Sep 17

Diary of a Mariners Fan, Circa September 2014

I wear a Mariners jacket frequently in the cold cold poker rooms I’ve been trying to turn into my office of late. Sometimes I wear a matching hat that attests to my fandom. When I was nearing the money-bubble of the tournament I wound up winning last month in Biloxi, Alex and I were admiring custom card-protectors that an independent vendor was selling. We decided to get a Mariners one if I cashed. But then Alex snuck off and got me the M’s one anyway and plopped it on my table for good luck. Worked pretty well. Now I bring it with me everywhere, even though I’ve now had a bad week that’s starting to make me question the whole project as only poker slumps can so routinely do.

With all this adornment and living in Louisiana now, I frequently get mistaken for a tourist from the northwest. Maybe I always have been, in a way, though my sense of home is receding more and more every day having now added another major region of the US to my list of lived locales. An Atlanta tourist on my left yesterday asked if I lived here and I said I just moved and he said I bet I can say from where and I said you’d be wrong. I’ve actually never lived in Seattle, never been there for more than a week at a stretch, if even that. Probably four days is my longest consecutive stint. People can’t really imagine what someone who hadn’t lived there would be doing with all this Mariners gear, though my interest was of course initially local. I explain “I lived in Oregon when I was growing up and got into sports.” And then people often ask about what it was like to be in Oregon in my teens or twenties and by the time I get to the Bay Area or Jersey on my corrective list, their eyes are glazed from all the movement.

People want to relate to people in a poker room, make a connection. The practice can be almost as solitary as writing sometimes, the struggles with one’s own discipline just as intense. Other people help as a distraction or a buffer, a way of making the idea of sitting at a table with strangers and trying to take their money more pleasant and palatable. And so many people in New Orleans are tourists and hoping to say that they know what your hometown is like too, that they have a past experience that connects with yours. But unless they are Cubs fans, they probably don’t, at least not when it comes to my jacket and card-protector.

In 2001, weeks after September 11th, I holed up with one of my best friends, a Yankees fan (Russ), to watch Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The Mariners were down 2-1 but had just crushed the Evil Empire 14-3. It wasn’t totally PC to call the team the Evil Empire in the wake of them losing the city’s two tallest buildings the month prior. But after setting an American League record for wins (116) that season after consecutively losing Hall-of-Fame-caliber super-stars Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson in three straight seasons, it seemed like the M’s had finally found a way to outwit the perennial favorites, who were sitting on a paltry 95 wins by comparison. The matchup pitted Paul Abbott against Roger Clemens, the back-burners of the rotation for each team that year despite Clemens’ reputation.

The game was a nail-biter to end all nail-biters. Both pitchers escaped danger, gave way to bullpens that did the same. No one scored till the 8th. The M’s scratched a run, Bret Boone belting a homer, Russ threw something, and with the Mariners bullpen that year, it looked like we were bound to tie the series in Yankee Stadium and shades of 1995 were coming back. In 1995, the first year the M’s ever made the playoffs, they lost the first two games of a series with the Yankees only to win 3 in a row, including an 11th inning comeback in the decisive Game 5. Dropping the first two to the Yankees, even at home, was nothing.

And then, at the start of the bottom of the 8th, Lou Piniella went to the bullpen. I couldn’t believe that he was touching his left arm. A smile started to curl on the side of Russ’ face. He was going to get Arthur Rhodes to pitch the 8th.

I love Arthur Rhodes. He’s one of my favorite Mariners of all-time. But that year, he was struggling mightily down the stretch. You could just tell something was wrong with him, every fan could see it. It was the weight of the series with the Yankees or the magnitude of events unfolding in the country that had pushed the ALCS back to October 21st. It was the cold. It was something. And everyone involved with the Mariners knew there was a problem, except for dear Sweet Lou. He blithely stood by his veteran lefty and let the chips fall where they may.

The chips fell in the outfield seats. Bernie Williams clocked a 3-2 pitch out of the Stadium and my yelling at the television since Rhodes had been brought in died down. There was nothing to do anymore but watch.

By the time Kaz Sasaki, record-setter that year for saves by a Mariner, gave up a home-run to Alfonso Soriano, it seemed like I had known the script the whole time. From the moment Lou tapped his left arm or maybe even from the 116th win or maybe from the time the towers fell. This was a Yankees year. You can’t fight destiny. I silently departed Russ’ dorm and he silently let me go, both of us knowing that had the outcome been the opposite we would have been screaming at each other. He’s a sore loser; I’m a sore winner. We are both quiet and contemplative the other way, him seeing winning as his natural state and me the opposite. A lifetime of rooting for baseball franchises with these outcomes.

Game 5 in the series was a formality. The Yankees scored 4 in the 3rd and won by 9. The Mariners have not played a playoff game since.

October 22, 2001.

Two nights ago, I watched the Angels put that kind of a beat-down on Seattle. I made myself watch every inning, every pitch, even when we were down 5-0 early, then 7-0, then 8-0. An 8-1 loss. The M’s are chasing Kansas City for the second wild-card and Oakland for the first wild-card and sort of Detroit, who is winning the AL Central, in case they drop into the wild card. Oakland was off, but Detroit broke a 6-6 tie with 2 in the 9th and won. Kansas City was down 3-0 for most of the game and down 3-2 in the ninth when they used a wild pitch and an infield single to beat the Minnesota closer and win. After spending all summer tempting fans into believing that this could be the year that 13 years of suffering and the memory of Arthur Rhodes end, it looked like one bad night in mid-September was gonna wreck it.

And then there was yesterday.

Yesterday, the M’s were down 2-0 and unable to get any runs. They were getting shut down by another middling starter as they so often do, the bats just refusing to connect with the ball, Seattle looking lost and frustrated. I was deciding how much longer I could watch this series in Anaheim, a matchup with baseball’s best team this year, a series the Mariners desperately need to win if they are to stay in the race. And then, the Angels somewhat inexplicably pulled their pitcher.

It was only the 5th inning.

Walk. Hit by a pitch on an 0-2 count. Bunt that was initially ruled safe at first but overturned on replay. Double, 2-2. Double, 3-2. Pitching change. Strikeout. Double, 4-2. Intentional walk. Groundout.

Okay! This we can work with. The M’s new pitcher, a replacement for Roenis Elias, who had gone down with an injury (because why not?), went 1-2-3 in the bottom of the 5th. Hoping for a little insurance in the 6th…

Single. Double. Single, 5-2. Hit by pitch. Fly out. Single, 6-2. Pitching change. Sacrifice fly, 7-2. Single and a misfired throw to third, 9-2. Single, 10-2. Pitching change. Double. Lineout.

10-2. Holy cow.

The Mariners won 13-2.

Kansas City lost. Oakland lost. Detroit lost.

And suddenly, the Mariners were 1 game out of one playoff spot, 2 games out of a better one, and had remembered how to bat.

That was last night. There are twelve games left in the season.

The Yankees will not be making the playoffs this year. Their biggest star from last year is now a Mariner, though Ichiro Suzuki is still a Yankee. The Mariners have five more games against the best team in baseball. Who they just beat, 13-2. Who fatefully collapsed in 1995 to save baseball in Seattle, leading to the playoffs and the ALCS and eventually blowing up the Kingdome.

Twelve games to decide the fate of thirteen years. Even if the playoffs now can just be one game. A one-game wild card “series” to determine who has the right to play for some real October baseball. Twelve games.

All I can do for now is grab the card-protector, put on the jacket, play my best, and be home for gametime. 9:10 Central. Let’s go M’s.

I know this is stressful, Roenis.  The runs are coming.

I know this is stressful, Roenis. The runs are coming.

Sep 16

US Announces Airstrikes to Target Ebola

ARLINGTON, Va. — Speaking at a press conference today at the Pentagon, President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a comprehensive plan to “degrade and eventually destroy ebola” through the use of targeted airstrikes.

Citing ebola’s willingness to kill indiscriminately and even target children, the very old, and the very weak, Obama and Hagel were unflinching in their insistence that ebola must be eradicated. “We cannot erase every trace of ebola from the world,” Obama admitted, “That’s why we must remain vigilant as threats emerge.”

The plan will involve airstrikes on the nations hardest hit by the recent most deadly outbreak of ebola, including Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria. Airstrikes will target those currently with ebola, though those near them will also be impacted. Hagel noted in his statement that those nearby are likely to be infected anyway, so their deaths would be inevitable. “Those currently not suffering from ebola may soon become sympathetic to ebola,” he elaborated. “We must strike this disease at the root if we are to eradicate it.

“Even now, some Americans are infected with the deadly scourge of ebola,” Hagel went on. “They hold American passports. All they need do is get on a plane and they can bring ebola to our homeland’s shores. We must wipe them out before this is allowed to occur.”

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one White House aide admitted that the cost of the air campaign will exceed $100 billion and there are, as yet, no appropriations set aside for this spending. When questioned about this, Hagel retorted that “We cannot put a price on freedom. And make no mistake, ebola hates freedom. It destroys your organs, making you unable to move.”

A predator drone off the coast of Liberia launches an initial missile into an ebola-infected village.

A predator drone off the coast of Liberia launches an initial missile into an ebola-infected village.

Obama was quick to observe that this is not merely an African epidemic. “If left unchecked, this disease could pose a growing threat beyond that region — including to the United States,” he said.

Republicans were quick to criticize Obama’s plan as falling short of the decisive action necessary to deal with ebola. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell questioned the plan to only kill Liberians currently carrying the virus. “Shouldn’t we have a more comprehensive strategy to destroy the entire country?” he asked in a response statement issued following the President’s press conference. “After all, those in Liberia without ebola could someday get it. And then they will hate freedom. I question whether the President truly cares about homeland security.”

The rapid emergence of ebola has taken the country by storm, terrorizing Americans everywhere and capturing the nation’s horrified imagination. Shortly after the announcement, a poll showed that 94% of Americans favor the strikes to kill every man, woman, and child with ebola, and 55% say they do too little to stem the disease’s inexorable spread.

Obama promised that America would not be the only nation striking at those with ebola, noting that Somalia and North Korea had both pledged to send missiles for the war effort and that Myanmar was considering joining the fight as well.

Concluding his remarks, Obama noted that this mission would not be without danger to Americans abroad. “Now, it will take time to eradicate a cancer like ebola. And any time we take military action, there are risks involved — especially to the servicemen and women who carry out these missions. But I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil. This campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out ebola wherever it exists, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground.”

Sep 11

Revolving War

“And our own safety — our own security — depends upon our willingness to do what it takes to defend this nation, and uphold the values that we stand for — timeless ideals that will endure long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”
-President Barack Obama, 10 September 2014

Obama, last night, with the flag of the eagle.  Please note that the arrows are all visible, while the olive branches are neatly tucked away.  Everything is just as carefully crafted as this flag to make you support endless war!

Obama, last night, with the flag of the eagle. Please note that the arrows are all visible, while the olive branches are neatly tucked away. Everything is just as carefully crafted as this flag to make you support endless war!

Last night, Barack Obama finally made me fully proud and vindicated that I did not vote for him in 2008. Yes, there have endless disappointments with his presidency and I’ve been glad that I didn’t give, say, his mandates a mandate, or the drone strikes my support. He is about as progressive as Reagan on most issues and has done a great job of cementing the political “divide” in this country between the right-center and the far-right, all the while making it look like some sort of actual historical left vs. right battle. Trust me, there’s been almost nothing I’ve been able to point to about his presidency and say “Yeah, I’m down with that.”

But last night he cemented himself as exactly what he’s been leaning toward all this time, George W. Bush II. The policy of endless war, revolving war, war without end or hope of end as the American Empire continues to try to prove itself to the world was reinvigorated. After years of winding down failed wars in failed states abroad, Obama finally found the war that he was willing to start, officially, after carrying on secret ongoing murder-raids for the duration of his six years in office. He took to the national airwaves on September 10th to make a Bush-like case for a war that will outlast his presidency so that we can ensure that every President comes into office a horse in midstream, a warrior with the same war to keep fighting. It’s always the same war.

Last time, it took an unprecedented terrorist attack on American soil to prompt the regeneration of war-without-end. Yes, there was a lot of fearmongering and sleight-of-hand to include Iraq in the war cycle, but both Afghanistan and Iraq were fundamentally prompted by 9/11. And whoever actually carried out 9/11, at least most people were convinced that it was people who were somehow associated with the countries that we were demolishing by air, land, and sea, so that seemed like a reasonable response.

This time, it’s two dead. Two. ISIS killed two Americans, albeit brutally and publicly, and they get the endless war treatment.

I look forward to the time when an American exchange student visiting a foreign country gets poked on the playground and the President takes to the airwaves next day to announce that all of the poker’s countrymen will die.

Look, I understand that the beheadings were shocking and appalling. We just went over this yesterday, how violence seen is infinitely more horrific than violence unseen. I am not defending beheadings, any more than I defend any violence at all by anyone. It’s all wrong and it’s all abhorrent. But, as I’ve discussed before, we created ISIS. The invasion of Iraq single-handedly created this organization and all of its nefarious deeds. To my surprise, the entire US mainstream media agrees with this assessment. Everyone understands this. And yet, when confronted with the exact same decision and the exact same mistake, no one seems to think it’s a good time to pause and wonder what new monster we might be creating by attacking this one.

It’s almost like there’s an ancient Greek myth we could turn to about a monster that kept getting stronger and regenerating no matter how much you attacked it. And as I explained, it’s not because the “monster” is innately monstrous, but mostly because it’s mourning all the family that the US killed last time and the time before that. Killing people makes their relatives angry. Then they want to kill. Repeat ad infinitum.

Why was the speech on September 10th? So that all the assessments and feedback about it could carry the date this post does: September 11th. Because we are a nation so in love with our own PTSD about the one day we were vulnerable in the last sixty years that we are committed to punishing the rest of the world for our suffering forever.

There were three absolutely shocking moments in the speech itself, which I watched live, that really shouldn’t shock me at all. But I watch little enough mainstream media news that it kind of floored me that Presidents can get away with this kind of hubris and be lauded by even people from their “opposite” party directly thereafter. But this is the Cowardly New World we live in.

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”

I almost choked when I heard this line. These secret wars, conducted throughout the Obama Presidency, are something that brought denial and refusal to comment for most of that term. These operations consist of the “kill list,” where Obama decides personally who should be assassinated in foreign countries through undeclared wars, obliterated from the air, often taking families, friends, neighbors, and strangers with them. There is no evidence that there is anything resembling “success” to this strategy. Somalia remains an anarchic failed state and both Somalia and Yemen remain hotbeds of people who hate the United States, most often because they live in a country constantly perused and bombed by anonymous unmanned killer planes from said nation. And yet we are expected to hold up these operations, which the administration denied for years, as models. It’s like if Nixon had held onto the presidency after Watergate, invaded Cuba, and touted our secret war in Cambodia as the example of successful action that proved this war would be unlike, uh, Vietnam.

“My fellow Americans, we live in a time of great change. Tomorrow marks 13 years since our country was attacked. Next week marks 6 years since our economy suffered its worst setback since the Great Depression.”

Using the “change” line here for any actual progressives still listening to this speech was such a low blow that I still feel like I’m physically recovering. I wasn’t on the front-lines of supporting Obama, didn’t even vote for him, but I sure understood the fervor and excitement he generated. I wanted to believe in it, even though I knew better. I got swept up at times, the person citing visionaries and progressives of the past, saying that we didn’t have to wait any longer because we were the people we had been waiting for. It was contagious and infectious. And just because I didn’t get the full-blown disease, I was sick enough with the fever to get my hopes up.

Here’s the thing that’s so insidious: there is no change at all in any of Obama’s actions. The things he cites, 9/11 and the Great Recession, existed before he took office. This is not change we can believe in or the change he was going to bring. This is regressive, retrograde, W. Bush stuff. Saying “Gee guys, did you know there were some planes in the towers a while back” and bailing out the banks were the last administration, the last war. The people who put Obama in office did so to get away from that kind of rhetoric, they believed there was a change from these kind of citations coming. But there is no change. There is the exact same policy and the exact same approach. We can quibble about whose boots are on what ground when, but the policy of war-without-end, bomb-em-all, let’s start a fight in Iraq, guys, is the exact same thing we’ve seen for most of my lifetime. This is the fourth straight President of the United States who announced to the country that what it most needs to do for “peace and security” is to drop explosives on the people of Iraq.

And we keep lapping it up. Every one of those campaigns has met with majority approval at the time of announcement. Every one of those campaigns has been a disaster for the US, let alone the long-suffering and infinitely war-torn people of Iraq. Do you think it’s a coincidence that every time we bomb Iraq, the enemy is more ferocious and angry than the last time? Do I have to walk you down the “Red Dawn” thought-experiment about if your nation had been bombed to oblivion by the same blunt idiotic foreign superpower for a quarter-century? Are we really this stupid?

Really?

