenge.
I would imagine that we’re still altogether too selfish, petty, and especially violent to be allowed out of the protective crib. There are probably rules that govern this part of the universe and whatever intelligences have overcome their infantile setbacks to survive and thrive and explore. Those rules would go beyond a Prime Directive that people actually followed and incorporate the extreme responsibility involved in stepping off one planet and on to another. They would note that species are like viruses, that once allowed to spread, they may be extremely hard to contain. And as a result, they would put a heavy burden and scrutiny on our species before we were deemed sufficiently trustworthy to play well with others.
It’s possible that we’re not even close. That some voyager cruised by, saw how desperately primitive we were, threw up the shield, and agreed to check back in a few millennia. We may not be under surveillance so much as having a pin in some interstellar map that says to look our way again in our year 4500. In which case, perhaps the urgency of this test is limited, though everything we do now has an obvious affect on the future that follows, even such a far-flung one.
But I’d imagine that if we can put up a thousand security cameras in a casino, every intelligent planet discovered has constant monitoring. Intelligence seeks intelligence; even we want to make dolphins do tricks even if we seem unconcerned with trying to decipher their actual language. We train dogs and cats and monkeys and seals, however pathetically. There’s little doubt that each sprig of smartness that whatever galactic order exists finds is tracked and watched and, who knows, perhaps even saved if the equivalent of the planet-destroying volcano starts to erupt. The implications of this idea are, obviously, enormous.
Not only does this idea restore something like a God concept to those who’ve long since stopped believing, for we have a higher power (albeit of a much different nature than God) observing our movements and making some sort of evaluation, but it also means that there is some sort of meaning to our existence, even if it’s only in the context of other intelligences and not necessarily a greater transcendence of lifespan. Problematically, we don’t know exactly what their criteria are for deeming us worthy of actual interaction or contact, but given that we actually have extremely little disagreement locally on what the actually correct values are, it seems the challenge is more one of discipline and dedication to ideals than discernment of them. We have known for a few thousand years that we should stop beating each other about the head and torso with sticks. Instead, most of human history is about the perfection and development of those sticks and the study of their impact on heads and torsos. Would you let such a people into your intergalactic community of species?
I think the only real counter-argument to this theory is that it would seem too utterly harsh and cruel to make a lifeform feel this alone and abandoned when one had the power to welcome them into a more universal community. This idea seems compelling for about five seconds before you realize the pitfalls of contact for a species that’s still so intolerant that it still regularly enslaves its own members to other members of the species.
We still have racism as a massive and prevalent problem throughout our societies, with developments in the last decade or so that have normalized racism and dressed it up in more acceptable clothing in the name of fear. The representatives of the wider galaxy probably look so, yes, alien, to us that we would instantaneously fear them no matter what they did or said or how they behaved. We even have science fiction that imagines that even if they came in total peace and offered us everything, it would merely be so they could farm us like cows and fatten us up for consumption (an old classic episode of The Twilight Zone, “To Serve Man”). Domestically, we have more fear of humans we call aliens than we could probably ever conjure up for actual aliens. And that’s only the first step, the first handshake of contact. The first five seconds, before we got into any discussion of rules, values, or what membership in a wider community would mean.
It would be a little like inviting a pre-lingual infant to serve as a key representative in the UN. And sure, maybe the infant couldn’t do much harm voting randomly whenever it wanted to be fed and totally misunderstanding the proceedings. But it would be a waste of everyone’s time. Surely it would be better to let the infant grow up and let you know what kind of person it is before letting it have a seat at the most important of tables.
Which brings me to the larger point of the whole issue of expanding our technology, our understanding of the universe. We have been hellbent on separating questions of development and advancement of science from issues of ethics, let alone (gasp!) morals. Those who attempt to infuse such questions are lampooned as fuddy-duddies, even amidst a backdrop of most scientists believing that failure to anticipate the consequences of rash technological action is literally threatening the survival of the planet and the species (i.e. failing to consider fossil fuel usage leading to catastrophic climate change). Yet we continue to plow on unheeded, not only maintaining past destructions but blithely inventing new ones at every turn, with only “oohh” and “aahh” drowning out the small soundtrack of dissent or caution.
But what if we have it backwards? What if our moral, ethical, and philosophical development is actually the key to unlocking the scientific mysteries of the universe? Surely whatever we could discover on our own is a pale shadow of whatever intelligence has us under observation has come to know about the area. Back to our pre-lingual infant example, would we rather let said newborn grow on its own in science and technology or teach it what we know? It seems the power of education, of collective knowledge and development, is powerfully better than just letting it flounder in its own misunderstanding. And maybe again this is an argument for intervention, but if the infant is punching every other entity it sees, maybe waiting till it learns the value of not punching is a valuable prerequisite to undertaking such an endeavor.
It would seem that caring about being good, about doing good, about proving ourselves to this larger intelligence, is the most important priority of our future existence.
And if you don’t find this feasible, if you think this is all far-fetched and cling to your belief in the original binary of selfish destruction or selfish withdrawal, your conclusions should probably be the exact same. For the only way out of this conundrum, the only way to invent a galactic order and fulfill the dreams of Buck Rodgers and Ray Bradbury and Star Trek, would be to be the exception to this newly imagined rule. And the only way to do that is to prioritize moral and philosophical development over technological. Or at least to keep it apace, to maintain enough of a moral check on technological behavior that one can prioritize the real world and its existence over the constantly nipping alternatives.
In either case, the message should be clear. If you want to meet an alien, you should first be good. And convince everyone else to be good too. We are almost certainly on a very candid camera. And right now, they’re unfortunately just filming a cautionary tale.
It’s been a while since I’ve been posting regularly, which is something that the extra time of summer will hopefully fix. And it’s been quite a while since I’ve revisited the issues of misrepresentation of the unemployment rate that have come from the disappearing labor market in the United States in the last few years. As a review, please check the original post from August of last year and the September follow-up.
Therein, I explain that by counting unemployment only as a percentage of the labor force and not the overall population, the unemployment rate leaves out millions of people who are functionally unemployed. Not underemployed or under-appreciated, but actually just straight-up not working when they could or should be. The labor force as a percentage of adult population has been crashing since the start of the financial crisis and it’s far outpacing the aging of the population.
I hadn’t posted about the data since August. And while the reported rate of unemployment has dipped from 8.1% to 7.6% during that span, the actual rate when factoring in the labor force’s hidden unemployed has only declined from 13.6% to 13.4%. And while the reported rate has steadily declined, giving an image of slow but consistent improvement in the labor market, the reality is more distressing: after a brief dip in October to as low as 12.9%, unemployment is actually very close to its peaks since the crisis began, just 0.4% below the recession-era-high of 13.8% in July 2011. And it’s on its way up, steady or increasing since October of last year.
That graph is scary enough, with trend-lines clearly diverging and painting an opposite narrative of the economy. And this narrative dictates almost everything (well, everything that isn’t overtly rigged) about how our economy functions and the decisions people make. Though it doesn’t reflect the reality for people on the ground, how hard it actually is or isn’t to get jobs. But when people are having just as hard a time to get jobs as they have for the last three years, but they’re being told that it’s getting easier, this is highly corrosive to their morale, hope, and ultimately way of life. They personalize and internalize something that’s actually a broader struggle. And more damningly, we make policy based on the assumption that these flawed narratives we are telling ourselves are true, that we’ve done enough to help the little guy because while seven-and-a-half percent unemployment is still a bit uncomfortable, it’s basically livable and showing signs of improving. When really, we’re still at the height of the crisis.
So here’s the money chart, the one that really tells the tale of this deception and how inflationary its impact is. This is the one that shows the gap, over time, between real and reported unemployment:
You could call this chart a lot of things. The Deception Chart. The Manipulation Chart, if you want to put a more sinister spin on why we use such an outdated version of unemployment and fail to track all the people who fall out of the ability to seek work or, more often, never have a real job in the first place from which to become “unemployed.” The I Think I’m Going Crazy Chart, to reflect the above phenomenon in starker terms, as people are unable to find work when the media is telling them that everyone else is finding it easier. And this chart, with a couple of bumps, is steadily upward. And hit a record high in March 2013 at 5.8%. At the same time the Dow Jones and other stock markets in the US started hitting their record highs as well, signalling the supposed end of the financial crisis.
5.8% may not sound like a big gap to you. It’s more than most economists think is a healthy total rate of unemployment for a society, so that should tell you something right there, but it still sounds like a manageable number. But when you consider that it’s a 76% increase in the unemployment rate from what’s currently being reported, that should probably put it in perspective for the skeptics out there. Unemployment is a 76% larger problem than people think, than the media reports, than the US imagines. We are approaching an easily foreseeable moment, if the general trends in each direction continue, when the actual rate of unemployment is double what the US perceives it to be. All because of how we choose a denominator in the most revered vital sign of economic growth for the little guy.
The most revered vital sign for the big guy is the stock market, and it’s hard to imagine that the big players therein aren’t aware of the data in this post. Of course for them, labor is not necessarily a sign of health or growth. Getting more done with fewer workers is the goal. And the efficiency achieved in this goal is a lot of why the market has been up when most people aren’t feeling any more well off. The problem is that when the market has so ruthlessly edited out jobs and labor, there’s simply not much reason they would bring them back. You have to be feeling pretty fat and happy to hire people that you don’t think will add value to your company. And by adding people who are going to work less efficiently, with their back less against the wall, then you risk the whole system. Ruthlessly keeping the jobs at a minimum is beneficial to all the big corporations at once.
The other big culprit in this phenomenon is the ongoing consolidation of wealth and corporations. The fewer companies, the more “efficient” (read: less labor) they can each be. The more that Wal-Mart and Starbucks grow, the more they can keep higher-wage lower-efficiency jobs from smaller firms out of the market. And this is before they even start colluding on what they’re going to pay or how thinly they’re going to stretch their workforce to ensure maximum efficiency across the board.
The theoretical back-end of all this is that eventually people will have so little money from not working that they will be unable to spend it at Wal-Mart and Starbucks and then the whole scheme will crash. The problem is that the very rich have been able to spend enough money that they make the overall economy seem much healthier than it is because it is relying so heavily on catering to the few people who have expendable income. But not in a way that creates more jobs for the middle or lower class so much as making those classes fight for a few jobs that largely cater to serving the super-rich. Of course, the US must somehow actually keep these people alive, through welfare or disability or unemployment benefits for those lucky enough to be counted, and at that point they also have the tiny bit of expendable income for a latte or a Wal-Mart gun.
The long-term implications of this general direction, though, look a lot like feudalism. Increasing power and influence and cash for those at the top, increasing revolving around the top for everyone in the middle and lower rungs, sufficient pressure on the working classes to make them put up and shut up with whatever they get in order to be among the few who actually have a job. Obviously we’re not to the crisis point of this general trend yet – eighty-six-and-a-half percent is still relatively high employment compared to some places in Europe or what things could be here in a bit. That still has most people working. But what happens if the real unemployment gets to 20% and they’re reporting 5%? Is that kind of internalized pressure sustainable? How wide can the gap between reality and surreality (or at least between the reality of the rich and the reality of most people) get before something breaks?
In the meantime, as we ponder that question, the trend-line of the reporting gap and the stock market continue to be roughly correlated. And the longer that correlation takes place, the less it feels like coincidence. That doesn’t make it causal, per se, but it does mean that both could be reflections of the very deep problem of the way our society is currently designed. Corporate capitalism isn’t a better system than others; we just haven’t seen how colossally this one fails yet. But it seems most of us will be lucky enough to see this one disproven in our lifetimes, if current trends continue.
Yesterday, I tried to tell a story about what I saw on the last APDA weekend of the year, a story about debaters and debate and ideas and personal struggles and hopes and dreams and triumphs and disappointments. It was laden in my perspective and not attempting to be particularly objective – as I believe was clear throughout the 11,000+ words, it was couched in how I saw certain people and things and events and should not be taken as an objective record, any more than any piece that any individual writes, whether it’s labeled fiction or non-, should be taken as fully objective.
I actually thought when I finished it that it was too long and rambly for anyone to fully read and that it was ultimately probably going to fail at its initial objective, which was to weave a story about class background and competitive incentives into a human tale of competitive drama on the largest APDA stage of the year. For whatever reason, this self-assessment seems to be a bit short-sighted. Lots of people read the piece, in whole or in part, and (unsurprisingly) many people had objections. Fortunately, many people addressed those objections directly to me, enabling me to both fix certain things that were not intended (shortening or omitting names so that Googling someone wouldn’t lead to that post if they didn’t want it to) and to engage with people in 1:1 conversations about what bothered them, which I think was mutually informative.
But the biggest thing that kept coming up with people who wrote me seems to be essential to address on a larger scale. And because people felt the last post was at times too personal and too direct (some even called it ad hominem, which I disagree with but understand why they said that), I want to keep this post as abstract as possible so we can explore an idea rather than people specifically. Yesterday’s post was a story about people and events. Today’s post should be about an idea. The idea of class in contemporary America and how it affects people, their perspectives, and their decisions. And perhaps that’s even jumping ahead of the cart. The preliminary question, the one that many asked me, is whether class is even something we can or should talk about at all, especially on a personal level.
I felt it was important to tell the story of Nats Finals through the lens of class because that seemed to be clearly underlying a lot of the argumentation and perspectives that people were making. I feel it’s disingenuous and kind of crazy to tell the story of NDT Nats Finals without ever mentioning race, given the nature of the arguments that Emporia State made, the demographics of the participants, the larger question that the debaters themselves were asking. And I saw the same thing happening in APDA Nats Finals, especially in the context of semifinals (which is why I told the whole narrative that way); it was essential to what was happening in Hoff Theater last Sunday that there were people of privilege and people of less and it impacted their arguments and the way they made them. I want to be clear that I don’t think it necessitated the way the round played out – someone accused me of arguing that Syracuse couldn’t engage with arguments about high finance because they were from a lower socioeconomic background, which was not my intended argument. My argument was more that class struggles and conflicts and perspectives were visibly alive in the room and those things matter to how people approach daily life in this society, much less competitive debate.
So let’s back up a few steps. Is it reasonable or fair to say that class background innately impacts one’s perspective, or can? Is it impolite to even weigh income, privilege, access, and financial resources when looking at a person and how they interact with their environment? Several of you said it was. Unsurprisingly, I disagree.
I guess the first question is whether class is an immutable characteristic, something like race or gender. I don’t think that would mean that we couldn’t cite it or discuss it, but it would mean that making arguments or generalizations based on expectations of class would be more like stereotyping or saying something unfair than it would be like discussing something valid or valuable. I think it’s clear and obvious that one cannot often choose their class – one is born where one is born and one can’t choose what one is or one’s family or surroundings any more than one can choose to be male or female. So in that sense, maybe it’s a little like race or gender. But I think it’s also clear that class is, at least theoretically, flexible. One cannot have a childhood where one is Black for a while, then White, then finishes up Korean. But it is quite possible to have that kind of flexibility in terms of class and to experience a wide gradient of class standing. Many people have had this experience growing up, myself included. And certainly in childhood, that’s less about one’s own choice than the choices of others, but that flexibility separates it from being something innate about one’s identity. The older one becomes, the more clear it is that this is a changeable part of one’s identity. It’s complicated, because someone who is born into a fabulously and effortlessly wealthy family can probably never fully shed that – they probably don’t have the means or ability to spend themselves into being poor and it’s probably unreasonable to expect someone in that perspective to walk away from their family to shed their possessions and see how the other half live, a la Into the Wild. So, it’s mutable, but not always a choice. I think this puts class squarely in a gray area of sorts between race/gender and the decisions people make in their daily life. So, understandable that people feel uncomfortable, but probably not the same kind of third-rail that discussing race/gender and making assumptions based on that would be.
Next, there’s the politeness argument. I was raised, as most everyone was (I suspect), that it’s not polite to ask someone how much money their family makes. Many people just seem to have a visceral distaste for talking about people directly as though some have more money than others, however true it may be. There are two key arguments for this, I think: one, that it’s uncomfortable for the rich to have to admit that they have more access and more things and two, that it’s embarrassing for the poor to have to admit that they don’t. This argument and perspective is deeply embedded in American culture and is probably hard for people to question. But I think this argument precisely is where we get at the heart of why it’s so important to talk about class.
First of all, I would posit that this standard is impossible. There may have been versions of America with greater wealth equality or subtler ways of spending by the rich that made this standard viable or at least aspirational, but I simply do not believe that it’s possible to hide the amount of access and freedom that money buys the rich or denies the poor in modern American society, especially not in college. There are people who always stay in hotels when they travel, who always can fly wherever they want (and do frequently), who vacation in foreign countries and resorts rather than around the corner, and these people talk about doing these things in their life. And asking those people to never discuss such things is crazy and wouldn’t work. It’s their life; they should be able to talk about their expenditures of time and money. Meanwhile, others struggle to buy a dinner that’s not provided by a tournament, get uncomfortable when there are things that require money, quietly decline to participate in Secret Santa activities or other things with money as a checkpoint because they simply can’t afford it. It’s obvious to all observers why they can’t partake in these things that would otherwise excite them – some people are subtle about why this is happening and pretend they just don’t like anything, while others are open and honest about what the score is. But all make it clear to anyone paying attention why the barriers to access are where they are.
Some of these examples are about college and the debate world, but they date to times well before that. Despite being raised on a standard of not talking about these things, I couldn’t help but come back from a friend’s house in grade school and ask why someone had three game systems I’d never heard of and we were saving up money for a black and white television. My parents were always incredibly honest with me about what our standing was, especially since we went through phases of being relatively well off and then, when my parents’ business failed, not so much. But talking about it relative to others was still a bit uncomfortable and taboo. I’m old enough now to recognize this is mostly about parental self-consciousness and feeling bad about not being able to provide the same lifestyle that other children are living. But it’s not like anyone actually succeeds at preventing children from understanding, whether they discuss it or not, precisely what’s going on.
So at the point where people are going to figure out what’s happening, and something really is happening, then I would say that muzzling discussion on class in context is a form of oppression. In our society, money is freedom. Money has been used as the blanket under which everything is covered, access to everything is dependent on and proportional to money, with a few thin exceptions like voting and our crappy public education system (arguably, since there’s access to private schools, even this is just a rigid financial access question). Money affects the quality of what you get at every level, thus impacting your future abilities and access in a vicious upward or downward spiral. So the only question is whether we can confront this issue head-on in an effort to do something about it, to mollify, mitigate, or combat it in some way, or whether it proceeds unchecked and undiscussed as a silent force.
This may be a slightly extreme dichotomy I’m painting. I’m trying to proceed with this post in a robust and intellectually honest way as though someone were arguing against me. So you might say that we don’t have to discuss it interpersonally to think about it politically. That we can discuss the abstract motivations and impacts on a societal level without bringing the individuals around us and their particular place on the ladder into play. And that crossing that line is the gulf between appropriate and inappropriate discussion.
