Categotry Archives: Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading

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Several Counter-Intuitive Things I’m Thinking Today

Categories: A Day in the Life, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , , ,

If you don't post a picture on social media, people won't know what your post is about!

If you don’t post a picture on social media, people won’t know what your post is about!

It’s gonna be roundup-style today, kids. The loose thread tying it together is that I’m thinking things I think most people I know might disagree with. The snarky among you are saying “Why should today be unlike any other day?”

1. I don’t think Kim Davis should have been imprisoned.
I know. I know. She’s misdirected and misguided, biased and problematic, hypocritical and the whole nine. I’m not defending her actions or her as a person. But I don’t think arrest and imprisonment actually fit her actions at all. She probably should have been fired, probably on about the second day of her shenanigans. Let the long slow dreadful wheels of employment law sort her out. But I think even state officials failing to execute their job properly or carrying out their job in a biased way does not warrant arrest and imprisonment. Unless, you know, they’re killing people or physically harming them or something. But failure to do your job properly doesn’t warrant arrest. If it did, even more of the country’s population would be incarcerated, which is truly hard to imagine. On a political level, also, there’s the whole martyrdom issue. It made me pretty queasy to see so many “liberal” people condemning civil disobedience as a ridiculous concept on face just because their convictions don’t align with the person invoking said disobedience right now. Letting the person disobeying have jail as a place from which to make a more legitimate-seeming claim of mistreatment was just a bad tactical move, if nothing else.

2. NPDA might not be that bad.
The jury is out on this one, but my first earnest night of working with the Tulane Debate Team led me to believe that the differences have long been exaggerated. Certainly the “coaching” that RUDU has received in the last year or so makes me question this a little, but that might not be NPDA’s fault; it might just be the NPDA-experienced person in the position. Almost every time I asked if something was different, I learned that it’s not. There seem to be spready regions of NPDA, but it looks like Tulane avoids those. It might just be linked APDA, which seems to be what a swath of recent APDA leadership has been clamoring to turn APDA into anyway. I need to go to a tournament or two to be sure, though, which looks like it may be in the works! Don’t worry; we’re going to try to get Tulane up to some APDA contests too.

3. Only a Convention Coup can stop Donald Trump from winning the Republican nomination.
No matter how much the media fights and scrabbles and the establishment refuses to take Trump seriously, I think his momentum is almost unstoppable at this point. People forget that the Republican primaries are disproportionately winner-take-all, which is very different from the Democratic proportional system. Trump doesn’t need 51% support to start edging people out of the race and collecting a lot of delegates. People also grossly misunderstand how well he sits at the crossroads of so many things voters find appealing right now – the combination of irreverence for the economic establishment while being (or posing as) a successful businessman is almost irresistible for a group of people who are not doing well financially but assume they will some day. The Republican Party has always had slots for Trump-like candidates, though they’re usually from California (Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger). We’re facing a year when it’s quite possible that both nominees by delegate count will entering the conventions with no major establishment support or endorsements (R-Trump, D-Sanders). I don’t trust either party not to pull a coup, but especially not the Republicans. The problem is that the Republicans know that Trump will run 3rd party if they betray him, especially after he took the loyalty oath. But how else would you stop him? He’s a walking scandal, making him totally scandal-proof. He’s an American Putin. How would you honestly make people who love him now hate him when everyone in the party is trying so hard to emulate him?

4. The more you do, the more energy you have.
This is kind of an oldie but a goodie. And maybe those “you”s up there should be “I”s since this may not be true for everyone, though I might posit that it just doesn’t seem true for everyone. But awakeness and energy levels have always seemed to depend most on one’s interest in what’s going on when one is awake. If there are lots of things you’re looking forward to, lots of activities (even if many of them are objectively exhausting), then the tipping point of waking up when one is otherwise sleepy or getting out the door when one is otherwise feeling overwhelmed just gets a lot nearer. Part of this is a positive reinforcement loop – expending energy is an investment that may not always pay off. Sometimes activities are less fun or enjoyable or “worth it” than they seem. But I think most people (or maybe just most introverts) discount the value that will be gained from such activities, especially when one has a busy/exhausting job. The reality is almost always surprising that those activities are fun, enjoyable, and ultimately energizing. I think the same principle I used to try to convince people to play another game of Risk on Scheffres 2nd and then start their homework even later is still in play: fill your time and your time will fill you. And sleep is only necessary when there’s really nothing else to do.

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Europe’s Migrant Crisis is America’s Fault

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

HungarianTrainStation

Even in the typically self-absorbed and America-centric American press, the magnitude of the migrant crisis sweeping Europe has been the top story lately. There is something about a throng of humanity camping out in a train station because of being bureaucratically stuck, or piled dead in the back of a van because of being under-ventilated, that manages to capture the attention of most of the compassionate. And while Europe’s Schengen Zone has been built to be more accommodating to poor, tired, and huddled masses yearning for employment, the sheer quantity of suffering people has found, to quote a phrase, a higher pitch and broader scale.

There are a handful of migrants from Turkey and occasionally another country. But the top three, far and away, the nations that virtually everyone in this slow-moving morass of people piled up in Budapest or Calais or at the psychological gates of Germany are from: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

This is the US on the basketball court sticking up a sheepish hand. “My bad!”

Except, of course, we don’t. That’s not the way we do things in the US. Mitsubishi sent a team of executives to officially apologize for benefiting from the imprisoned labor of prisoners of war during World War II, finding a last survivor to sincerely admit guilt to. Nation-states have apologized for genocides, bombings, and other atrocities committed by previous regimes. Yet the United States, who has not even had a regime change since any of our many brutalities to fellow humans, peacefully transferring power in a direct line from genocidiers and slavers, firebombers and nuclear-bombers, we do not apologize. We, as a nation, are never sorry. Sorry is for suckers.

No wonder Donald Trump is halfway to being President in the national imagination. He is the embodiment of the American ego, ripped from the nation itself and implanted in one single person.

So it’s also little wonder that we’re not even whispering some responsibility for what, until recently, would have been called a refugee crisis. It’s unclear to me whether this rebranding is for the sake of the dignity of migrants – refugee becoming a little too tattered a word to describe actual people – or whether it’s a way of minimizing their desperation and suffering, though that’s hard to do when a makeshift raft of these beleaguered people sinks twice a week on the high seas. But make no mistake, when you hear the stories of this level of sheer torrid struggle and hope against hope: we did this. America created this reality.

Having a war rain down on your homeland is not an ideal circumstance. It is arguably far more devastating, destructive, and damaging than the most brutal and oppressive regime that you can imagine. Say what you will about the secrecy, idolatry, and lack of freedom of the North Korean regime, but at least most everyone in the society is intact from day to day, as are their houses, families, and places of work and leisure. Or put it another way – take the top five or ten most oppressive countries in the world and the most self-aware people in each of those countries (to solve for the “brainwashing” question). Then offer those people a choice: would you rather live here, as you do, or move directly to Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria? If more than 5% of people chose door #2, I’d be shocked. And if fewer than 95% of that 5% regretted the choice after actually seeing the status quo in said nations, I’d be really shocked.

Yes, Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. The Taliban was repressive. America still basically ruined the life of every man, woman, and child in those countries. For over a decade and counting.

Think about the level of fear, hopelessness, and anguish that would lead you to get on a boat that could easily sink, then get in a van that could easily suffocate you, then camp in a train station indefinitely, and to make a series of these risky and questionable choices over and over again. Can you even picture it? The predator at your back would have to be so fierce and tenacious that you would be willing to take almost any heedless act. We did that. We did that to these people. Us. The US.

Syria’s the exception, you say? You’ll concede that the places we bombed to the stone age, then raided house-to-house for years before being confused why killing everyone who disagreed with us kept manufacturing more people who disagreed with us and giving up – you’ll concede that those places may bear our responsibility. But not Syria! We have barely even started bombing Syria!

Well, uh, we created ISIS. And I think we can all agree that ISIS has something to do with why Syria is unlivable right now, though admittedly not all of it. The rest of it probably is related to the government there we used to prop up, or the rebels against it that we are now arming. Leaving a country alone has never really been a reasonable option. The US always knows best, taking sides, making kings, picking winners and losers, all to the benefit of our own people. After all, it doesn’t end up being our train stations that flood with suffering humanity, our vans found packed with corpses, our tax dollars at work trying to get people a better life. We are perfectly placed on the planet to lob a thousand interventions from way downtown, but be far enough away to not really be impacted when things go, as they inevitably do, south.

Yes, Mr. Trump, we are not far away from Mexico. You are right, and for that we have an agriculture industry. Build your wall and deport everyone and see how long people in this country can eat.

You know what, America? You don’t have to say you’re sorry. It would be nice, it would be civil, it would be the human thing to do. But it’s cool, there’s such a long list of things to apologize for, to reconsider, that it’s okay if this doesn’t make the cut. Here’s what I want you to do instead. Just think about what you’ve done. Think about how this happened, how your wars and bombs and drones and aggression created all this. Think about what’s going on in Yemen, where the next wave of migrants is already coming from as the infrastructure there returns to medieval levels. Think about what you keep doing, all over the globe, and maybe… just maybe, stop.

Like any unruly id, it’s hard for the US to really internalize that other people, their homes and lives and feelings, are just as real as they are. That’s good ol’ American Exceptionalism ruling the roost here at home. The secretly harbored feeling that we are the only people who truly matter, or at least we matter most. But it’s not true. Every resident of that train station matters just as much as you do, Mr. Trump. And if we’re not going to take responsibility for those souls, at least we can maybe save the next generation from the next possible target country, and decide to live and let live instead.

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Hillary Clinton and the Problem of Liberalism

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

Why isn't calling myself a liberal enough for you?

Why isn’t calling myself a liberal enough for you?

“This was an incredibly new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay rights movement began to talk about and slowly, but surely, convinced others of the rightness of that position. And when I was ready to say what I said, I said it.”
-Hillary Clinton, in 2014, on why she still didn’t support gay marriage fully, but was coming around. She fully endorsed it in April 2015, after 36 states and just 2 months before the Supreme Court legalized it in all 50 states

“Look, I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate.”
-Hillary Clinton, rebuking Black Lives Matter with her theory of “change”

I don’t consider myself a liberal. The term has been corrupted and co-opted by neo-liberalism, a movement really sparked in the US by Bill Clinton. It’s become a term that’s associated with milktoasty right-of-center policies masquerading as the new left. It’s waving the banner of corporatism, of free trade, of incremental change so small and slow that it looks like it’s going backwards. The very few actual Clinton supporters I know (not just begrudging and thankfully dwindling plurality of people who think she’s the only chance for “us” to “win”) tout the idea that her policies are actually very liberal. But liberalism is exactly the problem. Liberalism is about compromise, about (at best) the first six years of the Obama administration, about all eight of the Clinton years that brought us DOMA and NAFTA and bombing campaigns and a bunch of other policies that, before Reagan, we would associate with Republicans.

Hillary Clinton says her heart was changed, incredibly slowly, slower than the state of Iowa, by the gay rights movement. She was just two months ahead of the Supreme Court on this issue, around the time when they were hearing oral arguments, meaning that if Clinton herself were the decisive vote on the Court, the outcome of June’s decision would be in greater peril than it actually was. So much for voting for Hillary to protect the outcome of decisions in the Court.

Hillary Clinton doesn’t believe in changing hearts, though. Maybe because the first quote up top there is garbage. She came out for gay marriage at the last palatable second for a Democrat, largely because she probably still didn’t believe in it. I would contend that Clinton doesn’t believe in changing hearts because she doesn’t have a heart to change. There’s no idealism there. There’s no belief structure. There’s just a series of calculations about how things will be perceived, a mechanistic series of trade-offs en route to what she has seen for a long time as her inevitable just dessert. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is pretty much the exact belief structure of Bushes the younger, both the successful two-term W and the contending-but-probably-sunk-for-now Jeb!

Here’s the problem, though, and this is coming at all those who posted on Facebook after this quote that Hillary “gets things done”. You have to believe in a change before you can fight to make it law. Hearts change before laws change. Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Obergefell was not a deeply reasoned meditation on the exact nuances of Constitutional structure. It was a stirring plea from a heart that had been moved. If John Roberts’ dissent sympathized with the heartstrings but stuck to the legal guns, he may have had a point in doing so. “Whatever force that belief may have as a matter of moral philosophy, it has no more basis in the Constitution…” he wrote. He basically conceded that gay marriage was right, but he had found a justification in the “law” for not adopting it. Frankly, even John Roberts’ heart had been changed, but as a strict structuralist, he felt he couldn’t be swayed.

This kind of change is not what Hillary Clinton believes in. And in so doing, she offers a liberalism that guarantees stagnation. She will be even less of a change leader than Obama, who at least has found some will for actual change and chutzpah in his last two years, opening up Cuba and proffering the first sane Iranian policy in the US possibly in history. Yes, he still has his daily kill list and yes, he is still responsible for a terrible law that will make the next forty years of health-care policy even more reactionary than the forty before Obamacare (unless, that is, Trump or Sanders, both of whom believe in single-payer healthcare, get into the White House). But at least he’s found some change we can all believe in at the 11th hour.

The change Hillary believes in is to her bottom line. It’s to the self-serving reputation of the Clinton Dynasty. It’s to the ongoing entitlement of her clan as Democratic Royalty in an era when the Democrats became desperate and started moving further and further right to curry favor with corporate donors. And by resting on the laurels of liberalism, any moderate with a SuperPAC can come in and call themselves a winner to try to carry the banner of a new generation of leftists.

It’s no wonder that Bernie Sanders keeps gaining ground on this candidacy. A huge bloc of the Democratic Party are frustrated left-wingers who felt Obama was disappointingly moderate. You think those people are going to support someone who doesn’t even claim to believe in change? Who thinks Obama compromised too little? Your theory of change can’t be to move Clinton to the left in her rhetoric, because her rhetoric literally doesn’t matter. She doesn’t believe in changing hearts and minds. She believes in herself and doing whatever it takes to win. Fortunately, this year, or next year, so far, that doesn’t seem to be on pace to be a winning strategy.

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Trumpemployment

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

I promise this isn’t just becoming a Donald Trump blog. Though it would be a way to get more traffic.

Trump is one of two candidates in the race, along with the person I actually support, Bernie Sanders, who is observing the flaws in the current methodology for calculating unemployment. Unfortunately, both Donald and Bernie are focusing on underemployment as a facet of unemployment, which is mixing apples and oranges and undermines the strength of the argument that unemployment, meaning joblessness, is actually 11.52%.