“We cannot erase every trace of evil from the world, and small groups of killers have the capacity to do great harm.”

“…long after those who offer only hate and destruction have been vanquished from the Earth.”

At the outset, when he’s trying to be reasonable and build the case slowly, Obama recognizes the fundamental truth that I’ve been trying to express in different ways on this blog for years. You can’t just kill everyone who disagrees with you. That is not a successful strategy. The lesson of the arcade game whack-a-mole is that there are always more moles that will pop up and maybe, just maybe, the moles keep fighting you because you keep bashing their friends over the head. But by the end, it’s the old lie and the old myth. Our strategy is to vanquish. The American Empire subsists on the lie that we can bomb everyone and everything into submission, that if we just kill enough “enemies,” eventually everyone will agree with us. Even when in the same 15-minute speech, Obama acknowledges that we cannot do this. The failure is built right into the recipe. He’s telling you that this doesn’t work.

But he’s also telling you it will never end. He’s telling you that the policy is that small groups of killers will always exist and we will always fear them and always attack them. That the official stance of the United States of America in the world is that it must always be conducting these kinds of wars against anyone who harbors ill will toward the country. This is a game that has no end. There is no exit strategy, no strategy at all other than to play whack-a-mole forever while people commit themselves to a state that scares them and the industries and machineries of war make select Americans rich and the victim nations poor. Winning isn’t even the objective. As soon as we “destroy ISIL,” we’ll have new and scarier enemies to target.

In my teenage years, I used to lament that I’d been born thirty years too late, that the great moment of pacifist activism in the US had passed and that I’d missed out on the opportunity to show the ills of war to this country. Now, I just lament that we have been so fully manipulated and that the military-industrial complex has so thoroughly consolidated its power and abilities that the idea of protest or disagreement is somewhere between passe and ridiculed. I remember how depressed I was going into work in 2003 on the day that we invaded Iraq, how my boss told me the war would be over soon. The war will never be over, as long as this country persists with these kinds of policies. We will kill and kill and kill and enact the very horrors on other people that we so fear for ourselves, all in the name of safety.

We are, for a long time now, become our enemy. It’s almost like we’re all in it together. Do you think, for one second, that ISIS beheaded those journalists and thought the US would react in any way other than exactly as it has? If not, please explain why you think they conducted those actions. Your only viable alternatives are the American exceptionalism to believe that we do things for reasons, but all other people are barbaric animals who just act on impulse and instinct for no reason (discussed earlier) or that they are the most naive and stupid people ever to live on the planet. ISIS wants this war even more than Obama. They know it will be just as successful for the US as the last one and just as galvanizing to their cause.

The war is what ISIS wants. You think that attacking ISIS, that bombing Iraq is fighting ISIS. It is working with ISIS. It is doing exactly what they were trying to get us to do.

There is this section of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I just finished, where the narrator struggles with the phrase “fighting with” and how sometimes that means fighting against and sometimes it means fighting alongside. And how context in language makes that same phrase useful for both purposes and that people seem to get the author’s meaning regardless. And how much of a struggle that makes for her in her efforts to be clear, which is pretty much the struggle of the whole book.

But it’s the perfect illustration for us today. We are fighting with ISIS. Both/and. Both meanings. By fighting against ISIS, we are supporting their goals and objectives and fighting on their side. Forever and ever, amen.

Sep 10

(Seeing) Violence is Shocking

Another Rutgers Rice is in the news for committing violence on camera, getting lightly punished, having the video leaked, and then getting the book thrown at him.  Left: Ray; Right: Mike

Another Rutgers Rice is in the news for committing violence on camera, getting lightly punished, having the video leaked, and then getting the book thrown at him. Left: Ray; Right: Mike

By now most of you have heard about Ray Rice, formerly of Rutgers, most recently of the Baltimore Ravens, being fired by the Ravens for punching his now wife, then fiancee, in an elevator. Or, more aptly, he was fired for the outcry created by this incident being caught on film and released to the public. When people saw him throw the punch that landed his fiancee unconscious, suddenly the vague words “domestic violence” became something unconscionable and the Ravens and NFL, both of whom had previously defended and knuckle-rapped Rice had to destroy him.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because it so eerily parallels the Mike Rice (former basketball coach at Rutgers) situation, it’s uncanny. He chucked basketballs at his players, not his love interest, and none were quite knocked out, but all this was no biggie till the film hit the press and then everyone was outraged. The parallels run especially deep when we look at how top administrators deal with the idea that they had/had not seen the video and what that means for their accountability for the whole situation. Rutgers President Robert Barchi went as far as the rather far-fetched notion that he’d had the video of Rice hurling balls and obscenities at his team sitting around his office but hadn’t bothered to take a gander. The Commissioner of the NFL and the leaders of the Ravens are now making more or less the same claim, though theirs is slightly more plausible since some trashy tabloid held the rights to this video not, uh, the team/league itself.

The Onion got near-universal acclaim on Facebook and elsewhere for skewering this whole incident with its article entitled NFL Announces New Zero-Tolerance Policy On Videotaped Domestic Violence. As is par for The Onion, the title is the most amusing part of the piece and basically all you need to know. The idea here being that as long as you can avoid the videotape, things are hunky-dory, but as soon as the tape gets out, forget it.

While there is certainly some hypocrisy in the idea of punishing people harshly only once they’ve been publicly viewed by all and sundry doing whatever dastardly thing they were already known to have done, the fact that it happens is less about hypocrisy than we might think. Or perhaps it’s about a larger hypocrisy that we enact society-wide.

You see, violence is pretty shocking.

And seeing it is really the only way, short of, say, feeling it, to understand that.

When we actually see violence in front of us, be it a bombing or a beating or an attack or a chucked basketball or 9/11, we are immediately repelled by it. It fills us with disgust, rage, revulsion. This, I would contend, is because violence is antithetical to everything humanity is working toward. It is innately repugnant in all its forms and this is self-evident as soon as it’s displayed to us.

Unfortunately, as visual and rather concrete creatures, we have a really hard time abstracting this to violence we don’t see. Like, say, domestic violence that is not leaked to us publicly by a trashy tabloid. Or, perhaps, every American bombing of foreign countries ever. This violence is perfectly acceptable to us, or at worst a little unfortunate, precisely because we do not have to deal with it. It is not in our face or even close to our face. It is merely an ethereal concept that can be described with the anesthetic “domestic violence” or “collateral damage”. These offer us nothing of the visceral horror that grainy tape of someone being pummeled can offer.

Don’t believe me? Let’s look at Rodney King, not unique among African-American men targeted unfairly and demolished by police officers in the United States. But uniquely caught on film and thus bringing a whole generation of outrage to the question of police beatings, racist cops, and injustice in America. Or perhaps you prefer the imagery of the planes hitting the World Trade Center, over and over and over again. You think it’s a coincidence that the American media offered you that spectacle approximately 12 times a minute for weeks after 9/11 but never once showed the results of American killings abroad? Violence has an immediate and powerful effect on us. We feel sympathy for the victim and rage at the perpetrator(s). And thus what we see is ultimately what we get. What we don’t see is hard to understand and can be dealt with more esoterically.

I don’t think it’s a mystery which of these is a better reaction for us to have. The fact that those who saw the Rodney King beating or Mike Rice or Ray Rice immediately knew that what was being done was wrong and should be stopped and dealt with harshly is probably a good indicator that these sorts of things are wrong, regardless of whether they happen publicly. And thus it would seem that a key tool for civil society would be ensuring that those who are subjected to violence have a chance of being filmed so that their perpetrators can be publicized and their misdeeds judged on their actual merits.

Increasingly in our society, this isn’t really becoming a debated proposition. It’s here and it’s live. Certainly the last few months have informed everyone that every elevator in the country, seemingly one of the most enclosed and vulnerable locations imaginable, is being taped constantly. Pretty much every business on the planet has a near-infinite number of cameras catching every angle, door, corner, and hallway. Police cameras are up on many corners in many cities. And every person over the age of 11 is walking around with a highly sophisticated video camera in their pocket, ready to use at a moment’s notice.

Now I know that for three generations of Americans raised on Orwell’s predictions, the idea of the perma-telescreen is scary. And I get it. And there are some very compelling arguments in The Circle, a fantastic recent book, for why we should be cautious about some of these developments. But I’m sorry, this is another great point for the death of privacy. As always, my primary caveat is that there has to be a level playing-field of information and that there cannot be information asymmetry. If we have universal video where the elites, the rich, the corporations, and/or the politicians are both immune and have greater access, then it’s trouble. But the reason it’s trouble is for the asymmetry, not for the information itself. Because that information is stuff that can both illustrate the real horrors of violence as it is enacted and, by extension, deter it better than a million threats of incarceration.

I’ll give you a thought experiment here and one that should probably come with a trigger-warning for those who like that sort of thing: Think about how hard it is to convict rape cases in status quo and how many people brush off rape allegations like so many gnats. Universities especially, as has been widely publicized in the last couple of years. Now imagine that one had video footage of a rape in progress. Surely the few efforts to depict something like this on film in a fictional setting have garnered some of the greatest terror, outrage, and bleakness of anything ever committed to film. The idea that the depiction is real and not fictitious would be transcendentally horrifying. Suddenly, it’s hard to imagine anyone using the vague and demeaning language so often thrown at rape victims in the wake of having to witness their violation on screen. And while the idea of publicizing such footage is itself a difficult ordeal for the rape victim in question, it does seem like it would make justice far more likely and, in turn, increase deterrence against this most heinous of crimes.

I have to ask again: what is so great about privacy? And even if there are things that we like about privacy, do we really like them enough to come with the baggage of enabling and allowing rape, domestic violence, and abuse by those in power? Again, I stress that if it’s just one group of people getting to watch another and not being watched in turn, that’s highly problematic and everything Orwell rightly warned against. But assuming we get to watch the watchers and everyone is playing each part equally, doesn’t this just make everyone a better person?

If you’re not willing to come with me that far, let’s at least agree that someone needs to start filming the results of American warfare, declared or undeclared, abroad and get that on some US media. There will be the occasional gung-ho nut who cheers for every house falling over and assumes the entire nation of Yemen is populated by terrorists and no one else, but I think the vast majority of people will react sanely and be appalled. Just as America and even the NFL, a sport dedicated to people tackling each other, was not largely defined by a couple fringe sexists who felt that Ray Rice’s actions were acceptable.

Violence needs witnesses to be stopped. Gandhi understood this, King understood this, and they probably would not have been successful were there not witnesses to their victimization. Ideally, we would all abhor it just as much in the abstract as we do in front of us. But realistically, I’d rather take my chances on getting more cameras out there than getting more people to find empathy without their eyes. And here, these men of Rutgers have something to teach us. The cameras are not the enemy so much as what some will do when they think no one is watching.

Sep 9

Unemployment Remains Stable… at Double Reported Figure

Was going to post a longer thing about the nature of cameras and privacy and all the Rices from Rutgers that get rung up by audio-visual equipment, but that’ll keep for now, especially since everyone under the sun has something to say about it. Not least of which is The Onion, whose point that only people who get caught on camera doing things wrong get punished sort of misses the point underscored here, which is that everyone is on camera all the time now and that may not be as bad as everyone wants to think. But more on that later, when I’m not quite as sick or I haven’t made it to 1:30 PM and failed to eat today, especially when sick. Go me.

I took most of the summer off from reporting on unemployment, in part because I just wasn’t in much of a blogging groove in general for most of the last year. So here we are again, revisiting the figures I last posted in April.

At that point in the year, the reporting gap, or the gap between real unemployment and that figure the B(L)S puts out monthly, stood at a record-high 5.87%. Now that figure has hit a record high in both June and August, modestly up to 5.89%.

Here are your graphs:

The red line is real unemployment, accounting for those who have left the labor force.  The blue is the reported figure.

The red line is real unemployment, accounting for those who have left the labor force. The blue is the reported figure.

The gap between real and reported figures.

The gap between real and reported figures.

You know the drill with this by now. Nothing is changing much in terms of unemployment. The public narrative about stagnation of unemployment and the “recovery” is actually right for once. But it’s right at 12%, not 6%. Unemployment currently stands at 11.99%, up from 11.94% in July. That July number is the best it’s been since August 2009, when unemployment was still skyrocketing, which was 11.76%.

But 12% unemployment remains 2% higher than the supposed peak of unemployment in the Great Recession, which was in October 2009 (reported at 10.0%). Unemployment actually peaked 2 months later, at 13.13%. It’s periodically touched 13% a few times since then, most recently last October.

The Reporting Gap (second chart) remains a perfect index of the crazy factor in our current perception of the economy as it affects real people on the ground. And that remains at its peak. And the way we would be publicly treating the economy, jobs, and public policy if it were publicly disseminated that unemployment has been hovering between 12-13% for FIVE YEARS is so radically different than the status quo as to make them different worlds altogether.

You’re not crazy. The jobs are not coming back. Someday, we will change the model of our economy. But for now, it remains ostrich time.

Sep 5

Obliviate

“Had four brothers once upon a time
He said they toured the country far away from the Rio Grande
But the road just wore them down
So they bought a house beside a lake
Outside of New Orleans
And stared in the direction of the escalating sound.”
-Counting Crows, “Cover Up the Sun”

David Foster Wallace tried to write a book about boredom and it killed him. There was some other stuff there in between, including electro-shock, sorry, -convulsive “therapy” and a lifelong understanding that the world has some things that need fixing and may just never get fixed but it’s still important to spend all your energy trying anyway. I’m trying to write a post about memory loss/confusion/destruction and I don’t know where it’s going to go. But I’m probably going to spend a little less time on it that DFW did on The Pale King.

This will either be up today or one of those posts that sits in my pending limbo box for years and greets me every time I log in and reminds me, like everything, of my failings. Actually there’s really only one of those and it’s called “Seven Billion Ghosts” and it’s been sitting in that prime position since Halloween 2011 and it was all based on a false premise, which is why it never got posted. The false premise was that there were more living humans than there had ever been cumulative living humans before and what that meant about the planet and its currently dominant species. But as I was researching the last little bit of it, I discovered that this idea is a common misconception that has been thoroughly debunked and that we probably have something like a hundred billion ancestors haunting our past, depending on exactly what you count as a human.

No wonder people feel pressure to procreate before they die.

There’s this scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, right at the opening, where Hermione, having realized how unsafe her parents are in the wake of a world that contains a resurgent Voldemort, has come to the disturbing decision to wipe out their memories so they can’t give her up or be tortured to death while refusing to do so. She doesn’t have the opportunity cost in time and energy to keep them safe otherwise and the best thing for everyone is for them to just forget they ever had a daughter. The movie rendition of this scene is pitch-perfect, Granger shakily aiming her wand as the four syllables in the spell “Obliviate” echo through a room otherwise illuminated by only the mundanity of a Muggle television. And she vanishes from pictures on the mantle, her image receding into oblivion, and then she turns to go.

Obliviate

There are days, days like yesterday, where I think this would be the best spell for me to cast on the world.

I just finished reading Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in half a decade, maybe ever. I don’t know quite how to grapple with the fact that it’s a book that exists in this world, it hit me like a ton of bricks, almost like a Counting Crows album, which I incidentally bought on Tuesday, when it came out, like always. There’s nothing terribly unique or profound in the book, but like the movie “Boyhood,” it just feels so much more real than a novel. I’ve been reading Wittgenstein’s Mistress too, and that book is trying so damn hard to make you feel like a butterfly dreaming of being a man, but Colorless just does it without trying. At a certain point between all these influences, I can almost squint and believe that I’m not really who I have been all these years, that I don’t really exist the way it’s felt, that this is all kind of a thought experiment or an exercise or just a dress rehearsal. Feeling like one’s on borrowed time always carries that connotation a little bit, but it’s somehow so much stronger when in the midst of artists who seem to be feeling and saying exactly what you’re feeling all the time.

Of course what this really speaks to is the universality of experience because we really do all exist and there is meaning and no matter how hard to see that it becomes, we can’t let go of that reality. There are people, we’ll call them “Chris Baia”s for short, who believe that the world is just shit and it’s stab or be stabbed and you might as well pride yourself on your ability to stab first. And if there’s a reason to keep going, near as I can tell, it’s to prove these people wrong. I don’t believe in evil, but if these people win, I don’t think a nuclear holocaust could wipe us out faster. There is something here. I don’t know if it’s real, I don’t know how much it matters, but it has meaning and purpose and it’s important to value that, somehow, against all odds. “Don’t let the Chris Baias get you down,” a future generation may someday say to each other as they go out to face impossible pain.

This is the first weekend that I’ve not been with the Rutgers University Debate Union for a competitive start to a season in six years and I don’t even know how to process it. The team has been asking me to help with things from afar and I have been pretty remiss about doing it because I feel so guilty and bad for leaving them in the lurch of an administration that seems hell-bent on dismantling everything we built. There seems to be so much of life that makes everything into sandcastles and the inevitability that the next tide will render all your energies and efforts moot. And the only answer I can find for this in a world of mortal fallible idiots is the mandala, some of the most beautiful art in the world, created by Buddhist monks and then deliberately wiped out, wrecked, destroyed, left only to exist in the fleeting hollows of memory.