Several reasons why I think this is not a reasonable place to draw the line and why I think that’s an extension of oppression. First of all, I would analogize it to the privilege people experience from being white or male or straight or otherwise advantaged in our society. Advocates of greater equity and self-awareness everywhere regularly ask us to “check [y]our privilege.” To be aware of the subtle and omnipresent advantages one enjoys by being in a majority category or one that has traditionally enjoyed power or position. While this is not a reason to be biased against straight white males, per se, it is quite clearly to me for straight white males (or any one of those three) to consider that what they take for granted is not the experience of others and to make extra efforts to be understanding and inclusive of others who were born into a different category. And only the most defensive straight white males would be angry for being called out as belonging to those groups and being asked to consider how different it is to be otherwise.
You could argue that you can see white maleness innately, but you can’t see wealth or class. One, I think that’s laughable on face – wealth and class come out in the way one dresses, the things one does, the decisions one makes, the stuff one has, and often the way one talks about everything in society. Also, even if it’s totally cloaked, sexual orientation is also almost completely cloaked outside of witnessing relationships directly, which many people are quite successfully private about. And the thing about the “check your privilege” standard is that it’s not just something we rely on people to do for themselves. To keep people honest, it’s often important for people to say that phrase directly to each other, to remind people who take something for granted and overlook it that they’re in a different category and point out how that impacts what they’re saying or doing in the context of others. “Check your privilege,” in other words, is kind of meaningless if it’s on the honor system. It at times requires direct confrontation in order to be effective.
And maybe this is more the place of family and friends than someone further removed in order to be effective and not make someone defensive. That an outsider or someone distant asking someone to check privilege is less effective or appropriate than someone one knows will love them at the end of the day doing same. I’m mildly persuaded by that claim, but I think major public events cross the line into something owned and shared by a wider community and that discussing this privilege and the desire to check it is a wider point of access. For example, if someone straight made a claim in a Nats Final that was clearly heteronormative, I don’t think only their close LGBT friends could question them on that. I think it would be reasonable for anyone in the audience, gay or straight, to raise the issue in a public discussion.
But I also think that not talking about it is oppressive because it’s a way of pretending that it doesn’t exist. Quite simply, when it’s deemed impolite to discuss something, it’s a way of everyone pretending that things are not the way they are. And there may be places where this is in fact appropriate behavior, if the thing we’re discussing doesn’t really impact anything or would only be the source of some sort of cruel repercussion. For example, if someone had a disability or a handicap, it doesn’t seem meaningfully important to always self-awarely point this out at every turn, because the ideal is that it should not affect that person’s ability to compete or have access. However, if someone is wheelchair-bound and the round is in a place with only stairs, then it does seem reasonable to discuss. So the standard is probably where the question of background does or might affect one’s ability to compete or one’s ability to access certain things. And I would argue that class and wealth impacts literally every aspect of access. That it is so directly proportionally tied to questions of access that it is like a question of how many ramps you have for your wheelchair.
How is this the case? Well, for one, having money and a particular societal status just makes things easier. It makes it easier to have stuff, to have flexibility, to have the freedom to be unconstrained by having to work, having to sacrifice time and energy to do certain things to enable the life one wants to live. But the perspective of having money and having been acclimated to a certain class also tends to make one’s perspective on life much easier and more filled with possibility than someone at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. Someone whose family lacks resources sees the world as less filled with opportunity and often has less access to opportunities than someone who is accustomed to getting what they want. And in a world where money and connections can actually often buy access, this only gets worse over time.
More perversely, in my opinion, and I understand that this is not a belief that is necessarily held by everyone who has wealth and/or privilege, the prevailing American ethos is that the people who are in higher socioeconomic positions deserve to be there. I recognize that a lot of people are trying to fight this perception at some level and that the financial meltdown of recent years did some good in combating this misperception about capitalism. But still the vast majority of Americans believe that wealth is correlated with effort and that people are rich because they worked harder than those who are not. And this is something that categorically separates issues of class, especially in America, from things like race or gender. No one would argue that someone is White and not Black because they deserve to be treated better in some way – the very typing of that text makes me cringe with how horrific and offensive it is. And yet those are precisely the types of assumptions that underpin class distinctions in society, especially for those born into their standing.
I’m not going to take the time to prove the many things about the diminished social mobility that are true of contemporary America and especially true of any society with large wealth disparities. But it’s pretty clear that mobility is highly limited in a society where the gap between rich and poor is widening daily, that this reflects the old adage of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Which innately precludes many of the poor getting richer or the rich getting poorer. And everything in such a stratified society is structured to ensure that people continue to pursue the widening of that gap. Even in a world with a couple exceptional billionaires like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, nearly all the rich will seek to enrich themselves further at the expense of the poor, while all the poor will be powerless to combat this trend, lacking the resources to do so. And even Gates and Buffett have only changed their tune in recent years after spending years in the capitalist melee trampling the little guy, be it rival businesses or consumers, so they could get ahead and enrich themselves. These are just sort of the rules of profit-driven capitalism, but they have a deep and real affect on everyone existing in the society governed by this framework.
What all this adds up to is that very few people who start out in lower or middle classes will ever reach the upper echelons of wealth. But those that do are going to likely have to play the capitalist game to do so. Which is where another aspect of class, the one I find least controversial, comes in. Which is what one chooses to do with one’s life, one’s aspirational class, if you will. Which is where the teachers get separated from the hedge fund managers.
Now I’m not trying to paint everyone working in a hedge fund with the same broad brush entirely and maybe I did a bit too much of that in my last post. You don’t have to lie, cheat, and steal to work in a profit-obsessed firm that puts no stock in human feelings or the impacts on the bottom rungs of society. However, it’s an environment where most people are fine with pushing the limits of whatever one can get away with, where most people are making decisions that create things like Enron or 2008 or bubbles or runaway compensation for people who do nothing that actually produces, creates, or enhances anything tangible in the world whatsoever. And, quite simply, it’s hard to be a good man in a bad state. It’s hard enough to care about anything in America writ large, between our distracted media and our obsession with money and our warmongering trashing of the rest of the planet. But it gets a lot harder when one self-selects into an environment where everyone else believes in the ruthless valuation of enrichment over people, values, or principles. And again, maybe not every hedge fund office or law school is like this. But most are.
And it happens insidiously, in the way that most oppression in America does. The phenomenon is all too common. Someone wants to go to law school to be one of the good guys, to stand up for the little guy. So they take out six figures of debt to cover the future education that will help them be an advocate for the good. But then they have all this debt they have to pay off, so they work in a firm for five years. And at that firm, they represent corporations using their leverage and weight and ability to afford a talented lawyer to either beat up small corporations or actual individuals, get away with violating their rights because the legal system is a place where money can often replace truth. And while they do that, they may feel conflicted or stomach-churny, but they feel the ends justify the means and they’ll make up for it standing up for the little guy someday. All the while, their entire peer group and surroundings are people with a different set of values, people who are unapologetic about their decisions, people for whom selfishness is the primary ethos. They get accustomed to this perspective, maybe tire of arguing for alternatives that feel especially hypocritical when one is representing Big Business in some capacity daily anyway. So slowly their conviction gets eroded. Meanwhile, they start getting used to a certain lifestyle, a certain amount of comfort and expectation of flexibility, mobility, access, stuff. And they start taking that for granted, having a hard time imagining going back to a harder life of sacrifice and discomfort when they and everyone they know now enjoys this comfort. So five years become ten years, twenty. Eventually they decide that it’s just easier to ride out life for the big firm and maybe donate all their riches at the end of their life to some worthy cause. Meanwhile, they continue to perpetrate the harms on the little guy they only went to law school in order to protect.
I can only imagine this story is played out even more often in hedge funds or other financial pursuits than it is law schools. And it’s pervasive in law schools and a huge part of why things don’t change in this society. The instrument of debt ensures that those few people capable of leveraging talent and ambition into social mobility are thus hamstrung by their financial disadvantages into becoming part of the machine they might otherwise change.
So, a bunch of counter-arguments probably stem from this. One is that the increased flexibility and options make it more likely that those in the higher classes actually resist the pull of debt (no need for it) and other things and are more able to think and behave independently and stick to their liberal convictions, if applicable. Maybe. I certainly think that’s possible for those who are choosing to avoid lucrative professions altogether. Certainly there are people who are well-off who intend to become public high school teachers or join the Peace Corps or TFA or work for lower wages in a non-profit. And those people are commendable for these choices. But the fact that those who are not pursuing these things are not seems to me like valid grounds for discussing or criticizing people who instead choose to be all about the Benjamins.
Another argument is simply to question everything I’m saying about the system of American capitalism and say there’s nothing wrong with it, that rising tides float all boats and that growth and positive change stem from everyone ruthlessly pursuing their own self-interest. It’s hard for me to engage with this argument because I find it so laughable and frustrating, but this may be at the core of the class issues I’m trying to illustrate. It’s easy to argue about engines of American capitalism and quality of life standards from the top. It’s a lot harder to do this from the streets of the Tenderloin in San Francisco or other drug-addled gang-ridden neighborhoods for whom opportunity is a four-letter word. Economics is ultimately a zero-sum game and the pursuit of profit and greed creates vast inequities for those at the bottom that requires either starvation and deprivation or a massive government safety-net to try to keep those people alive. The quality of life and standard of living for most Americans has actually declined in the last five decades, since these things are mostly on a relative scale. You can watch things like this super-popular and insightful viral video to get a better sense of what I’m talking about. People rarely have any real conception of how great the wealth divides are in this country and how meaningfully that detracts from the life of the vast majority of people. And the culprit is not just capitalism, but unchecked faith in capitalism.
The final argument against what I’ve been saying actually takes me back to another debate round, another one involving Harvard that was the final round of a title tournament, one that was everything the Nats Final was not. This one featured C. and Josh, mentioned in the earlier post and here vaguely anonymized per their request, against a team from Hart House, the University of Toronto’s debating society. The resolution was not chosen by the competitors as it was a “tight-link” tournament where the competition provides the topics, but I was told later that the four competitors were all debating for the sides they personally passionately believed. This was the 2013 North American Championship, and the resolution was that a humanitarian should choose a field where they will make the most money possible and donate money to charity rather than working directly for a less lucrative pursuit in a non-profit.
This round was excellent, and a clear win for Harvard on Gov. And while I have a lot of respect for the Hart House team, I think a lot of why they dropped was that they missed some of the best counter-arguments to the perspective endorsed in the resolution. They did question whether one will still donate as much money after a time or whether they will become disaffected and uncaring, to which Harvard responded by saying this was against the terms of the resolution. And I think that’s half of the best argument. But I think the larger problem is whether one will still care about charity at all after a certain amount of time lived in a world where most other people are ruthless selfish capitalists. Both sides in that round agreed that this would be the ethos of most of those surrounding someone in such a lucrative profession. And at that point, I think it’s even less about getting accustomed to a certain standard of living or expectation of comfort. It’s about being peppered constantly by a peer group that tells you, no matter how liberal and generous you are, that you deserve all your money, that you are better than other people, and that you should just be in it for you. That’s one of the biggest problems with these class environments and how they self-select for ensuring that people are, first and foremost, guardians of inequality and the societal structures that perpetuate it.
Undoubtedly, not every class environment perpetuates this. Of course there are exceptions. In talking about phenomena, one must sometimes generalize in order to be talking about anything; otherwise the conclusion of every statement or post or article would be “Well, sometimes this but sometimes also that; things are complicated! Let’s go get a sandwich.” I would rather err on the side of something sweeping and thought-provoking that offers a direction than contemplative sandwich-eating while marveling at the world’s complexity. This is, after all, my blog.
But I think most class environments do perpetuate the things outlined above because it’s just much harder for people from privilege to be aware of it constantly, to consider how their advantages affect others, and to constantly question or rail against everyone in their environment telling them that they deserve these advantages. And these privileges probably transcend the socioeconomic, though I think they’re most pernicious there. Surely an outsider to debate might question the entire enterprise as us pressing our intellectual advantage and elitism at the expense of those unlucky enough to be born with such talents.
But that’s precisely where I disagree and why I think it’s so important for debate to be pro-intellectual but class-mitigatory (and -aware). Because debate and public speaking and rational thought are things that can be taught. Anyone from any level and any background can learn these things and be good at them. Many have disbelieved me about the truth of this statement and I would like to think that I’ve helped to prove them wrong to the extent that I’ve had any success at all on the circuit as a debater or a coach. And, unlike the pursuit of wealth or privilege, the pursuit of knowledge and rhetorical skill are more or less unmitigated goods. We would prefer a world where everyone tried to press their talents and intellect to the highest reaches. We would not prefer a world (or I wouldn’t at least, and I don’t think you should either) where everyone based all their decisions off of profit maximization and tried to edge each other out on those grounds.
And I know many representatives of Harvard in the prior post would then say that their case was trying to be intellectually challenging and stimulating. I believe that many of them sincerely felt this was the case. A lot of what I was trying to do in yesterday’s post was illustrate sufficient context to show why many many people did not feel that way. Which has to do with history and tactics as well as class. Without 2005 and 2012 as backdrops, there’s no way that 2013 would have been perceived the way it was.
So all of that prompts a question about where the lines of what intellectual rigor is and isn’t, how much access people should have and knowledge and ability to keep up with speedier discussion and all that. I’m not looking to entirely rehash yesterday so much as explicate some of the more controversial stuff and why I went there. So we’ll leave that for another time and it’s probably better placed in quieter 1:1 discussions.
My point is merely to say that we all know class is there. We can all see its vast manifestations, how it comes across in the sense of entitlement and privilege of many people, the access they have, the expectations they have about their future and how they contrast with others with different upbringing. And this diversity of background, in the right attitude, is an asset to be celebrated and explored and examined carefully. One of the great things about APDA is that it does bring people, like the best college experiences, from widely differing monetary (and other) backgrounds together and shoves them forward into a marketplace of ideas. But we are doing ourselves a disservice if we ignore this diversity or deem it impolite to discuss, even in its personal manifestations. It is the failure to question profit as an end-all and be-all motive that has enabled the vast escalation of wealth disparity in our society. If we fail to point out how class colors our perspectives and access now, we are only magnifying the harms of past mistakes and dooming ourselves to a future where we can’t consider or correct the increasing divides between us.
Whenever I talk about APDA to prospective debaters, I almost always lead with how free-form and open our form of American Parliamentary debate is. I contrast it with debate styles like policy and even the big three of contemporary high school debate (Cross-Examination, Lincoln-Douglass, and Public Forum), citing how comparatively little research is necessary, how little repetition there is from round to round. The would-be debaters, future speakers and leaders of an age of public speaking, get wide-eyed looks on their faces.
“You mean… I can talk about… anything?”
“Anything.” My emphatic response.
It takes about thirty seconds, maybe a minute for the most intrepid, for the fear to set in. They do the math in their head and stop considering what a privilege this is to stand up before judges, audiences, people of all kinds waiting to be persuaded, and talk about what one wants to talk about. They turn the tables, remember the harsh high school lessons of learning what bastards other people can be, and wonder aloud, “But what if I don’t know anything about the topic that someone else wants to talk about?”
And then, perhaps disingenuously, I explain to them that the standard is anything an average well-informed college student would know about. I offer them the checks our league has instated, things like Points of Clarification (absent during my debating career, but a mainstay of my coaching time) wherein the Opposition team can query the Government almost endlessly about the topic to ensure they have fair ground for debate, and norms that people not run anything too weighted to one side. I usually quietly omit the additional check of tight calls, the technical debate term for how the opposition asks the judge to adjudicate on the issue of fairness rather than the points in the round. I quietly omit that many teams deliberately play with the line of “spec knowledge,” the norm we have against basing arguments on technical or obscure facts and citations to give themselves an advantage. I focus on the fun rounds, the opportunity to discuss individual choices in everyday settings, the chance to explain to a stranger why you feel so passionately about an issue, large or small, that affects the way we live.
The hope is that this person is so intrigued and excited about debate that they will not mind so much when the inevitable round comes along that puts them to sleep, that makes them, if briefly, regret their decision to come to debate. The round about minute details of insurance law, the round about tiny variations in interest rates, the round about something truly interesting where the speaker spoke so fast it was impossible for anyone to keep up except, somehow, the Prime Minister’s partner and judge. These rounds take people inspired by arrival and training in a new debate format and make them want to leave the activity. They take something that is generally supposed to be a conversation and turn it into a lecture, a monologue, a one-way fight where the team presenting the case, theoretically to be interesting, persuasive, and engaging, cares merely about out-pacing their opponents than why they joined debate in the first place. Hopefully, by the time they are complaining to me about that round, these new recruits to debate are so hooked on the good stuff, the discourse, the really engaging and exciting rounds, the inspirational speakers who eloquently run circles around them on the basis of years of experience, that they stick around.
I am a coach on APDA. I have been coaching the Rutgers team, voluntarily and then professionally, for a full four seasons, three of them at an obsessive, daily level. I have failed to attend only three tournaments in the last three years on a “season” that offers a slate of 26-28 scheduled weekend tournaments a year. Each tournament is a grueling 36-hour affair from midday Friday to the end of Saturday with between two and ten hours of travel tacked on in each direction. Competitors and often coaches sleep on hard dorm floors in sleeping bags between the first three and last two preliminary rounds, dreaming of hopes of the “break,” advancing to quarterfinals (or, at the large tournaments, octofinals), the single-elimination playoff rounds that are all the more pivotal for being judged by a panel of adjudicators rather than a single decider. The Rutgers team has grown from a small huddled handful of 8-12 students to a team that regularly offers 60-65 students a year the chance to compete at official tournaments, while educating or training a couple dozen more who are considering competition when their schedule smooths out. The team has gone from unranked to 24th to 5th to 9th to 3rd under my tenure. Make no mistake, I want to win.
But, as I did in my four years competing for Brandeis, I want to win the right way. And, unlike a seemingly increasingly loud chorus on the league and perhaps US society in general, I believe there is a right way. There is no question that part of the strategy of the chess game that is debate is scouting opponents, learning and understanding the cases and subjects they tend to run, and anticipating their strengths while playing to their weaknesses. Playing the right way does not require one to disadvantage oneself inordinately, to run only economics against future financiers and only political theory against would-be presidents. However, there are limits to the advantage one should push, and these are not merely checked by the ability of the other side to ask Points of Clarification (PoCs) or to call a case “tight” (unfair) in a technical way during the round. And indeed, one of the greatest checks of all is often that people are not always expert at discussing their most well-known subjects. My most frequent college partner, on my team when we won the North American Championships, Adam Zirkin, famously melted down in a round the year prior about pharmaceuticals that the other team bravely ran against him. This despite Zirkin’s primary field of study and expertise being same. His explanations were far too detailed and technical to be accessible to the common judge and they lost the audience and the round. When we found ourselves in NorthAms quarters against a fearsome dino team, they chose the same strategy. But Zirk had learned the lessons from that prior contest and I was able to provide a sufficient general framework to fend off the Gov team and take the round.