They’ve been popularizing the often-touted “U-6” unemployment figure, which includes both discouraged workers, captured in my Real Unemployment figure month to month on this blog, along with workers who are part-time but would rather be full-time. Don’t get me wrong, these underemployed workers matter and are part of a larger picture of an unhealthy and overrated jobs market. But they are categorically better off than people who have left or never entered the labor force and are thus not only ineligible for part-time work income, but for unemployment benefits of any kind.

Definitions from the BLS website:

Persons marginally attached to the labor force are those who currently are neither working nor looking for work but indicate that they want and are available for a job and have looked for work sometime in the past 12 months. Discouraged workers, a subset of the marginally attached, have given a job-market related reason for not currently looking for work. Persons employed part time for economic reasons are those who want and are available for full-time work but have had to settle for a part-time schedule.

What’s amazing is that this inclusion itself nearly doubles the unemployment rate, from 5.3% to 10.4%. And yet this includes zero people who are actually outside of the labor force. And as we know, the labor force as a percentage of population is at a 38-year low, dating back to a time when it was still somewhat novel for women to be working regularly. That was October 1977, before I was born, when the Seattle Mariners had just completed their first season of existence, during Jimmy Carter’s first year in the White House.

By my calculations, factoring in just the truly unemployed, including those who’ve fled or been barred from the labor force, unemployment in July 2015 was unchanged at 11.52%. The Reporting Gap, measuring those left out by the ignorance of how labor force percentages impact unemployment, was also unchanged at an all-time high of 6.22%.

Here are your charts:

Unemployment, real and reported, from  January 2009 through July 2015.

Unemployment, real and reported, from January 2009 through July 2015.

Reporting Gap between real and reported unemployment, January 2009 through July 2015.

Reporting Gap between real and reported unemployment, January 2009 through July 2015.

If you add the difference between traditional U-3 unemployment and the U-6 figure that Trump and Sanders like back to the real figure of 11.52%, you get 16.62%. This is roughly how, I assume, Trump got the basis for his claim that he made during his announcement speech:

“Our real unemployment is anywhere from 18 to 20 percent. Don’t believe the 5.6. Don’t believe it.”
-Donald Trump, 16 June 2015

So I like where he’s going with that, but I think, like so many things Trump says and does, it’s a little exaggerated and more than a little mixed. Though 16.62% is really not that far from 18-20%, which is more than an alleged fact-checker like Politifact gave him credit for. Of course, Politifact makes irresponsible claims like this:

“For the sake of argument, let’s assume that half the additional increase in people out of the labor force comes from the Baby Boom retirement surge.”
-Politifact’s Louis Jacobson, 16 June 2015

We don’t have to just ballpark for the sake of argument. We can calculate this statistic based on data the BLS collects. And the fact is that Baby Boomers are delaying retirement because of the Great Recession, not fleeing the labor force. The Baby Boomers are responsible for 7.5% of the labor force drainage, as of October 2014, which I think you’ll agree is a bit shy of 50%.

Trump may be crazy and mixing his numbers. But if Trump and Sanders win their respective nominations, maybe the media will finally have to pay attention to the reality of the delusion that goes into reporting our unemployment figures in this country.


This is part of a continuing series on the under-reporting of unemployment in the United States of America.

Past posts (months indicate the month being analyzed – the post is in the month following):
June 2015
March 2015
February 2015
December 2014 – labor force participation assessment
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014 – age assessment
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
April 2014
December 2013 – seasonal assessment
December 2013
March 2013*
August 2012*
July 2012* – age assessment
July 2012*

*My initial analyses led to a slight over-reporting of the impact of the reporting gap, so the assessments in these posts are inflated, as explained and corrected in the December 2013 analysis.

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Why We Love Trump

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

Donald Trump:  definitely not fired.

Donald Trump: definitely not fired.

People like dynamic excitement in elections. This is why I believe Bernie Sanders is more electable than Hillary Clinton. And I could write a whole piece on how that phenomenon is behind Donald Trump’s unexpected and meteoric rise to the top of the Republican polls. It’s fertile ground and there’s a lot there, but honestly, I think it’s a pretty small chunk of the reason that Trump is in the catbird seat for the Republican nomination. I think it avoids why he’s actually such a strong candidate and why, ultimately, he has a very good shot at the nomination and even perhaps the presidency.

People love Trump because he’s honest and sincere. He’s real.

Now you could very easily rebut this by saying there’s not an honest bone in Trump’s body. Many have posited that his whole thing is an act, that he says whatever he thinks will rile people up the most, regardless of his true feelings (if those even exist anymore). His hair is famously fake and surely anyone who goes that length to brag so repeatedly is covering for a mighty insecurity. Truth? Sincerity? Really?

The type of sincerity that Donald Trump offers is one about the political process and the political perspective of his followers and, perhaps, the whole Republican Party. Make no mistake, the Republican Party is almost entirely against immigration. They are fearful of outsiders, of foreign nationals, even (in many instances) of non-whites generally. The whole lineup in Thursday’s debate probably feels that way to an extent, or is at least trying to galvanize people who largely feel that way. So when Trump makes outrageously racist statements about Mexico shipping rapists and murderers north of the border, his statements are not different in kind from those his Republican colleagues would make. They are merely different in degree.

When Trump talks about the bounty of his riches and how he wins in business, he is espousing time-honored Republican (and American) values. Most of the other candidates want to be able to do that, but they have some notion in their head that such claims would be scandalous or indecorous. Similarly, Trumps comments about women reflect a wider ideology at home in much of the Republican Party about the role of women and their rights in society. FoxNews, desperate to assassinate Trump’s candidacy as quickly as possible, tried to zero in on this during the debate and Trump doubled-down. His popularity isn’t suffering, because it’s that kind of perspective that his supporters like. The folks sharing the stage would have similar policies toward women as Trump would. Trump is just going to be upfront about it, and about how he really feels.

Most Republicans (and Americans) want to get ahead of other countries very badly. They’re terrified about China, they’re concerned about our place in the world, they’ve been manipulated (again again again) into thinking war is necessary against [insert hyped Middle Eastern threat here]. Trump just comes out and uses the words folks are using at home to describe these threats and outsiders. It’s the same sentiment that a Bush or a Cruz or a Walker might be trying to get across. But it’s more direct, more biting, and thus more powerful. Because it exposes that Trump has the directness and sincerity to come out and say what’s really behind these political stances, rather than tiptoeing around it. Trump may look like a circus act, but if your alternative is playing with small wooden blocks, crudely shaped like a lion and tiger, wouldn’t you rather just go to the actual circus?

This is what makes it so hard for Trump’s rivals to get an edge on him, how he is hamstringing them all in both an individual debate and the national discussion. To distinguish yourself from Trump, you either have to diverge with him on a policy issue, or you have to sufficiently equivocate so as to seem substantially weaker on it. Neither of these are good strategies. He has cornered all the classic Republican tropes of candidacy in terms of advocacy, while doing so more brashly than others on every front. If you believe in something, you don’t want the person at the top of the ticket quietly mumbling about how it might be a good idea, but there will have to be compromise. You want them boldly embracing it, shouting it from the rooftops, adding bravado! And no one, not even the mighty Ted Cruz (whose territory Trump wholly and masterfully usurped) can out-shout The Donald.

This gets particularly effective when it comes to a subject like money in politics. The shadowy world of the so-called Billionaires Primary and the Koch Brothers and all the masses of cash that Citizens United has helped accelerate into the political process is something most people don’t want to talk about publicly. In an effort to embarrass Trump, FoxNews brought it right to him in the debate. They pointed out that as someone usually on the other side of the money/politicians hookup, he’d supported a bunch of Democratic candidates in the past. The sheer genius of his response has been sorely under-appreciated by the media and most pundits responding to the debate:

MODERATOR: You’ve also donated to several Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton included, Nancy Pelosi. You explained away those donations saying you did that to get business-related favors. And you said recently, quote, “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”

TRUMP: You’d better believe it.

MODERATOR: So what specifically did they do?

TRUMP: If I ask them, if I need them, you know, most of the people on this stage I’ve given to, just so you understand, a lot of money.

TWO OTHER CANDIDATES: Not me.

ONE OTHER CANDIDATE: But you’re welcome to give me money if you’d like, Donald.

[More assorted bidding for Donald’s money and discussion of opponents he paid in the past.]

TRUMP: I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.

OTHER CANDIDATE: What did you get from Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi?

TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you what, with Hillary Clinton, I said be at my wedding and she came to my wedding.

Did you see what he did there? Not only did he set up a situation that literally illustrated the nature of his opponents’ groveling for money and the position of power that this put him in, but he simultaneously condemned the system that made it possible while reveling in the advantages he’s gained from it. And because he’s Trump, so brash and forthright, he can get away with that. And then, the kicker, the coup de grace, he turned gifts to Hillary on their head to embarrass her with them. Hillary and all that she represents gladly attended the wedding of Donald Trump and his third wife, something we all cannot really imagine Hillary enjoying, just because Donald asked. That’s the power of his money.

After a moment like that, how could anyone feel great about supporting one of Trump’s Republican rivals over Trump? Because here’s the thing: Trump is pointing out that pretty much whoever you’re voting for (*not Bernie Sanders, obviously), you’re voting for Trump. Even voting for Hillary is voting for Trump! His money gives him so much leverage over all these people that they are so desperate, they will literally grovel for money from the front-runner while they are debating against him.

It’s amazing.

We all know this corruption exists. We all read (or are at least aware of) dry and well-researched articles about the fact that whatever vestige of democracy we once had has been sold to the plutocrats. By bombastically illustrating it, by living it on the stage, Trump is simultaneously the embodiment of this system and its repudiation, reaping the best of both worlds. He can say to the public “You want power and money controlling your system? Go straight to the source! Cut out the middle-man!” and lampoon the system that makes this influence possible. Because it is, objectively, absurd. But no one is getting out of it.

It remains to be seen whether FoxNews and all the terrified Republican establishment hacks can assemble enough money and bad press to sufficiently tarnish Donald Trump and get him off that stage. But I really really doubt it. They may keep him from the nomination, making that old electability argument that leads to milktoasty losers like Romney and Dole, Kerry and Gore, but even then his bravado could lead him to a devastatingly upheaving third-party candidacy. Whatever the Republican establishment does to try to beat The Donald, they can’t buy him off. Which is what makes him so scary to the political order running this nation and so appealing to the voters who are sick of it.

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The Electability Trap

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Americans are obsessed with having voted for the person who happened to win. It’s bizarre, and I’ve discussed it before, and it’s a large part of what never gets fixed about politics in this country and why we re-elect 99.9% of incumbents (rough estimate) and have a deadlocked system of two parties that are virtually indistinguishable in actual policy. But whatever. I’ll accept that as given since it seems like reality and I can’t fight it every time.

What I want to observe in this post is how bad people are at predicting electability, even when trying to chase that dragon. Because it’s pretty well documented, especially in the recent history of the Democratic Party. And, of course, it directly relates to 2016.

You know who the two most obvious electable nominees of the Democratic Party have been in my lifetime? Al Gore and John Kerry.

Who, if you’ve forgotten and are scoring at home, share zero years of lifetime Presidency, combined.

There was never any earnest, real excitement around these candidates. There was never verve or enthusiasm. But there was a strong sense that they were winners. These people were established! They were going places because, uh, people have heard of them? And stuff? And familiarity must breed some sort of excitement in November? Right?

Now, yes, I realize that Gore may have technically won the 2000 election, though we’ll never really know for sure. But you know what he didn’t win? His home state. What a winner!

Meanwhile, there have been two extremely successful two-term Presidents who have served as scions of the modern Democratic Party. They were also most commonly criticized throughout the primary process as one deathly word: “unelectable”.

You know these folks. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

Part of why they were so unelectable is that you didn’t know these folks that well even two years before the election. Oh yes, Obama gave that stirring keynote at the Democratic Convention in 2004 that showed just how totally awful John Kerry really was as a candidate, but even then people smiled for the State Senator and told him that maybe in 2016 he’d have enough party credibility and establishment under his belt that he could consider running in the primaries. Clinton was a non-stop liability throughout the primary season. He had affairs and controversy following him all over the campaign trail. Meanwhile, in 2008, Obama was every bit the outsider that Bernie Sanders is today, against the presumed obvious nominee that Hillary Clinton was then, as she is now.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Convention. Excitement.

You see, it’s actually enthusiasm and energy that drive elections. This is what Americans, especially over-thinking political Americans, always seem to forget in analyzing electability. Barney Frank has certainly forgotten this, though he and all his Democratic establishment cronies are absolutely terrified of Bernie Sanders taking the Democratic Party back in the direction of its actual principles, before drone strikes and the TPP and workfare. His recent post in Politico is getting a ton of traction in my Facebook feed, mostly from debaters who seem to like the political gamesmanship of elections far more than the clash of principles. And Frank himself transparently bends over backwards to claim there’s basically no difference between Sanders and Hillary, despite Sanders shouting from the rooftops about income inequality, the slaughter of oppressed peoples at home and abroad, the minimum wage, and billionaires, while Hillary quietly defers and goes back to platitudes and equivocation.

Let me ask you a question. Are you excited about Hillary Clinton? Do you know anyone who is excited about Hillary Clinton?

And allow me to clarify. I didn’t ask if you were excited about the theory of four more years of a Democratic President, or about Supreme Court nominations, or about not-Republicans, or any other red herring issues that Hillary supporters have trotted out. And I didn’t ask about the abstract of a woman President since, after all, I know exactly what you would think if it were Sarah Palin vs. Barack Obama now, or back in 2012, so that’s not your real voting issue or what drives your enthusiasm, even if you have put aside the fact that her initial political experience and qualification was First Lady.

Are you energized? Are you inspired?

There may be a few of you who answered yes, I guess, though I think you’re lying to yourself. Unless you’re reading this, Chelsea. You’re probably pretty pumped.

But the crowds and the rallies and the buzz are telling the story. The excitement, the only real excitement on either side of the fence, is for Bernie Sanders. Oh sure, Trump is getting a lot of attention, but not a lot of enthusiasm. It’s mostly controversy. After all, he had to pay people to attend his candidacy announcement and pretend excitement. Trump is great theater, but he doesn’t have the energy. No one else on the Republican side is really getting people jazzed. Bush and Rubio and Walker all seem to have a bit of a following, but it’s with the same kind of verve of the most ardent Hillary supporter, which is to say a tentative shruggy kind of “well, I guess he’s…. electable?”

Energy wins elections. Obama. Bill Clinton. Reagan. In the modern media era, it’s this visionary excitement that drives voters to the polls. Not a resigned half-compromised “Well, let’s go with the establishment candidate because they have name recognition.”