People fail to do so many things out of the fear of facing themselves and their shortcomings and, mostly, guilt. We all feel so bad for so much we’ve done to other people and it makes us just not want to try or face other people and the longer time goes on, the more things seem to meld together into just one big ball of wrongdoing. And so we don’t contact the old friend, we don’t open up to the next one, we just hunch our shoulders and try to get through a day without feeling pain. And it doesn’t work and it never happens. And it’s easy to say we should just open ourselves up and be vulnerable but that hurts and it’s too hard sometimes, like when we’re sick or busy or hungry or lonely or breathing.

No wonder people get electro-shock-convulsive treatment-therapy willingly sometimes.

I wish them so well, my cherished debate team. I know they will do well against the mounting odds and I will try to help them as best I can in my mired mind about everything. I never was good at drawing boundaries or putting limits on my time.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this post I made before any of that. Before the divorce and the team and I hired Chris Baia and any other countless numbers of mistakes piled up to make me feel like every coinflip I made in those days was disastrous. And yet, and yet, there was last year’s National Final, there was even this tournament in Mississippi just weeks ago, there’s so much that makes me feel like pre-birth I chose to have the most extremes, the highest highs and the lowest lows, just so I could see it all before I go.

Eventually, if you live long enough, and listen, and read, everything just becomes a reference to everything else. And I guess if you live an emotionally charged life whose past you dwell on all the time, you’ll start seeing it in everything and then even the pain of a character or memory of someone else’s becomes your own and eventually it can snowball until you don’t even need to supply your own new experiences at all. I saw a movie last night about a misanthrope’s misanthrope, a classic Woody Allen proxy in a classic Woody Allen movie and halfway through I thought “is that me?” and it reminded me of seeing “Wonder Boys” with Stina in Boston in 1998 and she reassured me that I shouldn’t see myself in the hopeless bumbling of the main character but I still do and I can relate so hard to all our mistakes, hard enough that it almost makes me want to forgive these people who have shaken my mandala so hard. It’s so hard to dance in colored sand and not care about the edges one took so long perfecting.

But it’s what we’re here to do, right? I mean, no one gets out of this world alive.

“I said goodnight, goodbye
Seems like a good thing
So you know it’s a good lie
You can run out of choices
And still here a voice in your head
When you’re lying in bed
And it says that the best part of a bad day
Is knowing it’s okay
The color of everything changes
The sky rearranges its shade
Your smile doesn’t fade
Into a phone call
And one bad decision we made.”
-Counting Crows, “Possibility Days”

Aug 30

Scientists Discover Possible Link Between Tragedy, Sadness

Category: Primary Sources

TUCSON, Ariz. — Researchers at the University of Arizona announced Friday they had discovered a possible link between experiencing tragedy and feeling sadness. The findings, to be published in the October Journal of Health Psychology, offer new insights into treating those with depression and long-term chronic mental illness.

“This discovery is truly revolutionary,” noted Dr. Rachel Eisenstein, who headed the study. “This may be the breakthrough we’ve been looking for in treating the most difficult cases of depression we are facing in our society.”

Eisenstein’s team studied both individuals who had recently experienced direct personal tragedy or trauma as well as conducting related studies which simulated those experiences. In the latter, test subjects were brought in for tests that they were told would examine motor coordination and brain function, but the study was then interrupted by an important phone call for the subject in which they were told that a person close to them had just died.

“We used their emergency contact on the release form,” explained Arjun Karamchand, a PhD candidate in Arizona’s psychology program and one of the interns on the research. “When subjects took the phone call, they were still wired to the brain scanners. All the parts of the brain we associate with sadness just lit up like a Christmas tree as soon as they got the news.”

The Arizona team focused on the cingulate, the part of the brain most closely associated with feelings of sadness and depression. In over 95% of cases, the test subject’s cingulate was highly active during both hearing the purported news of the death of their loved one and immediately afterwards. In many cases, the cingulate remained engorged with blood and highly volatile for the remainder of the test subject’s time in the lab.

“We don’t want to jump to any conclusions just yet,” cautioned Eisenstein, who noted that far more research is needed to discover why this correlation may exist. “As yet, we have no proof for any sort of causal link between the tragedy and the feeling of sadness as indicated by increased activity in the cingulate. In fact, we suspect that the sadness may actually be causing the tragedy itself.”

If that is indeed the case, research may be needed into how to rebalance cingulate activity in order to prevent tragedies and save lives. “Every day, people are walking around with engorged cingulates and increased brain activity,” said Karmchand. “This is not only saddening these people, but may actually be endangering the lives of those around them.”

Further studies are planned to explore the nature of the tragedy or trauma experienced and its possible correlation to sadness. “We are hoping to fund one involving direct and immediate cessation of limbs,” Eisenstein added. “Understanding the link between direct trauma and sadness as opposed to mere emotional loss is key to understanding why people are experiencing these feelings of depression.”

Eisenstein admitted she has been having difficulty attaining funding for that study due to its controversial nature. “The cingulate is considered very fragile in the psychological community,” she said. “Some people say we shouldn’t do anything that could endanger its chemical balance, even in those who have consented to the research.”

Despite the controversy, Eisenstein insists her team’s research is critical. “Right now, there are all these people feeling unnecessary sadness in the wake of tragedy,” she said. “Frankly, the fact that a society like ours allows people to feel anything other than elation at all times is the real tragedy.”

She promised to continue her research, focusing on the possible development of drugs that will combat cingulate activity before, during, or after traumatic events. “There’s no reason tragedy has to make you feel less than your best,” she said.

Scans from Eisenstein's research at the University of Arizona, showing increased activity in the cingulate.

Scans from Eisenstein's research at the University of Arizona, showing increased activity in the cingulate.

For more on groundbreaking mental-health discoveries, please see the article Most Babies Chronically Depressed, New Study Warns.

Aug 26

For the Love of the Game

Me, a little after midnight on the Sunday/Monday border, after winning Event #3 of the Gulf Coast Poker Championship at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi.

Me, a little after midnight on the Sunday/Monday border, after winning Event #3 of the Gulf Coast Poker Championship at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Mississippi.

I like competing. I like games. I like situations that produce winners and losers with high regularity. I like this stuff a lot.

But why?

After I posted about my first-ever tournament win of a large poker tournament on Facebook Monday (I won Event #3 of the Gulf Coast Poker Championship, though the prize money ended in a 5-way chop for just under $5k apiece), old friend and Rutgers debater David Reiss queried about how I could reconcile a love of gambling with my political views about equality and the unimportance of wealth. It’s a good question and one that I wrestle with a lot as I try to embark on a run at playing poker more or less full-time.

My first run at a response was this:

“It’s complicated, and probably not entirely resolved like any of the myriad compromises innate to living in this society. A thumbnail sketch is probably that money is pretty much always zero-sum and thus any pay is coming out of someone’s pocket and at least poker is upfront about that fact as opposed to cloaking it. 90-95% of the people who play poker regularly, especially tournaments, can afford to lose what they’re playing with. There are definitely exceptions and I definitely feel bad about that. But I’ve made money off of student loan debt most recently, as well as donations that people intended to go directly to the poor/homeless, so I don’t think you can make money in this world as structured without it carrying some burden of guilt.

And I don’t think it’s a mystery how I feel about competitive strategics being the main basis of how well one does as far as a professional use of time.”

I could certainly write a treatise on the first and primary paragraph of that comment and probably will at some point – the challenges of being a human being in a society structured like modern America and aspiring to do good and not feel guilty all the time are things I explore with regularity internally and, when people will listen, externally. But this post is mostly going to tackle how for-granted I take the latter statement, the love of strategy and competition for their own sake and how competition seems to be its own reward.

There are plenty of semi-rabid type-A people for whom competition as its own reward seems like the obvious order of things. And while I certainly spent much of my youth being a Very Serious Person and extreme grade-skipping had a huge impact of my world-view of myself relative to others, I think I managed pretty well to avoid being a type-A bulldog. I was known during my collegiate debate career as one of the least competitive-driven and forceful people of the top tier of debaters on the circuit, the one far less likely to make novices cry in a round and even less likely to gloat over said outcome, which was seen as a near-virtuous norm for most of my rivals. I still wanted to win, I just didn’t want to make other people feel bad about me winning and I also valued things like discourse and people enjoying the round.

But for a believer in equality, I still get an awful lot of utility out of winning things. To the point that I can look at my middle twenties, between graduating college in mid-2002 and starting coaching college debate in mid-2009, as this kind of desert where I was constantly craving competitive outlets. I took my adult-league kickball team far too seriously in the Bay Area for a couple years, played online video games for vastly more time than I should have, and made a reputation for myself at poker night with friends or game night with the Garin family as the sorest winner and the trashiest talker. Just as Emily was craving the approval of grades, I was constantly seeking ways of winning things or at least riding the roller-coaster of winning and losing that competition breeds. Coaching RUDU felt like this sweet relief, partially for the intellectuality of APDA, but certainly partly just to be on the weekly run of W’s and L’s.

One outlet for this competitive angst that was a constant during that part of my life and dates back to the late 80’s is, of course, my love of baseball. And specifically the Seattle Mariners, another kind of irrational output of energy and emotion and competitive spirit for me. I have wrestled with this part of my personality a lot. Being a sports fan is kind of an objective waste of time in about twenty different ways. These teams are chosen more or less arbitrarily, have no innate value, and the presence of sports in our society puts jocks on a pedestal above those who probably objectively deserve more respect and takes massive amounts of resources away from nobler pursuits. But I absolutely adore baseball and the Mariners and I don’t know how to stop. There is real beauty in the game, there is real love in my heart for the symbols and pageantry and presence of the Mariners and all they represent, their history and their struggles and their logo, and I can’t really justify it any more than I could explain to you why I like cucumbers but not pickles. And I feel bad for it, sometimes, especially when I think about what baseballs are made out of, but I can’t help it. I truly deeply love the Mariners and baseball and will probably never stop watching, no matter how socially dubious the impact of sports is on our society.

I mean, sure. Sports are a place where diversity is celebrated, especially baseball as probably the truly most diverse sport, and ideally and eventually sports should replace wars, and there is a social outlet and recreational outlet for people and I guess sports-consciousness fights obesity in theory, though probably not in practice. I guess it’s not like holding on to some sort of love of weaponry or slaughterhouses, quite. But all of those are probably pretty flimsy justifications in the face of cities who fund huge stadiums for millionaires to cavort in but won’t build more housing for their homeless.

Now obviously being a Mariners fan since 2001 has been heartbreaking (as though 2001 itself weren’t heartbreaking enough, when the M’s set an American League record for wins and then couldn’t even make the World Series) and this leads to another aspect of competition that bears questioning. Why voluntarily put so much emotional energy into the hands of something out of one’s control? And why invest so much time into observing something that will result in upsetting you at least 40% of the time and often, with the M’s, closer to 60% of the time? Isn’t that definitively crazy? I know “fan” is short for “fanatic”, which sort of implies some instability, but why put so much of your mood in the hands of something so iffy? Is it just because everyone else is doing it?

I thought about this a bit in that mid-twenties period and really even experimented with letting go of baseball fandom and the Mariners a bit more, even while still wearing M’s jackets and hats more days than not. It didn’t take. I still wanted to watch most of their games, even in the down seasons, still followed their players like they were friends of mine. And it’s not like I was raised on this from an early age. My Dad gets a little competitive when playing Risk, but both of my parents kind of blinked at me when I told them I wanted to play Little League. They carried this “Sports?? Really?” look around for about a year or so, while still being supportive of my interest, until they’d gone to enough games to kind of fall in love with baseball along with me. I went out and found and chose this all on my own and now it’s just deeply embedded.

I don’t think this post ends with a neat little bow, some tie-in conclusion that explains it all or offers up just the right balance of reflection and thought-provocation. Truth is, I got nothing. I feel like competitive outlets are somewhere between water and food in my daily priority list, but I have no idea why. And I know that a lot of what I most loved about debate, both as a competitor and a coach, is found in poker as well, which is the strategic aspect. The constant intellectual stimulation, the dynamism of all these different personalities and perspectives vying for the same goals and taking different routes to it, and trying to outsmart everyone and get as much control of the situation as possible. This is found in good board games as well, in most of the competitive outlets I have. It’s entirely absent in baseball, of course, except vicariously. Real players and managers get to enjoy the game on that level, but the rest of us can only watch. Then again, despite my clear preference for intellectual pursuits to athletic ones, I still mostly wanted to be a major leaguer from early Little League to late high school. The competitive drive is deeply ingrained and fierce.

Obviously, if I can keep winning tournaments at poker, this monstrous competitive drive within will be sufficiently quenched that I don’t need to keep finding more things to feed it with. That said, one of my first thoughts upon winning and internalizing how much money had been at stake was that I could now seriously consider flying to Seattle if the Mariners make the playoffs this season for the first time in 13 years.

Maybe it’s all just a form of love. If I’ve learned anything in three and a half decades on Earth, it’s that love is the most irrational thing of all.

Aug 23

Let Me Be Clear

I didn't create this image.  I found it on a website.

I didn't create this image. I found it on a website.

After they read yesterday’s post, my parents called me repeatedly to suggest that I edit the post because they were afraid that the NSA was going to haul me off to an undisclosed location for my comment about Malia Obama.

To take a phrase from the elder Obama, let me be clear: I am not, have not, and will not be making threats against anyone at any time for any reason. There are no threats in this blog, nor will there ever be. I am a pacifist. I condemn all violence, anywhere, ever, in all forms, unlike this country and most of its inhabitants, who seem to increasingly be looking for reasons to justify violence, especially state-sponsored violence.

My comment about Malia and the associated writing was intended to hold up a mirror to this country, as most of my political discussion of the United States is trying to do. I have heard all these reports about Israel killing the young children of Hamas leaders, about the United States slaughtering infants and families and children of “militant” leaders in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, undisclosed locations beyond that. And so I wanted to explore a thought experiment of how we would feel in the United States about the relatives of our own militant leader. And obviously this struck a chord with at least my parents, especially my mother, who felt it was something that could get me in trouble.

For me, the troubling thing is not what I said. I think it’s pretty evident that the line “For surely we wouldn’t blame anyone for killing Malia Obama, wouldn’t call that terrorism,” was a sarcastic reflection of how American lives are understood to have value, but the lives of non-Americans are understood to be worthless in this country. I think this is clear to anyone with basic reading comprehension skills, which is not a criticism of the concern of my parents. My parents’ mission statement in regards to me is basically to keep me safe and has been for 34.5 years. This country doesn’t make that job easy when their son regularly expresses free speech in a public forum, I guess. But what does that say about us?

I mean, honestly, what does it say where we have a country with much-vaunted “free speech” rights where my parents spend most of yesterday fretting over whether I’ve used my free speech in such a way that I will be detained indefinitely without charge in an undisclosed location by agents of our increasingly police-y state?

I know a lot of you are saying that this is just a reflection that my parents are paranoid. And as I infamously said in my French Revolution CTY segment in the middle-90’s, “Paranoia is healthy in paranoid times.” But more to the point, maybe they aren’t being paranoid? There are issues like this guy, who was locked up for making an obviously sarcastic “threat” on Facebook wherein he was lampooning, albeit awkwardly, the idea of how crazy he was. These cases are increasingly common, it would appear, though most of them seem to involve teens talking about school shootings. And I guess these folks are all in disclosed locations, but then, you don’t hear about the ones in undisclosed locations, do you?

I mean, what are the limits of this? Is it reasonable for the average politically restive blogger to have to constantly be trying to read the worst possible interpretation of their comments in the worst possible way and wonder how the NSA will take that? And then to make amend(ment)s? Is that the implicit goal of stories like the above and the way people take everything so deathly seriously these days? Is the goal that free speech is sufficiently chilled that we don’t want to discuss any issue more controversial than how frequently we wave the flag and with what level of vigor? Isn’t this kind of self-checking and paranoia precisely what this country was allegedly founded to contrast with?

I’m increasingly thinking this is just paranoia. But here’s a reverse chilling effect for you: If I disappear and send only an awkwardly written text or e-mail saying that I’m okay and don’t go looking for me, then please go looking for me. I will never disappear with only this form of communication as my farewell.

Honestly, that should probably apply to everyone you know.

Some freedom that’s being protected right now.

Aug 22

The Consequences of “Intervention”

We don’t like the word “war” anymore. It’s so violent! It sounds so 20th century, so Web 1.0, so old-school. “Intervention” sounds like what you do with your alcoholic brother who’s gone off the rails and just won’t listen anymore, with all the condescension and superiority implied therein. Intervention is what you do with your suicidal friend, your buddy who just can’t face the divorce and the mortgage and the custody battle anymore. Intervention is what we do with foreign countries.