This is not, or shouldn’t be, a post about me. It is about me, a bit, or a lot, because it’s about my perspective on what may prove to be the most pivotal round for the entire APDA league in my time coaching, however long that will be. It was a round that made clear, almost immediately, seconds into the second speech (LOC, or Leader of Opposition Constructive) that it would carry that kind of weight. It was a round that people couldn’t stop talking about for days after, until one of the league’s leaders asked people to stop talking about it, and then they only stopped talking about it on the league’s internet forum. It’s a round that has haunted me since it ended, that I wake up each morning thinking about, mulling, considering, repackaging in my head. Scenes from the final round have been with me in restless sleep and idle afternoons, now four days since the round’s conclusion. It was dramatic and riveting and polarizing, as debate should be in its best form. And yet almost everyone agrees that the end product was far from debate in its best form, each team and especially its supporters blaming the other side for the mangled, sad representation of the league that was ultimately displayed in its most-watched platform of the year.
This is about me, though, a bit. This is my personal blog. These are my thoughts. This was the eleventh APDA National Final I have attended, almost certainly a record for the league. I have, in person, judged, watched, or debated against every National Finalist since 1998, save one. That is Anish Mitra of Stanford, who I tabbed 2011 Nationals with. I have a pretty good grasp on the institutional evolution of APDA as a league and how it has changed and not changed over time. I am firmly of the belief, contrary to most shorter-term “dinos” (the semi-affectionate term for former debaters used league-wide since well before my time) that the overall quality of debaters is almost precisely fixed and stagnant. Many debaters suffer under the illusion that debaters were far better when they were novices and are far worse after they have graduated, simply because of their own relative evolutionary process and relative skill to the greats of the circuit.
This is an easily explicable, if flawed, phenomenon. One remembers being devastated by seniors when one was a novice and thus misremembers them as being perfect at debate, rather than one’s own shortcomings that made them see that way. One then remembers how bad the novices seemed when one was a senior, putting them two notches below the greats of their own novice year. Then one judges those novices as seniors, easily besting the current day’s novices, who can’t even give those seniors a challenge. And thus one concludes that each year’s novice class is substantially worse than the class before, simply because of one’s own biased perspective as an improving debater. I was never especially prone to this fallacy, but I certainly have excised it after fifteen years in some contact with the circuit and eleven National Championships attended.
This is all merely a way of trying to vouch for my credentials, which itself is another reason people like to say debate was better in their day, whether it was or not. Dinos are often remembered as greats and go to great lengths to preserve that reputation. In our own weird little culture of college debate, it’s cool and credible to regale present stars with stories of greatness, feats of heroism, funny anecdotes of triumph in the face of adversity. I do the same. We all do it. Everyone who debates has a part of them, large or small, that just loves talking and loves the act of being listened to. Some take this to an extreme of attention-seeking, while most are able to balance this slightly narcissistic tendency with concern for others and an equal amount of listening. We’ve all met tons of people who fall on each side of the line and keeping that line straight is one of the many challenges of being active in this activity for years on end.
This piece is getting long and I haven’t even really gotten to the tournament. I’ll admit that I’m taking some inspiration, both in tone and in approach, from Scott Harris’ incredible ballot for the 2013 NDT Final Round. Many of you debate types have probably already read that, in whole or in part, and you should go do so and return to my piece here in about a week, since that will take you on a journey down a debate rabbit hole far deeper than this probably will. NDT is one of two National Championships for the college policy circuit and this year, for the first time in history, both of them (CEDA being the other) were won by the same partnership, a team from Emporia State University in Kansas. I got an e-mail about this a few days after it happened, because one of the debaters from Emporia State is actually a Rutgers-Newark student on some sort of exchange to Emporia, one who came to New Brunswick for a public debate between Rutgers-Newark’s budding policy team and my own parliamentary Debate Union at the flagship campus. His name is Elijah Smith and he’s an immediately engaging, charming, brilliant capable individual who is very open about his views, as most debaters are. Rutgers-Newark was treating the victory like a win for Rutgers-Newark, which it is, in a way, since Smith was raised in Newark and reared on the training of Kurt Shelton, both in high school and especially college, before he left the Newark team before this season for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me, but probably, unfortunately, have something to do with institutional support. As someone who has enjoyed immense institutional support at his sister school, this fills me with a sad sort of empathy and wistfulness.
The policy circuit long ago decided how they feel about spreading, a late ’60’s invention in debate, that transformed that league and several others into a race of auctioneering-level speed-talking instead of eloquent persuasion. Which is not to say that people in policy debate are never eloquent or capable of persuasion, but what passes for argumentation on that league would sound like a literal low hum to the untrained ears of those outside of it. Policy or cross-ex style debate exists on both the high school and college levels. Phillips 66, who sponsors the National Forensic League (NFL, a joke that everyone has made already), famously sent corporate representatives to watch the final round of policy debate in the late 1970’s and were appalled that they could literally not comprehend a single argument in the round because they were all being delivered too quickly. They threatened to withdraw funding unless a new form of debate were created to cater to eloquence, persuasion, public speaking poise, and the things that most people unaware of policy associate with the word “debate.”
Thus was Lincoln-Douglass born. This was a format I devoted much of five years to, being able to debate in 8th grade as a novice amongst New Mexico high schoolers and going on to compete four full varsity years thereafter. During my time on the circuit, LD was starting to experience a schism wherein some people felt it was appropriate to start spreading, or speaking more quickly, to gain an advantage, while most maintained the original goals for which the event was literally created. Since debate is judged primarily on the “flow,” or the tracking of arguments and which are rebutted and which aren’t, most debate formats engage in a struggle of whether speaking faster to get more arguments in is a legitimate strategy or an abuse of the point of debating. This battle has been lost on the LD circuit since a bit after my graduation from high school, as all but a handful of regional pockets now utilize and expect the spread (the etymology of this is “speed-reading,” but now refers to any sort of auctioneer-level fast-talking, whether reading or speaking on the fly) and former LDers collide with parliamentary circuits like APDA expecting to race in more arguments rather than implement traditional techniques of oratorical persuasion.
Policy debate, interestingly however, has also implemented another check on this and other tactics, which is enabling a literally endless amount of meta-debate. Meta-debate, as you might guess, is debating about debate, wherein the idea of what is being debated and how are, themselves, debatable issues in the round. The amount of meta-debate which is appropriate for APDA has been the subject of much discussion (meta-meta-debate) throughout my time on APDA as a competitor and a coach, with a burgeoning group of former policy debaters encouraging more of it to enforce unwritten rules that some teams increasingly are trying to bend. For example, in my day it was an absolute taboo to re-run the same case at the same tournament. When the practice of people violating this taboo regularly came to my attention, I started what proved to be a bit of a firestorm in calling this out. The range of suggestions to check this practice was from nothing at all (the practice is acceptable) to absolute rules to shaming-based norms to just asking and hoping that people would be good about it. But one suggestion was that this itself should become an issue in the round to be debated, whether it was fair or not that someone was reusing a case to gain a tactical advantage when most people would not do so.
As a result of its embracing of meta-debate, policy debate in both high school and college has experienced a revolutionary backlash to the spread and the tubs and tubs of research (probably now being replaced by computer files in eras of faster computing and baggage fees on airlines) formerly required to compete. A number of debaters, many of them minorities, have begun meta-debates that critique the expected investment of time and energy and lip-loosening that traditional research-heavy spread policy requires. They have offered that even discussing the topic prescribed is unimportant in the face of inequalities and injustices that flow from the expectations of their league and its format. And, amazingly, they are winning. The Emporia State debaters, the first ever pair to unite the NDT and CEDA titles under one banner, use precisely this tactic. They do spread a bit, especially in opening speeches, but they often use plain language that is comprehensible, and even stand to deliver it (spread speeches are often given seated, something incomprehensible as a debate tactic in my eyes). The spread was justified initially by an “anything-goes” approach to debate, that truly any tactic or approach to debate was fair game. And now it has come full circle, home to roost, where the people are seeing what “anything-goes” really means.
You can watch the NDT final round and judge for yourself here.
You can’t watch the APDA Nationals final round, though. You can watch the Nationals Finals from every year since I graduated online, except and until 2013. You can watch the 2003 Final in which I cast the last and deciding vote of the judging panel at the tournament hosted by Brandeis. You can watch every year since, cases Goved by Cornell and Harvard and Princeton and even Boston University. (Although, interestingly, I just checked and many finals that used to be up seem to have disappeared. I’m assuming this is a technical glitch and not a deliberate decision by some debaters to revoke consent to those previously available rounds.) But you won’t be able to see 2013 because nearly everyone found it to be a disgrace to the circuit and the league and, for some, even the very idea of debate. And no one wants those prospective recruits I opened with deciding how they feel about debating on the basis of that as its example.
Example. Used often in debate to illustrate a point or to magnify the impact of an argument. Nationals Finals is supposed to be an example. It’s supposed to be the emblem of the culmination of what debate means to all its participants. It’s supposed to illuminate and inspire, to take the back-bench novices who barely clawed to Nationals and show them what they could be in a few years. It’s supposed to be immediately visible to outsiders as a showcase of eloquence, persuasion, intellect, and education. It should teach someone something about themselves, about others, about what it means to be alive on this planet. It should elevate debate beyond a contest of wills and an effort to win an argument, transcending what we do weekly and reminding us why we all spend so much damn time and energy on it.
There is a thread in the internet forum for our league that argues there are no such restrictions or expectations of Nationals Finals. That it is merely another round where people are trying to win and that, in short, “anything goes.” If you want to bore people, to spread, to insult and jeer, to make a round as pedestrian as possible, then that is your right by virtue of arriving on that stage. Those who advocate for anything not nailed down being in play are ardently calling for anyone criticizing a National Final case choice to be eternally muzzled. Don’t criticize unless you’ve been there, and even then, try not to. It’s all about the W, nothing more.
It should probably not be surprising that the rise in this belief pattern comes at the same time that finance and economics have become the dominant future field for most top debaters, replacing law. A cursory glance at the history of high finance, hedge funds, big banks, and economics in general reveals that the last decade in the United States has brought an unparalleled belief in the magic of markets and the power of greed to override any other concerns. 2008 would have been the clarion call to action, regulation, temperance, and sanity in almost any other society, but in the US it was a mere speedbump en route to ever increasing salaries for the rich and ruthless. Only a handful of left-wingers gathering overnight in parks were mounted as counterspeech to this burgeoning national ethos when all prior era political scientists would’ve predicted full-blown revolution. But the US and its citizens are too comfortable for revolutions, too self-satisfied and assured to question things at a fundamental level. It is both why I find debate to be one of the only intellectually satisfying pursuits in such a society and why part of me feels deeply ashamed to spend so much time and energy on it (3,500 words and counting here to top it off!) in the face of much more basic and fundamental human suffering elsewhere. It is the grand conflict that envelops my soul and keeps me honest and self-critical on a daily basis.
Is there a parallel between the bottom line of a hedge fund and the obsession with just getting the W in a debate round? To me, it’s beyond obvious. Do whatever it takes. Lie, cheat, steal, press your advantage, do what you have to do to secure the win. And while we haven’t actually gotten to the point where people are openly stealing casebooks or stabbing the MG (Member of Government, second speaker for that team) in the midst of the round, those who justify re-running cases or spreading or boring someone out of the competition are not making justifications that I find distinct from those that would justify the more extreme advantage-seeking in kind, merely in degree. And nowhere is this becoming more clear than in the last two Nationals Finals.
In 2005, Opp was riding an absurdly long winning streak in Nationals Finals. Gov usually used the platform of reaching the final round to do what everyone did with Final rounds in those days, to discuss something important, meaningful, and moving, OR to discuss something they truly believed in with implications for everyone. The arguments were passionate and profound and the last round of the year nearly always left people feeling whole and good about what they had the opportunity to behold. There was rarely an expectation of winning, though there was often a hope. My teammates, Jordan Factor and Adam Zirkin, made Nationals Finals my sophomore year and I heard their discussion right before they went to prep their case after they’d chose to Gov. “Everyone remembers who was in Finals,” Jordan told Zirk. “I want to give this PMR. I believe it. I don’t care if we win. People will remember.” They proceeded to run that race-based affirmative-action is the best kind of affirmative action, a case considered all but falsistic in that era when socioeconomic affirmative-action was a cutting-edge case that was widely believed. The round was won by the MO (Member of Opposition, second speaker for that side), Jeremiah Gordon, an African American, giving perhaps the best speech of his life on why race should not be the deciding factor in admission. Jordan, who was also top speaker at the tournament, was all smiles after the announcement they’d lost. He got to give the PMR (closing speech) he wanted.
In 2001, a liberal Princeton team advocated that the Welfare State was the best form of government, while in 2002, a libertarian NYU team advocated that the Libertarian State was best. In 2003, in the wake of sweeping societal cases, UVa went small with a case about a dollar’s worth of loose change and whether to give it to a homeless man, widely regarded as the best final round case ever for its simple ability to cut to much larger questions of life and living. In 2004, Cornell questioned a basic principle of our justice system and whether we should ever give up on people entirely. And then we got to 2005.
In 2005, there was a three-way tie for TOTY (Team of the Year), the annual ranking of partnerships in APDA. None of those teams, all known for their innovative cases, reached the final round, but a team from Harvard, both named Alex, did. Known for pushing the boundaries of tight cases, they selected a case about Harvard, one that they felt was tight, in the wake of the scandal dismissing their own school’s president. They advocated against the departure of their own school’s president in a National Final. While I wasn’t there, several sources have said the only preparation they did before the round was speculating on whether the case would be called tight and concluding that no one would have the guts to “ruin” the Nationals Finals by making a tight-call.
The shockwaves were large. Not only did the tactic pay off, ducking a possible tight call and winning the round for Gov, but no former members of the league, none of the cadre of dinos I discussed this with, could believe that Harvard had taken the platform of the Nats Finals stage and run a case about… Harvard. This wasn’t something whose simple elegance somehow applied to everyone. It was a team running a case about their school, mostly with spec knowledge about their president on an issue only cursorily followed outside of Cambridge. It was shocking, not only in its myopia, but in its obvious statement that winning was pre-eminent, at all costs.
Lest anyone think that I’m being hypocritical as a successful debater calling out others for winning, I will remind people that I had the opportunity to choose a Finals case at a title tournament once. Not only in my daydreams, where I entered sophomore, junior, and senior Nationals with open opp-choice cases about wide societal issues discussed in an accessible way. But also in real life, when Zirk and I chose to Gov in the North American Championships Finals in the last year that one could wholesale choose their case in that tournament. We elected to run a three-way opp-choice case, allowing Opp to choose just one of the three options and setting our burden as defending why both of the other two were preferable. We placed the speaker (judge) in the position of Simon Wiesenthal during his time in a concentration camp. An SS officer was on his deathbed of natural causes and had asked Simon to his bedside through the instructions to his adjutant of “bring me a random Jew.” The officer dismissed the adjutant and asked Simon whether “he could ever forgive him for what he had done to his [Simon's] people?” The choices we offered were to say “yes,” say “no,” or say nothing.
The round is the most cherished of my career, not only because of the case and not only because we won the round, but also because of how fairly and nobly the Opp, Columbia’s Harry Layman and the late Jeff Williams, engaged with the case. They chose forgiveness and argued passionately for it in the midst of a time when Jeff and I were bitter rivals and neither of us were choosing to be terribly forgiving. The round is a testament to his legacy and the fact that it was not recorded in audio or visual saddens me daily.
I raise this story not to get preachy or pat myself on the back, though I am proud of that moment, but to prove that I’m not just slinging mud at certain case choices without ever having been there. I’ve been there. I know the stakes and the pressure that takes over. I know the selfishness and the voice of the future you might be denying yourself by being 2nd in a title instead of first. But I also know that there are, ultimately, greater concerns than the W, greater concerns than giving yourself every chance to win.
The main reason this is true is because there is an audience. Because football is still more popular than debate, we do not have our preliminary rounds (outside of Nationals, which is quite well-attended) in front of throngs of people. Most rounds are five people in a room, with the only spectator also serving as adjudicator. As the break is announced and we proceed to elimination rounds, small crowds are visible, culminating in the final round, where a couple dozen people might attend. In my day, those numbers were much larger despite the somewhat smaller size of the circuit overall then, largely because there was an expectation that people stay for the entire tournament. As an added incentive, there was also a floor vote where each member of the audience chose to exit the room through the Gov door or Opp door at the round’s conclusion, both clearing the room for the judges to decide in peace and offering a public counter-weight to the opinions of the elite row of usually dino judges. People sometimes voted for their friends or teammates, but more often took their role as a judge seriously, flowing the round and deliberating heavily before choosing a door. Their votes were not weighted equally with the judging panel, of course – usually the entire floor vote constituted about a third of the final vote, with the panel getting two-thirds. But a close round could certainly be tipped by the proportional vote of the floor, which itself could be tipped by a handful of thoughtful individuals. It gave everyone an investment in the round and, in turn, required Govs to try to do well to impress people.
Of course, not every final was a showcase. Periodically, the teams on both sides were exhausted and short of energy and caring about what the round looked like, since all participants in the round had just qualified for Nationals by winning semifinals (this used to be the APDA standard before our current system of points accumulation for qualling). So there were some rounds that today would be called “trolling,” where people didn’t much care about the outcome as the 1st and 2nd place trophies were considered almost equally good. People would run cases about Santa Claus or the Cat in the Hat or even hold rounds where more cases were introduced each speech and the goal was to be funnier than the floor speeches that offer a break between constructives and rebuttals in a final round on APDA. Here many floor voters would express their displeasure by refusing to vote for either side, a last way the audience could exert their wishes over the tenor and quality of a final round.
These days, people don’t stay that often for final rounds at regular season tournaments. A whole team will stay to pound for their side, and sometimes people who are geographically proximate to the tournament in question. There are a wide range of reasons for this. The floor vote was removed sometime in the late 2000’s from the last few tournaments still using it, deemed as unfair for contests between large and small teams. The expectation of more teams being in the break has increased, somewhat commensurate with the size of tournaments and the league, but not entirely. My freshman year (1998-99), only one tournament broke to octos (including the title tournaments) and that was Swarthmore, which ran the gimmick of having four rounds on Friday and then breaking to octos after four rounds instead of quarters after five. They also ran this tournament during March Madness, printed the bracket, and allowed people to bet on it. It was fun, if not entirely without corruption. Nowadays, partial octos or octos are expected of almost every tournament over 60 teams. This is probably better for competitive fairness overall, with most all 4-1’s able to break, but it also fuels delays and exhaustion, and ultimately empty houses for final rounds.