Hillary does have name-recognition, along with strong and intractable unfavorability ratings from a majority of the electorate. People who like to talk about Bernie’s unattractiveness to Republicans forget that Hillary was the target of merciless attacks from the Republicans for most of the ’90s, far more hated than her husband, and was probably the biggest driving force behind the 1994 midterm Republican landslide. Those people haven’t forgotten how they feel about Hillary, no matter how many wars she’s promised to fight.

Meanwhile, Sanders has that kind of alternative appeal that could peel a lot of the fringe wings of the Republican Party away, just as a Ron Paul candidacy would have peeled a lot of fringe Democrats had he ever been nominated. If you see a Bernie Sanders general election against some big Republican Party hack, someone like a Jeb Bush or a Scott Walker, his authenticity and creativity are going to run circles of excitement around the trotting out of another established insider. Just as Hillary, the ultimate insider, seems slippery, dishonest, and unappealing to the average voter.

The only way Bernie Sanders can lose this primary contest coming up is if Democrats vote with their fear instead of their heart. Choose Kerry over Dean, choose Gore by default, choose tired unexciting establishment cronies to carry the banner instead of someone with fresh ideas that actually galvanize. You may think that your primary issue is electability, but I think you need to think again.

Three obviously electable Democratic establishment campaigns... that lose.

Three obviously electable Democratic establishment campaigns… that lose.

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Privacy is Death

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

Sandra Bland, right, with the incident that precipitated her death, left.  You know her name because and only because someone filmed the incident.

Sandra Bland, right, with the incident that precipitated her death, left. You know her name because and only because someone filmed the incident.

The thought occurred to me yesterday that had the events of Freedom Summer happened this summer, they would have ended with the police just gunning everybody down. I don’t think that’s quite actually true, because of the nature of numbers and publicity and death and the fact that Freedom Summer had enough white people involved that it would make such slaughter hard to pull off. But I think it’s a fitting thought experiment to launch further reflection on what is happening in this country with civil rights and the police and the kind of near-daily crisis that the African-American population is facing in this nation.

Then, of course, I realized, that this summer is new for only one reason, or the last two summers since we’re now about a year after Ferguson. It’s not that the behavior by the police is new, or the racism has intensified, or that the killings are up. It’s that people are talking about it and paying attention. That’s all that’s changed.

The incarceration rates of African-Americans are truly shocking in this country, the dominant number behind a nation that has used prison as a first-response mechanism to any threat, real or imagined. It is easier to lock up people who disagree with you than to improve their lives, work with them, bridge the divide between your perspectives, or try to build society. We aren’t just failing at nation-building abroad, we’re doing a woeful job with it in every impoverished neighborhood and traditionally disenfranchised group here at home. In large part because top-down nation-building by white imperlialists has always been a broken model. The nations of the developing world that were once colonies were built and established to forever be colonies, perpetual slave states to be milked by foreign powers, their people exploited, but now with their own “independent” flag. It’s hard to trace a problem or a shortfall in developing countries that can’t be directly attributed to this phenomenon.

Similarly, the ghettos, slums, and poor neighborhoods of the US function as colonies, churning out new victims for an American police state, free labor to head to the prisons, and just enough resistance to fuel an oppositional dynamic that can be used to justify crackdowns to the rest of the populous. All while providing enough criminally cheap labor to keep the pyramid of American capitalism churning, allowing people to think working three dead-end jobs at once is “opportunity”, giving just enough hope to the downtrodden that they don’t examine the whole system and tip it over.

So what’s different now? What’s changed this summer, last summer, the last year that the reverberations of this system and all its carnage are finally subjects that the President and those who wish to be the next one (okay, one or two of them) are actually talking about it?

It’s the end of privacy.

The only difference between the publicity of the last year and the silence of all the years that came before is the role of cameras and social media. The reason you know the name Sandra Bland, the reason you feel outraged by what happened to Eric Garner, the reason you can even conceive of a world in which police will violently attack Black teens at a pool party, is because you’ve seen them on your screen. You’ve seen the evidence. It’s not that police are suddenly attacking, incarcerating, and slaughtering Blacks for selling loose cigarettes, failing to use their turn signal, playing in the pool, walking down the street, or not immediately complying with outrageous demands. These things are not unprecedented. They are the long-running status quo of life in this country. You’re hearing about it because you’re seeing it. It’s getting taped and shared and spread and people have a very hard time ignoring an outrage they’ve actually witnessed, at least comparatively to one laden with rumor, uncertainty, and the presumption of authoritarian credibility.

As always, the issue with privacy’s death is its symmetricality. Asymmetrical publicity is 1984. It’s authoritarian and terrifying and every Millenial and Xer and probably most every Boomer has been raised to fear it more than any other system. If the government and those in power have all the cameras, all the investigators, and all the means of dissemination, then privacy is very important. It’s to be guarded and protected. That’s the dynamic which most societies have operated under for centuries.

But our current world offers us symmetrical publicity. The ubiquity of cameras, the near-universal participation in web-based social networks, these are actually the tools of liberation. This concept seemed obvious when the Arab Spring was underway and the complacent advocates of American Exceptionalism thought it was obvious that those “backwards and oppressed” Arab nations were thowing off the yoke of their oppressors. It’s less obvious to that perspective when our own oppressed start rising and resisting here at home. But it is no less true. The advent and ascendance of technology that wantonly disregards privacy as a value is a burgeoning tool of liberation and accountability. It is holding the long-broken mirror up to our authorities and showing how far we’ve gone down a rabbit-hole of oppression, racism, and terror.

It’s why people like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are so important. It’s why WikiLeaks and anonymous hackers are meting out more justice than all the non-Supreme courts of America combined. It’s why a world in which everyone wears a camera, everyone is constantly surveilled, if it’s symmetrical and universal and includes those in power, is not terrifying. It may be our only hope.

The only thing preventing a neo-revolution, full-scale riots in the streets, a total demand that we change the practices of our systems, is the fact that we don’t yet have footage behind the prison walls. We don’t have a publicly available tape of what happened to Freddie Gray or Sandra Bland behind those still-closed doors. If you knew what happened, if that video were viral, we’d be living in a much different country this morning.

Privacy is a moral issue. Privacy is complicity with the traditional status quo, one of racism, oppression, violence, subjugation. Privacy gives power to the powerful and strips it from the powerless. Privacy is the shield by which those who would commit abuses and atrocities believe they can do so with impunity.

Living in public, openly, is the mechanism of justice, of comeuppance, of accountability. Yes, it has to be universal. It has to be applied equally to those in power. It has to, for this to ultimately work, go into the prisons, into the police cars, into the torture chambers and basements and Guantanamo and sites too covert to mention or even know about. But the best disinfectant to society, any society, especially a police state, is sunlight.

Whatever benefits you think you derive from privacy, do they justify complicity with what’s happening this summer, every summer, on the streets of America? Do they justify a system that allows racist cops to hind behind their badge and get away with murder? Do they justify a system that views Black lives as expendable and unimportant? Does your right to cling to your secrets outweigh the rights of others to live?

We’ve all done things we’re not proud of. All participated in the systems that create and manage this oppression. Until we’re all willing to examine that ourselves, let others examine it publicly, and commit to that kind of scrutiny, we’re never going to get better enough to keep this from happening. Publicity is freedom. Privacy is death.

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It’s 2015 and You are Alive

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Know When to Fold 'Em, Marching to New Orleans, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Quick Updates, Read it and Weep, Tags: , , , , , , ,

There’s a lot going on. There always is. Despite the efforts of various media outlets, phone applications, and the narrative brain to confine your existence to a narrow set of coherent and perfectly tailored activities/perceptions, reality is a cacophony of wills battling for your attention and interest. I can’t consolidate today. But I feel compelled to document. My thoughts are scattered and they’re cloudy… and like clouds, the thoughts can blow away. The Internet, as long as electricity works, is some sort of vault with which we can offer solidity to the clouds. That’s even how it’s described.

Barack Obama is suddenly the President he said he was going to be, at least a bit, in a lot of different fields. This is both exciting and sad. I have been one of the more anti-Obama leftists out there, frustrated as anyone about his drone strikes and his corporatist policies and his total ignoring of the plight of anyone who looks like him or the environment or poverty. And yet, every other day, there’s a news story about Obama suddenly talking about the prison-industrial complex, or opening an embassy in Cuba, or openly celebrating gay marriage. The 2008 Candidate, who disappeared for six or seven years, is suddenly back on the scene. It doesn’t take a political scientist to understand that it’s not having to win any more elections that is the direct cause of this change of (return to?) heart. I’m not sure anything could more concretely underline what’s wrong with the American electoral system than that someone feels they have to sell out for six years in order to sneak in a few good policies at the end. I still hold out hope that he’s going to commute every death sentence in the nation on January 19, 2017.

I have moved three times in the last twelve months. This one is mostly just sad, or exhausting and frustrating. All three were summer moves, in New Orleans, though the first one started in Jersey, where it wasn’t much less humid than here. Okay, it was a bit less humid. Every time I move, I say I’m going to get rid of all my stuff. I never do. I hate how American I am, deep down, in many ways. I can only say that moving frequently is good for me, so I don’t build up too much complacency about my acquisitions.

Returning to Berkeley was not as hard as I feared. I expressed a lot of trepidation about flying back to Berkeley, by myself, to spend a few days. The context of the trip was of course magical, but I still expected to feel a lot of angst and sadness. There was really very little. The place is still incredibly haunted, but I was more heartwarmed by seeing all the old great restaurants and little quirks that make Berkeley what it is. This was all only augmented by happening to start reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius right before the trip, which I feel like is nearly impossible to follow without a deep understanding of the Bay Area. It’s easy to forget that there are places where people unironically embed poetry into the sidewalk, where a meditation center is available as an AirBNB, where a guy like Ben Brandzel could be raised in context. Remembering that is nice.

Being without the Internet is both immensely frustrating and kind of good. This new apartment is great in a lot of ways, including that we get to have our rabbit, Brownie (quickly becoming a Facebook mini-celebrity) and that it’s walking distance to all the great stuff on Magazine Street. But it’s expensive, something we justified in part by the claim that Internet is included. This claim was greatly exaggerated, at least so far. Internet works about 30% of the time and will go out for days on end. I am not great at standing up to landlords, though we’ve been grousing a bit. But in the meantime, I’ve both gone without writing posts I was really excited about and read more than I would have otherwise. I guess it makes it about a push. The Internet, like so many things, is a tool that takes on a life of its own if you let it. It’s just a tool. It’s just a tool. How you use a tool is what determines its value.

I mostly eat when other people are around. It’s not that I completely starve when I’m alone, but I can regulate my food intake much better when there aren’t social pressures to eat with someone. Alex has been back in Jersey for a couple weeks and I find that my eating patterns have settled back to a more comfortable minimalism for me. Given that I gained 50 pounds between 2010 and 2015, I prefer the self-regulation level, which has brought 10-15 pounds off that high-water mark. I’m not looking for 2010 weights, which were depressively skeletal, but I also have no business being 170 pounds.

I’m not sure any news story has made me happier in years than Ashley Madison getting hacked. It’s hard to think of a business more pernicious or predatory of human emotions, nor people who more thoroughly deserve the searing light of publicity. I hope it all gets published in a wiki-style searchable index.

Walking in the rain in New Orleans in the summer is no big deal. I remember the one year I lived in DC, suddenly rain was not a hard deterrent to being outside. New Orleans is the first place where the rain has been sufficiently warm to replicate that experience. It was highly unintuitive to start out on a walk two nights ago into a burgeoning thunderstorm, but I felt reassured and ready. And I wasn’t disappointed. Remarkably, tons of people were out in the rain, equally unhurried. Yet another way this is a seriously liberating place to live.

Patience is an incredibly easy lesson to forget, but it’s at the center of everything. This is a lesson I had to learn and forget, learn and forget, learn and forget when playing poker semi-professionally. And it’s still at he heart of poker, and every competitive game out there. The fun and even more forgettable thing about patience is that it actually can slow time down, which makes you feel like you’re living longer. This is mostly just a note-to-self that I’m sharing with everybody. Yoga and meditation are kind of the embodiment of patience, that unhurried slowing of intention and desire and replacing it with the ticking of each second, slowly. Time is extremely perceptual. Everything in Western society pushes us to rush through things, push for a future that may never come, go go go go go at a busy and overwhelmed pace. This is a life-destructive, time-destructive force. As much as we can layer our lives with the opposite, with patience, with milking a second’s worth of time out of every second, the more whole we will tend to feel.

I have a lot more thoughts, all of which at one point could possibly have merited a whole post on their own. But this format, a little more like the days of Introspection, is fitting for now. And now I have to go get ready to have a day at work.

Life hack:  thinking about death makes you feel more alive.  Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet.  It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.

Life hack: thinking about death makes you feel more alive. Remembering that so many are dead makes you appreciate not being there yet. It is not a coincidence that New Orleans is both one of the most stunningly vibrant cities in the world and has above-ground graves everywhere.

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Finance Lessons

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

GreekProtest

I don’t know when we decided that someone’s moral worth, both individually and collectively, depended entirely on their ability to manipulate financial arrangements. But I think we should probably go back and un-decide that, posthaste.

Unfortunately, recent steps to increase corporate power and control, to vault the corporation (the only type of entity I like less than the nation-state) above the nation-state for preeminent domain over how people conduct their lives, are all but locked in. A done deal, you might say, if you were inclined toward the business end of things. Increasingly, there is no other end of things to be inclined toward.

Obviously, I’m talking in part about Greece. After talking a big game and getting everyone excited for a couple days that Greece was actually going to reject the fascism of finance to make people’s lives miserable and potentially unlivable, Tsipras backed down and Greece swallowed a deal that pays obeisance to the corporate gods of privatization and burdening the poor. Remember how we discussed that those who are successful have all the power to determine what success even is? When the wealthy or those with disproportionate pieces of the pie get to write the contracts (spoiler alert: they always write the contracts), then the poor end up paying. Every bailout and austerity measure disproportionately hits the poor, in taxes, in lack of a safety net, in the corrosion of basic civil society that comes from mortgaging the very notion of civil society and putting it up for fire-sale to a private entity.