Oh yes, we kill just as many people with an intervention as we did with a war. Probably more, since we learned to stop counting bodies in Vietnam. We respun and reframed things so that the only bodies we cared about were the American ones and then we removed them to offices in Las Vegas instead of the front lines, made sure that the few boots left on the ground mostly faced getting severed rather than actually killed. It’s antiseptic and anesthetic, killing from long-range, the long bomb, only the occasional rogue news outlet willing to display the wailing mother to disrupt our peaceful tranquility. All those “schools” and “hospitals” just needed some good old-fashioned “intervention” after all – I mean, it’s the fault of them for having militants in and around, right? Just like it’s the fault of the infant child of the “militant” official. For surely we wouldn’t blame anyone for killing Malia Obama, wouldn’t call that terrorism. Her father’s a militant, after all.

People are really afraid of this new ISxx… ISIS, ISIL, IS, whatever it is. The comparisons have flown fast and furious to Nazis, to bin Laden, to the face of the “true evil” we’re so convinced exists outside of the American mirror. I caused a bit of a stir for a couple folks yesterday by posting this on the Blue Pyramid’s Facebook page:

American police departments have still killed a lot more unarmed innocent Americans than ISIS. #justsaying

People didn’t appreciate that I could compare the scared scared police departments in American cities gunning down unarmed teenagers to the “true evil” that was ISIS after they provocatively beheaded an American journalist. (Thought experiment: how would we treat someone in New York City taking notes and calling themselves an “ISIS journalist”? No, we wouldn’t publicly behead him, true… we prefer to do our torture and maiming far from the prying eyes of the world in Guantanamo Bay. But I do think America is sometimes naive about the double-standards we take for granted as the self-proclaimed “good guys”. Please note that I am not failing to condemn the beheading – it’s atrocious, of course – but saying we’re “so much better” or unworthy of condemnation is short-sighted and silly.)

But the fact is that Americans can’t measure threats very well. We’re all terrified of getting on planes that are something like a hundred times safer than the cars we cling to for every minor errand. We buy guns to protect us from robbers while those guns are vastly more likely to harm us than any intruder. We fear terrorism but love our local police officer. Our sense of danger is manipulated and crafted by the distortion of how we’re taught to fear things, which has nothing to do with true probability and reality.

But let’s set aside relative threat levels and my horrific implication that local police departments are more likely to gun down an unarmed American than a far-flung terrorist group. It’s deliberately provocative, I suppose, though I thought of more staunch things I could say and was considering at the time. Let’s assume, for the moment, that ISIS is the true face of evil incarnate on planet Earth.

Whose fault is that?

Scary scary!

Scary scary!

I mean, really, who made it possible for ISIS to gain a following in Iraq and Syria, to gain traction, to be able to recruit angry disaffected youth to their movement, to make people able to conduct such brutality (I mean, how easy can they make it for you, the biased American – they wear black and wave black flags!)?

Could it be… US?

When the United States embedded itself and its journalists in the war in Iraq 11 years ago, there were naysayers, just a handful, who warned of the consequences of this “intervention”. Who said that one of the greatest threats to the United States’ security came from those who had not yet even been born, not yet even cohered an ideology or a belief-set about the world, but who would grow up amongst the ruins of their country and the invasion that took whatever semblance of hope they might have had and replaced it with, at worst, rubble and dead relatives and, at best, corporate slavery to an invading state. That this next generation, like post-Versailles Germany, might just be a breeding ground for resentment, anger, and ferocity. That maybe, just maybe, killing your way out of the problem creates hundreds more people willing to kill and die to replace them because losing a relative to violent death is the most dramatically transformative, angering experience one can have in this life. And that no matter how big the drumbeat for war, how much tonnage of sheer destruction the US would drop, you just can’t kill everyone who disagrees with you, especially with this exponential increase that each death creates in the hatred felt.

So now we’re back on the brink, on more precipices, for there are always constantly renewing decisions. We have a media lining up to tell people that the devotees of ISIS eat their babies for breakfast and want to personally skewer the most sensitive parts of every man, woman, and child in the United States of America. Maybe they do, I don’t know. The amount of devastation and loss felt in the Middle East of the past decade sure would make most of us feel pretty apocalyptic and desperate and unreasonable and hateful. But everyone’s getting in line to say how demonically horrific these humans are and that the only solution is to kill them, kill them all, until they buckle and kneel and just recognize already that American corporate kleptocracy is the greatest system anyone will ever devise because it has such sheer force behind it.

Really? Are we really going to do this again?

Maybe at some point we have to just sit down and say that this kind of might-makes-right insanity, this devotion to violence as a solution is not only exactly what we claim to be fighting through the “War on Terror”, but is also something we would never tolerate from an unruly second-grader. Yes, that unruly second-grader truly believes that Bobby deserved to be pummeled on the playground. But pummeling Bobby doesn’t make Bobby like you! Even if you pummeled Bobby to death, there would be even more people who don’t like you after that. This is honestly the level on which the self-proclaimed “greatest country ever on the face of the Earth” is acting. Truly.

If you don’t believe me about this, there’s an object lesson happening just a few hundred miles away from ISIS in what most people considered to be the most sacred territory on Earth. Can we make this any clearer for you? Look how well just killing all the militarized people who disagree with you is working for Israel and Palestine. Look! Look. They have accomplished all their goals and made themselves safe by just killing all their enemies. It’s a great model for us to follow. Kill and kill and kill and no one will be left to oppose you.

I know it seems scary to just, I don’t know, not kill people for a while. This is what the police officers in Ferguson thought too. Our culture is steeped in violence and preaches daily, outside of grade schools at least, that violence is the answer to our problems, the way to solve things forever. If you don’t kill those people, they might hurt someone! Heavens to betsy! Let’s pre-emptively kill them all.

But I’ll turn again to David Foster Wallace’s prophetic essay because it’s so useful:

“Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, ’sacrifices on the altar of freedom’? In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?”
-David Foster Wallace, Just Asking, 1 November 2007

But vulnerability is the concept we fear the most. Admitting a weakness. Turning the other cheek. Letting someone else commit the violence. This notion is what is missing in everything in America today, in its bravado, its desperate clinging to a sense of superiority and exceptionalism. (We are so allergic to this concept that there are red squiggly “that’s not a word” lines under “exceptionalism” in my browser.) We cannot even comprehend a world in which we accepted periodic violence from those who would do us harm in exchange for living a life that does not ask everyone to constantly kill their way out of problems.

But that is the only world where we have a future. Because if you think ISIS is evil, just wait till you see what pops up after we’ve tried to slaughter all the ISIS people. And on and on and on. I know we’ve dressed it up and made it sound nice and tolerable and civilized with words like “intervention”. But it’s just butchering people because they disagree with you. That’s all it is. And somehow, with this species, that’s just not all that persuasive. Somehow killing someone’s whole family and then asking the lone survivor “Now do you agree with me?” yields poor results.

These lessons are far more remedial than those we should need to learn right now. But someone, somewhere, should be learning, or attempting to. Right? Power may corrupt, but it doesn’t destroy all reason and lead us to a path of unending destruction forever, does it?

Aug 19

Might Makes Right: America 50 Years After Freedom Summer

“When police come out and take a stand and wear and have equipment that makes it feel like somehow the people who are protesting are assumed to be the bad guys, I don’t think it helps take the tension out of the situation. I think it puts more tension in it.”
-Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), NPR Interview, 15 August 2014

Fifty years ago this summer, students from all over the United States traveled to the Jim Crow South to face down police and established government forces that were trying to quell the rights and privileges, few that there were, of the Blacks who comprised much, if not most, of the community in the South. They were trained in the tactics of non-violent protest, practiced taking beatings, prepared for and correctly anticipated the violent reaction that uniformed officers of the law would rain down upon them. The disappearance and eventual evidence of the murder of three young members of this protest movement is often credited as being the primary catalyst for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, arguably the last time that legislation in this country increased the rights and equality of the people of the United States.

Like the murders during Freedom Summer, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri was hardly the first time that an unarmed Black man was gunned down by uniformed officers of the law in an American city. I was living in the Bay Area when the BART police shot a man in handcuffs on New Year’s Day, an event now memorialized in the fantastic film Fruitvale Station. My home city of Albuquerque has been inundated by shootings of unarmed men by police, culminating in protests throughout the spring and even an attempted citizen’s arrest of the police chief. But like Freedom Summer’s murders, the events in Ferguson in the last week may serve as a catalyst for a reckoning long overdue in contemporary America. The question is certainly not limited to one of race, though race plays a key role. And it is not, in my opinion, limited to police, though police play a key role. The question, as I see it, is whether America will persist in being a culture of might-makes-right, where putting on a uniform of an established gun-wielding force in the United States gives one the privilege to do whatever one wants with impunity, or whether we will take a step back from this ledge of uniformed despotism and acknowledge that people are people, on equal footing, and that not wearing a uniform, much less being of a racial minority without a uniform, does not constitute being a “bad guy”.

What jarred me about Senator McCaskill’s quotation at the top of this piece when I heard it on NPR was not what has jarred so many people about the events of Ferguson, namely that the police have come out in full military regalia, thrown tear gas, shot at protestors, and are using military surplus gear. What jarred me is that she was describing our military operations in other countries as situations where other people are “assumed to be the bad guys”. This should be obvious, of course, if I think about how military operations work, but the fact is that the people of Kabul and Baghdad, let alone more far-flung remote towns in Afghanistan and Iraq, have faced what Ferguson is facing on a daily basis. When we see Ferguson on TV, we relate naturally to the people of Missouri and are horrified, but when we see Fallujah on TV, we relate to the American soldiers doing the perpetrating. We cling to this notion that somehow the people of Fallujah would greet these same standoffish fully uniformed agents of death as “liberators” or at least friends with a helping hand (like all the National Guard propaganda tells us), even though the evidence is overwhelming that this is the most fearsome, intimidating, and unfriendly stance that one set of humans could take toward another. Advancing on people or cities in riot gear with guns drawn somehow does not convince the targeted group that you are their friends. And yet failure to comply with their wishes and demands is met with violence and the underlying assumption that this violence is somehow “deserved” because compliance was offered as an option.

This is actually basically the definition of a Police State. Or, if you prefer, the state that Voldemort would construct as he attempts to during the brief moments he believes that Harry Potter is actually dead in the final book in the series. “Now is the time to declare yourself,” he says in the movie version. “Come forward and join us. Or die.” And you can see in the faces of the remaining defenders of Hogwarts the kind of defeated resignation they’re adopting, the exhaustion and fear that confronts this choice. Neville Longbottom offers a rousing speech about how Harry Potter is just one martyr among many and doesn’t signal the defeat of the movement, but we never get to see how that message would sink in without Harry’s apparent and immediate resurrection. Now we can look at this as an obvious metaphor because the dark hooded cloaks of the Death Eaters (and, well, the name Death Eaters) invert or understanding of order and what is right, demonstrating clearly that the Death Eaters are like Nazis, or that allegedly rare combination of power and wrongness. But what if Voldemort’s troops were dressed as American police officers? American military? Are the principles espoused actually that different?

Oh yes, yes, we have a Constitution and “rule of law” and sham elections and all that. But enforcement is kind of required to make any of that meaningful. After all, the Jim Crow South was a democracy. For that matter, so was Nazi Germany, at least for a while. Democracies carefully crafted to keep the less desirable parts of society on the bottom, just as modern America is. Does it really matter if disinterest and apathy or outright blocking are the means of prevention? We have plenty of both built into our current democratic structures. And when the choice of party is between one corporate sell-out and another, it really doesn’t matter whether you can vote at all. What matters, as in any might-makes-right society, is who carries the guns and who can get away with using them without consequence. And if you have a uniform on, that’s you. You can shoot unarmed people and wait for the “internal investigation” to clear you of wrongdoing, with all files sealed for another half-century until the next Freedom Summer. You can commit atrocities in foreign countries knowing that your nation has refused to submit to international law and treaties purely so they can keep you and your commanding officers out of The Hague. All for the love of power, the supremacy of this country, and the “safety” of its citizens. But not all of its citizens, of course. Not the poor, not the minorities, not the undesirables. Just the ones with the money and power to buy protection and expect their privileged lifestyle to continue at the expense of everyone else.

In his now-famous short essay “Just Asking“, David Foster Wallace examined the frightening implications of a country six years after September 11th, less than a year before he would take his own life on September 12, 2008. His conclusive sentences are explosively powerful and necessary for any serious American to consider at this juncture:

Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

The safety that the police and military of this country allegedly protect is completely illusory. No one had to fear for their lives or safety because Michael Brown was on the streets of Ferguson, any more than Saddam Hussein’s mythical weapons of mass-destruction were pointed at American cities. But both, like all declared enemies of the United States, were met with overwhelming force, as is the hallmark of a might-makes-right demonstration. Brown was not shot once in the leg to prevent him from harming officers. He was shot six times, including once in the head, which killed him immediately. How is it that we’ve come to live in a state where we think the citizenry is safer for having police officers shoot to kill unarmed individuals? Why is the training that people should be shot so many times?

The only answer to these questions is that we live in a society that still believes, fervently, in good guys and bad guys, just like Senator McCaskill said. Her issue wasn’t with this characterization of the world or even our society, but with lumping peaceful protestors in with the bad guys. And just as the Death Eaters wear black cloaks and look dark and menacing, our society has institutionally trained us to associate Black with fear, death, and antagonism. Local news and campus police reports barrage us with the message that young Black men are coming for our stuff, our health, our lives, our precious safety. And thus it is little wonder that the people who are told they are Right to put on the uniform of the Good Guys are all too willing to gun down the Bad Guys when they are abroad in the land.

In Mississippi in 1964, it was the uniform of the Ku Klux Klan, all white and all that implies, that the people put on and told themselves they were the good guys. And I am not saying that all police officers and military members of the United States might as well be in the KKK. But I am saying that the process of putting on a uniform to absolve you of your sins, transform you into a white knight, and hide your identity, is eerily similar. If it were up to the Ferguson Police Department, they still would not have released the name of Michael Brown’s shooter. Just like in the sixties, many of the police in Ferguson were hiding their badge numbers to avoid responsibility during recent crackdowns.

And people behave badly when they don’t think they’re going to be held accountable. We don’t need to rehash another sixties throwback, the Stanford Prison Experiment, to make this clear. When people act with the authority of their superior state, when they are agents of an institution rather than human people, they will do unspeakable things in the name of whatever order has imbued them with that apparent authority. And the results are terrifying and on display.

But the problem is that we attribute rationality to the side with the uniform and chaotic irrationality to anyone who stands in their way. This hearkens back to the ongoing discussion of reasons that I brought up in my last post. Anyone who is an “enemy of the state” must have no reason whatsoever for their actions because we are Right and they are Wrong. But of course people do have reasons, even for committing crimes (if in fact they are committing crimes, which most of the minorities gunned down by police of late have not been). They have reasons and we need to examine those and think about them and make changes based on what is really going on.

There are two conversations that I think we need to have in the wake of Ferguson:

1. Why do we live in a society where people feel so unsafe?
America, as a society, enjoys more material wealth and access than pretty much anywhere, ever. This is grossly unequally distributed for no particularly good reasons beyond greed and the laziness/selfishness of those at the top. Strangely, dangling incredible wealth and power in front of a bunch of people denied it for arbitrary reasons will upset those people. We have also constructed this society entirely on the basis of wealth and power meaning everything in the society and being the only determinants of a person’s value and worth, to themselves and others. On top of this, the requirement of having wealth extends to people literally having no food to eat and no roof over their head if they fail to accumulate it. The collective pressure this creates on people arbitrarily denied and/or placed at the bottom is overwhelming.

On top of this, we have gargantuan corporate interests designed to play on fear and rake money away from the wealthy and powerful by capitalizing, literally, on this fear. We have a security industry that is absolutely ballooning right now, not just in home security, but in private security forces everywhere that put on their own little corporate uniform and go intimidate their respective “bad guys” wherever they may crop up. We have a prison-industrial complex demanding a requisite number of bad guys (the ones who survive their shootings) to lock away and guard and intimidate for a requisite number of years, with more prisons to build to keep them away. America imprisons 44% more people than China, despite having 25% of the population and 0% of its Police State reputation, at least in our own eyes. Those numbers don’t look stark enough. We have 144% of China’s prisoners and China has 400% of our population. One quarter of the world’s prisoners are imprisoned in this country, but we have only 5% of the world’s population.