But not at Nationals. At Nationals, everyone stays. Everyone. The -OTY awards (annual season-long achievement for Colleges, Teams, Speakers, and Novices) are given after Finals, the National tournament awards are given, the Distinguished Service Awards (always a surprise to their recipients) are announced, and usually someone (lately, me, though not this year) gives a speech about our fallen heroes, Chris Porcaro and Jeff Williams, before which the awards given in their honor are distributed. And, before all that, the Final is held. The National Final Round, the crowning glory of our league, the culmination of all our effort to distill the best in speaking, debating, strategizing, and thinking.
In 2006, one of the great teams of all-time, Johns Hopkins’ Jon Bateman and Michael Mayernick, wanted to contrast themselves with the previous final round, showing “what APDA can be” as Mayernick noted in his opening remarks in PMC (the opening speech). The founders of the league were in attendance, having been given some of the first DSAs. I was on the final round panel. They asked whether a redemptive or condemnatory ending was better for the Faust myth. It reminded me instantly of my NorthAms Final, the question of forgiveness, the question of what it means to do wrong in this world and how that should be dealt with. It was a weighty question with a touch of artistry, it was a beautiful case. The round itself, however, was not that pretty, as Opp chose to complain about the case, critiquing it for not being sufficiently clear in practical, everyday impacts. To my utter disbelief, Opp was rewarded for their complaining by a 2-1 margin on the very large panel, with me vehemently squirreling (to vote in the minority of the panel).
2007 saw a Princeton team with no expectation of even breaking at Nationals Gov in the Final, and they stated that every college student should be a vegetarian. A weighty moral issue that applies to everyone. In 2008, Princeton repeated their appearance and asked a question about the limits of debate itself, inquiring whether a scientist should deign to debate an advocate of intelligent design theory. In 2009, Johns Hopkins asked whether a Sunni Iraqi should join the insurgency, bringing the ethics of the ongoing war in Iraq home to roost in a profound and personal way that questioned our assumptions of what “terrorism” really means. Then, in 2010, Harvard got to Gov in Nats Finals again.
The Harvard team that Goved that Nats Finals is categorically different than most other Harvard teams that achieve at that level. R. Kyle Bean and Cormac Early had significantly more quirk and personality than the reputation of the typical Harvard debaters of their era (or most any era), with Bean especially being known for all manner of antics and flair. While I wasn’t in their huddle (I was at the round), I don’t doubt that the specter of 2005 loomed large over their decisions about what case to confront Johns Hopkins with. They didn’t want to be the Harvard team running a case about Harvard. They didn’t want to run something tight. They did, perhaps, want to demonstrate their lively demeanor in contrast to the extremely staid (but effective) team on the other bench, Vivek Suri and Sean Withall. So they ran a case about whether a religious family, given the opportunity, should give their child 18 years of the silent treatment if they would receive “magic empathy” for all other people at the conclusion of their childhood.
In retrospect, the case choice and the round were a bit of a bust. Aside from an amusing remark during PoCs where Bean told Suri “Surely even you must have felt empathy at some point, Vivek,” the round was a muddled mess and Opp won more by default than by skill. It was clear to me and to many watching that Harvard was valiantly trying to make a showcase round about weighty questions that are accessible and matter to people, but that this particular manifestation had gotten a little too weird and narrow and obscure in the translation to the spoken round. Perhaps that experience would color Vivek’s future choices as a coach of the Harvard team in the years to come.
But the next year, Vivek was coaching the Boston University team of Alex Taubes and Greg Meyer that won TOTY and were expected to triumph at Nationals. Meyer had his best career tournament, winning second speaker over the more highly regarded Taubes, and the team rolled to Finals, where they ran the case that all drugs should be legalized against an unbelievably unexpected pair of Yale sophomores. They won handily while still offering a case about something that mattered to everyone in the room, relied on accessible arguments, was spoken in a clear and comprehensible tone.
Then came 2012. In that year, last year, Harvard ran a case to challenge the limits of 2005’s capacity for obscurity, boredom, and this time, introducing a bit of spreading for good measure. This team was already developing a bit of a reputation for using the tactics of boredom and fast-talking to their advantage and had begun attempting tab-scratches and receiving at least scratches (the way debaters can avoid being judged by certain people) on me for comments I’d made about the creeping infiltration of spreading into APDA. Seeing myself as a guardian of the style, I have advocated against spreading creeping into APDA after seeing how LD was gutted by it, how Public Forum had to be created for eloquence and slower speaking just as LD was made before it. I envision an era when high school debate carries 37 debate styles, 36 of which are spread debate in various formats and the 37th of which has recently been invented to combat spreading.
Every time I’ve critiqued spreading on APDA, most people have either chided me that debate on APDA isn’t nearly fast enough to be spreading (yet) or insisted that there is something innate to the APDA format that will prevent spreading from succeeding, because too many orators can just make fun of the tactic and talk about big picture issues. Most judges still don’t adjudicate entirely on dropped points, despite the efforts of spread debaters to get them to do so, but rather on a holistic impression of the round. But the last two Final Rounds, especially 2013, have challenged the veracity of this statement in my eyes. But first, some context. As though the 6,500 words currently in this post were not context enough!
In 2012, C. and (another) Alex ran that the exclusionary rule should be replaced by a tort system. Depending on the reports, it was either the second or third case about small aspects of the exclusionary rule they’d run that tournament. The case was presented in a way that most found to be confusing, and all found to be incredibly boring. And while theoretically any of us might at some point be facing a situation wherein we’re accused of a crime and the police cheat to get us put away, I don’t think most people on APDA imagine themselves there. Most people do not find procedural justice at this minute a detail to be that vital. And almost no one found the way Harvard argued it in this round to be worthy of the interest, spark, and inspiration that we expect from a Nationals Final Round.
The round was ugly and few were at their best. The crowd was dissatisfied in the extreme and expressed it. The case made no sense to me until Vivek’s now-becoming-annual coach floor speech in which he explained a key facet of the case that had eluded sufficient background until that moment – one could practically see the lightbulbs illuminating over the heads of each in the audience. The Opp floor speech roundly excoriated Harvard for their case choice. The decision, by the slimmest margin, went to the Government. My de facto Assistant Coach that year, Dave Reiss, and I discussed the round shortly before the decision was announced and agreed, through pained and gritted teeth, that Gov had probably done just enough to win despite the desire we both would have had as judges to penalize them for ruining Nats Finals.
So, now, finally, we get to 2013. Last weekend. The day that won’t leave me alone, albeit only 100 hours or so after it was over. Again, the context is critical.
Rutgers had brought a school-record five teams to Nationals and they slowly thinned out over the course of the longest day that exists on the APDA circuit, the second day of Nats, the day when rounds 3, 4, 5, and 6 drag on almost endlessly amidst the sturdiest competition and most stressful stakes of the year. To make the cut of the top 16, the octofinals, one needs a 4-2 record with very good speaker scores – it’s usually the top half of the 4-2 field, but speaks have escalated at Nationals lately (not like they have in policy, but a fair amount), to the point where the breaking 4-2’s must average scores that would make them top ten speakers at most tournaments during the regular year. Going into round six, we had three teams still in the hunt, one on 4-1 and two on 3-2. One of the 3-2 teams (correctly) assumed they were already out of the race on speaker points, however, while the other figured (again, correctly) that they were very much in the race. All three were Gov in round six and went in with high hopes of securing a winning record and giving themselves at least a slim hope of hearing their name announced at the Banquet that night.
After Senior Speeches, in which Syracuse senior David Kopel called on the entire league to be more entertaining, gutsy, and intriguing in rounds, especially final rounds, and two of our own seniors, Chris Bergman and Bhargavi Sriram, also bid farewell to the circuit, the break was announced. While two of our three teams had won, the high-speaking 3-2 had been tanked out of the break. But the 4-1 was the other winner and they had clinched a 5-1 record and what we would later find out was the 6th seed in the octofinal draw. Euphoric, we gathered for pictures, offered condolences to non-breaking teams, and prepared for the fastest, most exciting day of debate on APDA, the Nats out-rounds.
We drew Syracuse, who was assigned to Gov by virtue of having had fewer Govs throughout preliminary rounds. Bergman, Ashley Novak, and I huddled around discussing the myriad of fun, philosophical, religious, and open-ended cases that Syracuse (Kopel and Samm Costello) were known to employ. We were excited having drawn this team, knowing that Kopel would never run something dull in light of his moralizing speech the night before, knowing how he’d come to Rutgers just this semester and won top speaker by running fascinating philosophical explorations as cases. We knew that not only would this play to our strengths, but it would make for a great showcase round, a great way to go out if indeed we did.
But something happened on the way to that Gov for Syracuse. Initially, my suspicions were that it was a strategic move, that they knew Rutgers was strong on philosophy and fun and they thought they’d zag to boring. In retrospect, I believe they were instead concerned about the panel, chaired by one V. Suri, who’d opped magical empathy with derision, who’d helped write exclusionary torts and choose it for Nats Finals just the year before. Flanked by judges who were not known for their sense of fun, the panel probably intimidated ‘Cuse out of their normal file and led them to choose obscure aspects of medical malpractice insurance. We lost on a 2-1, with both judges voting against us saying it was a narrow decision that we were winning until late in PMR.
We were of course stunned and devastated, then immediately felt conflicted. In many ways, we would normally root for Syracuse, an underdog school who runs fun cases, to at least go on and carry our banner if we could not do so ourselves. At the same time, what Syracuse team was this that had just given us something about medical malpractice when we were expecting ancient kingdoms or a clash of big ideas? Confused and bewildered, the team scattered to various quarterfinals, most choosing a Yale civil war between four highly touted seniors in what would be half of their last rounds. I was lucky enough to be judging that round, a true showcase about how individuals should donate their money.
In semifinals, I was judging the Syracuse team, who’d employed a fun philosophical opp-choice case to handily carry their quarterfinal against Brown. They were Opp against this year’s TOTY, Yale’s Robert Colonel and Ben Kornfeld, known for their penchant for cases about economics as future hedge fund employees. In a move that surprised no one, Colonel opened his speech with a discussion of economics, leading to the case that there should be a consumption tax instead of an income tax.
The round was not great. The case, despite the trappings of somewhat obscure econ, was actually slowly delivered and quite clear, relying less on jargon than on the common sense logic that is supposed to be the mainstay of argumentation in our format of debate. However, Kopel had no interest in the case, delivering an LOC that went less than seven minutes of an allotted eight-and-a-half, something unheard of for good novices, let alone varsity seniors in the National Semifinal. He looked bored, defeated, and frustrated, making relatively weak arguments against something that seemed not to interest him. Left little to fight against, Kornfeld then retorted with a highly repetitive MG, making the same somewhat jargony claims again and again to fill time and reaffirm Colonel’s statements.
Then Costello got up to deliver the MOC. And things changed in a hurry.
She made it personal, nearly yelling at the panel and the assembled audience of over a hundred. She screamed “This is my coming-out party, APDA, because I am [bleeping] poor.” She excoriated the Gov for making assumptions about the rationality of economic incentives when her family didn’t know how to spend money and just did whatever they could to try to get by. It was a moving speech and it took people out of the round and made them think about larger questions than what was being discussed right there. While I was very certain by the end of the round, after LOR was again underwhelming and PMR was rather persuasive, that Gov had won, I briefly considered casting a protest-vote for the Opp on the grounds of their bravery and the importance of calling the attention of an all too ivory-towered academic league to the issues that truly affect real people. While I’d found Gov persuasive, they had also seemed incredibly out of touch with the plight of the people they were allegedly trying to help in their case and this seemed worthy of observing. When I cast my ballot ultimately for Gov, I had no doubt that all six other panelists would do the same.
I was wrong. The decision was a 4-3 for Syracuse.
Vivek was one of the other two in our camp of three squirrels. He intoned in his trademark withering Snape voice that “I found the MO’s personal appeals uncompelling,” as the judges began their return to General Assembly to deliver the verdict. The other judges assured him they had voted less on personal appeals than the argument that Opp had most compellingly made, that rich Americans would escape a consumption tax by spending money earned in the States overseas, thus depleting already washed out American tax rolls further. I had found that to be the one argument on the flow Opp had won, but that it was ultimately marginal and insufficient to override Gov’s other benefits.
Vivek then went to huddle with his Harvard team, junior Josh and sophomore Ben, who were soon announced to have won their semifinal on a 5-2 split. I was excited to learn that the Brandeis team who’d Goved that round, Keith Barry and Russell Leibowitz, had run a case I’d originally written, a case I wanted to desperately run in a final round and eventually got to in my last final round of my regular career, at Rutgers Pro-Ams (the first RUDU APDA tournament) in 2002. The case asks how a devout religious believer ought live if their soul were reversed such that good acts would send them to hell and bad acts would send them to heaven. I’d given the case to a Brandeisian many years after my graduation, who then tweaked it and passed it on to Keith and Russell, who tweaked it further still. The case remains one of my absolute favorites for cleaving the question of motivation and reward from doing good for good’s sake. It made me proud of my Brandeis roots all over again to know that this was how one of their best teams in recent memory chose to go out.
And thus the stage was set for Nats Finals. The teams could not be much more different in background and shape. Despite their decision in octofinals against Rutgers, Syracuse carried a reputation of debating for the right reasons, of showcase cases, of bending minds and perceptions both of topics discussed and what it meant to be a small, under-funded and relatively new school on APDA. Meanwhile, Harvard represented a tradition of great success, though also of dry subjects and the fastest speaking on the circuit. Syracuse was represented by two seniors who would be in their last rounds. Harvard was represented by a junior who’d put up one of the best individual seasons on APDA ever and a totally unsung sophomore in just his sixth career APDA tournament, a fast-talking high school hero who most people still had never seen. There was no question what side people wanted the teams to have. Everyone wanted Syracuse to be Gov.
Everyone. Except perhaps Harvard.
Indeed, other than some mop-up discussions from semifinals and earlier rounds, all anyone could seem to talk about while we stood waiting around Hoff Theater for the auditorium to be prepared for Nats Finals, was who was Goving and how the round was about to be either wonderful or terrible. People whispered about Syracuse cases they’d seen, only boggling at how Platonic the case they might run in such a venue as Nats Finals would be. Meanwhile, they feared what Harvard would do with the forum, having been rewarded for boring the crowd in the previous year, having debaters with less career accomplishment in the round, which might only lead them to make a cautious move of running something extremely imbalanced to their side.
When we entered the gigantic theater, majestically laid out with glittering trophies, two tables, and a podium, people were impressed by the classiness of a Nationals that had not exactly spared every expense to impress us. But then it became clear which table each team was going to. And the lamentations began.
Harvard was Gov. The collective held their breath and wondered if the case would be a repeat of 2005 and 2012, something inaccessible, quickly delivered, unfair to the Opp, roundly unfair to the crowd.
On face, when Ben opened his remarks, after a dry thank-you to the rogue taxi driver who’d scuttled them out of Boston when it was ostensibly on lock-down, the case he offered was probably better than those in both 2005 and 2012. It was about a question that mattered more, certainly. But he also, out of nerves or that just being his style (I’ve never seen him debate before), shotgunned out details of the case in a rapid-fire way that made the case feel inaccessible to most of the audience. And certainly to Syracuse, who a bit impatiently asked him to repeat all of his remarks.
His advocacy was that the US should break up the twelve largest banks in the country, those that have been deemed “too big to fail.” In PoCs, he offered clarifications of asset quantities that were hilariously played out as hard for Syracuse to understand and contextualize. It is likely that both Harvard debaters are en route to careers in hedge funds or other similar economic pursuits, while the Syracuse pair are interested in Russian translation and medicine, respectively. The Harvard debaters look like a prep school catalog, while the Syracuse debaters often show up to tournaments in ratty T-shirts and speak their minds loudly. I won’t speculate on the total asset holdings of each of the four, but I want to contrast myself with those who have said this final round was not about class or earnings. Everything in America at this point in history is about class and earnings. The wealth disparity is beyond the limits of anything ever deemed acceptable by a free society and it is directly jeopardizing our ability to call it a free society. And if you’re not paying attention to that, or how it plays out to almost every interaction you have, I’m sorry, but you’re not paying attention.
Then Kopel asked what would happen to banks that didn’t comply. And Ben assured him this was not an option, that they would. The case had fiat power and there was no way around compliance if they wanted to do business in the United States.
Clearly uncomfortable, Costello eventually said, “Okay, I think we’re ready” and Ben proceeded to rattle off a metric ton of arguments about breaking up the banks. The delivery was so uninteresting and uncompelling that it sounded like a parody of policy debate. I whispered to my team that was in earshot “Do you want to ask Siri a question?” and many cracked up. Nationals Finals was opening with a speech that could only even begin to be interesting to the judging panel and those accustomed to the faster ranges of debate, one that could only leave the vast majority of the audience as cold as the delivery itself.
Several things occurred to me while listening to this speech. The first was what a brilliant ploy it was, in light of the semifinal round between Yale and Syracuse, to force ‘Cuse to defend the big bad banks while Harvard had reasons to break them up. It was a total reversal of perspective for this David (literally) and Goliath match-up, to foist defense of the hedge funds and those who play with other people’s money onto the small guys who were less well off and didn’t run in that crowd. I have no idea how many teams they would have run that case against from the octofinal draw, but whether deliberate or accidental, this was a clever strategic play.
The main thing I was thinking, of course, was whether this was even an event I recognized anymore. In light of the prior year’s Final, Harvard had jumped headlong into doubling down on their strategy of boring everyone out of the round, of making obscure, quick, esoteric arguments that challenged the Opp not to engage or counter but to merely understand. And after Kopel had shut down against a far slower, more accessible series of arguments for the semifinal case, I wondered what he would possibly do against this one.
I tried to place myself in his shaky shaky shoes at that moment, to try to imagine how I would try to take back this round for those who sought the entertainment he’d discussed in his own Senior Speech. To try to turn the tables so that Harvard felt as uncomfortable as he now did, trying to defend big banking’s ability to destroy lives with impunity and rule society without fear of check or repercussion. At some point, I whispered to someone that he had to counter-case, that he had to maximize clash by refusing to defend the banks and run a sweeping counter-case that bordered on socialism, a counter-proposal along the lines of nationalizing all banks or criminalizing Wall Street. I don’t doubt that the whole crowd was with me in the breathless anticipation of how Kopel, spokesperson for intellectual rigor on APDA this year, would respond.