There is also this high-minded moral condemnation that comes with all this, a heavy-handed rhetoric of “you deserve this” and “you lived beyond your means then, so suck it up now”. This presumes that more than a handful of people in Greece were responsible for the irresponsibilities of the initial accrual of debt. It’s like blaming the people who took bad mortgages in 2008 for the housing bubble/crisis. When you live in a society that worships home-ownership and tells you you’re worthless till you’ve hit that milestone, of course you’re going to take the loan when it’s offered. After all, it’s the bank’s job to know whether it’s a reasonable deal or not. Similarly, the average Greek citizen bearing the bulk of both direct and indirect costs of the new measures punishing them for their “misdeeds” had absolutely no role in decision-making for the circumstances that led them here. They may have enjoyed the theoretical benefits of a prosperous bubble, but could no more have stopped it and made Greece behave “responsibly” than they could have overthrown the government in Germany.

This notion that people are responsible for all actions of not only their governments, but their banks is frightening and irrational. I recognize that in the theory of conservation of finance, someone “has to pay” or be held responsible. And I guess the Greeks are geographically closer to the Greek bankers and former regimes than, say, the Swedes. But any notion that the connection is much stronger than that is pretty flimsy. Power and decision-making are what tip the scales in this arena, and the average Greek citizen had close to zero. The strongly-defended reaction of Germany and the Eurozone is a little like jailing the whole city of Baltimore because they “allowed” a murder to take place in their city limits. “Well,” the indignant authorities respond to cries of injustice “if you didn’t want this punishment, you should have elected people who would make sure no murder could possibly take place!” Airtight logic, no?

If you feel like we’ve seen this movie before, it’s because we have. Most poignantly in the 1920’s in Germany, which I guess helps explain the hypocritical fervor with which that country’s representatives now enact vengeance on the Greeks (see also freed slaves coming to Liberia and subjugating the local population and the whole Israel/Palestine debacle). The government running Germany and charged with paying impossible bills had nothing to do with the government that had decided to fight World War I, and indeed had far less responsibility for the war’s destruction than, say, the other European governments. And the people of Germany had far less power over the Kaiser’s decision set than anyone. But the whole nation’s people got blamed and penance was extracted, all with heavy-handed moralizing about the superiority of other European peoples. Now I guess I believe in a sliver of culpability for being willing to fight the war, albeit under coerced circumstances, and I suppose I feel there’s a comparable amount of culpability for cooperating with capitalist institutions at all (yep, I’m not absolved here, though I personally don’t believe in taking on debt). But that level of culpability is more like an asterisk than a warrant for an indeterminately long prison sentence. Someone said yesterday that 50 years is the “optimistic” timeline for payoff, that one of these unimaginable bills would come monthly for a half-century. Now, sure, I guess they just negotiated that down to forty years or something, but Jesus. Are we even thinking about these things, or are we just letting the invisible hand pin our arms behind our backs?

Don’t worry, kids. Nothing bad happened with that consistently humiliated and subjugated population in Germany in the ’20s. They were fine.

Corporate dehumanization and the expectation that everyone keeps up with the rules, learns them perfectly, and makes all the “right” decisions, mixes particularly badly with recent advances in technology. We’re talking oil and water, pills and alcohol, fireworks and forests kind of mixing here. My parents have been going through a series of micro-disasters stemming from this combination lately, including their newish car’s computer rebelling on them through sensors that almost cause accidents and my Dad getting locked out of his GMail for nearly a week because they (apparently?) thought his Albuquerque IP address was the source of Chinese hackers. When Alex got a new phone on our joint cell-phone account, my phone’s voicemail password suddenly stopped working and, when I got back in, I was told several “unauthorized attempts” had been made from my phone. This despite the fact that when my previous version of this phone had been stolen, they were perfectly happy to charge me for the unauthorized data bill that the thief had racked up.

The problem is that the computer always knows best who is who and what that means. It doesn’t seem to matter if you have the password that you’ve always had or the secret code, the algorithm will decide whether you’re real or not. There have been a lot of trippy neo-Frankenstein type movies made about this scenario, but it is a real-life and chilling set of circumstances that are developing. When my Dad offered to take his IDs into Google, they wouldn’t entertain the idea. There was no way to prove to GMail that he was who he always had been, except to input an attached cell-phone number to the account that had never been tied to the account. The computer assumed he had a cell-phone and that this phone was more intricate proof of his identity than anything human he could provide or prove.

In that same post linked above, I displayed a YouTube video of a scientist questioning ten tenets of scientific orthodoxy, including the idea that people are just machines. The prevailing belief system of those in power at this juncture is that we are all just machines and should become more machine-like in our behaviors, our “thinking” (air-quotes theirs). It’s the underlying premise not only of modern science, but also of economics. People are pre-programmed rational actors who deserve punishment and even being taken offline for deviating from the mechanistic behaviors of accumulating wealth, delivering productivity, and making smart financial decisions.

This would all almost be a reasonable way of ordering things if what smart financial decisions were stayed constant, sane, and fair. The heavy-handed moralizers of The Economy claim that finance is a lesson that can be learned, internalized, and applied to situations in a consistent manner and that everyone has equal access to the education to know the rules, learn the game, and play. Even if money were entirely equalized, though, this wouldn’t be true. Because the real winners in contemporary finance are those who manipulate the situation to their advantage. There’s nothing objective about the accumulation of wealth and power. It depends largely on not only your ability to swindle those who know less than you (in this one arena) out of their money, but even more on convincing the government to give you free money. Those that have succeeded in the last ten years in business did so primarily by convincing a vulnerable government to give them near-endless supplies of free cash, in the form of bailouts or interest-free lending. And the main way those people convinced said entities to float them is with, well, money. So the game is just to start with an unequally distributed good, then spread that good from those who happen to have it to those charged with making the decisions and, voila! Entrenchment at the top, paid for by those who never had power, influence, or money to begin with. Stupid people! They should have figured out a way to steal their own money in a way financial rules have arbitrarily deemed acceptable!

Among other things, this system is intensely immoral. Charging the uninformed, the downtrodden, the long tail of societies for the recklessness of their society’s hegemons while simultaneously rewarding other society’s hegemons for happening to outwit them… Really? This is the way we want to structure a global operation? And for what benefit? So we continue to drown an unwell planet in more terminally unnecessary plastic widgets? So we continue to cancerously grow our species until it chokes out all other life that had the misfortune of being born on Earth? If you’re going to celebrate the alleged lifting of people from poverty that you attribute to capitalism, you also have to revel in the creation of poverty it ensures every day, starting with the functional enslavement of Greece.

And then, hopefully, you ask where poverty came from in the first place. Poverty is not the natural order of things that capitalism saved us from. Poverty was invented by imperialists and robber barons, people who thought they could trick and swindle whole countries out from under the feet of people who’d always lived there. You may think we’ve come a long way from feudalism, but at least feudalism allowed people at the bottom to work their own land and save some of the food. People were not wholly owned subsidiaries of whatever wealthy decision-maker swindled them away from the other wealthy decision-maker.

There are other ways to structure a society, that give humanity back to the humans and recognize that cancerous amoral/immoral growth for the sake of enriching whoever has the reins today is not the objective of our existence. Or should not be. I know, I said “should”. I know science and economics tell you morality doesn’t exist. That appears to be the whole problem.

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The Muddy Lens

Categories: A Day in the Life, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Read it and Weep, Telling Stories, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , , , ,

The problem with writing is that it’s all done by writers.

But seriously, it’s an innate flaw to the medium. Though not a unique one, this flaw carries its own particular proclivities and issues stemming from the viewpoints of writers. They have a tendency to care about words. They have a tendency to care very deeply about being a writer and all that perception entails. They are inordinately interested in writers and writing. And other writers and their writing. And various detailed minutiae of the writing process, including how to use it to extract the very best writing.

Not everyone who reads is a writer. Arguably, most people aren’t. And thus we have this conundrum wherein what is most interesting to the writer is not necessarily what interests the reader. But, by definition, writing must be done by writers. Unless, of course, it is done by Snookie. There are, I guess, non-writers who write. But even if they do it very badly, they will eventually become writers. By the sheer process and fact of having done enough writing, one is, like it or not, a writer. And thus the problems entailed above ensue.

This isn’t a unique problem because it is inherent to almost any field of produced media, let alone field of study and perhaps creative or thoughtful pursuit writ large. It is most visible (my opinion) in the realm of movies, where the vast majority (99.5%+) of moviegoers are not filmmakers, but they are subjected, via tautological monopoly, to the whims of filmmakers if they wish to witness films. It seems, probably, least problematic in the art of photography, perhaps ironically vis a vis what happens once that lens starts moving. But there is something quiet and observant enough about the process of photography that we seem to be subjected to relatively few illustrations of cameras, lenses, photographers, and whatever it is that particular interests those behind the (still) camera.

I am speaking somewhat glibly and perhaps not entirely sincerely with all these “subjected to”s. After all, I consider myself a writer. And I sure as hell am subjecting you to what interests me as a writer, which is, if anything today, meta-writing. Or possibly, God help us, meta-meta-writing, since I seem to be writing about the nature of writing about writing, at least at this moment.

But I think there’s something fundamental here, that transcends even the creative arts. Nearly any field or group or category inevitably becomes self-referential and, in America at least, self-aggrandizing. It is in the interests of an insular group, be they a team of researchers or a team of debaters or a team of basketball players, to congratulate themselves disproportionately, to overemphasize the value of their accomplishments and struggles. In some of these arenas, say basketball, there is a small country worth of reporters, fans, and businesspeople all too willing to reinforce this kind of insular self-emphasis. Less so in college debate, perhaps, but the reduced number is counter-weighted by the verbosity and eloquence, in that order. But all of the debating is still done by debaters, and therein lies the rub.

This has application to things that matter very much indeed, as you might have already predicted would be the ultimate direction of this post. I think it’s something we’ve put our finger on, collectively as a society (I nearly said “as a collective society” to be more direct about phrasing before realizing that’s a very misleading representation of the United States at present – we are no such thing), but haven’t quite grasped, let alone articulated. Specifically with regard to politicians. The problem with politics is that it’s all done by politicians. Which sounds almost trite in its 1990s mock-discovery, ignoring the quarter-century since of cascading candidates who want to paint themselves as outsiders. But really. There are things that matter to the kind of people who would seek office that don’t matter to everyone else. There are assumptions that they make and priorities they presume that are not held by the 99.5%+ of us who are, roughly, “the governed”. There’s a little bit of “power corrupts” in here, but it’s more than that. It’s that every profession becomes an echo-chamber. And pretty soon all you can hear are the voices, quite loud, of politicians.

This applies to science, too. I was going to do a separate post about this Ted Talk video that I ran across, somehow recommended for me on YouTube as though the Internet really is learning things about people other than to try selling them the product they searched for yesterday. I’ll link it below, even though it interrupts the train of thought, because it’s someone who knows a lot more about science than I do saying what I’ve always said about science, which is that in the twenty-first century, it’s adopted a hierarchical and unyielding religious orthodoxy that would make most faiths blush. We have fallen so in love with our technological innovations and (albeit doom-creating) mastery of the planet that we cannot question any of the fundamental assumptions underlying the founding beliefs and doctrines of those who put us on this path. Anyway, I think this is enlightening, if not entirely in keeping with the theme. And no doubt many of you will find it laughable and/or offensive. But at least stick it out till the stuff with the constants:

As those of you defending the scientists will no doubt say, possibly for the first time in a list of prior professions/pursuits that you may consider to be empty, airy, and/or blustery, but the scientists are the only ones qualified to do science. You can’t just bring in a writer to do chemistry! And more importantly, as observed before, if that writer did enough chemistry to properly be seen as doing chemistry they would, inevitably, become a chemist. Because part of the learning process requires enough contact with and tutelage by the elders of the field that it is basically impossible to learn enough about the field to not become a part of its echo-chambery flaws.

There’s a place this all gets way more insidious than politics, though. A thing I’ve thought for a long time and have almost been afraid to bring up for its implications about my own slight successes in whatever field they’ve been in (okay, mostly debate). And this thing may be at the core of what is really wrong in this country and maybe all the countries. And I mean really, truly, deeply powerfully wrong, like the root. Like the hard core taproot of what is wrong.

Are you ready?

The problem with success is it’s all had by the successful.

Yes, this applies to wealth, and that’s a big chunk of it, but the myopia of the rich for problems of the poor are pretty well documented and discussed. What I’m saying actually goes way beyond that, though it’s worth observing how wealth and poverty interplay with these things the whole way down. Because finances are not the only way one can achieve success. One can receive acclaim, fame, the respect of one’s peers, awards, even self-fulfillment. And once one is recognized for this success, in whatever form those achievements take, one joins the ranks of the successful and all that implies. One transforms into someone who is repeatedly getting praised for their success, given credit for that success, and asked how they did it as a model to others. And this creates several knee-jerk reactions, all of which I posit may be total myths.

1. The belief that you are the reason for your success. No matter what role luck, timing, or the help of others may have played, the successful (at least in this country) are inundated with the narrative that “you did it!”

2. The belief that this success is actually what success is supposed to look like. This one is tricky and complicated, because it can sound very quickly like we’re not talking about anything. Easiest example I can think of is Presidents who do nothing with their term or make the country much worse, but still get re-elected. They have achieved “success” as defined by their surroundings and context (political party, supporters, voters), but this is a lousy definition of the notion.

3. The belief that anyone could reach this success. This one seems like it should be in high tension with #1, but empirically these myths persist in unison all the time. We revere the winners for being extraordinary, for doing the impossible, and yet simultaneously take copious notes for how we can precisely emulate them. It is the great drumbeat of hope, aspiration, and even the worship we lavish upon those at the top. They just worked harder. They wanted it more. They put in the extra time it took to be better.

Our society is so full of these responses to success that it’s hard to even picture a world without them. I mean, what would it even look like to not revere success? Or to not then apply it to others as a model with the belief that they can get there if they learn the lessons of that success? Questioning this is pure blasphemy, and not just for capitalists. For teachers. For coaches. For anyone. I mean, how else are you supposed to even tell someone to try if it’s not through the lens of how Michael Jordan worked to recover from getting cut from his high school basketball team? (He grew a lot.)

Even Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book that is supposed to break down the grand myths of the genius and talent of the most successful people, goes back to a sheer formula of time and opportunity to maximize time. Ten-thousand hours, kid. That’s it. This number has been so often repeated as a mantra that it’s just taken as a proven fact at this point. Play as much as the Beatles, code as much as Bill Gates, and you will become the Beatles or Bill Gates.

I fear we’re at another quandary, though, that getting around this is about as easy as having people who write really good stuff who aren’t writers, or people who can do science well who aren’t scientists. It seems definitional to the pursuit that someone has to pursue it long enough and seriously enough for it to become a part of their identity, or at least for them to sufficiently identify with being that thing that they can adopt its core principles. Even if those core principles include things that undermine the nature of the best development of the thing itself.