And part of our fear can probably be attributed to the good old institutional conservatism that comes with perceiving you have more to lose than you do to gain. It is precisely our wealth and power and privilege that makes us so afraid and makes us want to shoot and lock up anyone who would take our stuff, because who wouldn’t want our stuff, because we’re so great? So not only do the few people who would commit crimes probably have good sound structural reasons for doing so, defying the myth of “dangerous people” who would just commit crimes regardless, but our sense of fear is grossly inflated in comparison to the threat and danger that’s out there. But we keep passing harsher laws with harsher sentences to assuage our sense of burgeoning fear, but it’s really just feeding the insatiable monster of corporate fear and imprisonment that is making some of the highest profits in the land.

The distinction, by the way, between fear of safety from domestic crime and that from international terrorism, really starts to break down here. The only key distinction is that there is so much less of a threat from international terrorism and thus that threat is even more obviously grossly exaggerated. But the entire dynamic between people profiting off inflating our fears and us paying corporations for the illusion of safety pretty much works for both, right down to the overt racism of who we’re trained to fear and there being actual reasons for whatever limited threat there might be, etc.

2. Why does race continue to be the way people in this country, especially in authority, sort other people?
I know there’s a lot that sociologists or anthropologists might say here about this being innate to who we are and “hard-wired” into our fabric as people, but if we’re going to go there, rape and murder and urinating in the woods are equally deeply ingrained and yet we aspire to stop doing those things too. The whole point of society and human progress is to overcome the barbarity of human nature, so don’t tell me we can’t beat this one.

Race isn’t even real. It’s a racist white person’s view of how people look, which is how we can get “Asian” as a race representing the most diverse and largest continent in the world as a whole, but “Hispanic” is a race of white people that look a little darker than the other white people. So why does this busted sorting mechanism still hold so much thrall over how our authorities behave?

I don’t have a lot of answers for fixing this one, but I do know it pervades all institutions and, ultimately, all individuals. As individuals, I think we need to stop utilizing race as a descriptor in as many situations as we can, stop talking about it like it’s real except where we need to (as in identifying racism). Even things that are supposedly empowering, like talking about the “Black experience”, serve to make race more real and especially to make sweeping stereotypes and generalizations which are the root of racism in the first place. I am not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t discuss all aspects of prejudice and racism and problem that we can identify, but I think we need to get away from using this as a sort criterion in places where we can. And I know there are people who will think this is my White Privilege talking and that Whites can afford to not talk about race, but others can’t, but I think you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying. I’m saying that we should stop talking about other people primarily by their race. If it is helpful to you to identify with a race and talk about that experience in terms of that, fine. But other people shouldn’t be putting that on you and should stop as much as possible.

Part of the problem is that people, especially police, use race as their first sort criterion. And lots of people do it in casual conversation about people as well, though far more in New Jersey than they did in the Bay Area, I’ve noticed. And once you start describing someone by race first, even if it’s just as a way of separating them in a crowd, then all kinds of assumptions and stereotypes and garbage follow. And you’re not thinking about that person as an individual, but as a group. And not a group with actual characteristics, but literally a racists’ grouping of that group and everything that entails. And this makes things worse. Quadruply so when it’s in the context of reporting crimes or possible suspects of same.

And this gets into the institutional issues. And this is a really thorny problem. I think it would be better, holistically, if the SAT didn’t ask people their racial information. That said, doing so is considered the only way to catch institutional racism within the SAT. Most places where racial data is collected in the United States are using that to try to track issues of racism and racial inequality. But that process itself engenders more institutional racism. It is helpful to know that Black and Latino citizens are far more likely to be unemployed in our economy than Whites. However, this data itself is creating racist assumptions and understandings in our collective understanding of these artificial groups. And this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle throughout our institutions. Which is exactly how Ferguson can be happening fifty years after Freedom Summer and Freedom Summer happened one-hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

We need to track racial data to know that minorities are convicted and imprisoned at a vastly higher rate than Whites and this is likely because of racism. But this same data tells us that minorities commit far more crimes and thus justifies racial profiling in Police Departments all over the country, which creates Ferguson. And the only thing that I can identify for sure in all this is that talking about race like it’s real and not like it’s a social construct primarily used to justify racism is a big part of the problem.

Which is not to say that people can’t still identify with the parts of themselves that matter to them and their actual experience. Please don’t misunderstand me. It might be very important to a person we label as Black that they are of African descent and that their ancestors were slaves who were freed and all sorts of other things that we currently identify with the “Black experience”. But the race is just a way of saying “White people think you’re Black”. Which is helpful in discussing racism, which is perceptual, but not helpful in discussing the individual’s identity, which may have a long history of national origin and culture that they choose to embrace or not.

I think that element of choice is part of what’s essential. No one chooses race. And no one chooses their ancestry, either, but one can choose what’s important to their identity about it.

This becomes clearer, I think, when looking at mistaken racial identity. My debate team that I just coached had all sorts of people whose racial identity was wrongly identified all the time. A Dominican who was always perceived to be Black, Indians who were always seen as Hispanic, and so on. And in this, when people are looking at race, you are not your actual identity. You are your perceived identity, because that’s all race is, how someone looks. Functionally, those people were their mistaken race. And in a debate league, they may have time to correct the misunderstanding and identify their actual background. But in a dark alley facing police, no amount of clarification is going to do any good. They are what they are perceived to be and if the police are racist, by training or persuasion, then that’s that.

Even if you disagree with me vehemently and think that race as it is constructed can some day be a force for good, I think we can agree that a conversation about revamping how race is dealt with and seen in this country is necessary. And while I am uncertain as to the precise prescription for fixing this issue, I know it starts with that.

In the meantime, the buses of protesters will continue to roll toward Missouri as they did fifty years ago toward Mississippi. And Obama and the one Black police officer they can find to read prepared statements will continue to blame the protesters for causing a ruckus and being upset about the state of things, continue to advocate for law and order. But as long as law and order means putting on a uniform and believing you are a Good Guy out there to hunt down Bad Guys, then this kind of awfulness is going to continue. Only people dealing with people, flaws and all, working together, can solve this crisis. Hiding behind a uniform, an institution, a set of beliefs about your superiority, is only going to lead to more deaths.

PoliceState

Aug 15

My Reason for Reason

My friend Ariel isn’t on Facebook. Thus she was inevitably confused by my portrayal of a lot of the Robin Williams reactions in Wednesday’s post about suicide. To her mind, there weren’t a lot of people trying to stifle discussions of suicide and its real causes and she pointed me instead to this New Yorker article, their currently most popular online feature.

Of course, this article opens up a whole related but slightly different can of worms in the way people talk about suicide. Andrew Solomon takes the opportunity to use his piece to gently lampoon the notion that one could even have a reason for killing themselves. Consistently using quotation marks around the word “reason”, he states that an effort to explain why people take this very conscious, deliberate, and permanent act “seems to bring logic to the illogic of self-termination.” He takes as given that no one could have a reason, good or otherwise, for this action, and concludes the paragraph saying “as, indeed, most people who kill themselves have little ‘reason’ other than depression (unipolar or bipolar), which is at the base of most suicide.”

Not only is a lot of this exactly what I was railing against in my prior post, but it smacks of the insidious way that the US media talks about terrorism and other acts they find abhorrent, unrelatable, and thus, they conclude, must be inexplicable. I wrote about this in the context of coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings last year:

“This is why acts of terror are chronically called ’senseless,’ ‘insane,’ ‘unfathomable,’ and other similar words. You may mistake all these synonyms for just being characterizations of duress and grief, but they are far more insidious than that. These words are carefully chosen to illustrate that the only cause for terrorism is not misused anger or understandable, if abhorrent, desire to stand up and kill for what someone thinks is right, but total incomprehensible craziness. Even though the news also begrudgingly (though decreasingly) reports our many actual crimes against humanity abroad (Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, drone strikes, civilian casualties, military rapes, etc.). Even though we use the exact same means as the terrorists in killing other people, often innocent people, for a broader self-interested cause. When we do it, it’s righteous. When someone else does it, we can’t even think about why.”
-18 July 2013

What Solomon clearly fails to see is how insulting this perspective is on suicide and how demeaning it is to those wrestling with it. He clearly should understand this. He says “Suicide is not a casual behavior; for all that it may entail impulsivity, it is also a profound and momentous step for which many people don’t have the force of will.” And he goes on to praise Robin Williams as intelligent and brilliant, at least via inference, without the slightest understanding that he is saying Williams’ most momentous decision of his life was made, literally, without thinking. That he could not possibly have had a reason.

But reason is behind everything we do in this life, including the decision to end that of our own or others. The increasing narrative abroad in the land seems to be that acts we don’t like should be branded as done without reason so as to disregard them and discredit their doers. No wonder mass-murderers are feeling compelled to leave multi-hundred-page manifestos before they go on shooting rampages and suicide bombers film videos of themselves making explanations. It’s almost like they wouldn’t do these things without the reasons that they find very compelling for doing them. Not only does saying that there can’t possibly be a reason ignore the blatant truth of reality, but it causes us to fail to engage with things that harm society in any way that could lead to fixing them. If the only thing we can do in the face of mass-shootings or terrorism or suicide is to throw up our hands and go “oh, people without reason, guess they’re gonna do what they’re gonna do!”, then we might as well not try to solve or do anything at all.

Which seems, recurrently, to be the point of the way so many people are talking about suicide and why I had tangible suggestions for those actually dealing with it in my last post. Because so many of the people writing about suicide have no earthly idea what contemplating it is actually like, people approach it like a rabid three-headed chinchilla that can’t be tamed but some professional must somehow be able to deal with, maybe, but gosh, that’s so illogical. And Mr. Solomon demonstrates his poor understanding profoundly, with this trite and pathetic conclusion: “Williams’s suicide demonstrates that none of us is immune. If you could be Robin Williams and still want to kill yourself, then all of us are prone to the same terrifying vulnerability.” No, sir. The way you write about suicide shows that you are thoroughly immune. Which is great, good for you. Now please stop talking about this so that people who actually struggle can speak about the actual experience and what it really feels like.

I am not criticizing my friend Ariel for sending me this article, but I also know that she and I are on opposite sides of the cup-fullness debate. And I think this article may help a lot of people who have no preliminary comprehension of suicidalism feel like they are getting an understanding of the phenomenon. But it is wrong-headed to say that rational, intelligent, suffering people have no reasons for the choice they make as though depression were some kind of Imperius Curse that just forced them to have no alternative. Thousands of suicidal people who don’t die every day are proof that there is a choice and thousands of suicide notes are proof that there are reasons.

I’m curious whether Mr. Solomon wrote his piece before or after the revelation that Robin Williams was facing a Parkinson’s diagnosis on top of his other struggles and had years of slow degeneration to look forward to. I wonder if that meets his “reason” criterion or if we could learn that Williams was terminal and experiencing massive trauma in every single nerve-ending and Solomon would still brazenly trudge on in the belief that self-termination is always the ultimate proof that people can act without reasons.

I’ve been trying to think of a way to tie this issue to the Ferguson, Missouri question and how people are discussing it, but I don’t think I can really get there. I’m honestly exhausted with defending the notion that suicidal people may have good reasons to be sad, upset, and yes, even consider ending their own lives. I would like to talk about happier topics, like the Mariners’ possible playoff run and more intricacies of New Orleans, but my anger about how people are discussing this topic is having trouble subsiding.

The reason that I want to understand is why people feel so much better if they can just say that something is totally unreasonable. Maybe it’s coming from a debate background where everything is on the table and anything can be defended in one way or another that makes this notion so alien to me, but the idea that one can just dismiss out-of-hand the idea that another person has reasons for what they’re doing is the definition of unobservant behavior to me. You may not like the reasons and the reasons may not make perfect sense or even be right. But there are reasons for everything a person does. It’s kind of what defines a person.

But I guess if we’re all allegedly just materialist machines, then the mainstream belief is that thought and reason don’t exist at all. There’s only the machine, whose goal is survival and procreation, and it is either working as intended or broken. And any action that interferes with the goal is defined as being broken, so please make sure you go to the mechanic to get tuned up if you’re broken! You may think this is an oversimplification, but it’s a lot like what the logic of this mentality sounds like to me. And it should scare you if you believe in free will or non-conformity or even just a notion of basic personal liberties, at least a little. People are people, not machines. Hopelessly more complicated and always acting with reasons. You don’t have to like the reasons or agree with them, but it is so doggone demeaning to say they aren’t there.

This is not a picture of a suicidal person.

This is not a picture of a suicidal person.

Aug 13

Let’s Talk About Suicide

Robin Williams (1951-2014) in Good Will Hunting, where he talks about emotions!

Robin Williams (1951-2014) in Good Will Hunting, where he talks about emotions!

“And when the guy said, ‘Well, do you ever get depressed?’ I said, ‘Yeah, sometimes I get sad.’ I mean, you can’t watch news for more than three seconds and go, ‘Oh, this is depressing.’ And then immediately, all of a sudden, they branded me manic-depressive. I was like, ‘Um, that’s clinical? I’m not that.’ Do I perform sometimes in a manic style? Yes. Am I manic all the time? No. Do I get sad? Oh, yeah. Does it hit me hard? Oh, yeah.”
-Robin Williams, Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, 2006

The way people talk about suicide in this country infuriates me. Because most of it is very much a way of not talking about it. People treat suicide like it’s ultra-contagious ebola, that it is unspeakable, unthinkable, and that even discussing it without a biohazard suit on will somehow create a wave of copycat suicides and an epidemic and therefore we should just zip our lips and praise the person who just “died” (not, never ever, “killed themselves”, even though that’s what actually happened) and ignore the gargantuan elephant busting down the walls of the room that the person in question just chose to publicly end their own lives as a statement. If the monks in Vietnam had lit themselves on fire in 2014, the bylines would just talk about their clinical depression and how it’s really sad we couldn’t have shipped more therapists into Vietnam along with our napalm, but gosh they did some good praying before they died.

I am really angry.*

*I know this is an emotion and it’s a strong one and also a negative one, and therefore I probably have several clinical things wrong with me that require pharmaceuticals to pacify me, but buckle up kids, because we’re going to talk about emotions like they are real.

Before Robin Williams killed himself earlier this week, I posted this on Facebook about roughly the same issue:

“Reading David Foster Wallace always makes me think deeply about what it means to be a person and the importance of imposing that question on daily life. Which I would imagine would be a legacy he’d be immensely proud to be known for. That said, it drives me utterly crazy that book jackets and flaps insist on the perversely simple ‘He died in 2008′ to explain his current absence from the world. It’s as though he were hit by a helicopter crossing the street or something equally hapless and mundane, not that he’d made a deliberate choice. I suspect he’d be equally bothered.”
-26 July 2014

And while a lot of people echoed the sentiment and agreed that there should be more open discussion of this, some people complained that suicide gets “fetishized” which seemed to me akin to the idea that we should censor the information of people’s suicides, its methods, any note or parting thoughts they left. And while I agree that some people are fascinated by suicide and its details for the wrong reason, the same is true about pretty much everything bad that ever happens in the world. But failing to talk about anything bad ever, while it may be the ultimate direction of our media, is not yet the norm, and of course stifles a conversation about, y’know, how to make things better.

Suicide is complicated. It’s icky, it makes people feel bad, and it is completely unrelatable for those who don’t experience suicidalism. I have to believe that the main reason suicide and its details are such a third-rail for so many is that it is so completely alien to the average person that they truly believe thinking about it or talking about it will give it to them, like ebola, and that something they find abhorrent and scary and awful will just infect them if they read about it or do anything other than say “blah blah blah I can’t hear you, please go talk to a professional”. But it is precisely this attitude about suicide and this shunting it off to the side that prevents the actually suicidal from feeling like they have a place to go or an outlet for talking about suicidalism the way they want to.

Indeed, this post from the Washington Post has been getting a lot of social media traction and includes the line “Suicide should never be presented as an option. That’s a formula for potential contagion,” attributed to Christine Moutier, chief medical officer at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and, I promise, someone who has never wrestled personally with being suicidal. This line so fundamentally misunderstands the suicidal mentality that it would make your head spin, and does. For the suicidal, it is always an option. The issue is keeping it at bay long enough to delay it until the option doesn’t feel as wildly present anymore.

Like alcoholism, suicidalism is always present for the suicidal. You never get over it completely, it never fails to be an option. It’s just not something you want as much in the better times, something you can keep at bay. But no alcoholic ever thinks of a beer as not an option, much less does someone sharing “gosh, I want a beer” on social media constitute a clear and present danger to their sobriety. (If it does, they are completely and totally hosed in their efforts to stay sober in the United States of America.) And while I might personally say that a campaign to ban alcohol advertising everywhere to support alcoholics recovering would be a good step, no one else in the world would agree with me. It would be as ludicrous as Ms. Moutier’s statement should be considered.