He said this:
“I want to begin, surprisingly, with a little bit of meta-analysis. So, I think that you’re decision in this round functionally ought to be based on the fact that Nats Finals is a different kind of round from the average sort of APDA round. So we would ultimately argue that if you are lulled to sleep by Harvard, then you ought not vote for them, because we all spend a great deal of time coming out to these debate tournaments and giving up our weekends, giving up our time. And if we’re not actually really learning anything new and we’re just talking about banks the entire time, I actually think we should hold this league to a higher standard.”
He then discussed how this would affect future decisions by future debaters and how that mattered to people. And how the case was an embarrassment, something he has since retracted in all the fallout from the discussion of this round. And then he called the case tight, something never done in 32 prior APDA National Championships.
All of this was done amidst raucous cheering and “hear-hear”s, not just from fans and friends of Syracuse, but from an audience angered by a PMC with no vocal intonation or attempt at rhetorical persuasion whatsoever, tired of a reign of expectation that people put up with and laud that sort of debate, and excited to see someone risk everything they had worked for four years to earn on the bet that this was APDA’s “mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore” moment.
The round got ugly. Really ugly. Harvard called Syracuse and their decisions “anti-intellectual” and “a disgrace” and defended their decision to run the case on the basis of pointing out that this was an important topic with impacts on the world. People cheered for their side and heckled against the other. People felt uncomfortable and were drained. The round developed into the metaphorical train-wreck from which no head could turn. Harvard’s arguments defending the tight-call were poor and the responses were poor. Both sides simultaneously escalated and tried to slip out of the meta-call about the quality of the case as it became clear that the quality of the round overall was disastrous.
Mercifully, the round ended, but the arguments had only just begin. People across the crowd were listless and failed to move. They looked like they’d just watched a documentary on Somalia rather than a Nats Final. I told people I felt this was a turning point for the league and how it felt about certain cases and an approach to debate. Most replied they just felt this was a stain on the league that would hopefully be forgotten. I held some hope that people would vote Opp, but most everyone expected a 7-0 for Gov.
It was not a 7-0 for Gov. It was a 5-2 for Gov. The two dissenters were Robert Glunt of Cornell and Kate Falkenstien of Yale. These were the LOs, respectively, in the 2005 and 2012 Nats Finals against Harvard.
Among the five were Omar Qureshi and Reid Bagwell, people who relied on eloquence against careers that spanned many high speaker awards, as well as Jon Bateman, the MG in the Hopkins case in 2006 Nats Finals when he ran the case about Faust. Omar told me after the round that most of the panel was open to the case entirely being a meta-call about the nature of final rounds and Nats Finals especially, but that calling the case tight alienated much of the panel, which also included Adam Goldstein and Mike Childers, and isolated their decision to the tight call only. All seven said they adjudicated solely on the tight-call.
In retrospect, I don’t think the decision matters all that much. I could spend the rest of my space here (though you’ve noticed it’s unlimited, I’m sure) arguing why I think the seven judges all should have considered the meta-call about the nature of the case, that such is the only check the league or its members have against pressing the advantage of getting to Gov. But the problem is also that whether they considered it or not, Syracuse didn’t do it perfectly. They fell into several traps about the case, criticizing the case topic itself more than how the case was constructed and delivered. This enabled Harvard to argue, quite correctly, that the financial crisis and bank regulation actually are important topics of the day. And when this discussion exploded out into the wider forum, involving many APDA alums who were not at the Nats Finals, they overwhelmingly echoed that the case was interesting and accessible without having seen the PMC, PoCs, or the nature of the way Harvard has debated much of the last two years.
We ought give both teams some slack. Obviously, some of the harshest mudslinging on both sides has been retracted and can be chalked up to the heat of the moment. The crowd is being criticized for heckling, though I noticed very little of this so much as some of the most ardent and active clapping and cheering I’ve ever seen in a Nats Final. I maintain what I said early on, that Kopel’s LOC was the bravest speech I’ve ever seen on APDA, that crossing the threshold to a meta-call on the nature of Nationals Finals and tight-calling a case he believed was tight in that venue were incontrovertibly brave and difficult things to do for which he should be forever proud. And I can’t help but think, while I respect them both as imminently fair judges, that the memory of their own LOCs helped prompt Glunt and Kate to decide as they did.
But the larger question has been called and a team has sacrificed most everything, including, if the forum is to be believed (it shouldn’t – internet forums and APDA’s especially are notorious for unwarranted vitriol of which I myself have sometimes partaken) their reputations as people on the circuit, to call it. What sort of debate league is APDA? What do we want to see here? How do we want to discuss issues and what sort of issues, in what way, are appropriate for Nationals Finals, or any final, or even any round?
I think it is absolutely vital, as a simple conclusion to over 10,000 words of rambling historical recounting and diatribe, that we expect more of teams. Harvard doesn’t want this video to go up because they don’t want prospective debaters thinking that round is representative of APDA. But it is representative of APDA, both in their case choice and approach and in the backlash it received. This is a conflict that is breaking out all over the league. And it doesn’t have to be fought as harshly or inartfully as it was in Hoff Theater, but it does have to be discussed. Is it reasonable to escalate the speed and unpersuasiveness of argumentation to get more arguments in that one hopes to pull through in PMR for a narrow victory? Is that APDA? Is that what we want it to be?
People have always assured me that APDA rounds are judged holistically and that no one could simply spread and spec their way to a win in this league. I think that reassurance has been called into serious doubt by this final. And while I don’t think Syracuse losing is the deathknell of my perspective about this circuit, I have no doubt that Harvard and other teams who favor spreading and obscurity will proceed undeterred with this strategy as they have been rewarded. I fervently hope that I’m wrong, that enough backlash was built from the groundswell of vocal support for Syracuse, that they do draw back from the ledge and challenge themselves to be more interesting, to care about the audience, and to slow down.
I have the deepest respect for Josh and Ben. How could you not respect someone winning Nats in his sixth APDA tournament? Many people said his quarterfinal MO against top-seed Princeton deserved a 27.5, the highest score our league now offers. And Josh has impressed me with his true dedication to the league and interest in issues of equity, despite his lofty background. (I’m sorry, but where people come from does color their perspective and this is part of any cogent discussion on these issues.) I am duly impressed by Vivek Suri’s ability to be a part of four consecutive National Championship squads. I only wish he and his cohorts had challenged themselves in the last two years to not use every advantage available to them in this relentless pursuit.
Eventually, people are either going to have to voluntarily step back from the brink of escalation on spreading and speccing, or they are going to have to be dropped for failure to do so. There have been instances of such dropping. Perhaps the most famous speech of the year was Kornfeld’s 30-second LOC tight-call against Josh and C., critiquing not only the case itself but the very way that Harvard was choosing to debate at the time, and exposing its flaws. This Nats Finals felt like a moment like that, but had a different outcome. The jury, I daresay, is still out.
But I would posit that it is reasonable to consider such drops. It is reasonable for judges to consider fairness in all its aspects, and indeed the spirit of debate, when making a call about who won and who lost. I think it’s appropriate for Opp teams to raise these issues, and increasingly may be very important that they do so. This does not mean making assumptions or dropping people on face. It’s quite possible that Josh and Ben will return to the circuit next year with open, fun, rhetorically elocuted opp-choice cases and they should be rewarded and lauded if they do. Don’t assume that the school or the people will do what they have done before.
But if there’s a time when you’re gritting your teeth about a decision, when every part of you wants to drop a team for being unfair to the other, for squeezing every last second of advantage out of situation, maybe you should just drop that team. Or at least consider it. And maybe it’s up to Opp to raise that question first so you’re not intervening too much in the round, but maybe it isn’t.
Just as companies ruthlessly pursuing profit will only respond to financial penalties, my deep concern is that teams who only care about winning will not start caring about anything else until they stop winning. It is perhaps even less surprising from people who see themselves at the helm of those companies in future. But winning is a reward and it should be doled out for greatness, not merely finding some way, any way, to best the other team. Debaters of the future, let greatness be your standard, not doing just enough to win when anything goes.
Ed. note: A few of the debaters mentioned in this post asked for their last names to be removed so they could not be Googled in association with this post. While I personally prefer this to be a documentation of important events, I understand their concerns and have agreed to their request. If you are mentioned in this post and would also like your last name removed, I will do so. Just send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Given that the results of the tournament are publicly available, it probably doesn’t actually detract from the information of the post’s content.
Additionally, it seems like many of the other National Final Round videos were removed by request of the participants, so 2013 is not as much of an outlier as originally discussed.
It’s hard to believe that I’m about to wrap up my fourth year of coaching debate, matching the length and breadth of my APDA career when I actually debated the rounds myself. I have spent as many years teaching, supporting, cajoling, and cheering on Rutgers as I did speaking for Brandeis. It’s hard to put in perspective.
Of course, because of the ever-present reality of the sensation that time is speeding up, a universal for temporal beings that I once explained in depth on this blog, it’s felt like less time. And that first year was shorter, as was my first year of debating for Brandeis, the product of the rule that novices could only go to certain tournaments due to limited funding at the latter at the time. But the first year at Brandeis may have been the longest as I was establishing myself in a new field, a new arena despite my debate experience from earlier schooling, while the last four years have been ensconced in a community with which I could not be much more familiar.
I went to 73 tournaments as a debater. Plus two trips to Worlds to make 75. Plus, if you want to get technical, four Brandeis-hosted tourneys at which I judged, making 79 total. And I guess the one comeback tournament at BU makes a nice round 80. This weekend, I will return to Brandeis for the third time in my coaching career, to attend my 87th tournament as a coach. Plus four Rutgers-hosted tournaments, to make 91 in total. While I competed in 444 rounds as a debater, I have probably judged somewhere in the neighborhood of 550 rounds as a coach. And I’m not done yet. While you only get four years on APDA to make your mark in competition, there’s no upper limit on how much you can coach or judge.
Of course, the season is longer than it used to be. I had a 50-tournament streak that took me from late sophomore year through graduation; now the schedule routinely schedules 28 weekends a year of competition, or 54% of the available weekends in an annual calendar. The league is larger, there are more tournaments on average in a weekend, and the overall weight of APDA is heavier. The competition has probably never been deeper and the breadth of impact of the league overall is at or near its peak, despite whatever other experienced debaters would tell you about how the quality of competition has always been declining since they personally got good at the activity.
But as I’m about to head up to what I used to affectionately call The Beans and its “mining town” suburb to again traverse the hills and brick halls of alma mater, it’s impossible not to get philosophical about an event that has brought me one-thousand rounds of competitive two-on-two debate, and probably close to half that many practice rounds. It may not strictly meet the ten-thousand hour rule of mastery in terms of actual time in an official match, but with weekends being 36-hour minimum commitments counting travel time, we’re in the neighborhood of 6,000 hours of tournaments and another 2,000 of practice.
One of my debaters asked me yesterday if I could do this job for twenty years. I told him it was hard for me to picture doing anything for twenty years without getting bored, without feeling like life was somehow falling away into repetition and drudgery when other opportunities were waiting to be explored and teach me things. In contemplation of what eight years of college debate on one end or the other of the round has looked like, twenty years seems even less possible to fathom. How anyone can return to a job for decades on end totally defies my sense of imagination. I can picture people crossing the Sahara with no water and only the will to live, but a fifth of a century at the same workplace utterly boggles me.
But preparing to drive up the well-worn path from central Jersey to eastern Massachusetts, I still feel inspired, excited, alive with the possibility of a new day of debate. 171 APDA tournaments in, I’m not done yet.
I lived there for 30 months. It was my 17th residence, if you don’t count hotels. It saw me turn my debate gig into a full-time job, the shavings of the worst year of my life into something livable, the wreckage of a marriage into another relationship with promise. That relationship started in that apartment, and always will have.
At least eight boxes entered and exited the building sealed, remaining so for the duration of the two and a half years spent there. I signed my divorce papers there, ended my last conversation with my wife there, eventually stopped hiding the knives there. It played host to a meaningful start to at least one other relationship between people not me, one whose ebbs and flows were tumultuously linked to my own perceptions on the league in which I coach. A few friends visited, some overnight, but not many and not often, usually opening the windows when they did. It was where I learned that Pandora had died, but my cat never set paw therein, despite all her stuff being there when she was put to sleep.
It was where I almost got a rabbit, thrice. As it was, I never actually had an animal in the place once, unless you count the couple of mice that were there the first few weeks I was.
The cold water faucet in the sink worked for less than 10% of my residence time. The heat was roasting in the early morning hours, but nearly off in mid to late evening. October and April tended to be freezing. The first day in fall that the heat would finally come on would be cause for dancing. The kitchen was the size of a small coffin, footprint wise. It felt like same to inhabit.
Things discarded upon departure: A bookcase with separated shelves, the plywood board for keeping art straight across the country in summer 2011, the toaster oven I’d had since 2002, Fish’s old blender whose top never worked, several coat hangers, the sparkling grape juice, Trader Joe’s cornbread mix, and microwave meals which had all been purchased at prior residences.
It had a mantle with no fireplace and I actually rotated seasonal cards there atop my turtle collection and a handful of candles. I burned cases of candles in the place, many in the bathroom in place of the appalling overhead light. There were Christmas lights of one kind or another in every room save that one, most of them with fun light covers, some of which date from 1987.
I filmed most of the abortive attempts at the Blue Pyramid Stories video series there, shortly before the giant laminated world map started falling off the wall and depriving me of my backdrop. I never was able to make the thing stick properly again and I’ve had trouble not reading that, like so much else, as a metaphor.
I rode out two hurricanes there. I watched a great deal of snowfall, departed for my first trip to the Jersey shore therefrom, and bought and installed my first air-conditioner there, which is still in my possession.
I came home late a lot. After infinitely late late-rounds of debate at practice, after all-night sessions of poker at Parx and elsewhere, after late late movies with a couple different people or just by myself. After diners and debates and bowling.
Some things will not be changing.
A lot of things will, though. There will be TV again, and better Internet hopefully, and nothing stolen from the front porch. There will be more cooking, more space, a yard in back for the nice days and the snow days. There will be laundry that doesn’t require a trip outside and wrestling with the rusty heavy storm doors and their concussive clearance. There will be less parking, admittedly. There will be less walking, though there’d been basically no walking for all of the past year, after that torrid crazy year of walking everywhere at 3 AM in drenching storms because of how little I cared.
There will be caring, hopefully.
Farewell, 119 South 1st Avenue, Apartment B. May your endlessly amended address serve someone else just as well.
I’ve been feeling uninspired lately. All the usual suspects are in play – I’ve been a bit sick at a low (and sometimes higher) level for the last week or two, things have been busy, I’ve hit that weird stride in time where things just seem to be dragging on. It’s about time to take stock of life as one tends to around the turnover in the proverbial odometer and I find myself troubled by the idea of taking stock, of looking at anything too big-picture or long-term. I’ve been tired and run-down, hungover from a January that was hard on everybody. I’ve been unable to find much to write about, just after being reinspired to revamp this blog and take it into the next stage.
A lot of what I’m realizing is that I’m trying to tear down the scaffolding of the transition that got me from the divorce era of my life to whatever’s next and suddenly understanding that the scaffolding is far more intractable than I’d prefer. This rears its head in the ugliest and untimeliest of places, usually around insecurities and defense mechanisms that I probably used to find childish in high schoolers and now am so helpless that I can’t help but employ them. But it’s also in realizing that I have a 55-to-70 hour work-week because I started working it at a time when I didn’t want to have a life outside of that work, when work becoming my entire life was the only way to survive. Or appreciating that the reason I can’t seem to find a big-picture view to pull back from was my self-enforced myopia of insisting that I only look at one day or week at a time to keep myself motivated to not look at a longer-term picture that had been stolen away, never to return. And it turns out that if you start walking around with blinders on for a couple years, you still can’t get much peripheral vision even when you take them off. If you get used to limping, you’ll still limp when your leg heals. If you only watch monochrome television, the whole world loses its color.
And tearing out the scaffolding is scary. The scaffolding gets comfortable. Anything meant to be temporary has a way of seeping into the landscape and becoming part of the full-time scene. Just ask any campus with “modular” housing or buildings that are among the oldest and longest-lasting structures on the premises, decades after their first condemnation. Talk to the Parisians about the Eiffel Tower. Anything that stands of its own accord and makes things more functional gets so comfortable that breaking out of it feels like destruction, no matter how healthy that breakout may be.
I’m moving out of my place at the end of March. My girlfriend and I are moving a few blocks across town to a place with more space, moving in properly after the slapdash job we did of it at summer’s end when we ran out of time to figure out alternatives. This time, there will be a kitchen and a bathroom not designed for the most single of people, there will be a place for her to work, there will be a small yard and storage for free downstairs and a more responsive person to call when things go wrong. It’s an upgrade of everything for only the most nominal increase in price and it’s clearly the right decision. And yet, the prospect of tearing up all the stuff, the boxes and books and clothes and furniture, putting it in a truck, and hauling it a half mile down the road, seems endlessly daunting. The same kind of daunting that makes me envy my minimalist friends and consider buying a yurt and moving to the Mongolian steppes with only a space heater and sleeping bag in tow.
It’s especially hard to consider moving this weekend, after I took two days off, elected not to return to Princeton for so many reasons, and instead tried skiing for the first time ever. This may not sound like a ton for an average almost-33-year-old to embark on, until you recall that I never learned to swim or ride a bike. The first after traumatic first encounters with attempted swimming and the second after careful reasoned weighing of the fall-to-benefit ratio (the prospects were poor at best). So getting on the mountainside in a pair of double-sized clown shoes and hoping to slide effectively was a pretty big challenge and significant props must be assigned to my girlfriend for convincing me to do this with relatively minimum fuss.
It was fun.
There was falling, have no fear. About four falls in the lesson, in which attempting to stop after 10 feet usually yielded success at 25 feet and a ridiculously exertive walk back up the hill, followed by roughly twenty-five more falls in several hours of bunny-sloping. But it was fun. The falls didn’t hurt, except for a couple where I banged a knee into a ski, and by the middle of the evening I’d sufficiently mastered the bunny slope to the point where I could almost always get down cleanly, often turning a lot and avoiding the foundered snowboarding kids dotting the hillside. I felt exhilarated, almost Olympic by the end of the exercise, which made the following 48 hours of excruciating soreness almost more satisfying in the remembrance of whooshing down the hill. I was grumpy that there was no middle-ground hill between the bunny slope and something my girlfriend (a three-time skiier) found to be death-defyingly stressful, so I was unable to take the next step in my training, but I also concluded that periodic trips to the bunny slope alone may be plenty exciting and wintry for future forays.
It’s been a while since I’ve wanted to move since, though. In almost any sense of the word. The muscles rebel, the mind flails, and the idea of picking oneself up and putting oneself on a course toward the future seems like commensurate effort to creating the sun from scratch.