The best we can do, probably, is step outside ourselves and try to shed our perspective a little. My mantra in young adulthood was that “truth is vision without perspective” and it still holds true (!) today. And by “without perspective”, I mean “all perspective”. For by having 100% of the possible perspectives, one loses what we mean by “perspective” as an aspect of where one is standing in relation to the object being perceived.

Imagine a tennis ball. The truth about the tennis ball can only be grasped when one simultaneously sees it from all possible vantages. Up, down, left, right, but also inside at every molecular distance. It is, of course, impossible (for humans) and very difficult to picture, for it is a jumbled and confusing collection of seemingly contradictory information. Especially since our image of a tennis ball is a round fuzzy green ball, but much of the truth about it is the hollow inside that we basically never see. There is the old saw about the three blind men and the elephant, but the reality is that everything is the elephant and we are all blind. We are prisoners to our perspective. But we have the power of abstract thought to allow us to step outside it, or at least to try.

That’s all we can do. To write as though we are not writers, to make movies as though we are not filmmakers, to debate as though we are not debaters. Traditionally, when people can actually do these things, they are often called groundbreaking, revolutionaries, even visionaries. And then the real challenge is to wear that success as though we are not successful so that we may, possibly, make a way forward for a world where most people are not deemed to be successful at all in what was never really a fair contest to begin with.

MuddyLens

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Identity Politics

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

ObamaHillaryBernie

“My understanding is, is you’ve got some of the same organizers now going back into these communities to try to clean up in the aftermath of a handful of criminals and thugs who tore up the place.”
-Barack Obama, on the Baltimore unrest, 28 April 2015

“Every nation has to either be with us, or against us.”
-Hillary Clinton, 13 September 2001

Many were shocked in the last week to hear African-American leaders, from the White House to the streets of Baltimore, utilize the word “thugs”. The word has become sort of a proxy slur in recent years, a way people have of painting people they fear with the same broad brush, whether those people pose any sort of danger or threat or not. It’s a little like using “terrorists” to describe anyone on the international scene with whom one disagrees, though “thugs” is often more liberally applied to an entire race since the n-word has really fallen too far out of fashion.

How can people of that same race being victimized by the use of the word thugs in this context be using it themselves? What sort of self-denial is this? Wasn’t the whole hope of having a Black mayor in Baltimore, a Black President in DC, to change the cultural landscape so things like this would never be heard?

The problem, unfortunately, seems to be the opposite. Ask any radical African-American activist how they feel about the Obama Presidency. (Or, frankly, any radical activist full-stop). Despite some glimmers of a leftist that have peeked out in the outset of the back half of his lame-duck term, Obama remains a staunch moderate to a fault, calmly pausing between words to ensure he doesn’t come off as rash, angry, or frustrated, or even someone who could be confused with having a particular interest in the fate of minorities nationwide. When he has spoken up for minorities, they’ve often been other minority groups than his own, appointing a Hispanic to the Supreme Court and sticking his neck out for an executive order on extremely mild immigration clemency. He has gone out of his way to never take an action that could be confused for doing things differently because of his race.

This is understandable, if unfortunate. Obama rightly understands that he’s been under an extremely focused microscope and that many lingering racists would attempt to find anything in his Presidency possible to justify never electing another Black President. He has no interest in being the last Black President, so it’s vital to him to be seen as functionally no different than any other President. The only problem is that many many people who voted for him, who made his election possible, kind of wanted him to be a Black President. Or to at least have enough perspective from his upbringing to do more than speak of it anecdotally, interlaced with words like “thugs.” That maybe he would carve out some time away from the drone-strike kill-list to take on the disproportionate allocation of prisons, the death penalty, police oppression, or poverty on people who grew up looking like him.

This gets to the very core of whether identity matters or means anything in our society. Yes, there is something cool about Barack Obama’s ability to be elected as an African American man (technically he’s more Multiracial, but whatever, racial constructs are stupid) in this country. I didn’t vote for him because of his commitment to continue the war in Afghanistan, but even I trembled a bit watching him speak in Chicago in 2008. But if his Presidency is dictated by a fear of speaking out on issues pertinent to his community, does it matter? I mean, other than a technical self-congratulatory American footnote, are we any better off for having elected a Black President who is terrified to do anything about the problems disproportionately facing the Black community? If the best he can offer as a legacy is not screwing up so badly that people write off Black candidates in the future and then maybe that next Black President does something about injustice and inequality in 2032, is that really the change we can believe in?

Which brings me to the question of Hillary Clinton. Back in the day, there was a belief that electing women would make a difference because women might be different, on balance, in some way in their policies. Women might be disproportionately likely to listen, to compromise, to seek a peaceful solution to problems that men would, on average, want to pull out the big guns for. While the last 20 years have brought scores of women leaders in nations across the globe, the vast majority of them have gotten elected by demonstrating themselves to be even tougher than their male counterparts. Think fast! Who comes to mind as national leaders for women? Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, I’m betting. Two staunchly conservative, hard-line, tough women. And Hillary Clinton is cut from the same mold.

Look, women can be tough. Women can and should be whatever they want to be. The problem is that, to find political success in the modern Western world, women have to be tough. Clinton and her counterparts are terrified of being painted with traditional female stereotypes, being labeled as weak and conflict-avoiding and passive, so they contrast themselves with militaristic vision and aggression. The result is something like the Falklands War, one of the most pointless bloodbaths of the 1980s (and that’s saying something), where Thatcher had to establish herself as willing to go to war when provoked just so people wouldn’t think the reason she didn’t was because of her chromosomes. One of the key reasons I don’t support Hillary is she’s made it abundantly clear that she would eagerly find a war to start just to establish that the first woman President in the United States isn’t afraid of starting a war. It’s like those Geico ads – “When you’re the President, you start a war. It’s what you do.” And she sure as hell isn’t going to break that trend and have people think it’s because she’s not a man.

It’s hard enough for people to imagine electing a woman President in this country, which is kind of a stupefying fact. That reality will fade as my generation continues to cross the 35-year-old line, just like gay marriage has turned on its head, marijuana legalization will be right behind it, and hopefully (please God) some socioeconomic justice will come behind that. We’ve done a good job ensuring that our grandchildren will all consider us rabidly myopic bigots. But if the only slots for women are in the Thatcher/Merkel/Clinton vein of tough-as-nails ready-to-drop-bombs hell-or-high-water genre, are we really making space for diversity in our electorate?

Here’s the problem with Obama avoiding talking about his community and Clinton refusing to be seen as softer on anything: they become totally indistinguishable from the traditional angry old white man model of politics. So if we’re getting technical diversity of identity, I guess that’s some technical version of progress. But when all those people are in every way other than appearance indistinguishable from the traditional make-up and approach of angry old white men, is it worth it? Is it meaningful change?

Which brings us to the supreme irony of the 2016 election coming up. His name is Bernie Sanders. He is the oldest and whitest candidate (though admittedly perhaps not the manliest). And he is the only person in the race for either major party taking a different approach to US policy than the traditional I-am-the-hammer, the-world-is-my-nail approach to American hegemony. Even Rand Paul, son of Ron, is out there carrying the rhetoric of the War on Terror and surveillance without end. And it takes an old white man to bring us real Socialism, the kind of policies that insensate Republicans have somehow confused for the center-right Presidency of Barack Obama.

Defenders of Obama and Hillary might easily say that only an old white man could be a Socialist in today’s political landscape. That a minority or a woman bringing that kind of rhetoric an perspective would do a disservice to their entire class. But I think this is bunk for two reasons.

1. Racists and sexists and naysayers will always find ammunition for their warped perspective. Barack Obama’s Presidency, at least before this year, has probably mapped out just to the right of GW Bush’s (other than perhaps Supreme Court appointments). He has extended the War on Terror, initiated violent interventions in countless countries, ramped up government secrecy while punishing those who speak out against it, refused to take meaningful steps on environmental protection, and backed Wall Street and big corporations at every opportunity. And yet the naysayers and racists have branded him a Muslim, a Socialist, a Kenyan national, and a provocateur. Since before he was elected, I have been saying that my ideal President is the Republican caricature of Obama. That’s who I think this country really needs, but he is totally distinct from the actual Obama in every way. Obama has taken every pain to be as moderate and uninteresting as possible and is still hated by people who don’t like his identity. That was always going to happen. He might as well have tried to do some good first.

2. If we elect people of traditionally under-represented class, but the only slots for them are for people who are indistinguishable in policy from traditional angry old white men, are we actually diversifying? Is this frankly any different than demanding that a minority or woman “pass” as a white man? If they have to conform to the dominant cultural standard to be liked, is that truly cultural diversity? And if the standard they set demands that future Blacks or women or people who are different must conform rigidly to the old white male paradigm, how are we progressing past that paradigm? And isn’t it the paradigm that matters? If we have a Black man still oppressing Blacks, is it meaningful that we elected a Black President? If a woman sets the precedent that the first female President only got to power by being the wife of a popular President, are we really standing up for women and their right to be equal to men?

Maybe I’m the wrong person to speak about these issues as a white man. I’m sure there are some who would think so and believe this to be a trite undermining of the accomplishments of Obama and Hillary to overcome the incredible obstacles they’ve faced. My fear, as someone who hates the established order of American politics as they’ve unfolded since 9/11, who hates the traditional patriarchal approach to war and poverty and politics, is that our obsession with the identity of a person has actually set back diversifying or changing policies. The patriarchy can still use a woman to establish patriarchal policies. And we should not be falling all over ourselves to celebrate electing people who look different if that difference is only an appearance.

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Baltimore and American Exceptionalism

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

I'm not saying it's a police state, but...

I’m not saying it’s a police state, but…

It was trendy there for a few weeks of Internet time to write snide little stories on how American news events would be reported on by American news if they weren’t American news events at all. How would Ferguson look to the American media if Ferguson were taking place in Iran? People would giggle. But I’m not sure we’ve taken it sufficiently to heart. I’m not sure we’ve realized how deeply profound this exercise is. Because the bias, your bias, is on the side of law and order of the authorities in the United States. Deep down, you believe, at least a little bit, that these authorities and their enforcement arms derive fundamentally from the consent of the governed and the consistency of the Constitution while, deep down, every other place’s order derives from something at least a little bit fishy or corrupt or questionable.

Sure, I shouldn’t say everyone. There’s a few of you out there, perhaps public defenders or those who have run directly afoul of our judicial system, maybe of our police force in one city or another, who might be so skeptical of our own hierarchy for maintaining order that you trust most other systems and peoples more. But by and large, it’s very difficult to grow up in this nation without assuming that the order of things here is to keep everyone safe and happy, while the order of everywhere else is at least a little bit selfish or misguided.

This is crazy thinking, people. Myopia of the first order.

Even if you believe, deeply and truly, in the American experiment in its best form, the notion that it is an unending train of progress and success is facially ludicrous. This nation codified slavery, genocide, and discrimination of nearly every kind imaginable. This history is not over, with the right of same-sex couples to marry still being a hotly debated question rather than an obvious no-afterthoughts protection. And then there is the right of people to be safe and protected by their government, rather than prejudicially being labeled its enemy by virtue of the color of their skin. A right not to be profiled, not to be assumed to be dangerous regardless of one’s true intent or capability.

I am not here to condemn all police officers, nor to accuse every person in the country of being a racist. But if you don’t see something systemic about the way African-American men are treated in this society by so-called law enforcement entities, then you’re simply not paying attention. And the litmus test for that is if it were happening anywhere else. If Iran or China or Syria were rounding up one kind of people at that kind of rate and routinely slaughtering them unarmed and unthreatened, we would label it persecution of a minority group. We would call Baltimore a justified freedom-fighting movement. We would likely label efforts to retribute against such a movement the first steps toward ethnic cleansing.

I am a pacifist. I abhor violence of all kinds and shapes by all sides. I, frankly, don’t believe in freedom-fighting movements when fighting is the operative word. So I’m not here to justify the exceptional violent actions of the few in Baltimore. But I do think it’s vital to contextualize the reality of a group forced to live in fear, continually watching innocent men turned to martyrs while the mainstream establishment refuses to pay attention. The reason that Black Lives Matter became a slogan is that it really seems to so many that they don’t. For agency after agency after agency to approach the killing of Black men like an administrative hiccup to be explained, obfuscated, and shuffled away without fear of censure or even oversight from higher governmental authorities is to tacitly endorse, as a system, the indifference that enables these killings to become so commonplace. It is somewhat unsurprising that a nation that refused to launch even a cursory investigation into the financial instruments that nearly triggered a global economic collapse also stands uninterested in auditing its racial practices in terms of law enforcement. But admitting you have a problem is the first step. Flatly standing behind denial just makes you look laughable in any objective view.

Unfortunately, America is the land of the unobjective view. Look, we all like the home team. We all root irrationally for the team that’s nearby, whose players are familiar and relatable and that one grew up just down the street from me! It’s human nature to be a bit provincial. But you don’t hear Norwegians capping every campaign stump speech passionately evoking the God-given fact that Norway is the greatest country that was, is, and will be. That kind of commitment to self-aggrandizement was a hallmark of the monarchies this American idea was intended to replace, replete with all the ego and greed that monarchies bred. How can we read about severed spinal columns that go “unexplained”, about yet another plastic water gun or set of keys mistaken for a firearm, and continue to stand by this notion that we are infinitely better than any other country, any other system, any other people trying to improve the way things work in their society?

If you love America, you love its changes. You love its desire to improve itself. The people rising up in Baltimore are trying to remind you that this country has only become better though resistance, through the people who are willing to defy authority to expose its injustices. Movies like “Selma” remind us that our current heroes were branded as unpopular troublemakers only a generation ago. And while it’s sad to admit that the very same struggle back then is still a major obstacle to progress now, believing anything else is to fold up two very large American flags and stuff them in your ears and take a third and drape it threefold before your eyes. This nation has been systemically oppressing the same people for centuries. It’s only going to stop if we admit that’s what’s going on, that’s what’s been going on, and we need more than cosmetic changes or the condemnation of a few case studies to truly fix it.

This country was founded on the principle of rising up against unjust authority for what you believe. The cause was vastly less justified than the cause of oppressed African Americans at any point in our history – it mostly amounted to whining about taxes. To fail to embrace the legitimacy of this cause is un-American. Far more un-American than believing that this country is still a work in progress, still has a long way to go, and still may never be the best country of all-time.

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The Invisible Power of Shame

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , ,

Everyday miracle:  everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

Everyday miracle: everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

When people ask me what I want to replace violence as the main motivating force to behave in our society, I instantly reply “shame”. I think a lot of people believe that I’m kidding when I say this. I am not kidding. Shame is an incredibly powerful tool that, when wielded properly, brings out our better selves at almost every turn. I would argue this is because it operates on the basis of our deeper conscience, which is fundamentally tied to a very deep sense of right and wrong. If you’re willing to go there, I think this conscience itself is often, if not innately, tied to the divine.