True, not everyone, especially not vulnerable young teenagers first wrestling with the idea of being suicidal, has developed their strategies and coping mechanisms and ways to survive suicidalism. They are more vulnerable, susceptible, and prone to influence, like teenagers everywhere. But what kind of message does it send them to say that we shouldn’t talk about Robin Williams’ death as a suicide, shouldn’t mention how he did it, shouldn’t even deal with anything other than his wonderful career and “mental health issues”? Which, I’m sorry, but is a codeword for Feelings Which Shall Not Be Named. It’s a way of saying the only person you should ever begin to discuss your extreme feelings with is your therapist, because only they have the proper biohazard suit to deal with this ebola you are suffering from.

Yeah, that sounds like a really reassuring recipe for scared and vulnerable young teens wrestling with suicidalism. You have your hour a week with a trained professional to discuss those feelings. Otherwise, your feelings are invisible to us, kind of scary, and will be ignored even though it’s obvious they are impacting prominent people in our society in a profound way.

It would be like displaying the 9/11 footage and talking about United and American’s great track-record of safety and that anyone with concerns about how the planes came to end up in the buildings should discuss it with a local building engineer of their choosing. Anything else might inspire other people to crash planes into buildings!

When I was working at Rutgers, I would discuss the nature of suicidal feelings with some students struggling with same. I was later admonished against this by the administration that was trying to use some controversial aspects of my coaching as a way of ending the debate program that they felt was not a good use of money, as supported by the betrayal of my Assistant Coach at the time. One of the many reasons that I decided to quit my job was that it was very hard to imagine how I could continue to do it effectively without being able to discuss emotions and feelings and sometimes, yes, even suicidal thoughts, with the students who I’d spend forty to sixty hours a week working with. The attitude of the university and its official policy was that such thoughts and feelings were to be immediately referred to crisis staff, whose only role was to whisk the students off campus and into seclusion fast enough so that they would not become a negative statistic for the university. There has been a lot of public discussion lately about how university policies around suicide are actually encouraging and promoting the feeling of life-collapse for those already vulnerable to harming themselves. That somehow removing someone from their support and community, calling them a failure, and telling them to stay away until they get better is exactly the recipe for getting someone already suicidal to be even more serious about that effort. But universities, as a general rule, don’t institutionally care about these people and their ultimate fate. They care about liability and responsibility and our society says that no one can blame them if it didn’t happen “on their watch”, even if they were entirely the precipitating cause of an eventual suicide.

But something that I would discuss with people included my own personal strategies for surviving 24 years and counting as a suicidal person. I don’t know if these things are taught by therapists or not because I’ve never seen one, primarily in the last few years for fear of being locked up, shocked, and/or medicated against my will. Unfortunately our society sees these outcomes as ultimately best and once that ball starts rolling, it’s impossible to stop if you took the first step of your own free will. And sorry, but my free will is more important to me than being deemed “healthy” by a jury of this society’s standards.

Here are things they don’t discuss in these prissy little articles telling you to say that Robin Williams merely “died” and it was “unfortunate”:

1. You are more vulnerable to an impulsive suicide than a planned one. Planning takes time and effort. Set the bar and standards high for your suicide so that it will take longer to plan and you will have more time to talk yourself out of it. Don’t settle for something quick and mundane, no matter how much you’re hurting. When you are suicidal, you are also depressed and exhausted, have low energy, and the effort of doing something elaborate will be overwhelming and you will sleep instead and tomorrow might be better.

2. Hide your knives. Hide the utensils if necessary. Don’t leave anything dangerous lying around. You will of course know where you hid these things, but those extra few seconds of rummaging may be life-saving and critical. Again, it takes effort, which you tend not to have the energy for in the worst times. Put as many little barriers between yourself and something impulsive as possible. Stay back from ledges. Do not stand on the edge of train platforms, even when you’re doing better.

3. Set a very high bar for your suicide note. It is the last thing you will ever leave on this planet. It must be the best thing ever. It must say everything possible to everyone. Does this seem hard? Does this require a lot of planning? Might it not be better to deliver some of these messages in person? Good, wait till tomorrow and go talk to those people, tell them what you have to say in person. Keep revising the note. It’s not really perfect yet, is it? Maybe next week.

4. Take risks. Big ones. Keep in mind that suicide will prevent all of your other options, ever. If you’re willing to go there, you should be willing to do everything short of that. This includes running away, disappearing, renaming yourself, taking out all of your savings, if applicable, (or debt if not) and going on the trip you always dreamed of. If you’re really that suicidal, start treating yourself like a terminal cancer patient. Get all you can out of the next few days and weeks. You’ll probably find something fun or enjoyable or livable or good in there. Give yourself a chance to be happy after all you’ve been through. Even if it’s just for a few days. You’ll be glad you did, even if you ultimately make the same choice, but odds are that it will lead you down a different path that’s more livable.

5. It is okay to be sad. Everyone is sad. If you are not sad in this world the way it is structured, you are a nincompoop. This does not mean there isn’t joy in the world, or elation, or things to look forward to. But the people who aren’t sad, frankly, aren’t paying attention. Look at how people treat each other. Look at the wars and the famines and the plagues and the poverty. Look at it! But here’s the thing. You can’t just stew in your room about these things. Go talk to someone about it. If they just don’t want to go there and think about sad things, who needs them? Find someone who can take it. Everyone is truly sad about these things and the ones who aren’t are just in denial. Sadness does not mean you have a fucking disease. It means you have your eyes open in a place with real horror in it every day. But the horror only continues if everyone who sees the horror leaves. Your ability to actually see it gives you an obligation to do something about it to make it better. If everyone did that, the world would have wayyy less horror. So go talk to someone about it. Even if you have zero energy to do anything about it right now, talking to someone and feeling that sadness together will make you both feel a little less alone.

6. What do you like? Is there a new thing of that coming out soon? Books, movies, video games? I bet you can’t really wait till the next big one of those comes out. Wouldn’t it be sad if that were the best thing ever and you missed it? I know it’s a long painful time to wait. Why don’t you spend all of your time before then reading/watching movies/playing video games? Yes, all of it. All of it. You could! If you’re not going to live at all, if you’re really willing to go there, shouldn’t you be willing to just do the one thing you enjoy doing 100% of the time first? It beats the crap out of dying.

7. What if your best friend/mother/favorite celebrity killed themselves? Wouldn’t you feel awful about that? Wouldn’t you feel personally rejected and like there must have been something you could have done to help? Now, do you really want to put your loved ones through that? Really and truly? Even if you think some of them deserve that, do all of them? Even if you think no one in the world cares about you at all, is that really true? Really? Find the one person who might be an exception and tell them how you’re feeling and how much you need them. If you don’t, they will spend the rest of their life wishing that you had and that will be on you that you made them feel that way.

Now, many of these may not work for you. I’m sure some of them sound trite or trivial or stupid. But every single one of the above strategies has prevented me from killing myself at least once in the last 24 years. Every one. And in case you don’t think I have enough cred in this department since it’s been 24 years since I made a serious effort, I’ll tell you a little story. Last fall, under immense suffering and a confluence of seemingly ruinous events, I banged my head into a plaster wall, hard, eight times in a row. It was the back of my head, sure, because I was hedging a little, but I gave myself a concussion and have had floaters in both eyes since about a month after the incident. There’s a particularly bad one in my right eye that gives me more headaches than I used to have, especially when I read a lot, one of the things I truly love doing.

I get mad at myself every day for doing this, especially when the floaters are really prominent (there are better days and worse days). And it fuels my anger-spiral and my self-hate and all the things I wrestle with. These things are not a fucking disease, but they are the realities of living on this planet and having feelings and experiences that are not always cheery. Robin Williams did not have a disease, he was a person, complicated, feeling, compassionate, with a deep understanding and fear of the human condition.

And maybe if he’d lived in a society that made it more okay to talk about those things, to reach out to others (not just “professional experts”), one that didn’t shun and shunt suicidalism off to the corner and call depression ebola, he’d still be with us today. Your silencing of this discussion is killing people. And it’s not okay.

My floaters have given me another little strategy, another thing to be upset about. Even though they’ve diminished my quality of life, they are a reminder that acting on my suicidal feelings does harm to me and that I’d rather live most days without harm. So it’s made the consequences a little more real. And that’s a good reminder.

Every time a celebrity kills themselves, it’s a little totem of the same thing. It’s a reminder that we need to talk about feelings and emotions and the state of our world and work to improve all of them. Not in our biohazard suits, but raw, openly, laid bare, with all our thoughts, feelings, and real experiences on the table. If we were all just real and open and honest with each other about our darkest hours, we’d all realize how un-alone we truly are.

Aug 11

Institutional Idealism

When I worked at Glide in San Francisco, I worked with an intern from Germany on a project about the nature of Glide as an institution. It was a special project for the then CEO, newly hired, who wanted to study why Glide as an entity was so resistant to change and data despite being so effective at providing help for the poor and homeless of the city. The metaphor my co-worker came up with was a unicorn, which stood in for the mystical Glide culture that pervaded everyone’s image of Glide as a place and an institution in the community. Which is not to say that Glide isn’t a truly magical place, but that the image everyone had in their mind was that this more deeply magical than perhaps was real. And it came down to this unicorn that needed to be protected and sheltered, when it should actually be running free through the streets of the Tenderloin.

The issue is this: Glide became what it is (revolutionary, radically inclusive, a church without walls, a life-changing place) by taking risks, sometimes risking everything. This was easy to do at first because Glide was young and had nothing to lose. Glide was just an aging Methodist church in a decaying neighborhood when Cecil Williams arrived in the sixties and he had a vision that he was able to put into practice because he was totally unafraid of the consequences or the risks. This kind of fearless abandon is the heart of the unicorn, it was what was so downright inspiring about the early years of Glide, and it is what spawned such radical and amazing change and possibility.

But here’s the problem. The more success that this methodology encountered, the more success there was to build on within Glide as an institution. Over time, Glide was no longer just the fringe radical group that accepted gays and fed everyone. It acquired powerful friends like Maya Angelou and the Clintons and Warren Buffett. It acquired donors by the thousands, volunteers by greater thousands. It got government contracts, grants, and a certain institutional entrenchment that meant Glide suddenly had things to lose and thus to protect. No longer could Glide risk everything so freely because there was nothing to lose. Now there was influence and ability to lose, with thousands of San Franciscans relying on the services Glide could provide that was made possible in large part by these key connections and assets.

This success, this accumulation of power and influence and assets, this process makes institutions more conservative. And what the intern and I identified and proposed is that there is a tipping point where the component parts of the institution (staff) believe there is more to be potentially lost from the future than gained, and at or around that tipping point is when an institution goes from being idealistic and radical to protectionist and conservative. And the grand irony at Glide is that what everyone most wanted to protect was the mythical unicorn of Glide culture, whose every aspect was non-conformity, radicalism, inclusivity, and risk-taking. In other words, what everyone wanted to hunker down and preserve was the exact opposite of the attitude of hunkering down and preserving. And thus we presented our findings to an all-staff (or maybe all-manager?) meeting and started to put about a plan where Glide could both preserve its radicalism but become fluid and idealistic as it had always been and everyone always wanted.

I post this little vignette not to publicize somewhat internal information about Glide, an institution that I believe in fully and you should support, but because since doing this study in 2008, I have found the lessons of this understanding to be true about almost every institution everywhere. And not just institutions, perhaps, but people. It is complete cliche that the young are idealistic radicals and the old are cynical conservatives, but no one really analyzes why this is the case other than the shorthand that age creates conservatism. The older conservatives would argue this is because experience teaches you that conservatism is correct, but I think the flaw in this reasoning is obvious from the above. It’s not age itself, but the process of accumulating things that one fears losing. This is why the rich are more conservative than the poor, because they have more to lose. The entire spectrum of idealism can be measured by whether one fears the future more or finds it offering more hope. And that, in turn, is based entirely on what one feels one has to lose.

This is also why children are, in general, so wide-eyed and optimistic and idealistic. The future is where everything sits for children and, as a rule, even if they have things they don’t appreciate them fully because they can’t contrast it with the concept of not having them (unless, of course, they’ve experienced many different qualities of life over the course of their few years). Teenagers especially find the future and the immediate present to be vibrant with radiating possibility and freedom and thus take the most radicalism on. And by the time people are settled with jobs and relationships, suddenly the future looks like it’s coming for their stability more than offering more possibility. Doubly so if there are debts like student loans and mortgages to be paid.

Thus the challenge of the would-be idealist, the person who aspires to be King or Gandhi and reach much older age with idealism fully intact, is to be willing to take risks and not feel like there is much to be lost even if there are material things or stability to be lost in actuality. This, I suppose, is the heart of bravery and fearlessness, to act as though there’s nothing to lose even if there is, and is certainly what King and Gandhi called on from themselves and their supporters. Of course the lesson of those individuals precisely is that there is, indeed, everything to be lost, one’s own future time on this planet is completely at risk from behaving this way, yet both lived for years with the assassin’s bullet as a fully formed threat in the future and proceeded heedlessly and to great and wonderful effect.

Our society is a raging torrent of influences to get us to be more conservative, to fear the future, to hunker, bunker, and protect. The entire world of advertising, arguably the most powerful, constant, and influential voice in our world, tells us to fear this, that, or the other, and that only a product or service they are selling will mitigate the impending doom. Our news-media is a disaster-hound, teaching us to fear hurricanes and gunmen and people who don’t look like us who are coming for our stuff and our lives and our livelihoods. Our government, especially in the United States, is in endless paranoia about things being taken from a country the envisions itself as having absolute power, influence, and dominance, and thus absolutely everything possible to lose. This is why 9/11 can spawn the Patriot Act and war without end, because we are so darn afraid of losing anything that we flail hopelessly at the rest of the world for even thinking it could take anything from us, no matter how small that something is or overreactive our lashing out.

But there’s a reason that we idealize childhood, that being young is associated with joy and hope and the way we aspire to see the world. It’s because the world of the young is full of possibility and hope and a future that looks bright, whether or not it actually proves to be. Deep down, this is the way we all seek to live, the way we all know we should be living. We all have dreams that we’ve wanted to sacrifice for at some point. And it’s harder when the things we’re hunkering and bunkering to protect are marriages and children and the house with the white picket fence we’ve just agreed to pay off for three decades. And 100% risk is not for everyone. But I think examining your own calculus of more-to-gain or more-to-lose from the future is a great guidepost to looking at your own idealism and getting back to a place where the future is pregnant with possibility, not portentous with loss.

Certainly the institutions in which we interact, work, and play could learn a lot from this. But that starts with each of us being idealistic enough to take those chances and inspire others to do the same. Only then are we really living, are we really free, and are our unicorns real.

The corner of Ellis & Taylor, San Francisco.

The corner of Ellis & Taylor, San Francisco.

Aug 8

City of Lost Causes

The city of New Orleans belongs to the trees. In the rollicking residential neighborhoods of gaslamps and pillars, porches and endlessly long thin houses, the trees grow big as the houses themselves, mighty roots the size of trees in other lands pushing and pulling at the sidewalk, casting aside concrete slabs like so much paper in the wind. In other cities, men with backhoes would come and hack at the living wood, tamp it down, corral it, make it bend to human will so the sidewalk could lie flat and even and safe for wheels and half-drunk tourists. Not so here. Here the humans put up cautionary hands, accept their place in the hierarchy, allow the trees to sprawl as God intended, make adjustments, trip over cracks in the pavement and dip their tires down low to accommodate.

The only battle of significance ever fought here was after the war in which it played a role had officially ended. The city is the largest in the world to sit below sea level, a fact painfully raised by the 2005 hurricane that conspired with human neglect to nearly destroy the place. The largest celebration of the year honors the last day of bliss before forty days of restraint and self-reflection, one final bacchanalian death throe before the calm of the days that follow.

In most civilized parts of the world, the humans there try to control the land they’re on, to shape it and alter it so it conforms to their vision of existence. Here there is a sense of acquiescence, of acknowledgment of forces beyond control, be they trees that shape the roadways or ghosts that shape the past. The lights flicker and dance, the revelers do the same, the low-lying lands give off the feeling that one is already underwater, drowning, going down fast, and it’s time to let go. The symbol of the city is a long-dead flower of a long-dead monarchy in a country whose influence over the city ended, directly, two centuries ago. There is a palpable feeling sometimes, in the heat and humidity of an August afternoon, that we might all be dead already, that we are living out the memories of our lives as they once were, some sort of haunted mansion planet that people can only come to visit and see through crystal balls or lettered boards or Geiger-style counters in the basement frost.

Of course there are people doing the hard work of restoration. One sees it everywhere, taking buildings that may not have been working or at least glorious since The Storm and mulching the front lawn, repainting the pillars, replacing the windows. There are workers everywhere in this part of the city where we’ve settled, sweating through their shirts and pointing to various detail work for the wealthy families come to reclaim their patch of heaven. So it is everywhere in a nation such as ours, even in the fabled lands below the waterline. Here I feel none of the defiance of New Jersey, though, or even Boston. It’s more of a humble effort in the face of the inevitable. “How do we ever survive this life?” I asked myself in a fit of despair the other day. Then I started giggling, almost uncontrollably.