Hung out with Ariel and Michael today, knocking on the door of fifteen years of friendship with the former, which is getting well on toward half my existence on the planet. Such milestones were easier to contemplate a few years ago, they didn’t imply other milestones erased or halted, others for which the idea of counting up too high now seems debilitating or just impossible by sheer force of will. Piling up numbers is the game of the successful, the upward-trajectory people, the Algers still proffering the cancerous myth of eternal growth and prosperity. And my life is much, much better than it was when I wanted to stop counting, when the odometer had to be blacked out, when all the scaffolding and silly spiked walls went up. But tearing the tape of the odometer is as hard as the rest of it, and I’m in no mood to relearn some of this math. Not yet.
Last week, I spent some of my limited free time taking in my Prius to the dealer to try to fix a problem with the gas gauge. About three weeks before, it had started displaying that the tank was empty when it still had a quarter-tank left. It would only take enough gas to fill three-quarters of the tank, return to full, and then almost immediately start reading a quarter-tank less than it actually had.
The problem persisted for tank after tank, even when I let it go for a hundred miles flashing empty without consequence as it burned the remains of the invisible gas.
The dealer charged me $70 to do nothing and tell me that it was only supposed to be an estimate and that everything looked fine to them, even though the reading was clearly inaccurate and was reflecting gas mileage 25% worse than normal, strangely equivalent to the amount of gas missing from each apparent tank. They told me they’d recalibrated the gauge, but it still displayed just as it had for the weeks prior, a quarter-tank low.
I couldn’t possibly invent a better metaphor if I wanted to. And this is just real life, happening all around us.
The above image has graced the top of this page for well over a year. It’s naively titled the StoreyTelling Fall 2011 Background, but I just replaced it on one of the last days of January 2013. That’s one long fall, especially when you consider that it went up in August after the conclusion of my cross-country trip over the summer.
I’d taken the picture on the George Washington Bridge, bleary-eyed, tearful, to remind myself that I wasn’t stopping on that bridge right then. That I was driving past the bridge even though I really, really didn’t want to. Even though doing so felt like the culmination of generations of effort at that very moment. It wasn’t safe to take that picture while driving, but it was a whole lot safer than what I wasn’t doing.
Not long after the picture was taken and went up on this page, life started to get better. It had been getting better the whole time, slowly, but with the advent of my relationship, the rate of progress started to speed up. I also lost a lot of momentum and interest in blogging and this page. The reasons were myriad and complicated. It was hard to talk about my relationship here. It was hard to feel like cutting off communication with Emily was meaningful when she could and probably would read this page. Even though most of what I was trying to prevent was the influence of her attitude and even existence on me, the awareness that there was still a one-way street was weird and disheartening. Not enough to abandon the project or the original principles that led to its creation, but to dial it way back.
I also just kind of ran out of gas for Duck & Cover, the product of a busy schedule, sleeping more, and the increasing irrelevance of politics. And D&C has often been a lot of the juice that keeps this page flowing and going and worth checking daily. And this was all part of a larger context of the falling off of a lot of new content at the Blue Pyramid writ large, in the mix of the total creative collapse that came from the wake of my divorce. Put simply, once I could no longer make even the most basic aspects of my life function, the entire direction of my identity work in the most rudimentary way, the idea of me telling anyone anything, of sending any messages or creating any perspectives, seemed flatly ludicrous. This was something that was immediate for my fiction, but took time to unwind here.
I often think that resolutions are arbitrarily timed and silly and kind of like the idea of making birthday resolutions more than New Year’s, though those aren’t that different for my February-borne existence. But 2013 has been different. This year has dawned sadder, more challenging, and more urgent than many before it. (I should note that it is not holistically sadder, but day-to-day reality seems to be sadder and harder for myself and most people I know. It’s strange.) There is a natural taking stock that comes with a new year, but this one seems to find more general dissatisfaction and angst than I remember people having. There are organic explanations like the bitter cold driving people indoors to stew, more universal ones about the energy of the planet, and the truth is probably an amalgam of everything you can think of, like it usually is.
So this week, it felt like it was time to cross the bridge. I won’t try to explain the symbolism of the current graphic just in case you wind up having 17 months to digest it and consider it whenever you come check what I’ve written lately. And I’m not going to make creative promises about how much there will or won’t be here. Obviously I’ve been more interested in writing lately than I have during most of the duration of the bridge graphic. Increasingly, though, I find that I am struggling a lot with the basics. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve always been good with the big picture, but terrible with the small picture. The small picture has always felt… well, small. It’s debilitating to focus on the small picture all the time. And yet, the small picture may be a really key element of what’s going on. Given my uncertainty about things these days, the upheaval of the time, my entirely melted and slowly reforming identity, it’s reasonable to say that I don’t know where to put the small picture in the overall context.
The bridge still haunts me, as such places and means have since 1990. Crossing the bridge does not mean putting it behind me or out of sight, out of mind. It means that there can, perhaps, be a new shape to the approach of life and the context of the future. Crossing a bridge doesn’t mean eliminating it. It means that one doesn’t have to spend the whole time thinking about the river that is unceasingly flowing from the past.
Or at least that’s what I’m trying.
Yoda was wrong. At this point, all I can seem to do is try.
It’s hard to talk about sadness. It’s an unattractive phenomenon, one that most people shunt off to the corners of their lives with secret thoughts and their stuffed animal collection. People are increasingly inclined to talk a little about “depression,” which in the modern nomenclature has become an unheralded bogeyman waiting in the shadows to surprise any given unsuspecting person for no reason whatsoever. Increasingly, all sadness is depression and all depression is a function of such random caprice that it would make the Old Testament God blush. The idea of even talking about why sadness might be happening or what might be causing sadness (or what, other than the latest under-tested concoction of Big Pharma, might help fix it) has been labeled as uninformed and undesirable. I know that the model a lot of people are using is that depression is a disease (and, by extension, all sadness is diseased), but at least people try to trace the spread of germs and how one got the flu and what steps people can take to avoid or cope with the flu in future. Whereas depression and sadness have been bundled into a package that looks for all the world like an airborne anvil.
Depression is not a disease. The mind is not just another organ. If you personally disagree with this perspective (hello, most of you), I think it’s useful to consider that you don’t live this way even if you think you believe this way. You may philosophically believe that your brain is a series of malleable chemical reactions that have no external significance (or indeed that the idea of significance at all is constructed), but you still find it rational to sit down and make a decision. In fact, those more inclined to believe in things like absolute determinism or the complete physicality of everything are even more likely to put rational calculated thought into all manner of decisions, ranging from where to eat breakfast to where to attend college to what to do with one’s life. This is not the behavior of someone who truly believes that their decisions already have a pre-determined outcome or they are a robot pretending to be self-aware. Such a person, taking their beliefs to heart, would most likely just start making every choice by gut or intuition, realizing that the charade of careful calculation was merely window-dressing for something that was already resolved without their consent. You can choose to believe that this is a delusion, that we are habituated to not resign ourselves to randomness even though we should. But in the end, it has nothing to do with the way we actually approach our lives. Even the most hardened materialist or determinist ponders how they are feeling and what they want before deciding something. They don’t live as though their beliefs had validity. And at that point, are they actual beliefs?
If someone claims to believe in God but in no way acts morally or as though their decisions meant something, most people would probably describe them as somewhere between hypocritical or not religious. If someone says they believe in the rule of law, but they constantly break it, no one is going to label that person as a law-abider. If someone says they believe in technology’s power to fix problems but they shun computers and cars while living in the woods, chances are we’d call them a Luddite sooner than an engineer. Which is all an exemplary way of saying a widely affirmed cliche, that actions speak louder than words. There may be no atheists in foxholes, but there are no determinist materialists anywhere in life.
And thus I am uncompelled by the notion of depression as a conspiracy of chemicals in the brain that culminates in sadness. Or at least sadness unbidden, irrational, and irrelevant to the life of the one who is sad. You can tell yourself a story where we just like to tell ourselves stories and we find a reason for the sadness, but that’s pretty akin to telling yourself a story where all the stories are just convenient fictions we invent and thus we don’t actually learn anything or grow or change or follow a course or accept the influences of any of the world around us. Materialists seem increasingly fascinated by the idea that experiences or thoughts or feelings can actually change the chemical composition of the brain and they act like it’s some revelation that there may be some reality to, well, reality. Studies utter self-proclaimed profundities like “thinking you’re happy can actually make you happy” as though happiness were some objective measurable quantity because some chemical compound roughly aligned to the observed phenomenon in a few prior studies. Of course thinking you’re happy can make you happy – that’s what happiness is. Being sad is sadness. And it happens for reasons. Logical reasons. And sometimes illogical ones. But ones that are traceable and explainable without a technical degree.
I know it often feels like it happens “for no reason.” There are lots of reasons for this! We like to deny things to ourselves. It is one of the primary defense mechanisms that humans, the consummate survivalists, have – to find ways of believing that everything is fine even when it’s not. It is decidedly unsurvivalist and unadaptable to believe a saber-toothed tiger is a legitimate threat to one’s corporeal existence. Far better to believe, naively, that the tiger poses no threat, that one eats saber-toothed tigers for proverbial breakfast, that it won’t take much thought or care to live past the encounter with those sharp teeth and razor claws. The inconvenient truth is that the encounter will be challenging and likely deadly, but facing those realities in the moment with anything other than a glib disregard will lead to the fetal position and so much carrying on, which does not feel intuitively like it maximizes the chance of survival. Voila, denial.
And because of this natural intuition, this inclination toward staring reality in the face and saying it ain’t so, we have developed the expectation of hubris, the expectation of feeling like things are more okay than they are. This expectation and adhering to it has probably been rewarded in all societies across the human spectrum, but perhaps never more than in modern America. The US anoints the careless attitude of disregard, of denial, of carrying on without feeling as strength, putting sobbing and the admission of challenge as weakness. There’s a reason that James Dean and so many drug-addled rock-stars are our heroes while those who question themselves or openly cry in public are lampooned. We aspire to the reckless disregard for reality and disdain the careful sobriety of calculation. We want to taunt the tiger rather than run, even when running is safer. It’s exciting, it’s sexy, it’s dangerous.
But it is dangerous. Constantly denying and tamping down one’s emotions, especially sadness, is dangerous. And I know a lot of the form you think this is taking, the volcanic phenomenon of denying one’s own feelings for years until they explode in deranged behavior or tormented tirades. And that’s true. But it has larger, institutional implications as well. A lot of what saddens people, especially “for no reason” are larger inequities and injustices in societies and across the world. How can people be starving in a world where the US is dotted with luxury hotels and cruise liners? How can people shoot other people, in uniforms or plain clothes? How can a world that has congratulated itself for ending slavery be perfectly happy to incarcerate millions and make others financially indebted and beholden to those who happened to be born rich?
When I ask these questions in my daily life, out loud, it almost always makes people uncomfortable. People accuse me of being depressed and depressing. People ask me to stop, that they want to get through their day and be functional. This is a larger institutional process of denial. Realizing the shortcomings of the world, especially those that are hard to fix or appear intractable, is a challenge to making fluid progress through that world. And yet, it is also that instinctive denial that makes the problem intractable in the first place. If everyone were thinking about these things all the time, they would be so upset that fixing them would be a matter of survival. (Which, incidentally, it is to those being maltreated by these problems.) But because we have the power of denial and can lampoon depression or call it a disease or just say some people are naturally more inclined to it, then it’s all too easy to return to the desk job making the wheels of injustice and inequality turn, turning up the music, and shutting out the nature of reality.
True, sadness can be crippling. Debilitating, paralyzing. It is not always a call to action. It is rarely a siren call for change – just as often, it is a swan song of despair. This is what makes it scary, what puts it diametric to survival in the perception of so many. Why we are so afraid of even acknowledging it, let alone breaking down and letting it wash over us. This mere reality – the terror of sadness, especially the deep sadnesses brought on by the larger problems of the world or the deepest problems that we make for ourselves personally – is almost entirely responsible for the drug problem in the world, itself perhaps among the top five issues that we deny daily. People can’t face life unhappy, they medicate themselves to mask the thinking and the pain that comes with it, and they change their diet instead of changing themselves or the world. What sustains drug use is often addiction, habit, or environment, but the prime mover of almost all of it is sadness. And thus the use of mind-altering substances enables us to pretend that we aren’t as sad as we are.
But we are sad. And it’s okay. It’s okay to be sad. And saying that it has rational explanations and reasons, things that can be faced and fixed, is not the same as saying that it’s the fault of the person who is sad. Depression as a capricious thief in the night is not the only model that avoids victim-blaming. Depression can also be heightened awareness of the world as it is, which should drive someone to do what they can about it, to try to alter themselves and the world to make things a little better. But it’s not that person’s fault if they aren’t strong enough to make those changes and instead end up in a periodic puddle on the floor. Sometimes the right reaction is to be a puddle on the floor. Sometimes the tiger in front of you is real and has you cornered and facing your mortality is more useful and meaningful than pretending you are a tiger-slayer. And if you could pop a pill or quaff a drink that convinces you that you’re a tiger-slayer (or far more likely that tigers simply aren’t dangerous), it won’t make you any less dead in five minutes. Realizing the gravity of a situation is actually often the only true antidote.
And sometimes there aren’t antidotes at all. Sometimes the world is just saddening. And acknowledging that is true and powerful and better than glib denial.
Being sad is strong. Admitting weakness is strong. One first has to recognize that these can be valid perceptions at all, that these are part of reality, in order to engage with them. The shape of sadness ought not be a phantom, a wispy thing blamed on things beyond our control. It ought be embraced and clutched close as one of many tools to be used to interact with the world as it truly is. Not as a mere series of chemicals to be tinctured and controlled, but as a vibrant and meaningful place that we can organically change for the better.
Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day in the United States, the day we’ve set aside from everything to honor a man who did more, at least in our modern understanding, than any other single person to promote the Civil Rights movement and efforts toward racial equality in this country. He was also bestowed a day, presumably, because he advocated and used non-violent means, one of the few times in history those means have been tested (to great effect) and, it must be said, because he was assassinated. Those felled before fulfilling their full potential are always deserving of greater honor, given that only time would have told what the full range of their impact would have been. For example, I have little doubt that a life-long MLK would have been our first Black President. Instead, that honor has gone to Barack Obama.
Yesterday was also the unofficial but very much observed Inauguration Day in our country, the day we’ve set aside to reappoint President Obama to his position for another four years. The opportunity to reinaugurate the first Black President on MLK Day was simply not to be overlooked, and thus the formalities were done Sunday, while the spectacle of Americans celebrating their peaceful transfer of power from one man to himself was observed yesterday. It is not a popular time to note how badly President Obama has deserted, failed, and possibly even betrayed the legacy of Dr. King. But I don’t see anyone else saying it, so it’s time to step up.
Or, perhaps, to quote MLK himself, quoting the statements of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam in his seminal 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam”, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”
It is precisely this Martin Luther King, the MLK of his last years, that I feel Obama has disappointed so badly. Yes, much has been written on how Obama is terrified of making waves or standing out for any sort of issue of racial equality or anything that could come near being perceived as a racial issue. He has taken no actions to limit the drug war which disproportionately punishes minorities for non-violent offenses. He has done nothing to discuss the cradle-to-prison pipeline spun by the prison-industrial complex, the mass-incarceration of generations of young minorities who were unable to carve the opportunities he did, very much against the odds. He has acted in all ways as someone entirely blind to any possible plight of racial minorities whatsoever, presumably for fear of preventing future people who look like him from being elected since they would seem to only care about such issues. All of this is well documented, and all of this alone is enough to excoriate Obama’s record on the issues MLK is known for.
But the direction MLK was taking his legacy in his final years of life was far different. Or rather, it was in the same swell as the initial movement, but far broader in scope and perspective. While he was surely under no illusions that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 fixed the problems the movement sought to redress, MLK had shifted his attentions away from race, where he had made much progress, to equally large and even less surmountable issues of institutional violence and poverty in 1967 and 1968. He took a position of prominence, power, following, and especially acknowledgment from national power-brokers, and he risked it all on pushing for further lasting gains that would truly change society for all Americans. And they shot him for it.
Lyndon Johnson and other figures in government felt deeply betrayed by Dr. King that he would take their partnership on Civil Rights issues and then turn around and condemn their failure to act justly regarding the War, to act meaningfully to reduce poverty in a society that, by today’s standards, looks egalitarian and upwardly mobile. They were fundamentally political animals, dealing in the world of quid pro quo and horse-trading where Obama has been able to excel (or at least get by). But MLK was not, essentially, a political person. He was a populist, a man of rhetoric and the pulpit, a person whose vision transcended what we would today be told was practical or sufficiently incremental. Even at the time, most of his colleagues decried his shift away from the areas where he had found success to issues he found to be more profoundly important at the time. Why move away from race when progress is being made there, why say that all races are suffering under the draft, under the iron grip of despair that comes with being poor? And MLK’s only answer could be that these were the most pressing issues of the time, the place where the most progress was needed. Even from a purely racial lens, the biggest threats to minorities, as well as the whole country, were war and poverty.
So he spoke out against the war. He drafted an Economic Bill of Rights and launched the Poor People’s Campaigns with one of the original plans to occupy a major US city. He planned to display that the opportunity cost of war was the people of the society who bore its burdens. He said:
“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’”
It still happened, for six weeks, after MLK was assassinated, and was broken up by tear gas and riot police after violence was blamed on those in the shantytown in DC. Without the fiery leader to convince people to stay on the straight and narrow path of non-violence, without the hope of a figure, a true leader, who commanded the respect of the authorities, the movement was unable to thrive. The war raged on for years and poverty only worsened, pretty much every year, until 2013.
Martin Luther King gave his life for his commitment to non-violence and ending poverty. These were core issues for the man. What has Barack Obama done about these things? The man who dares to invoke King’s legacy – in what ways has he taken risks for these causes?
Yes, I know there are those of you out there who will credit Obama for “ending” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind his outspoken defense of the latter war, his perpetuation and escalation of it, and his continued advocacy of a military budget that dwarfs that of the next seven most belligerent countries combined. Nor, of course, his intervention in Libya, his willingness to assassinate Pakistanis and Yemenis daily without warrant, notice, publicity, or a chance of them defending themselves. It’s hard to picture a President King taking any of these actions, of course, or failing to call them out on a daily basis, regardless of the race of the President in power.