The friend I call Drew Tirrell was here about a month and a half ago and we spent half a day arguing about “structural violence” vs. what I would call “actual violence”. It’s important here to recognize that I think a whole mess of things are wrong with the world (scroll down through a few posts if you don’t believe me). There’s inequality and vestiges of imperialism everywhere you look, people eat animals and abuse them along the way, people are turned into materialist hoarders rather than harmonious cooperators. The list goes on for several pages that I won’t indulge in now. But physical violence, for me, is the king of all ills, the one that this planet seems most designed to teach us is wrong. And I would argue, and did argue with Tirrell, that this is simply a priori. But if pushed to make utilitarian-style arguments for a fundamentally means-based issue, I think that violence is basically the only thing we’re incapable of reacting to rationally. Not only does it do immense direct physical and emotional harm upfront, but it is innately cyclical, stripping free will, triggering our fight-or-flight response, and coercing us into our worst possible selves. Given that our greatest gifts are our free will and rationality, it’s easy to see why I think this is so wrong.

I think a lot of people have erred over the years by saying that to overcome violence, we must all expunge anger from our hearts. That the only way to achieve non-violence is to be free of all ill will, all negative emotions. You could argue (and many have) that the only reason I disagree is because I have a lot of anger, that I carry the hurts and wrongs of the past and have been wrestling with a deep-seated propensity to defensiveness and anger since I was at most nine years old. But I just don’t think it’s realistic, on this planet at this time, for human beings to eradicate all their anger, all their ill wishes. Emotions have never seemed like an arena where people can exhibit much control, whereas actions are a realm in which complete control is possible. Difficult, often, but possible. This is a big part of why I refrain from mind-altering substances, to maintain maximum control over actions, whatever inferno may be raging in my heart or mind.

Basically, I see it as a matter of priorities. Having anger in one’s heart is probably objectively worse than only feeling love all the time. But on the scale of problems we face as a species right now, this is roughly 372nd, while physical violence is pretty clearly #1. So we should probably table #372 for a couple centuries while we get the top five sorted. Which is not to say that it isn’t great if you can make progress on things lower down the list. But it seems silly to worry about them in a world of drone strikes, occupations, organized militaries, and all the other hallmarks of violence so familiar to our condition.

Which brings us to shame. People think violent coercion is the only thing keeping us from all going out and fulfilling our basest hedonistic desires through wanton violence and oppression. No doubt that the threat of violence can be an effective deterrent, and often is. More often, it’s a really ineffective deterrent, which is why the history of human societies is so littered with revolutions, rebellions, and uprisings, and about 99% of them are violent in nature. When you coerce someone through violence, direct or implied, you are subjugating them, making them bend to your will. You are overpowering them. The reason they refrain from doing what you are preventing is that they feel weaker, less capable, and dominated. Perhaps only in 1984 have we ever seen an example where this results in a person actually feeling good about this coercion. And that required so much torture, physical and psychological, that the person who emerged was probably not really the same as the person who went in to the Ministry of Love in the first place. (Uh, spoiler alert, I guess?)

Shame, on the other hand, appeals to someone’s better self. Yes, it is not completely pure. It does make people feel bad about themselves and their actions sometimes. That said, I think pretty much all corrective advice does this. For someone conscientious or who cares about their behavior, it’s pretty hard to tell them to do something better without making them feel bad that they didn’t in the first place. Maybe some folks are more at home with themselves and being corrected than I am, but I think it’s fairly universal that there’s some upwelling of regret or shame in all correction. It’s that little spur of negative feeling or memory that reminds you to do better next time. The little pulse of regret to make you reconsider your inclinations that would lead to the same outcome when you see that situation again.

Shame is the primary tool at work in all non-violent revolutions. Gandhi and King shamed the occupying British and the dominating racists, holding the lens of public scrutiny up to their brutality and getting them to voluntarily withdraw and stand down. That’s the thing about shame – it doesn’t force you to change. It gives you a strong strong encouragement, but the mechanism of that encouragement is rooted in your own conscience. Or, at worst, the judgment of others, and humanity’s collective conscience. There are many who argue that our consciences are developed as learned behaviors, that they have no innate sense of justice, that if we are raised in a society where people molest their children and eat their grandmothers alive, their conscience will tell them these things are right. The examples of Gandhi and King debunk this myth, however, for the British and Southerners were raised in a particular order, with a set of beliefs that made them superior to these upstarts who wanted to show them another way of doing things. If one’s conscience were merely learned, they would never have been able to back down or admit the error of their ways – they would have gone to their graves believing it was right to beat people with sticks and ravage them with bullets and dogs and feeling no shame or remorse. And sure, not everyone backed down voluntarily or the first, second, tenth time. But in the end, the intuitive power of shame elicited better selves and most of those people died deeply sorry for their role in oppression.

But shame is not just in play in revolutions. Shame is in fact much more powerfully and subtly in play in most of the actions which keep everyday society ordered. Plays, for example. Presentations. Yoga classes, like the one I attended last night, my first in over three years (and long overdue). Regular classes. Planes, trains, automobiles. At every turn, these events could be spoiled by people making a scene, screaming obscenities or making wildly inappropriate gestures. But this almost never happens. It’s not because it’s not tempting to do these things – I would argue there’s a very strong primal pull to spoil sacred moments of our society with disruption, if only to see what would happen, if only to feel the power that anyone has to do so. The desire to scream in the middle of a moment of silence, to be the one exception to the rule, is sometimes breathtaking. But almost no one ever does, because of shame.

And shame is probably too negative a word to strictly describe that phenomenon. There’s something deeper and more positive, a kind of collective spirit. The reason I don’t scream in the middle of such silences has less to do with the fear of shameful repercussion than it does with appreciation of that moment of pure effortless harmony in which we are all collectively engaged. People like to think of humans as obstinate and unable to be corralled, innately selfish, greedy, and naturalistic. But that’s garbage. Every time we all attend a play and no one makes a sound, every time we all stand in a line without mobbing the front of it, every time we listen to a debate round without interrupting, we are cooperating on a very high level. We don’t think about these things often because they are so common, but these represent levels of collective effort that demonstrate a more communal society is more than possible.

And maybe this takes more work for me than it does for most people. I’ve never been quite sure how common the instincts I wrestle with are. When I acted frequently in plays, peaking at the local theater as Oliver two straight seasons in a hybrid play of “Oliver” and “A Christmas Carol”, I was almost constantly fighting with a voice in my head that described the power I held over the audience and how much fun it would be to smash it. There was an almost audible naysayer in the back of my mind telling me to shatter the fourth wall, to swear or to say “you are all just watching a play” in the middle of my lines. I never once did it, never even stumbled over a line with this temptation, but that voice has never left me. Hundreds of competitive debate rounds in high school, hundreds more in college, practice rounds, presentations and speeches – that voice is never far from my consciousness. Any time I have people in total thrall, most on pindrop, in full command of my words and the audience, that’s when the voice is at its loudest, telling me to just try chaos.

I’ve tried talking to people about this with mixed results. Many people relate at some level or another, people describe it (and I did in one of my books) as the instinct to drive a car off the road in the middle of an otherwise unfettered journey. When I told my college debate coach, Greg, how much this haunted me in my debate career, he expressed complete shock and said there was no one he worried about this with less. If anything, I think it’s because that struggle is so practiced for me that he worries so little – my obsession with controlling my actions leads to an exaggerated confidence in the defenses holding at all times. People don’t realize, often, that I selfishly desire violence and react in anger like anyone – the only difference is my commitment to controlling these desires.

And maybe it was just a giving in to that voice that made Andreas Lubitz take his plane down a notch. Maybe he was constantly telling himself that he’d pull up at the last minute, that he just wanted to see how much power he really had at that moment and he would call the whole thing off. Who knows, maybe he intended to do that and just miscalculated. My goal here not being to exonerate or excuse Lubitz’ deplorable actions in any way, but just to speculate on human complexity and how much our safety and good will depends on the willful denial of self-control, all the time.

I know there are myriad counter-arguments to the shame thing. The most prevalent being that shame has often been utilized to teach us things that are wrong, to prevent us from taking good corrective actions. Shame has been levied against women, subjugated races, gays and lesbians, and all manner of the oppressed. Shame is a tool that has been misused and mistreated to bring people down, to prevent people from speaking out, to subvert consciences rather than extoll them. People have been made to feel bad about their innate characteristics, their beliefs, their true identities, their feelings. People have faced years of therapy, sometimes fruitless, in an effort to expunge the shame they feel for bad reasons.

I have two key responses:

1. It’s a comparative debate, folks. Shame, like any tool, has been misused. But compared to physical violence and the threat thereof? No comparison. Would you rather be ridiculed for your beliefs or shot for them? Yes, ideally we will get to a world where no one even needs the threat of feeling bad to keep from murdering or stealing or oppressing. But we’re a long way from there, and I think shame is a good intermediate step between violence and us all just being that good all the time.

2. The problem with past instances of shame has not been with the means, but with the value structure surrounding them. I don’t think there’s anything innately bad about feeling bad about doing something wrong. The problem is when one feels that way and hasn’t actually done something wrong. We can regret the long history of LGBT oppression in our society, but we still want homophobes to feel ashamed of being biased. Don’t we? If not, what’s your mechanism for getting racists and homophobes to reconsider? Isn’t most of the country trying to publicly shame Indiana right now? Aren’t most of you applauding that? If we don’t have shame, getting people to reconsider their selfishness and look at others as humans and feel bad about wrong actions, what do we have left to get people to confront injustice?

It’s better if the shame comes with the possibility of forgiveness, to be sure. The shame of shunning and total exclusion, on a societal level, should probably be reserved for murder and rape and the most heinous behaviors. And even then, hey, maybe the Scandinavian model that you can eventually be welcomed back into the fold is best. But if we’re going to build a world around absolute violence or absolute shame, I’ll take the latter any time. It’s not even that big a switch. Most of your day, you behave better more from the threat of shame than the threat of violence. Now we just have to extend that privilege to Syria, Congo, and the poorer neighborhoods of the rest of the world too.

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Zero Sum Games and Conservativism

Categories: A Day in the Life, Hypothetically Speaking, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,

Helpful advice from friendly people... or an offer to trade places?

Helpful advice from friendly people… or an offer to trade places?

I’m working on the budding theory that, if you can afford to quit your job, it may be at least a little immoral to keep it. Unless, I guess, you’re much better at it than someone else would be and it does good for society.

Whenever someone tells someone else “get a job” or says “they should get a job”, you should ask them who they want to stop working in order to make that possible. After all, it’s not like there are a bunch of unfilled job positions lying around out there with no one bothering to apply. If they are upset that someone is on welfare, they should realize that they are just asking that person to trade places with someone else. Who will, you know, be on welfare then.

Unless, of course, that person has enough money that they can get by without welfare. Meaning that they should probably quit and let someone who needs the money take over.

If you don’t believe this, then it’s pretty important to admit that either (a) the idea that one’s survival or quality of life should be tied to the happenstance of having a job is silly or (b) people are fundamentally unequal and those on the bottom rungs deserve to die for it. While many conservatives seem to believe in a dog-eat-dog approach, I don’t think that many will actually say that those who happen to have employment deserve to live more than those who don’t. And while there are safety nets, it’s these nets that conservatives so often rail against as increasing laziness. What it’s actually doing is compensating for the unequal math that ensures there are not enough jobs for everyone.

I guess this raises the fundamental question of what the purpose of a job is. If the job is to fulfill the function of that job, then great. Stop tying it to people’s survival and let the people who are best do those given jobs. If the job is to enable people to eat in exchange for their labor, then they should probably all be distributed to the people who most need to eat.

I guess if we could just directly control the number of jobs in the society, then this would be a little less of a dichotomous and contentious issue. Of course, that’s not really in the plan with all the capitalism and the treating “The Economy” like a mystical weather phenomenon. The economy doesn’t exist, of course. It’s a series of decisions about our society that we’ve ceded to chance. It’s like if we had the option to create a system of weather where none existed before. Bring hurricanes to Kansas, say, or tornadoes to the Bahamas. Just to see if it motivated people a little, or sometimes ruined everything for no particularly good reason. And then we could have a Chief Meteorologist go on TV and say “we’ve decided to raise storm door allotments for Jamaica, just in case they get more tornadoes. Also, we’re going to all start facing west and breathing heavily to deter hurricanes from coming in from that direction.”

I’m being slightly facetious. But probably not as facetious as you think.

What I guess an actual conservative might say is that everyone who can afford to quit their job should do so and start a business and then create more jobs. Except that to actually make statements like that, with all that “should” and moral implication, would probably rankle the conservative’s sense of freedom. I guess this was the point that Ayn Rand was trying to make all along, advocating for the radical freedom to burn the world down just because you’ve exploited the economy sufficiently to be able to corner all the matches and outlaw fire departments. Which I guess would be all right if ability to exploit the economy were some kind of grand test of character or strength or intelligence or worth.

Instead, it’s mostly just a roulette wheel to which we’ve ascribed enormous import. But at a certain point, we all basically agreed to stop even trying to spin it, to just let the thing turn and turn and turn on its own and hope we can sometimes predict its trajectory to angle the ball in the right spot. And meanwhile a few people get 35-to-1 payouts while everyone else is going broke.

At least when you’re standing at the actual roulette wheel, no one tells you to go get a job.

How did we get to this point? I know that fascism was really abhorrent and I know that the people calling themselves communists were mostly fascists, but is the right response really to just make people feel bad for losing a game of musical chairs where the number of chairs is designed to always diminish? Or at best stay stagnant? To have people’s guesses about what is a likely to increase or decrease in value determine every aspect of their quality of life? I mean, really, did anyone think very hard about this system at all?

There’s a way to reel it back in and at least get some control of it. We have to stop talking about the economy like it’s a thing. There are not bad economies or good economies. There are systems which make people thrive and cooperate and build what needs to be built (and avoid building what’s unnecessary). And there are systems which make people fight and cheat and steal and spend a great deal of time and energy on things that are useless. We choose these systems, we design and implement them. It’s when we believe that the systems are choosing us that we have the apex of a problem.

If the economy is bad, maybe it’s because the very notion of an economy is bad and we need to find a new system. And if it’s good, why is it designed to leave some people out, always? And what do you suggest we do with those people? Are you willing to trade places with them because you can afford to? If not, why not? Is this really a system of betterment and improvement of the society or is just about finding an excuse to behave as you might in the wild? A wild beyond our wildest actual observations, with interest rates and stock prices storming over the Sahara like a great tsunami of chaos, ready to wash away anyone and everyone in its wake.