The joke is that we don’t.

Not actually a haunted mansion in New Orleans, but rather in Disneyland's New Orleans Square.  A future post is slated to discuss the tremendous impact that New Orleans Square had on me as a child and how it's manifesting in my love of New Orleans now.  I cannot tell you how disappointed I was upon visiting Disney World for the first time that their commensurate square is Liberty Square and modeled on New England and their Haunted Mansion looks like Salem instead of New Orleans.

Not actually a haunted mansion in New Orleans, but rather in Disneyland's New Orleans Square. A future post is slated to discuss the tremendous impact that New Orleans Square had on me as a child and how it's manifesting in my love of New Orleans now. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was upon visiting Disney World for the first time that their commensurate square is Liberty Square and modeled on New England and their Haunted Mansion looks like Salem instead of New Orleans.

Aug 6

Elegy for AC

I didn't take this, but I might as well have.

I didn't take this, but I might as well have.

The first month I lived in New Jersey, Fish and I went to see Counting Crows play at the Borgata and then stayed up most all of the night playing poker. I wrote about it here, at the time. The month I moved away, we did the same thing. It’s just one of those things. Like the only PJ’s Coffee of New Orleans on Earth outside of the southern US being in Highland Park, New Jersey when I moved there and closing the month I move to New Orleans. It’s enough to make you a solipsist, or at least to be very focused with one’s own life, something Counting Crows shows always have a way of doing, as I’ve talked about recently in the wake of a just earlier show.

There’s a theory I have sometimes, that I think about more than I’d care to, about life as Contract Bridge. It’s a version of solipsism and probably something that just missed inclusion in The Best of All Possible Worlds but might even make a decent sequel if that book were up for that sort of thing. In any event, the idea doesn’t necessitate solipsism, though it certainly implies it or a warped expanded kind of meta-solipsism. The idea is that there are a million of each of us out there, living on parallel worlds, and we’re all basically playing our own individual video games of our own lives, but it’s being scored and at the end you get compared to the other versions of yourself out there. I use this notion to both berate and reassure myself, the idea that there is a Storey Clayton abroad in some far-flung galaxy who took exactly the opportunities I had and is a renowned and well-regarded author with several books that are even now changing his society. Or hell, just a Storey Clayton who was able to not have a marriage taken from him. That would be neat. It’s not always a way of lamenting my fate, it’s at least half the time a way of trying to kick my own rear into gear and remind myself how much potential and opportunity I’ve truly had, which only occasionally slips into a reminder of how pathetically I’ve squandered it.

The circumstances of August 2009 were so vastly different than June 2014 that they don’t even seem like the same planet. But we kept making references to the earlier time, overlooking things like spending the day seeing “500 Days of Summer” earlier that weekend, how significant I found that movie at the time without being able to envision any portends of my own impending doom (reason: there weren’t any portends). We didn’t wait as long in line this time and weren’t quite as close, but the show itself was so much better for the lack of accompanying bands going crazy. The Toad opener was awesome, especially being able to get to see “Something’s Always Wrong”, Fish’s old them song, live with him. And “Windmills” again, which always kills me. The lead singer of Toad kept referencing how crazy it was that the band had broken up 16 years ago and you could feel this kind of reference to the idea that Counting Crows had been together the whole time and what could have been for him and then. You got the feeling that the decade and a half felt like a wasted blur to him. I haven’t seen their VH1 special (if applicable) and don’t know what demons, chemical or otherwise, he may have spent the last few years wrestling with, but I could really relate to the implied sentiment. Of course, one goes to Counting Crows shows to relate with what’s on stage, whether it works or not. That’s just what you do. Hearing him say “We’re hear to sing songs about sad people so you don’t have to,” made me boggle that I’d never heard Adam Duritz drop a line like that.

It would be a fitting epigraph for half my own fiction. Or maybe all of it. There’s always more novels to come.

Fish had sort of promised Madeleine and/or himself that we wouldn’t stay out quite as late this time, but we’d gotten a hotel room in anticipation of breaking that pledge and break it we did. Fish had perhaps his best night of his life on the poker table and then I went to show him Revel before they close it. For the uninformed, it’s a casino that was built to be high-end, 1% style that started building in 2008, which is every bit the disaster you’d expect it to be. By the time they opened it in 2012, it was already bleeding money from every drain. The state owns it now, functionally, and is probably shutting it down in September unless they can find someone to buy it. It’s one of the most beautiful places to gamble I’ve ever seen (I’ve been seeing a lot lately) and the poker room was perhaps my favorite, a place where I always made money and spent one really fun weekend when they’d just opened sipping luxury coffee and scooping some pretty big pots. The poker room closed a while ago, shortly after I cashed in a tournament there, but the rest of the floor is still really beautiful if you can avoid eye contact with the suicidally depressed employees. Revel convinced thousands of people with great casino jobs in NJ and Philly to quit to come to the only place anyone was supposed to be playing after 2012. But the place was bankrupt less than a year after opening and it’s almost all over. We put five bucks on three numbers of a roulette wheel, hit one of them, played a couple more rounds, and walked away with even more of the state of New Jersey’s money.

Then we ran out to the beach to watch the sun rise and take in all the things people feel on beaches when it’s way past bedtime. (Yes, CC played “A Long December,” and there’s all that baggage out there too.) The sands of time, the tides of time, the significance of half a decade spent in a state that I’ve always hated (and it’s grown on me, but only in terms of a few people and really just RUDU, to be honest… even Rutgers as a whole did next to nothing to endear me to the institution), a state that’s made me suffer more concretely than any other by a long shot. The relief and exultation I feel to be leaving the physical state of New Jersey, even despite missing RUDU and access to Philly and AC, is constantly palpable even now, a month and a half after departure. I don’t really believe in curses, but I do believe that significance is infused in time and space, even if it’s only in how we think it makes us feel. Good God.

Since getting here to New Orleans (and playing poker a lot, which is my trial job for now… so far, so good, and yes, I’m monitoring it closely so don’t panic), a lot of people have been talking about Atlantic City like it’s in hospice care. And to be sure, casinos are drying up left and right. Not just Revel, but Alex’s favorite, Showboat, itself something New Orleans themed in New Jersey, is slated to close in September, even though it’s still turning a profit. Pennsylvania just passed NJ as second state in the country for gambling revenues and explains a lot of why AC is falling apart… the Philadelphia market and I-95 corridor now have alternatives that don’t require burning as much $3.50 a gallon gas. Honestly, I just tell people these days that the Mob couldn’t shut down competition forever and I think that explains AC’s demise as much as anything. There’s a lot of grand metaphors to be made about how much America has turned to gambling in the last decade as a balm for its problems and I should honestly be the last to complain given my new attempted livelihood and its enabling, but it does feel like the habit of a country in decline. But then we’ve always been a nation of get-rich-quick and when the bootstraps snap in our hands, I guess the craps table looks as enticing as anything else.

Before I left, a lot of people expressed concern at the proverbial crosshairs I was putting myself into by moving to New Orleans, what with the crime and especially the flooding and the hurricanes. I hastened to point out to them that in the time I lived in New Jersey, New Brunswick got hit with two hurricanes while New Orleans experienced zero. Yes, the specter of Katrina looms large over everything here, but the larger point is that you can spend your whole life running from certain things and planning for certain others. You don’t have any more control over your life than you do over how those dice land. It sure feels like you do because you threw them, but really you’re just facing a series of decisions with very limited information and the best of hopes and intentions but no real power. It should be liberating in a way, though it doesn’t absolve you of the responsibility of doing the best with the very limited control you do have. You need to savor what you’ve got. But in the end, it’s the sun and the tides and the seven billion other people who are running this show, not you.

I’ve been struggling with how to write about the past and the present now that I’m ensconced, sort of, in New Orleans. It’s complicated by the fact that the move still isn’t settled here and I don’t know how to talk about that and am not sure I really even want to, at least for now. But there were so many experiences along the way that I was too busy and overwhelmed to discuss, the move (never ever use All-in-One Moving, ever, people), the trip to Orlando and the Georgia beaches where we watched a sea turtle lay eggs and crawl back to the water, everything that’s happened in the city of the fleur-de-lis. And maybe these are best discussed in reflection. One sure as heck doesn’t know how to describe waiting eight hours in a line for an amusement park ride while that’s happening. But it feels crazy to be posting a Counting Crows setlist five weeks in arrears. Or it would if I didn’t spend every morning singing “Cover Up the Sun” to myself in anticipation of the new album now less than a month away.

I will probably never again visit an Atlantic City that looks like the one I spent a decent amount of time in during my five-year tenure in New Jersey. But that’s okay, change is the only constant. All these “New”s are attached to these cities and states to remind us of that. Someday maybe I’ll take a tour of only the olds, hit Mexico and Jersey and Brunswick and York and Orleans. All places, save Mexico I guess, trumped by their newer bigger better counterparts. Before we all hit the tables and gambled away our fortunes. You do remember that’s what happened in 2008, don’t you?

This underwater city seems like as good a place as any to hole up for now. If the apocalypse hit, everyone would help each other out. They’ve done it before. That’s enough change for me today.

God, I didn’t even really talk about the show as much as I wanted. That’s what happens when you let it sit for five weeks. It was a short but powerful set. And they even played Mr. Jones, sparing me the ability to rant about one-song-fans for another few months, though I tell you the rant is pretty sweet. I sure wasn’t expecting that, but I was expecting “Potter” somehow right after “Earthquake Driver”, which I want to put on the record would be the Crows’ biggest hit in years and years on the charts if they release it as a single. Instead, it seems like they’re releasing the 9-minute “Palisades Park” first, which seems to show that now 50-year-old Duritz likes his current touring regimen and is done with big-time fame, even if they did just sign with Capitol. The song does sound like a stream-of-consciousness hybrid of his favorite themes of the last few years. Ah well, we all just want to be understood. That’s what this particular video game/life is about.

Counting Crows
28 June 2014
The Borgata – Atlantic City, New Jersey
with Toad the Wet Sprocket

Round Here (Palisades Park alt)
Untitled (Love Song)
Richard Manuel is Dead
Mr. Jones
Colorblind
Start Again
Omaha
Earthquake Driver
Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby
A Long December
Cover Up the Sun
Hanginaround

Palisades Park
Rain King (Oh Susanna alt)
Holiday in Spain

Aug 1

Engaging Alex Zhao on the Irrationality of Atheism

Alex Zhao, former debater from the University of Chicago, was the first to take up the mantle of refuting yesterday’s post on what I would (and did) call the irrationality of atheism. So consider this part two of what may be a series. I will not reprint the response in full, since you can read it here. But I will engage with the bulk of his argumentation and sometimes quote it.

Posts look better when shared on social media when they have a piture!  Here is the Alex Zhao in his native habitat.

Posts look better when shared on social media when they have a piture! Here is the Alex Zhao in his native habitat.

Zhao (as I will refer to him hereinafter, since half of APDA’s alumni are named Alex and most people online call him Zhao anyway) makes three fundamental arguments:
(1) Storey refuses to clearly define “God”
(2) Storey misunderstands what a hypothesis is
(3) Storey is seeing patterns because he wants to believe

Let’s take them in turn.

(1) Storey refuses to clearly define “God”
This is the argument I probably find most frustrating from Zhao. He is basically asking me to put forward an entire holistic theology in a blog post that engages with the idea that people ought not be sneering knee-jerk atheists who believe that their perspective is more rational than that of believers. I would love to do this and it is in fact one of my five to seven outstanding book projects that I am toying with working on. However, it is a book and not a blog post and would probably be the product of at least three to six months of diligent work. So I’m sorry that I cannot fully flesh out the God that I see evidence for in our universe, which we can both refer to rigidly as the Benevolently Sorrowful God (BSG, if you like) that I referenced last time.

Zhao extra-frustratingly goes on to try to pigeonhole me into some version of the Christian God because I didn’t say “Allah” and I didn’t call God unnameable, about which conceptual frustrations I have recently posted. Let me be clear: I do not believe in the Christian depiction of God or the divinity of Jesus, etc. I do not privilege those versions of God. I believe that the entire point of God is to have a personal relationship with God that most organized religions seem to tacitly or overtly interfere with. Again, my entire definition of God is a book at least, maybe a series. It’s something I think deeply and thoroughly about, but have not crystallized all of my thinking about into a readable version, yet.

So let’s give Zhao some credit with his frustration and say I should make more of an effort to define terms. I will acquiesce to a standard tri-omni God because it gives us something to talk about and is pretty approximately close to what I believe. And here Zhao’s refutation is interesting and meaningful, because he extrapolates my argument to say that a “higher power” running a simulation including us could include “Vulcans from Star Trek” or “Jedi’s from Star Trek” [sic] and so on. Fair enough. My argument may be equally good for Vulcans and for God. But here’s the thing: if our universe is created by an entity that controls everything therein, it is meaningfully synchronous with the concept we attribute to God relative to our own existence. Nothing, for example, prevents there from being a nested series of universes and Gods that control subsequent universes by (a) creating them, (b) overseeing them, and (c) possibly judging them in any number of conceivable ways. Now we can have theological arguments about where that puts us vis a vis this God concept, but an entity that creates and oversees our entire universe looks a lot more like God than it does like atheism, logically speaking.

Even Zhao himself says: “It may perhaps be reasonable to leap from these two premises to a higher power: it does not therefore follow that Storey’s god exists.”

Again, my argument here is that you should be open, logically, to the idea of God. I’m not trying to convert you to the BSG or my vision of God – that would be what my future book would be for. If you’re willing to concede that there’s a higher power that could have created the universe, then much of my work is done.

Which brings us to:

(2) Storey misunderstands what a hypothesis is
This is easily dispatched. Zhao simply restates that simulation is a hypothesis, not a theory, and that as such it has not gained universal traction among scientists, is speculative, and may not be true. Sure. I agree. My argument is if/then… if you are willing to seriously entertain the simulation hypothesis, you must also then logically seriously entertain God. If you think the simulation hypothesis is baloney, then this half of the argument is not for you, as I believe I made relatively clear. I still find it weird that the simulation hypothesis is getting so much play in the popular consciousness and no one is circling it back around to God conceptually, which is why I spent a lot of time on this argument. But by all means, I’m aware that the simulation hypothesis has way less traction overall than the Big Bang Theory, which is why I made the latter half of my post too. So:

(3) Storey is seeing patterns because he wants to believe
This is a critique I’m getting all over the place these days and I find it intellectually insulting, but it seems to be popular for people to throw at anyone’s belief in something that is not science, even though science starts out with a premise and then tests those results, just like any other belief pattern. It just feels like this cynical cop-out that people paste onto anyone believing differently than they do: you must want to believe so much that you find patterns that aren’t there and only take the evidence you want to take! (This recently came up in a discussion of the merit of Myers-Briggs tests on Facebook and again my experience was just labelled as something that must be confirmation bias. By this logic, reality is confirmation bias and we should all retreat to solipsism.)

But in the main of this argument, Zhao completely punts my challenge to explain how everything came from nothing in less than a fraction of a second. Instead, he just says “the Big Bang is almost certainly imperfect at this time, and thus probably is a poor basis for belief in a god,” which is a surprisingly humble statement about a Scientific Fact, which I like to see. But if it’s a poor basis for a belief in God, isn’t it also a poor basis for a belief in not-God, or science, or anything else we believe about the universe? People who ardently believe in everything contemporary science tells them do not go around much saying that we poorly understand evolution or genetics or the origins of the universe and thus let’s not worry about the conclusions reached by these beliefs. I would be a lot less defensive and upset with them if they did. Rather, the typical experience is the sneering superiority I referenced before, the underlying idea that “my beliefs are logical and yours are crazy” that inspired the original post’s tone in the first place.

But then Zhao says something interesting:

It would be as if Storey saw a wasp’s nest, realized it was intricately designed, and then demanded to know why people didn’t seriously entertain the possibility that humans made them all as homes for wasps.

But here’s the thing: wasp’s nests are made by some intelligent being! I actually think Zhao has put forward there what I would consider a pretty good argument for vegetarianism (not that a lot of people eat wasps specifically, but you get the idea), which is that wasps have a sophisticated intelligence capable of creativity. This does nothing to propound the idea that there are things which were made by nothing intelligent. It merely says one type of intelligence created something rather than another. Okay, fair enough. The fundamental premise is sound.

But that’s not even the main point – I do believe that many things about the design of the universe, most specifically that there are fundamental, discoverable, and provable laws that remain consistent throughout time and space (y’know, science) that indicate intelligence and forethought behind them. No matter. That’s not the essence of the issue here. My issue is another if/then: if you believe in the Big Bang, then it indicates God far more than not-God. There is nothing we find anywhere else in the universe or the world of science where all-matter is instantly created from no-matter. This description is very much like the description of God creating things and very much unlike any description found in the rest of science. If science’s best working description for the origin of the universe is that all-matter instantly came from no-matter, doesn’t that seem to imply a creation of some type? And if not, why/how did it happen? Zhao makes no effort to engage with the fundamental question except to say that now he may be doubting the Big Bang because we don’t have all the answers about it yet.