But even the most brazen defender of Obama would not be able to offer me a single action he’s done to aid the plight of the poor. While bailouts and endless lines of interest-free money have streamed toward big banking and big business, the poor have had to be content with ongoing unemployment benefits and the theory of health insurance where their biggest benefit is not having to pay a fine but still not getting health insurance. The truly poor rarely vote, rarely make their voice heard, are so often incarcerated and disenfranchised that they cannot afford to be advocates for themselves, let alone the power-brokers who make and break Presidencies. Where is the right to a job, the rights enumerated in the Economic Bill of Rights that became a national joke as soon as Dr. King was in the ground? Where is the advocate for the worker, the would-be worker, the poorest of the poor, who is not immediately laughed off as an impractical dreamer? Where are the people who, on the day named for him, will truly give their due to Martin Luther King?
Not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. You won’t find them here.
And for what, President Obama? What are you running for (or from)? Whose favor are you trying to curry now? You’ve been re-elected, you’ll never run for anything again. Maybe, just maybe, you can meditate on the legacy of your forbear, you can consider why you are even able to sit in that Oval Office in the first place, and start to pay down some of your enormous debts. Maybe you can consider the plight of those who were less lucky than you, as Dr. King did before you. And maybe, just maybe, we can have the first term of a Presidency in decades that is not entirely beholden to corporate interests and increasing the power of the wealthy elites.
They might shoot you for it. But Dr. King knew there were more important things than living through the misery that other people would subject you to. And Aaron Swartz has reminded us that sometimes dying for a cause can be just as powerful, if not more so, than living for it. Have some courage to stand up for something that might actually sound like the change you promised us five years ago. Or at least the bravery to be willing to change yourself.
The founding fathers were the original terrorists.
Before you read anything I have to say, I think you should go read this. In the article, Glenn Greenwald illustrates how the judicial bullying and eventual suicide of Aaron Swartz, Internet genius and activist, is symptomatic of a much larger problem in our society about might (or in this case money) making right. The article seems longer than it is because of all the comments, many of which are not the insipid drivel that comments on the Internet so often are. It’s worth reading the whole way down.
The money paragraph is something my friend Russ originally posted on Facebook and I copied and is making the rounds:
“The US has become a society in which political and financial elites systematically evade accountability for their bad acts, no matter how destructive. Those who torture, illegally eavesdrop, commit systemic financial fraud, even launder money for designated terrorists and drug dealers are all protected from criminal liability, while those who are powerless – or especially, as in Swartz’s case, those who challenge power – are mercilessly punished for trivial transgressions. All one has to do to see that this is true is to contrast the incredible leniency given by Ortiz’s office to large companies and executives accused of serious crimes with the indescribably excessive pursuit of Swartz.”
Swartz was an activist unafraid of committing civil disobedience against bad laws. His activism against SOPA was powerful, moving, and influential. But he was not always able, in life, to convince a public with scattered attentions that the causes he fought for were just and worthy of lawbreaking. And as they have on Bradley Manning and other voices in the wilderness calling for transparency and accountability, the US government landed on him. As hard as they could. And it ended his ability to resist.
This country was founded by people who resisted their government. Ardently, violently (unfortunately – which is why they were terrorists), and without fear of failure or a Plan B to account for it. They had, by comparison to residents of the modern United States, absolutely nothing to complain about. They felt squeezed by tiny little taxes currently dwarfed by the burdens levied in any state in the nation which they founded. They were concerned that the government didn’t listen to them because it was far away, not particularly financially, but physically. They demanded a certain amount of accountability and ownership of their lives in a situation that looks something like anarchy compared to the surveillance, regulation, scrutiny, and stricture of the modern American landscape.
And they put in a provision to make sure that the outgrowth of their successful terrorist campaign would never get to the point that it has in 2013. It was called the Second Amendment and it was the most important thing the colonists could think of to protect when they got past the reasons most of them lived in the colonies instead of jolly old England in the first place (the ability to practice religion, speech, the press, and assembly). It was the right to say no. It was the right to resist. It manifested in the most powerful weapon the terrorists could think of, the same weapon that had just felled the mightiest Empire on the face of the Earth across all of history: the militia.
The reasoning was clear. If the people can rise up and create a terrorist militia that says no to whatever law is passed, then laws will truly rely on the consent of the governed. This system of voting and choosing representatives and convening from time to time is all well and good, but the only real defense of consent is the ability to have an alternative to consenting. To be able to pick up weaponry that can contend with that assembled by the government and have it out with them, to break away, to be free. And they even recognized that what that actual weaponry would look like that would be necessary and sufficient would change over time. Surely the militia would take the same form, for what fighting force could be more effective at felling great powers than terrorists? But in general, the most general word possible would have to suffice. “Arms.” This would cover all possible weaponry, muskets to cannons to whatever insanely powerful firepower would doubtless be invented in the future, and grant individuals the right to keep them as a defense against the state.
That this statute, second alteration to the country’s sacred text, is being used to justify the possession of semi-automatic assault rifles by hunters is laughable in two regards. For one, there is no world in which such weaponry could be used to defend against the full force and power of the United States government. For another, the purported purpose entirely misses the point of why arms are a protected class of possessions. You don’t have a right to guns as an American because you like shooting for sport or it happens to be your hobby. You have a right to a nuclear weapon, an aircraft carrier loaded with bombers, and anything else utilized by the American military, as a defense against pretty much exactly what the US government looks like today.
The first significant test of this amendment and its ability to protect the consent of the governed was the Civil War. And while I am in no way defending what the South was fighting for, any more than I would defend anyone fighting ever with violence for anything, it should be noted that this critical moment in American history was a resounding defeat for the Constitution. By everything that the US had stood for for nearly a century, the right to secede should have been ironclad. The South formed a militia to defend their perspective against that of their would-be oppressor. They dissented to a series of laws. They had a right to do this under the textual understanding of the Constitution and its amendments, as well as the ideals laid out by those who wrote them. They were governed and no longer consented. They, like any of us at any time, were free to do so.
It didn’t help that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and took all manner of extra-Constitutional measures to hold an unwilling union together. And implemented conscription for the first time at the national level, a violation of how the terrorists felt those living in their legacy should fight. Indeed, most of the modern methodology of wars and suppression have been inspired and brought about by Lincoln and his methods during the War Between the States.
Like President Obama, I want to be clear. I am not advocating that people take up armed resistance against their government. I’m not saying people were right to fight for the right to own other human beings as their property, or to be racist, or to not pay taxes, or any of it. What I am trying to do is put in perspective what the Second Amendment is actually meant to do and how it got perverted over time. The Second Amendment, like most of the Bill of Rights, is entirely about the consent of the governed and the right to say no. It’s not about a hobby or pastimes any more than you have a right to a battleship to use for whaling excursions. It’s not about the ability to intimidate or execute your neighbors for no political end any more than you have a right to make death threats under free speech. It’s about being able to say no.
Which, incidentally, no one seems to much want to do. And those that do get squashed.
Which is why it shouldn’t be that surprising that the Patriot Act and all of the other post-9/11 activity of the US government has gone in two parallel tracks of increasing the power of the state over its people while trying to suppress any possible ability to resist that people could make in the traditional method of violent terrorism. People have been explicitly barred from harboring or accumulating or putting into their possession any sort of anything that could remotely threaten the supreme force of the government while also being subjected to endless abridgements of their basic liberties. Their ability to say no, act on no, or even think no has been stamped out, ridiculed, wiped away in the name of protecting lives that have never been endangered since the original incident.
Do I think violence is the right way to say no? Of course not. But I also don’t think the government has the right to the monopoly of force and power that it’s accumulated, especially when it is endlessly incentivized to grease the wheels of corruption that ensure it will only be a protection racket for the rich and powerful while masquerading as some sort of egalitarian wonderland. Go back and read the Greenwald article. Count those incarceration figures again. The Civil War was fought, allegedly, to prevent slavery, but there are more people in chains than ever. And if you think a cache of semi-automatic assault rifles is going to be the tipping point between your resistance movement succeeding or failing, go visit Waco and Ruby Ridge. You can’t fight the law when it’s backed by that kind of firepower.
The only resistance we have left to us is words. Swartz knew it. Manning knows it. Even if you wanted to violently resist and believed in that, it would be impossible. Even Kim and Ahmadinejad know that, deep down. The only way to restore the consent of the governed is to say no, to talk about no with others, to post about no on the web. Consent requires an ability to have an alternative to consent, one that is meaningful and powerful and exercises a dominion over one’s own conscience. The Internet, in part because of the ruckus-raising efforts of people like Swartz, is still free and mostly unfettered, today. It’s a truly egalitarian and level society where the tools of the big boys with the big bucks can still be used by anyone freely and openly, where voices are heard based on merit and resonance. The windows on these sorts of things are closing, perhaps rapidly, and it’s kind of a minor miracle that a state this obsessed with magnifying its own power has allowed this to continue.
Part of that is about this illusion of freedom and the bizarre self-image that America must maintain. But most of it is about the fact that most Americans truly want the society they claim to have. They just have to be reminded, constantly and loudly, how far their society actually is from that ideal.
And if people make enough noise at the same time, no matter what kind of people they are or what they want, they can create a type of power. Not one that can avoid being swept away by nuclear bombs or organized trained militaries. But one that can at least be a needling voice of conscience in the back of the heads of those with their fingers on the buttons. One that can create a sort of mental terrorism, nipping and biting at the heels of those firm in their convictions to do wrong, to serve the self, to exercise power for its own sake.
Say no. It’s the only way to make saying yes mean anything at all, which was the whole idea in the first place.
Perhaps the biggest problem with life is that it is lived in order.
There are a lot of trite aphorisms with strong grains of truth along these lines. Youth is wasted on the young. If I knew then what I know now. But these are actually not the kind of chronological disorder that I’m focusing on herein. Rather, they actually rely on the same faulty logic about chronology that plagues all of our behavior – namely, that things get better. That we get better, smarter, wiser with time. That somehow experience is a teacher that never dozes off or skips a class or berates us too harshly for us to learn properly, but that we always, in some rigid linear fashion, learn a progressive amount from what we have been through.
In the words of friend and former debater Farhan Ali, “I call bullshit on this.” (It sounds somehow softer and more lovable in Farhan’s vaguely Kuwaiti Indian accent.)
The other flawed implication of the linear age model for improving our viewpoint is that it ignores the impacts of the lenses of various phases in the cycle of our lives. We assume that adults are wiser than predominantly more impulsive teenagers, that even teens have a leg up on wide-eyed naive children, that those retired or retiring from life have more insight into it than those in the throes of work, that those closest to death have the most understanding of living. There are certainly individuals who follow these guidelines, but it seems to me there are just as many exceptions. Moreover, it seems highly problematic to just assume that the later stages of life provide more understanding of it when it is imperiled by the unique challenges of that phase of existence. Older age, for example, is a time plagued by a diminishing amount of control of one’s body, when people tend to become markedly less sure of things and start to feel the age-old optimism of ever-upward improvement shift in themselves. These processes are inevitable and cannot be blamed on those experiencing them, but at the same time they directly contradict the notion of linear upward growth in quality of life and perspective. It is ludicrous to expect people in this phase of their life to be eternally growing in optimism as their body and future expectations start to turn against them, yet the functions of chronological trajectories do just that. And thus we somehow expect the older generations to reach the pinnacle of hope and elation just as they realistically have to come to grips with being on the downslope of their own time on Earth.
Worse still, the acknowledgement of any downslope too often becomes tantamount to an unmitigated disaster because we are unable to accept retraction, retreat, or repeals without getting histrionic. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, to be sure, but it’s inherited from a culture that makes us choose between growth and bankruptcy, that encourages us to live at the absolute furthest extent of our means whenever our own income or worth expands, that will offer us credit and loans beyond our means at the first sign of prosperity. It’s not merely that we inculcate a belief in growth and linear progression that causes problems, but we instill an even worse inverse perception that going backwards might as well be utter collapse. No wonder so much of our society turns to drugs (prescribed, illegal, or the worst of all of them, alcohol) at the first sign of failure or hardship. We can’t cope, by and large, with the idea that the future may be worse than the past, that any year ahead of us could be something other than our best year ever. People are quick to respond to deaths and divorces, things that should be devastating setbacks with placatory words of optimism and things to look forward to. I know I dealt with this and it made me sick. A healthier, more reasonable acknowledgement would be to recognize that the next year or two will probably be the worst of your life to date, which still may not be the worst of all-time. But that this does not mean having to give up, because life is an unpredictable wave, not some unflinching pyramid to be climbed at the steepest possible angle. I tried to share this kind of viewpoint with other recent divorcees I reconnected with recently and they seemed staunchly resistant to it, unable to acknowledge that life can get worse sometimes, trying to echo their friends who put it in a context of being for the best somehow. It was frustrating.
And I get it, in part. I think people want to keep hope alive. And hope is a very good thing, “maybe the best of things.” Truly. But hope is as far from the expectation of linear improvement as practice is from the assumption that one will be the next Michael Jordan or Barack Obama. And only an idiot would tell the middle school kid shooting freethrows in the gym or the debater staying late after practice to go over her case one more time that they are destined to attain the highest heights imaginable. Yet that’s the mythology that creeps into us when we expect linear progression, when we expect that everything always gets better. And the radical disappointment from falling short is tantamount to living one’s whole life in regret that one isn’t always at the very top. In other words, it’s a way to manufacture unhappiness and feelings of failure from all kinds of things that should reasonably amount to a life well lived.
Which illuminates perhaps the most insidious problem of chronology in our life, which is that it clouds and overrides the past. The past can so rarely be appreciated for what it truly was, instead being overshadowed by the context of the precise moment of the fleeting present. The entire past winds up as a giant stepping stone for wherever one is at the second one chooses to look at it, and the understanding of what those days and months and years meant entirely changes based on whether times are good or bad now. If one is currently satisfied and feels they are on the expected conveyor belt toward a better future, all manner of disaster, transgression, and pain can be overlooked as mere necessities on the road to bliss. Whereas if one is currently holistically dissatisfied and disappointed, even the highlights of the past are a jumble of wrong turns and missed opportunities. Even those who put it in the proper proportion and perspective, more even-keel souls, have a tendency to mute the effects of the past, to under-appreciate it or put it in a box of less experienced decisions when one had so much to learn and grow from.
It is precisely this perspective about the past that I seek to question. Just because we march through the days one at a time in irreversible lock step does not mean that we are moving forward. And to truly understand and appreciate our lives for what they are, I believe it’s crucial to mine the past not just for opportunities to learn more and gain a greater perspective, but for actual insights into when we might have been better people, when, in the past, we might have understood more about the world. Experience is capable of teaching us, but it’s also capable of corrupting us (see yesterday), of ruining our spirit, of inflicting us with trauma and paranoia and the wrong motivations and perspectives that can take years to undo just to get back to zero. We pick up addictions, we fall into groups of people that mislead or distract us, we start spending our time poorly and lose our way. If we recognize these as mistakes instead of insisting that we are all in some sort of linear fairy tale, then we can harness the power of the past to right our path and (yes) try improve over time. The barriers to understanding this somewhat obvious reality of life are part of why it’s so hard for people to break down and go to rehab when they need it, why it’s so hard for so many people to admit fault for things and just apologize properly. The idea that we have gone backwards at any point in our life is anathmetic (a word I think I’ve made up, derived from anathema) to our perspective on our own human spirit. We think that to admit a setback is to crush hope, as though improvement in a linear permanent fashion were the only possible option and anything standing against that meant we were either broken or on an infinite downward spiral, as though motion were always perpetual and it either moved one way or the other.
The truth of life is always muddier and more complicated and more unpredictable than we want to make it. It’s absurd to think that we grow endlessly. That’s cancer, that’s steroids, that’s capitalism. We change endlessly, to be sure, but it’s just as likely to be for the worse. And only through understanding that can we not only keep ourselves from being bad people, but we can keep ourselves in perspective. Yes, of course the goal should always be to find hope and improvement. But sometimes that might require recognizing that, say, 1998 was our best year, that maybe this year is our worst, and that this knowledge and understanding can be harnessed to parse what is most meaningful and valuable about life to try to improve next year. Maybe not to make it our best, or even better than this year, but to make it better than it would have been if we just kept assuming that years would somehow unflinchingly get better over time without our help.
The year has been slow to arrive. My family celebrated Christmas on New Year’s Day, despite the luminaria display on the normal date of the 24th, one marred (despite the optimism of my previous post) by a massive windstorm that blew almost the whole roof layout down after it had stayed stolidly upright for the 28 hours from placement to lighting. We had a small display of lumis on New Year’s Eve, both somewhat traditional and to show the candled bags to my girlfriend, who arrived in New Mexico late on the 27th.
For Christmas/New Year’s, she gave me the board game Lords of Waterdeep, a D&D-based game that is, if I may, nothing like D&D. It was introduced to me by my friend and former debate coach, Greg, and I immediately adored the game, given its almost perfect pacing, competitive play, versatility, and overall fun. I would highly recommend it and my enthusiasm for the game made it almost certain that I would get it eventually. There are eleven “Lords” in the game that one can play, each with two types of quests that they prefer to complete (and an eleventh who just wants to build buildings in the city). In the first game I played with Greg, Clea, Russ, and my girlfriend, I was Nindil Jalbuck.
Nindil Jalbuck’s goals are the unlikely combination of Piety and Skullduggery, a pairing that can only be explained by the fact that he was once an upstanding citizen in a mask who all respected, but he got killed in some sort of robbery and before word got out, a rogue named Hlaavin stepped in and took his place, masquerading as Nindil but using his power and influence for devious deeds. In various places, Hlaavin is described as a doppelgänger for Nindil, making Nindil a functional Two-Face or Dr. Jekyll type character. As far as the world’s concerned, these are not distinct people, but one unified changed man.
Now this may seem like an awful lot of back-story for one cartoonish D&D character that I happened to play the first time I encountered Waterdeep. But it’s a captivating story, and one that reminded me a lot of what I feared as my own outcome in the wake of my divorce. All the time, people use trauma as a justification for their skullduggery; most of the people I’ve had the most trouble with on the debate circuit and elsewhere have justified being jerks to people by noting that bad things happened to them in the past that “made” them this way. While I always retorted that I’d had trauma too, and plenty of it, the loss of identity and self-worth brought on by the way my marriage ended certainly brought me to the brink of wondering if this kind of corruption by events were inevitable. I have tons of anger which I wrestle on a daily basis, sometimes just below the surface and sometimes just above it. And I’m more aware than most of what kind of control and discipline it takes to be a good person. There’s a reason that all our rhetoric about being good describes the “straight and narrow” and incredible pains and awareness. It’s because our default settings are to be petty and selfish. The easier way is the one which requires less diligence. It’s hard work to try.