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Droning On

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , ,

Good question.

Good question.

Planes are in the news this week, though the one getting most of the attention was manned. People are desperately trying to discern the motive for 27-year-old German Andreas Lubitz’ decision to calmly place his passenger jet into a gradual dive, lock out his co-pilot, and slam the machine into the side of a mountain. Since Lubitz is a white non-Muslim, he enjoys the privilege in the American media of having thoughts and feelings instead of being a “rabid monster” for whom even trying to determine an explanation for his acts is considered abhorrent. Instead, in the new racism and religionism of the 21st century, he gets full credit for having a brain and discernible motives. Disliking your life is considered rational or at least explainable, while disliking the West and its ongoing robot-war on the homes and villages of Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria is just so irrational we can’t even begin to fathom it.

Of course, no one is going to defend Lubitz’ decision to take down the otherwise very safe Lufthansa jet, which is where the mental health piece comes into the equation. We are at this fascinating crossroads in the West where everyone decries the “stigma” surrounding depression and what are perceived to be mental health challenges, yet every time a white person kills people en masse, the purported solution is to make sure anyone who has ever been counseled for depression in their past has no rights whatsoever. By framing every mass-shooting or suicide plane as an issue of lack of mental health interventions, trotting out the history of counseling or diagnoses of the perpetrator, we are actually further stigmatizing not only depression but seeking treatment for it. Like so many policies around mental health, all of the decisions and perspectives are authored by people who consider themselves completely happy and sane and consider depression, let alone suicidalism, to be this bizarre foreign landscape to be approached at 30,000 feet.

The problem is that, in a post-9/11 world, the only reaction anyone has to unfortunate events is that they must be prevented, either through violence or restrictions on freedom. If the people to whom we cannot ascribe motivation or rationality threaten our safety, we must slaughter them like the animals we perceive them to be. If the people to whom we ascribe a broken or mentally ill motivation threaten our safety, we must limit their abilities such that they do not control firearms, jet planes, motor vehicles, or perhaps their own decisions at all. The idea of not having perfect and utter control over the absolute physical safety of every man, woman, and child in society simply does not occur to us.

This despite the fact that the only reason Lubitz was able to lock out his co-pilot and commit to the fatal descent of his plane was because of post-9/11 overreactions. And the fact that everyone involved with airline security and safety is saying as plainly as they can that there is nothing that can be done to prevent a suicidal pilot from taking 149 others with him on his self-inflicted death spiral.

You can bet that the West will not take that for an answer, no matter how true it is. Already, the drumbeat is up to turn heavily autopiloted flights into fully automated ones, to transform jets into drones. Leaving out the fact that the main reason for placing live pilots in the cockpit is because they have a vested interest in the plane’s survival – namely, it is tied to their own. And the occasional suicidal individual aside, this is a pretty good motivator for most people. It is perhaps challenging to imagine a pilot like Sully landing a plane in the Hudson from an air-conditioned room in Nevada. Not necessarily because he lacks the skill or even the interest in saving the plane, but because protocols in that kind of detachment become about risk-minimization and on-paper probabilities. It takes someone motivated by their own survival instinct to have the creativity to actually get out of these kinds of harrowing safety hazards that planes can create.

The world of drones is all about replacing reality with on-paper probabilities, with disastrous consequences. The other plane-related news of the week is the somewhat surprising move of a Saudi-led coalition of Arab nations to start bombing the daylights out of Yemen, a nation recently taken by rebel forces. The instability and deterioration of the national situation in Yemen is trumped only by that in other targets of drone strikes – Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. You can ignore the testimony of villagers living under the constant threat of unseen death-by-sky and merely examine the anger and anguish of those who are actually hit by something, whether they were working against the US in the first place or not. Can you even personally imagine living in a nation that is threatened daily by the possibility of an American blitz of invisible robot planes that kill in an instant? Can you contemplate the fury you would feel about this situation and its perpetrators? We were ready to kill everyone and eliminate all rights in society after one 9/11 event. And while the daily scale of magnitude is smaller, the constant and persistent outrage of unwarranted attack goes on and on and on. An America under this deluge probably would have lobbed nukes at every other nation by now.

And yet we persist in being unable to understand why this practice would anger anyone or create more enemies for the nation doing it. It’s bombing the village to save it all over again. How can they not understand that the rubble we are creating and the bodies we strew mean FREEDOM?

As is predictable, things have gone completely to hell in these nations in a way unseen in un-droned nations (with the possible exception of the Democratic Republic of Congo). I listened this morning as a series of NPR announcers fumbled over the tangled conglomerate of alliances and proxies and how the US is de facto supporting Iran’s opposition to ISIS in Iraq and Syria while de facto opposing Iranian-backed rebels in Yemen. The problem is that indiscriminately bombing people who disagree with you just creates chaos on a massive scale and does nothing to stabilize a region or improve the outcomes for its people. It does exponentially increase rage and tragedy, sowing opposition to the authors of this mayhem. No matter how much you hate the local rebels or ISIS or anyone else, you’re never going to forgive the US for killing your family inadvertently in their effort to wage that war. And that’s giving the US maximal benefit of the doubt on intelligence and sincerity, which is completely unearned in these theaters.

The question always arises of whether it is malignancy or stupidity that is the primary factor behind these decisions by the US and its droning army. Does the US subversively recognize that the only way to maintain power over an unpredictable group of foreign nations is to keep them in a state of perpetual chaos and war? Does it want war without end to fuel growth in the military-industrial complex, constantly generating new threats of failed states that require even more bombing into submission? Or does the US genuinely think the rain of explosives is helping the situation, that it will eventually convince people to love the nation that brought all this death and destruction from the too-high sky?

In either case, malignancy and stupidity are things we should stop. No matter how afraid we feel, no matter how much we want to control every tiny little factor that could limit our safety. Because this obsession with safety is making us less safe. Killing everyone who disagrees with us on foreign soil just makes more people want to kill us. Locking up or limiting job prospects for everyone who gets really sad just deters people who are sad from getting help. And makes it more likely, not less, that they will snap someday and take a plane into a mountain. These things you think you’re doing to make the world safer, out of fear, are just manifesting what you fear the most.

The only way to live more safely is to accept that your own safety is not something you might be able to control. Every time you get into a motor vehicle, be it plane, train, or automobile, you have to cede some of this control. Heck, every time you leave your house, you have to. And that’s okay. Other people can make you unsafe if they really want to. But only you can make yourself live a life that is not so governed by this threat that it’s not worth living anyway.

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Ted Cruz and the Elaborate Troll Hypothesis

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, Tags: , , ,

Presidential material, being forged in the hot fires of APDA!

Presidential material, being forged in the hot fires of APDA!

People simply cannot get enough Ted Cruz these days.

The Senator, one of two representing the state of Texas, perennial hotbed of Presidential candidates successful and otherwise, recently became the first official candidate to take the office of the Presidency in 2017. He’s also one of two Senators representing the American Parliamentary Debate Association (APDA), the hyper-competitive debate league on which I competed for four years and coached for five. Chris Coons (D-CT) is the other, a former teammate of David Foster Wallace, who he described in the latter’s recent biography as having “literally the worst delivery I have ever heard.”

A huge portion of my circle of friends has been following the rise of Cruz as a model for what APDA debaters can become, though few share his particular ideology. But the increasing question, raised by some of even his teammates and former friends, is whether he shares his particular ideology. As a passionate spokesman for rabid conservatism to the point of alienating many Republicans, Cruz has always been a polarizing figure. But he’s also, at root, a debater, making him capable of employing passionate and rabble-rousing rhetoric without necessarily believing it personally. Could this all be an elaborate troll?

The question of whether a serious candidate for the President of the United States is just trolling us with his beliefs may sound far-fetched, but you have to understand the world of APDA debate. There are many things that I love about the debate circuit as a culture and debate as a format for learning and skills development, but there are also a ton of things that disappoint. Two quick reference points for an introduction might be the Judging Bias Report, just released today by the Women’s Initiative, and the beloved Slate piece on Ted Cruz’s time on the circuit and in college. After the latter article made the rounds in August 2013, a former colleague of Cruz’s on the circuit posted on a Facebook thread that he didn’t think Ted Cruz believed a word of what he said – he just wanted to have the power, influence, and prestige that come with political position.

When I joined the Brandeis debate team, the team President at the time (whose name I won’t disclose since I’m not trying to use this space to impugn his character for Google) was an abrasive, egotistical leader with a true gift for public speaking. He was intimidating, off-putting, and sometimes corrupt, but also served as a mentor for me and personally vested time and energy into my improvement. He had a very successful debate career indeed, taking Brandeis to the National finals and winning top speaker at that tournament, and went on to Yale Law School as expected. Then, quite suddenly, he was born again and became a devout evangelical Christian. He disavowed his prior habits, like getting high with friends and mockingly reading passages of the Bible aloud for amusement, becoming suddenly quite interested in the fate of everyone’s soul. He kept his Wiccan wife, though I wasn’t close enough to them at the time to know whether she converted also, and soon entered seminary. Most all of his friends were baffled and even more questioned the sincerity of this conversion.

My assumption is that he was doing it for political gain. He had desired high political office since birth near as I could tell, but he had openly expressed fear that his Jewish heritage would put a cap on the trajectory of his ascent in America. A sincere-seeming conversion, vouched for by his friends, is certainly far less compromising and transformative than much of what people go through to get ahead in the arena of US politics. By this point, he’d unfriended me from Facebook and we hadn’t spoken in years, so I was never able to do personal investigation. It’s possible that he really means it and that I’m to be criticized for questioning his sincerity. But the consensus of those who spent the most time with him in those years on APDA is that this was just another in a series of shrewd political calculations with the goal of rising to the top.

And herein lies one of the critical problems with APDA, though it’s hardly exclusive to said circuit. It makes rising to the top and end in itself. Ideally, our politicians would seek office in the old-fashioned ideal of the notion – to serve the people, or at least to work for an ideal or a set of principles. To have a goal, an achievement or a belief structure in mind, and then set about acquiring the power necessary to enact such ideals. In the brief fanciful moments wherein I entertain the idea of an America where I’d be electable (despite a long history of criticizing the country, its history, and its current policies), it is this kind of candidacy that I envision: stumping for pacifism, equality, and the maintenance society. I won’t say that there’s no thrill in the idea of being a personage, of having fame and influence, but it’s pretty much all desirous as a means to an ends of making the world a more moral place that takes better care of its people.

No one really thinks this is what Ted Cruz is after. Not among those who knew him best back in the day, and certainly not even in those who follow him now. Like so many people, he wants to be President to be President. And unfortunately, there’s probably something about APDA that trains people to think this way. The place is an elite and competitive crucible of some of the brightest young minds in the country, replete with anger, egos, entitlement, and various pressures to win at any cost. Tons of otherwise civilized and reasonable people become transformed into cutthroat competitors in the refraction of this forge, running unfair cases against close friends and even lovers, employing vitriol and ridicule to shame their opponents, even resorting to bald appeals to their superior reputation as being deserving of victory. It’s not that everyone does this, or that anyone does this all the time, but APDA is such a purely intellectual playground that is so insular and self-promotional that the stakes of any given round or tournament can sometimes feel like life and death. Or, perhaps, like the Presidency itself.

The background of APDA’s top competition, be it the wealthy establishment or mere intellectual brilliance or rhetorical firepower, bolsters the notion that what’s happening week to week at any tournament truly matters. This is a circuit that annually asks a series of “Family Feud” style questions about itself and the topic of “Most likely to be President” is taken seriously as an actual prediction of future success. The Ivy League is well represented and has often dominated APDA competition, but upstart schools like Brandeis or Rutgers or Boston University have enjoyed great success as so many of APDA’s alumni have gone on to fame, fortune, or preparation to make influential decisions for the country. Whether there’s something about a competitive debate league that makes one more likely to lead in the future is uncertain but likely. Whether there’s something about this debate league in particular that leads people to pursue success for its own sake using the tools acquired on the circuit is pretty definite.

Any debate format where one doesn’t get to choose what one is defending or advocating all the time is going to force people to be more open-minded and, sometimes, insincere in using fiery rhetoric to express beliefs one disagrees with. I was disheartened after a public demonstration round my senior year when a novice told me that I’d convinced him of the morality of the draft, something I disagree with so vehemently that I’d refused to register for the Selective Service and nearly lost my financial aid and ability to go to college over it. But the opposing team had thought it would be cute to make me defend my nemesis system in front of a couple hundred new debaters and I convinced at least one to join the side I was defending, at the peril of what I think is right. Admittedly, I think this practice is still incredibly valuable as an intellectual exercise and learning tool, but it was hard on that day to not feel like I was undermining something fundamental about what I believe.

The hubris that accompanies APDA is also worth noting here, fueling the habit of people who ruthlessly pursue power for the sake of lording it over others. Note that said demonstration round described above was held on September 14, 2001 in New York City, at the opening tournament of the year, a tournament designated for first-year debaters who had just had their college experience defined by 9/11. Despite the assumption that there would be more attacks in the US and soon, APDA decided to hold this tournament a few miles from Ground Zero, three days after the event, because not doing so would be “letting the terrorists win.” With a background like this, it’s not hard to see where Ted Cruz comes from.

So does he mean it? Does he really want to enact the policies he claims? Or is he just another debater in pursuit of a slightly different kind of National Championship, one who revels in the thrill of the competition and the bravado of intellectual battle?

You’d have to ask the people closest to him at the time. I feel confident I could speak to a good deal of the motives and backgrounds of debaters on the circuit from 1998-2015, but Cruz graduated in 1992 and I never saw him speak. Never even met the guy, though he came back and judged during at least one tournament during my tenure. And hey, people change. Maybe he became convinced that Bible-thumping conservative doctrine is what the country truly needs. But my guess is you can take the kid out of APDA, but you can’t really take APDA out of the kid. The White House is an awfully shiny trophy and it’s hard to argue with that kind of hardware.

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Choices: Too Many, Not Enough

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

“It’s a typical situation in these typical times
too many choices…
Oh, everybody’s happy
everybody’s free
we’ll keep the big door open
everyone’ll come around.
Why are you different?
Why are you that way?
If you don’t get in line, we’ll lock you away…”
-Dave Matthews Band, “Typical Situation”

I need a doctor.

No, not that kind of doctor!

No, not that kind of doctor!