Zhao postscripts that he is an atheist who is open to the possibility of God, which already puts him ahead of a lot of the people I was implicitly refuting in my original post. But he doesn’t really explain anything of what evidence or indications he specifically puts forth to lean toward atheism, just that his holistic judgment is that atheism is more likely than God. Which is fine, because he chooses certain premises to focus on and then draw conclusions from those premises and form his belief set. We all do this, it’s called thinking. But this is a far more humble and nuanced atheism than most scientific atheism, which seems to assert that atheism is Rational and God is Irrational. I will be happy if most people conclude from my post that both are, fundamentally, based on chosen premises and thus not wholly Rational in the way that science/atheism tends to claim. This was my conclusion of my original post. At the end of the day, we are all making choices about what to believe based on decisions to, say, trust our senses or believe what the person next to us is saying. And that puts all beliefs on more or less a parallel footing. The only arguments that we can ever logically make from that are if/then arguments. If premise x is true, then conclusion y follows. And I would posit there is absolutely no irrefutable premise.

So my point in calling atheism irrational is saying that there are premises which most atheists would seem to accept, and the conclusion leans more toward God than atheism, so ardent atheism seems irrational. But an equally important point is that everything we believe is if/then, and your ifs are not necessarily any better than mine. Believing that you don’t have any ifs which are refutable is perhaps the biggest irrationality of all.

Jul 31

The Irrationality of Atheism

Atheism is the prevailing theory of the universe among most intellectuals below a certain age in this country. Many people are ardent atheists, while others acknowledge at least a passing uncertainty, but the avowed belief in God is increasingly becoming categorized in the same general box as those who believe in Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and perhaps that they have personally been kidnapped by aliens upwards of ten distinct times. All of this is done with the same sneering elitism and assumption of universality and correctness with which many intellectuals approach many issues in their life, be it the superiority of certain academic institutions or the idea, say, that people of all races should be treated equally or some other (actual) standard accepted fact.

Much of my source for this understanding of how people behave and think is, of course, the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA) community, a place where I spent the formative bulk of my time in my own undergraduate college years and then the last five years of somewhat less formative but somehow no less meaningful or tumultuous time. This is the most unabashedly and thoroughly intellectual community in the United States that exists currently (I will take on all challengers to this mantle, but not spend time doing so in this post) and also among the most sneering… intellectuality and elitism are so intertwined in contemporary America that it makes one almost want to be stupid sometimes just to be unapologetically kind and/or human. And while there are some theists on APDA, they are often ridiculed and scorned, either directly or by association, and the running assumption is that anyone with a shred of skill or talent at debate is of course an atheist, which I ran into in my own personal experience, especially during my recent coaching stint at Rutgers where people would start discussions all the time from the premise that I’m an atheist and would look so puzzled when I corrected them with my actual belief set. One person in such a discussion actually said “But you’re smart!” as, to him, a complete rebuttal to my stated belief in God.

This state of belief and proliferation of atheism as (pun/allusion very much intended) Gospel truth among purveyors of and adherents to logic is, in my opinion, appalling. It is also largely inexcusable for people who actually want to hold a mirror of methodology and logic to their own beliefs which is, near as I can tell, the complete goal of the examined life and logical process in the first place. I would contend that it comes from the same oft-ridiculed place of knee-jerk assumption that is so maligned when it is found among believers. People hear that scientists/respected authorities don’t believe in God, so they don’t either, more or less full stop. Surely some people examine it more than this, some much more, but I don’t think people get a lot further than taking issue with some particular doctrines of specific religions, usually those they have encountered most in their personal lives. Obviously the phenomenon of “person is raised in religion, person has disillusory moment with specific doctrine/person/aspect of religion, person writes off religion wholly as concept” is so common and frequent as to be an almost universal trope of my generation. I had my own religious falling-out when I realized in Catholic mass in seventh grade (Catholic school – I was raised very loosely Episcopalian with salt and alternative theories) that the cross was a method of execution and that if Jesus had been shot, the symbol of Christianity would be a gun, and that there was Something Very Wrong Here and I had to leave the church, both physically at the moment and more metaphorically in the long-term. But to jump from that moment to atheism would be, in my perspective, like having one scientific experiment fail in a chemistry class and then believe that everything ever written or spoken in human history was a deliberate lie.

So let’s address the actual evidence that’s out there, since the idea of God is so often decried as unprovable and irrational and insane. Because science is doing its damnedest to prove and propose the possibility if not the certainty of God and basically no one is paying attention and I find it really irksome.

There are two key issues I’d like to focus on in this post, though there are numerous other proofs of God and aspects of theism that I personally see abroad in the land, so to speak. But the two most obvious and frustrating issues are those that come from the cutting edge of science itself. I’m sure a third would come from the Higgs boson if I understood better what said boson really is or is about (NB: I know that people who like science hate that it’s nicknamed the “God particle” and say it has nothing to do with God. I also suspect that this is because people who like science consider themselves more allergic to the notion of God than EpiPen-wielding children are to bees or peanuts.). Maybe someday. But the two issues that I find glaringly obvious are (1) the simulation hypothesis and (2) the Big Bang.

Nick Bostrom is famous for first seriously proposing the idea that we’re all living in a simulation in a modern scientific-academic context. Of course the idea dates back to Descartes’ brain in a vat and Zhuangzi’s butterfly dream ages before that and the fact remains that for all our invention, intellectual/philosophical thought probably hasn’t progressed during most/all of what we consider human history.

(Brief aside: my friend Michael a month or so ago was discussing a passage in the Odyssey that he loves about Odysseus wailing like one of his victims and that in this moment he seems to be learning compassion for his enemies and realizing that they bleed as he does and that this is beautiful art. I retorted, crankily, that this realization made me suicidal because in 2014 we are no closer as a society or people anywhere to that understanding and we could easily look at all time since ancient Greece as wasted wheel-spinning. Michael was understandably put off and said “okay, Homer makes you want to kill yourself”. This was before the recent re-eruption of Israel/Palestine War number 86,000 roughly reminded me of my own point. We are not making any progress as a species whatsoever.)

In any case, we now have Scientific (TM) backing for something that philosophers and intellectuals have always feared/suspected/wondered about, namely that reality is illusory and perhaps itself a self-defeating concept and that some other force is behind what we see to be true. Bostrom’s paper caused a firestorm in the scientific community and now we have news/media outlets regularly publishing the idea that there’s between a 20-50% chance this is all a simulation. Very serious scientists are now even developing new tests to see if we’re all simulated. And everyone seems to at least be taking this idea seriously until it is concretely disproven somehow.

Yet despite all this recent fervor for the idea that super human intelligence has created simulations and possibly even nested simulations that actually explain what we perceive as reality, no one seems to be making the logical leap (or tiny step, I would argue) that super-human intelligence could be capable of same. In other words, we are somehow capable of imagining and seriously logically engaging with the idea that clones of ourselves could create this reality, but that no one else could. This is, in a word, short-sighted. That’s probably the kindest word I could come up with for it.

At the point where we are willing to put lofty double-digit percentages on the chance that everything we are and see and sense is fabricated as some sort of simulation, the idea that something like God is behind that simulation seems so obvious that it almost defies the suggestion. At the very least, we should be creative enough to imagine that entities far more capable and intelligent that current humans (remember how much progress we’ve made since ancient China and/or Greece) are behind the one-way glass of our simulated existence. At the point where we’re being deliberately simulated, almost anything on the other side of that mirrored wall becomes akin to God in a way that’s meaningful and powerful, and yet there are no serious academic articles a la Bostrom putting God back in the discussion of our everyday life. Somehow we find it realistic and comforting to believe that a 4th grader in Earth-prime could be making us as a science project, but not that someone slightly smarter than a 4th-grader is conducting this as a test of moral progress? Are we really that self-obsessed?

The only viable explanation I can find for this is the same that I find endemic to almost all aspects of atheism: hubris. The atheist, as a general rule, finds it impossible to imagine an intelligence that is more developed or sophisticated than the contemporary Earth human. It places itself at the very pinnacle of the universal food chain, something that one would think at least takes some sort of hit in reference to the idea of a simulated reality when we are not yet, in 2014, capable of creating such seamlessly simulated realities ourselves. But they still put an Earth human behind that glass because it is so hard to admit that Earth humans may be riding the universe’s very short bus indeed compared to what else is out there, let alone what is behind that glass. Given the extreme vastness of the universe, it seems obvious to me that the intelligence of whatever’s behind the glass if we are a simulation is so great as to be worthy of reverence and arguably worship on face. Granted, the cynical among us must entertain the idea that the force is value-neutral or malevolent, and the divorce between intelligence and morality is all the rage these days, but I think there’s plenty of additional evidence abroad in the land for realizing that benevolence is very much a part of the universe’s agenda, in addition to an unending sadness/disappointment at what we, both collectively and individually, manage to squander in terms of opportunity/potential.

In any case, I’m not looking to convince you today that the Benevolently Sorrowful God I feel I interact with (not Uniquely or Specially, mind, but as a normal everyday human being) exists. I’m looking merely to convince you that it is wholly rational to believe in God or at least the possibility of God and that, as such, Sneering Obvious Atheism is irrational.

If you disagree with this premise still, I would ask you to explain how you can simultaneously (a) entertain the realistic possibility of the simulation hypothesis and (b) entirely disregard the possibility that God or similar is behind the proverbial curtain of said simulation.

I have long disabled comments on this webpage because, well, read Internet comments anywhere, but I will entertain and rebut any serious explanations of the above. storey@bluepyramid.org

And you might not really take the simulation hypothesis seriously, which would be totally fine. But if you don’t, I bet you believe in the Big Bang. So the next part of this post is for you.

Before the US media had decided that Israel/Palestine War 86,000 deserved all/most of your attention, there was a lot in the US media made of the recent discovery of “proof” of the Big Bang, manifest through the sighting of gravitational waves that are consistent with the inflation model of the universe stemming from said Bang. I only vaguely understand the precise science of things like, say this, but the upshot is that the Big Bang looks all kinds of correct as an Origin Story for our universe, which is so vast as to be utterly beyond incomprehensible to human understanding.

Now one of atheists’ favorite games is to make fun of God-based Origin Stories, such as, e.g. Genesis, wherein God is so ridiculously powerful that it takes just seven days to form a world and one of those isn’t even busy! Of course, here is the prevailing scientific understanding of how long it took the entire universe (functionally infinitely larger than Earth) to form from literally nothing:

Source:  Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

If you’re scoring at home, some of the relevant time markers there are one-one-hundredth of a second and three minutes. According to this rationally proven prevailing scientific understanding of the universe, everything necessary to build our universe was inevitably underway one-one-hundredth of a second after there was literally nothing there before. And, at that time, while expanding, the universe was roughly 85% of its current size with all the matter it would need to form, well, everything.

One-one-hundredth of a second. Or, if you prefer, three minutes, when the nuclear fusion had finished and all the matter set to, I guess, cool for the next few hundred-thousand years.

Two key questions arise from this. (1) Why is it rational to believe it took three minutes or less to create everything in the universe, but irrational to believe it took six days to create the world? and (2) Why/how did the Big Bang happen?

(2) makes people crazy. I have never encountered someone who has a good reaction to that one. It is where all of science, for its claims to proof and obsession with replicability and ultimate complete understanding, gets its spade turned, hard. And so science leaves us with this unsettling idea that it is crazy to believe there is intelligence or deliberate thought behind the formation of the universe, but wholly rational and consistent with understanding to believe that nothing became something in a period of time so short that it is unimaginable to human feeling. And not just something, but the building blocks for EVERYTHING. To insert God into that creation process, that something-from-nothing hypothesis, is ruled straight out by people who have no alternative explanation and find the whole question of explaining it tiresome. This is the height of irrationality and uncuriousness. But it seems bizarre to conclude that one should devote their life to discovering minute details of this process of ultimate creation, but take zero interest in what may have caused it.

Look, I’m not defending Genesis specifically or the people who run around saying dinosaur bones are in the Earth to test our faith and fool us into following Satan. I don’t believe in Hell or the Bible’s specific Origin Story (though I think the metaphor of this quick creation dovetails impossibly nicely with current theories of actual creation, which is the whole point of this half of the post, QED) or the Garden or the ribcage or any of that. But it is so weird that God is so quickly dismissed by people whose best and tested explanation is that everything came from nothing in a hundredth of a second. Look at that graph. Look at that expansion and that timeline. It’s like watching a firework and saying that no one shot it in the air and there was no intent behind the explosion, but one second there was sky and the next second there was color and sound everywhere and who cares why. Really? Really??

Look, I’m not saying you have to believe in God. Nothing I’ve offered here proves a divine intelligence is behind these things. But I think you have to conclude that being sure there’s no God is poppycock. It is intellectual absenteeism to care about the Big Bang and then abdicate the question of how or why it happened. And everything-from-nothing-in-no-time looks more like God and Creationism than it looks like anything else at all. Every scientific method and explanation we have looks at all matter coming from nothing in zero time and rails against that, demanding some sort of source or force or deeper reason. It breaks all the rules. So the closer we get to proving that this model is an accurate depiction of how we got here, the closer we get to having to face something that looks an awful lot like God.

Again, I’m more than open to refutations. With permission, I will reprint an rebut them in the coming months if anyone’s interested in having this debate out more thoroughly. Or just summarize and rebut them if you don’t want that kind of pressure. I am genuinely curious about the mind of an atheist and how it grapples with these possibilities, realities, and understandings. I may have missed something or lots of somethings. But ultimately, I just don’t think it’s rational to look at the way the universe seems to be shaped, have started, and may possibly have started, and to be sure that there’s no God behind it. And at the point where atheism is irrational, then its sneering superiority to belief falls away and we can agree that we’re all just choosing premises we like and running with them rather than some of us thinking and others of us not.

Jul 22

Almost Like Real Life

So a lot has been made lately of Facebook putting an overly positive spin on things, shifting our perspective and making us seem and act happier than we actually are.

I think this is true, but largely for a much simpler reason than people are saying. It’s because of the “Like” button.

LikeButton

Here’s the thing. We like likes. They make us feel affirmed. They make us think that people are out there in the void, listening, taking us seriously. Most importantly, they bridge the divide of desperately lonely souls, making us feel that others empathize with our experience.

As such, consciously or no, we construct our posts on Facebook to cultivate likes. And thus we are uncomfortable posting anything phrased in such a way that someone would be hesitant to “like” it. If it would seem wrong or sick or weird or sad to like something, we alter the phrasing to be positive or silver-lining-y enough to gather likes.

I noticed this mostly when reading posts about people dying. People discuss the deaths of their loved ones, friends, people in Israel or Gaza, and they were gathering likes! This seems wrong, right? Who likes someone else’s beloved or cared-for dying? Isn’t that horrible?

But time and again, I would notice that people would find a Polyannaish closing thought or silver lining or positive little thing to say that would make a like not only un-reprehensible, but actually the appropriate response.

I don’t know what the fix is. Certainly a Dislike button would increase Facebook’s death toll decently and make it a far less pleasant and more ostracizing place to be. But I almost think there should be an “I Feel This” button that can express empathy or support without actually feeling positive about the sentiment expressed. Because that enables a full range of real human emotions, not just the parts of ourselves that are most obviously likable.

Cross-posted (of course) on Facebook.

Jul 21

Porch Storm

He sits out on the high rickety wood porch, consuming pages like nutrients long missing from his diet. The movers, the cleaners, the gas company, everybody’s late, everybody’s nice. Except the moving truck driver from Astoria, Queens. Of course. He’s both the latest and meanest of them all.

People smoke too much and drink too often and constantly use endearments that sound like sexual harassment. They wink often and smile easily and take their time walking the sidewalks. The air is somewhere between a gas and a solid most of the time the sun’s out, surrounding with presence more than evading with absence like one might be used to.

The clouds start to gather, dark and thin, wispy strands like wand emanation from a fantasy world. They combine, swirl, lower, gain heft and weight and presence. Then there’s a flash, the world set alight, and a faint rumble, and the sky bursts open on this bold hard cue. Within minutes, there are pools of churning water at every curb and corner and the flashes and cracks are performing a grand orchestral opera that puts fireworks to shame. It is several minutes before the water becomes sufficiently dense on the porch to threaten the pages themselves and send him inside.

The streetcar sounds its bell and rolls along roads like they were designed for something other than pollution. Tired children are lifted off the boards and onto laps while excited tourists hang half their weight out the window and crane to see statues, balconies, flags of the fleur-de-lis. The conductor pulls a lever and we turn into the busy intersection, there are echoes of a hillside on the edge of the Tenderloin and a time before most of us were born.

The best a nomad can hope for is something that feels like home.

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