And thus, when my defenses were down and my identity and life were shattered, the thin line of defense between me being a roughly upstanding person who is trying hard to be better and being something like Hitler seemed blurry and perhaps indefensible. I had lots of long conversations (and maybe even posts here?) about how the path to being Hitler was actually fewer steps and an easier fall than one might think. Many friends wrote this off as hysteria and letting the trauma do the talking, but there’s an additional angle of which being an extremist and an absolutist can make this switch faster than one might think. Much of what inspires me to try to do and be good is a certain absolutism, perfectionism, and idealism. Once ideals shatter, once moral standards are breached, then it’s very easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The purpose of a dam is to hold back water. Once the dam is breached, it finds it sufficiently demoralizing to not try any more and let all the water through. On a moral level, it seems there’s very little difference between one transgression and several similar transgressions. And at the point where transgressions are fair game, then the entire motivation starts to change. This is frankly why I felt like suicide was a somewhat reasonable option for a period of several months – because I was literally afraid of who I would become. I knew I could survive, but I was very concerned that whoever did survive would be so dissimilar from me that they would be someone I didn’t want to make it.
Now I know most of you reading this are screaming that this is the problem with absolutism on the moral level and that most of you don’t find the above paragraph relatable because most people in America this century grow up being gradualists and moderates and seeing themselves as making compromises when they see fit. I, for example, find it incomprehensible that people can aspire to be mostly vegetarian but still eat meat occasionally and feel like they’re being better than if they ate as much meat as a regular person. They, in turn, people like Fish and my father, find it incomprehensible that I can only find it good to refrain entirely from meat as a moral aspiration and that eating chicken once a month may as well be running a chicken slaughterhouse. And I’m not sure I have the inclination to make a full defense of my stance for ideal absolutism here and now – I understand that it’s dramatically less practical, but morality has never appeared in any way practical to me. Indeed, because of the ease of life away from the narrow path, it’s always seemed somewhat obvious to me that morality is diametric to practicality. It is decidedly impractical to be good, but this makes it no less of a moral imperative.
As a sideways method of defense, I will say that I think gradualism can easily lead to corruption, perhaps as quickly as my fears of the Hitler within rising up once my principles had been breached. Another of my Christmas/New Year’s gifts, from my mother, was Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, a book I imagine you’ve all heard of. I’ve been on a bit of a Gladwell kick lately, reading the books backwards. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions – some of his cultural stuff in Outliers seems obviously cherry-picked and his defense of broken-windows theory in the most recently read tome seems a bit shallow. If he has a flaw, it’s that he over-simplifies things that are decidedly more complex and I think he relies too heavily on one or two studies to prove a general theory or practice about humanity globally. (Incidentally, I’m not sure when the scientific method decided that repeating something once or twice in a measured way was sufficient to declare it as a universally repeatable law.) Nevertheless, I take the 10,000-hour rule as Gospel and found a great deal of Blink compelling.
Another thing I found compelling, though, was his study of how little factors can turn ostensibly good people into bad. There’s a study in The Tipping Point about how telling seminarians that they’re late makes them override their Good Samaritan intuitions, even if you have them meditating on the story of the Good Samaritan at the same time. There’s an examination of self-described pacifists in the Stanford Prison Experiment. There’s the tragedy of Kitty Genovese, the woman who was stabbed to death in New York City while over thirty horrified onlookers stood unmoving by their telephones. Instructing people with certain motivations or telling them to focus on certain things will, in most cases, “tip” them into being just as selfish and animalistic as the worst of their peers. Not just because it’s easy, but I think because of the nature of corruption itself. It’s what I’ve long discussed as my general theory of how people “go bad”. Rarely, despite the implications of the concept of a tipping point, is it an overnight plunge into debauchery. Rather, it’s a trail of breadcrumbs with a slight shift in perspective each time. I call this the A to B, B to C, C to D phenomenon. If we imagine this to be a descent into bad behavior, almost no one would ever jump from A to D. People standing on A would find that laughably poor behavior. But B seems forgivable or reachable or reasonable – they can find a way to justify going to B. And so they do. Suddenly, from the perspective of B, C seems reachable. From A that seemed crazy, but they’ve already gone to B and now the world looks a little different – they’ve gotten their hands a little dirty and now it seems like less of a step. This is how most cheating happens, in my opinion, be it on marriages or taxes or in business. Almost no one just jumps into bed with someone or becomes Bernie Madoff overnight. It starts with little things – hand-holding or skimming off the top. But those practices are reaffirming that being bad isn’t as bad as it once seemed and then it becomes a hop, skip, and a jump to disaster. That’s why we have that phrase, hop, skip, and a jump. Because it takes each of those sequential steps: A to B, B to C, C to D. It can’t be one giant leap. It has to be small steps. The road to hell is paved with individual stones, not one giant brick. It is, after all, a road.
Which is why I didn’t think much of Nindil Jalbuck at first. Or even second, for I got his card the second time I played, the first time with my girlfriend after opening the game on Christmas/New Year’s Day. The third time, she got Nindil. Keep in mind there are eleven possible characters and when we played each other, we were only dealing two of these cards. The fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh times we played, I was Nindil Jalbuck. I have currently played twelve games of Waterdeep. Two of them left Nindil out altogether. Two of them, she has been Nindil. And the remaining eight have given me his card.
I was having arguments about odds with Freez when I saw him over the break in Albuquerque and I’m sure he’d find a way to tell me that this experience is somehow unremarkable or predictable. Call me crazy, but this feels like more than a minor trend. A sufficiently freaky trend to make me research Mr. Jalbuck’s backstory and think on it heavily.
Two days ago, I got back from the Dartmouth tournament, slept a lot, woke up and watched a heartbreaking Seahawks game, and logged into my Wells Fargo account to make sure (as I do weekly) that everything was in order. It wasn’t. Someone had rung up over $2,000 in charges in Atlanta and Miami while I was in New Hampshire. There was an early charge for dinner for about fifty bucks and then the next day they went to town, spending 2k on hotels in the South’s major cities. I immediately called the bank’s 24-hour number and reported the fraudulent activity, dealing with an incredibly nice and helpful individual who promised to reverse the charges, issue a new card, and investigate the fraud.
The same thing, roughly, happened to my parents’ credit card a few days before I arrived in Albuquerque last month. My mother asked the people who helped her through it if this was common and they said it happens all the time. And when I spoke to a local banker yesterday in getting a temporary card, he said that there’s been an “epidemic” of this lately. Now admittedly he was using this in part as a platform to try to sell me a bunch of fee-based “protections” for my account, but the part in which he described helping a ton of different customers with similar problems recently seemed genuine. And epidemic is precisely the word that Malcolm Gladwell uses across The Tipping Point to describe the virality of ideas that catch fire in this or any culture. Indeed, that book more than any other created the meme of the “good” virus, of things “going viral”. It’s not that bank fraud is a new concept – I would venture that everyone reading this knows someone who’s experienced it. But it may be reaching some sort of tipping point.
My banker suggested that part of it is a new technology they’ve been finding in some ATMs that somehow reads the magnet strip of the card without interfering with the transaction in any way. It’s some sort of tiny scanner that they put in the card-reading slot that must be sufficiently transparent to let you proceed with your transaction while still capturing the information in the magnet, which is all the information needed to either recreate the card or use its numbers online. A little device that turns the cash machine into Nindil Jalbuck, doing good and ill at the same time, marching your account down the successive path to a dwindled state.
It doesn’t take much to change things from good to bad, to lead us on to the gradual trail to our own demise. The only thing we have in defense is a righteous vigilance against the weakness and temptations in our own soul, the little things we let ourselves get away with. There’s a little Nindil in all of us and the hard work of trying to try is the only way we can keep the dark side at bay.
The other moral of this story is that you should probably check your bank account status regularly. There have yet to be more bogus charges accrued, but I’m probably going to be obsessively refreshing my bank account page for a while. My banker tried to tell me to avoid dubious ATMs on the road (”always find a Wells Fargo if you can”), but also admitted that they’ve found these devices in WF ATMs, so that hardly seems like a fix.
If you’re looking for another moral, it might be to play Lords of Waterdeep. It’s really fun.
Everything’s just a little more intense in New Mexico. The colors are a little bit brighter, the emotions run a little bit higher, the sounds resonate a little bit louder, the smells waft a little bit stronger. You may think that it’s just that I have a special attachment to this region, which is true, but part of the reason this was the place that drew my parents to stop wandering and so many others to conclude the land was charged with spiritual enchantment is just what I’m talking about. You might say the dials in New Mexico go up to 11 and, indeed, only to 11. There is very little off in this state.
It’s the most poignant time for me in New Mexico, namely Christmas Eve, the day of luminarias. I’ve explained luminarias sufficiently in prior years and prior posts to not revisit the topic in depth (click any recent December in the archive for a host of pictures and such). And as much as I fought the initial selection of this house and the departure from 12th Street, I am deeply grateful to have the opportunity to do a display each year that thousands of people see as part of the most visited luminaria display in the world. (There probably aren’t many in the world outside of Albuquerque, but I hear tell there are a few.) My friends, especially those with birthplaces or kindergarten enrollments in this state, chide my enthusiasm for sanded candled bags, but there’s no dedication like the passion of the converted. And given my reaction to the Ganga Aarti of floating candles in Varanasi, it may be that the closest I find to the physical manifestation of God is a series of countless lit candles in a wide expanse.
Of course, I do count my bags and candles, well, religiously, each year. There are currently 693 candled bags ready to go, over 200 of which have already been placed on the roof in one of the most extensive roof displays I’ve ever attempted. I say “attempted” in part because winds are expected to gust a bit this afternoon, and aside from rain, wind is the biggest enemy of the successful lighting of lumis. Indeed, I will have to post the actual figure later for posterity since I may end up getting ambitious and adding a few late luminarias and it’s also possible that there will be enough of a wipeout that all 693 don’t get used. For context, the last three years I’ve been here have been my three largest displays, with 620 in 2008, a record 772 in 2010, and 610 last year. I spent Christmas Eve 2009 in Clovis and did a small display for the Garin clan as we’d discussed doing for many years in a row.
And while I’m posting numbers of various sorts, it should be noted now and forever that the length of the fabled Luminaria Stick is almost exactly fifteen inches. This is the measuring stick, a wooden piece of discarded molding, that is hauled out annually to ensure proper spacing. Almost every year, there is a brief intense discussion and a flurry of panic in the household about the location of the stick, if it’s been lost, if someone accidentally burned it, and promises to measure the darn thing to lower the stakes of a possible loss in the future. I was pretty confident it was fifteen inches when we had this year’s extended version of this little drama, and it turns out that was the result of at least some hurried measurement in a prior December. In any case, we’d outsmarted ourselves last Christmas by packing it in a Christmas box that was sure to be opened well before the 24th, only to postpone decorating this year till the 23rd and incite the most complete resignation to the Stick being lost yet, right before we found it.
This year the roof was done with a 16.5 inch stick while we were certain that The Stick was lost, but honestly that might be better given the optics of distance and how one’s mind will envision further things as more tightly spaced than closer.
And now, as I finish my coffee, I must away to my most sacred task of the year. I was joking with my father yesterday that I would awaken this morning and bound out of bed like it was Christmas morning, only to note the mild irony of that sentiment. Luminarias are my Christmas, though. Would that we could all replace the commercialism and sensationalism of the season with a simple offering of light along the path of the weary wanderer.
See you out there.
It’s really hard to tell whether there’s an actual crisis underway in the US federal government over sequestration. The original title of this post was going to be “Sequestration Now!” and it was going to be written as many as five months ago at various points in history. History cannot be undone, any more than money can be unspent or elections can be unwon. We have the government we have and most of us had about as much choice over that as we did about whether our neighbor bought a gun, about whether they or anyone else we know chose to use it. For all our talk about freedom in this country, a world of seven-billion does not afford us much actual discretion over how our lives go.
There is not a lot of discretion used in the so-called discretionary spending of the federal budget. Of the $1.277 trillion ($1,277,000,000,000.00) spent by this entity each year, $712 billion ($712,000,000,000.00), or 56%, is spent on “defense”. Defense being one of those euphemisms like “pro-choice” (there’s that choice issue again), “pro-life”, or even “fiscal cliff” being used to refer to the edge of something that would probably be great for America. In our language, we are so accustomed to embedding a viewpoint that we don’t even think of it cognitively anymore. We merely accept the nature of our slanted universe and try to amble awkwardly toward our destination without getting seasick. No wonder so many people choose to rebel against the order without words. They seem corrupted before we begin.
Given that there’s already a 56-44 split in discretionary spending toward guns and bombs, it actually seems rather unfair that only 50% of the sequestration cuts would be made toward defense. The cuts themselves are a mere 9% of the total budget, hardly a drastic reduction for a private spender to contemplate amidst a financial collapse. And despite the fact that they would heighten the split advantage for attacking people, I’m still in favor of the cuts going forward. Some reduction in death is probably favorable to no reduction in death, or so the media seems to represent that people believe these days.
The nature of the fiscal cliff and the allegedly radical sequestration cuts that were proposed to force compromise are reminiscent of what a parent does to an unruly child. If you can’t get along with each other, then both of you will lose something you dearly want. One could argue the cuts don’t go far enough, that all of the dessert should be taken away, at least for a while, but I suppose 9% is about as much as one could hope to take from those who have everything. It remains to be seen whether even this sort of third-grade punishment will work on a Congress so detached from the realities of everyday America that their approval rating is competitive with the percentage of those cuts they’re trying to impose on themselves. Maybe they should try grounding themselves next. It’s hard to take cuts seriously when your first stop after budget negotiations is a foreign island or a Swiss ski resort. After all, only the little people pay taxes, which is why we’re facing this kind of precipice in the first place. Cuts to other people’s livelihoods, salaries, and programs must still feel rather remote compared to the bottom-line of the account safely secured in the Caymans or Delaware.
Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that sequestration would have a significant impact on the American psyche, if not the actual numbers. Everything is always supposed to grow in this country, under this economic regime, making any sort of cut feel like a direct personal insult to our individual sense of entitlement. The notions of being responsible, of restraint, of imposing restrictions on oneself and then following them has very little to do with the American Dream. We’re supposed to be bigger, better, stronger, more reckless and ruthless. Tithing to the god of fiscal responsibility is a dramatic step back from such lofty goals. It might force people to recognize that zero-growth is the future, that living within our means is the metaphor for the twenty-first century, if there is to be a full century. It offers some hope that the only voluntary cuts we make will not be in the classroom and will not originate from the barrel of a gun.
No, it will not result in a change in elections. The approval rating of Americans for their Congress peaked at 21% in 2012, right before they elected 90% of incumbents who were running to return to their jobs in Congress. This is not cognitive dissonance so much as proof that the system is rigged to offer no choice, no discretion, no option for real or lasting change. There’s gerrymandering, the two-party system, cynicism and entrenchment, corporate sponsorship, the desire to vote for a winner, and a whole host of issues I rail about here from time to time. In sum, calling our elections a democracy is not, at this point, all that different than calling Mubarak’s Egypt a democracy. Elections are held, people vote, their votes are tallied, and none of this in any way resembles a process by which individual preferences would create some sort of government. The way an objective history or even a contemporary outside perspective would describe the status of the American experiment is so radically different from the way we see ourselves that it may actually defy gravity. Self-awareness is not really a featured highlight in American exceptionalism. It’s not something we compliment in our daily culture. We find the delusion of grandeur lovably entrepreneurial, while knowing one’s limits is somewhat trashy and banal. This is the culture that created the reality TV star while shunning those who urge caution and honesty.
A fitting mascot for the US’ current trajectory, in the context of the world, might be Don Quixote. But someone made the mistake of arming Quixote with nuclear weapons, armored vehicles, and the world’s largest military budget to throw at those windmills. The windmills are no more of a threat than whatever the US is fighting, but down they go all the same. It seems to be a time for attacking those most vulnerable, those least likely to pose a threat.
And I’m not really referring to the shooter in Connecticut who opened fire on an elementary school, though of course I’m referencing it indirectly. At least 176 children have been killed by drones alone in Pakistan alone since 2004. Is there a reason we find this less horrific than what happened in Sandy Hook? There’s racism, I suppose, since most of the Connecticut kids were white. There’s nationalism, for sure, since they were all Americans and most of us can’t place Pakistan on a map or name one fact about it other than some vague notion of it being Muslim and therefore an enemy. Religious prejudice then, too. And I guess some sort of institutional versus individual distinction. If one person comes up with the idea for slaughtering a school full of children, we’re horrified, as long as that person doesn’t serve in some sort of official role with the government or its “defense” wing. Slap a uniform on Adam Lanza and he becomes a real American hero.
Oh, I know, you’re saying there’s an intentionality issue too. Lanza meant to kill kids, while Obama only means to kill those that would somehow kill us. But doesn’t that miss the point? Isn’t it actually kind of worse to just happen to slaughter 200 children as a byproduct of some goal you assure us is lofty than to intentionally kill 20 of them? I’m not defending the shooter any more than I would defend any committer of violence, but if we’re making a comparative argument, at least he did precisely the damage he intended, which sort of recognizes a certain dignity to human life, however much he violated it. America is so indifferent to the wake of its damage that it assures us that 176 children couldn’t possibly matter, since they aren’t citizens of our country. We think, like imposing the fiscal cliff on ourselves, that grossly disproportionate response is the only response, which is how we justify causing hundreds of 9/11’s in other nations in response to the one we experienced.
The problem, in part, is that the US doesn’t know who its enemies are. We assume that they must live in foreign mountains, must sail from ports abroad. They are the expendable children we can send robots to exterminate before they even know that danger is pending. No time to hide or huddle or seek an adult for comfort before their body parts are scattered to the four winds. We do this. Our tax dollars. Your flag that you stand and salute represents the maiming and killing of hundreds of children. This is your contribution to the world.
And for what? So that we can tote our guns and feel superior. We are the best people in the world, we who turn the gun on ourselves. We are our own worst enemy, our only enemy, somehow, the only one who truly means us harm. It is our own children who grow up to pose the threat to America. And in some twisted self-referential vortex, maybe Adam Lanza knew that and took the drone strikes home to our own children, decided to be the robot and short-circuit the cycle against a future enemy within. And before you click the red X at the sickness of what I’m suggesting, you should know that I’m not defending or justifying his acts of “national defense”. That’s the whole point. There is no defense of this defense. There is only offense and offensiveness and horror. This is the end result of chasing enemies with firearms and firepower, of looking for the threats and wiping them out.
Life is a threat. Existence implies an end to that run. Chase the enemy long enough and you’ll shoot the mirror. The only one responsible for your own mortality is you, because you were born.
If Adam Lanza had been sitting in an Air Force office in Nevada and pressed a button that dropped a bomb on a Pakistani elementary school, killing 28, you would salute him in the airport as you both flew home to see your families. You would thank him for defending you against those horrible brown people who must be posing some sort of threat. You would honor and revere him, so grateful that he did what he did.
We are the bad guy. We are the world’s bogeyman. We are the ones who make it bad in the name of good.
Only when we stop being everyone else’s enemy can we begin to consider no longer being our own.