Maybe I’ve been watching too much of the new “Doctor Who” lately, just starting on season 5 now in the progression, after growing up with the original series as perhaps my absolute favorite show. Tom Baker is still the best, but it was hard to see David Tennant go, especially under the phrase “I don’t want to go!” Of course, that reminded me just a tiny bit too much of the big hug I got from Marcel Miranda in May 2009 when I left Glide after three years. He cried in my office a little and said “I don’t want you to go!” He passed away that December.

I can pick between ten or eleven doctors, which the iconic British show has offered me, and narrow it down to at least two, and probably one if I had to. What I am struggling to do is choose from the large printed book that Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana sent me a couple weeks ago, detailing all my possible options for primary care provider under my newly regained health insurance. The book is 402 pages.

The existence of such a tome and its delivery to me, free of charge, is supposedly what’s great about health care in America. Obamacare advocates would claim it as a victory and its detractors would say this is the kind of excellent private health coverage that is about to be taken away. Louisiana in particular has been playing out this struggle – it’s one of the Medicare refusal states and a state with unbelievably runaway insurance costs of all sorts. It actually has the highest car insurance rates in the nation (sorry, Jersey, I’ve been able to do some pretty direct comparison shopping) and is one of those weirdly shaded states on the map where health care premiums have still been skyrocketing after the ACA. I don’t even want to think about what the book and its upkeep costs, let alone what it gets billed as in the modern ever-growing health care industry. Especially when it could be a website, but that would limit access, because we somehow stubbornly cling to the belief that the Internet should be doled out like a private luxury instead of the public good that it clearly is. If you wonder why I believe in radical change over gradualism, it tends to be this kind of spiraling frustration that it’s hard to find one thing that this society does efficiently and/or with the people of the country in mind. The really sounds like an exaggeration until I start pulling the loose thread of any given problem.

This book has single-handedly prevented me from going to the doctor for two weeks. And it may yet do the same for a few more. Even though I really need a doctor, mostly because I have been without health insurance for about half a year and there is an ominous growing patch of discolored skin on my upper back that is almost certainly not cancer, but you never know. Most friends who I’ve discussed this issue with find it hard to believe that I waited for health insurance at all to discuss this issue with a certified medical professional (and of course WebMD has already given me just weeks to live), but I’m not fond of doctor’s visits when I’m swimming in health care, let alone when it must be paid out of pocket. I learned that lesson real fast in a 2003 emergency room visit in Berkeley and have never really lived it down for myself. I’m sure I could find the link in Introspection, but I really don’t feel like combing the year 2002-2003 for the record right now.

I believe I have what they call “analysis-paralysis”. Not on my back. That’s probably called something else, hopefully not an astrological term involving an admittedly ornery-looking crustacean. With the healthcare and the 402-page book and the need for a doctor. I have too many choices. Way too many choices. I miss Kaiser Permanente, who just picked a doctor for me. Yes, sometimes the doctor was obsessed with medication and I hate medication, sometimes the doctor wanted to put me on mind-altering drugs for migraines, sometimes I had to wait a week for an appointment. But at least I was utilizing the health care system. At the rate I’m going with Blue Cross and Blue Shield, I’m not sure I’ll ever start.

I guess if I grew up here, I would feel more qualified to make the decision, having logged time and preferences and references and prior visits. The problem is that the decision could matter, theoretically – there are philosophical and quality differences between doctors, to be sure. But researching the decision in order to make an effective one is a ridiculous proposition with the time allotted. Frankly, it would be a ridiculous proposition with the time I used to have back when I lacked health insurance. I think someone could make it their full-time job to pick a doctor (under the premise that the choice matters) for me, because, probably, there are 2 or 3 really excellent matches with everything I feel about the delivery of health care.

But obviously, undertaking more than a cursory random-noise search is impossible. Alex said she confronts these decisions (she, after all, had health care months ago) by picking someone (a) a woman with (b) flexible hours who is (c) close to home. I don’t really have a gender preference in my medicine, but the latter two factors seem to make sense, though they have very little to do with what actually makes a doctor more likely to deliver me health care in the way that I want it. And, admittedly, maybe finding out things about whether they believe in off-label use of anti-depressants to treat migraines or back lesions or any of my other ailments is not really something even the book and the power of Internet research could tell me. Maybe I should just pull some names within 2 miles and throw a dart or a pick a unique-sounding name.

But I’m haunted by the idea that this could matter, that everything in our society tells me that doctors are very different and being able to have agency in selecting a personal doctor is one of my supreme God-given rights. I certainly don’t have a right to housing or food, but doctor choice – now we’re talking! And so this rhetoric has prevented me from sincerely getting out the darts, even though I already would have a diagnosis on what’s troubling me if I’d just freaking picked already. It’s hard not to feel like I’m a big metaphor for the bloat in our system, though I know my results are hardly ever typical of how people approach health or its care.

What is altogether too typical is the preliminary sparring in the 2016 Presidential race, one for which I’d like to make a quiz if I can ever remember how I made 128+-answer quizzes while holding down a day job and living life all at the same time. And what society tells me is important here is that the dream deferred of Clinton-v-Bush, round 2, is being threatened by an e-mail scandal. Hillary Clinton was, apparently, very naughty with her e-mail accounts.

I strongly dislike Hillary Clinton. I dislike her policies and I dislike her as a person. I think it would be a horrific precedent to set that the first woman President of the United States was first a First Lady, that her initial qualification for politics was being married to a popular President. I am terrified of 4-8 years of her policies when she has clearly expressed that she thinks the biggest impediment to electing women is the wide perception that they would be less likely to bomb people than men, and would dedicate her Presidency to proving that theory wrong. I find her sense of entitlement, a true Clinton legacy, disturbing in the utmost. I do not want you to vote for her.

That said, this e-mail “scandal” is stupid. I really dislike Hillary, can’t stand the Democrats (or Republicans), but not voting for her because of these e-mails is ridiculous.

Like, yes, I guess there’s theoretically some minor chance that her personal e-mails would be more likely to be hacked or read by an employee of the private company with whom she sent e-mails. And I guess the surveillance state finds it terrifying that there would be some balance in the transparency of everything, see also Snowden, Edward. But, really? Mrs. Clinton is 67 years old. She doesn’t know the intricacies of technology. You find me a 67-year-old politician or statesperson who understands these things. Who never threatens the absolute security of their documents by making some technological blunder, by leaving a printout lying around, by forwarding the top-secret attachment to their home account so they can print it, by logging in to the CIA server from the ski lodge wifi. Really? People sneak machetes and pepper spray and small arms into airplanes all the time. We’re worried that HRC’s top-secret not-yet-leaked correspondence with leaders she was trying to intimidate were on GMail? All the secrets of the world are on GMail! Thankfully it’s too much data for Google to quickly mine and distill for purposes other than using advertising to creep you out.

She's using a smartphone!  We should be impressed.

She’s using a smartphone! We should be impressed.

But mostly people aren’t even rumbling about security. They’re rumbling about appropriateness. Or, mostly, they’re rumbling about BS. They’re using the opportunity of a couple media people and politicians taking this scandal Very Seriously to join the chorus in the hopes that something like this could actually fell the momentum of the presumed President-elect.

The problem here, of course, is that there are basically no real choices for President. In a theoretically wide-open field of candidates, with no incumbent on either side of the aisle, it’s been known for over a year who most of America thinks will win the Presidency in 2016. And it’s certainly been known for a while that the person will come from one of the two major parties and that there are only a handful of people from each party that could seriously be considered for this job.

And it’s not that there aren’t a few more qualifications for President than there are to be a certified medical professional in greater New Orleans. But with those qualifications and the commensurate responsibility should come at least a modicum of flexibility in who we consider. After all, it’s not like the people we’ve been dealing with are getting us anywhere. Congress continues to pass functionally no legislation while carrying an approval rating well below freezing. And yet the quantity and scope of our choices remains extremely limited.

How have we generated a society that offers a 402-page book for who you want to discuss aches and pains with, but can’t come up with more than a small handful of choices for who is going to make the majority of decisions about the operations of the entire nation for four years?

The illusion of choice is pervasive in our world. We are, as Americans, completely obsessed with choice as a concept. Choices of products, choices of companies, choices of jobs, choices of schools. The ability to make these choices is a badge of wealth and privilege that we like to pretend represents neither. But the ability to choose between 402 pages of doctors belies the fact that the alternative choice is among 0 doctors, or crippling debt to wander into an office. Our college admissions process cloaks the fact that many people had insufficient opportunities to learn before college and are faced with no acceptances, or cutthroat for-profits masquerading as educators. Job offers and rigged unemployment numbers mask the fact that so many people have no jobs to choose from at all, or are being squashed into a shadow labor-market as “independent consultants” who work below the already dizzyingly low minimum wage.

But no amount of status and class can buy you a real choice for the Presidency. Well, even that might not be true. If you have enough zeroes behind those digits in your bank account, I guess you can buy yourself a candidate to your liking.

Can someone buy me a real leftist?

Or at least someone who can help me pick a doctor?

by

Overpopulation and the Growth Obsession

Categories: A Day in the Life, It's the Stupid Economy, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , ,

Growth!

Growth!

Did you ever wonder why property values always (2008 aside) go up?

It just feels like one of those economic truths we imbibe at a young age, probably before we even take an Economics class, for those of us who are fortunate enough to grow up with educational opportunities. Cars will depreciate 50% when you drive them off the lot. You should save some of your money. The stock market’s long term trends are up (gulp). And housing and other land values will always rise over time.

In a world where the entire planet has been mapped and we haven’t started earnestly shipping people to Mars or Titan or Space Station XLVI, there’s really one fundamental reason for the value of property increasing. Overpopulation.

I guess one could say that it’s judgmental to call increases in population “overpopulation”. This is a touchy issue for a lot of people, not least of which are those who believe we are mandated to “be fruitful and multiply”. When I was younger, I was pretty convinced that overpopulation was the #2 moral issue in the world, behind violence, and I’d still probably put it in my top five. Most all of the direct causes of violence and injustice in our world derive from scarcity, and scarcity is directly related to overpopulation. No matter how equally we distributed resources and pooled efforts, we could not, tomorrow, support a planet of 100 billion people. And while that number seems utterly crazy, our current 7 billion would have seemed equally crazy to people a century ago.

I’m sure you’re all at least a little familiar with this chart:

World population, 0-2015

World population, 0-2015

That’s a terrifying growth rate. The acceleration of the human population on the world is pretty directly correlated to the overall negative impact our footprint is having on the planet. The first grips of the Industrial Revolution were dirty and destroyed certain regions (black moths, anyone?), but the full-scale acceleration of the size of the species has really started the wheels turning on some major devastation. I’m known among my peers for being a bit of a climate change skeptic (I just don’t believe we could possibly have enough data to be sure of the long-term trends), but I believe firmly that it’s good that people believe in climate change because it’s the first thing that’s been able to convince pretty much anyone to reconsider our obsession with growth and conquering nature. Somehow generating mass extinctions, dropping a miles-wide trash gyre into the Pacific, and slaughtering a healthy portion of the flora and fauna on the globe haven’t made anyone blink. I guess because the impact on us is less obvious. We have to believe that we will be uncomfortably hot or wet to start caring.

While I often go around lambasting human myopia, the swift upward trajectory of that chart at least explains our myopia a little bit. This sea change in growth and expansion of our planetary presence hit pretty recently and we weren’t prepared to think about it from a philosophical perspective. I’m being a bit charitable, of course, because the prevailing belief is that there are no philosophical perspectives to be had, full stop. Philosophy is a waste of time, they say, but science will cure all ills and answer all questions. This makes the desperation many scientists are expressing over climate change poignant almost to the point of humor – they keep banging the scientific drum, but a philosophical solution is their only hope. After all, science spends the rest of its time openly mocking and eschewing moral judgments or even ought statements whatsoever. Suddenly the scientific community is upset that no one is motivated by a moral judgment when they keep flinging sheets of data at people. It’s almost like we have to have a set of beliefs and principles and those will dictate our actions far better than any scientific “fact”.

I’ll get off my soapbox in a minute, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all this destruction has ramped up while we’ve been openly wrecking our institutions of philosophy and morality. Sure, most organized religions are riddled with some level of hypocrisy and corruption at the top, which is why I shy away from them. But it’s insane to conclude that because some human efforts to interpret God and morality on the planet have gone sour that the whole enterprise is bogus. This is exactly like finding out that James Frey made up parts of A Million Little Pieces and swearing off reading or learning about the scientist who manipulated the vaccine/autism study and saying that all science is fabricated. And yet, aided by the pre-eminent belief structures of our day (science and capitalism), that’s exactly what most people have done with not only religion, but also philosophy and morality of any kind. And we’re surprised by the greed, selfishness, and devastation our species is unleashing? You first have to believe that something can be wrong to even be capable of engaging the question of whether your own actions are wrong and then get to the heavy business of self-improvement.

So what assumptions and implicit moral judgments are ordering our daily life if we’ve handed the reigns to science and, far more influentially, capitalism? Well, the main one is growth.

I’ve talked a bit before on this blog about our cancerous obsession with growth on this planet and its ill effects. But I’ve usually discussed it in terms of how illogical it is to believe in eternal growth, like some sort of perpetual motion machine, just spinning up and up and up forever. Only recently did I realize that the engine of that growth – and the thing that seems to mask its illogic – is overpopulation. And property is the easiest place to see this. If we have a fixed amount of land in our world (face it, no one’s moving to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), then it will only gain in real value if the population increases. If the population is stable, land values will be stable. And if the population decreases, land values will decrease.

No wonder it’s conventional wisdom of the capitalistic era to invest in land for a sure return! Just look at that spike in population, putting pressure on those land values. And sure, there’s a desirability cut to add in here, especially if we’re considering buildings on that land. People would rather live in New York City than rural Syria right now. People would rather live somewhere newly renovated than a jungled-over home in the Lower Ninth Ward. But those are only influences on the overall trend. Greater population, greater value.

And to an extent, this principle is what influences and generates a belief in all of capitalism. Every company must not only profit each year, but increase profits. But as long as more people are being born than are dying, there are new target markets to be acquired and it’s feasible to sell more every single year. The total insanity of this obsession with endless growth, rather than maintenance, is completely hidden by the skyrocketing overpopulation that makes it seem contextually sane.

And I guess it would be sane, to an extent, if our planet were not shuddering under the weight of the impact of our growth. If we could guarantee infinite resources and the ecosystems of the world weren’t folding up shop and disappearing, then it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe this model even made sense when the planet’s population was 500 million people and had room for some more. But with the amount of understanding we’ve accumulated now, not to mention global connectedness, continuing on in this manner is criminal.

Obviously the solution to overpopulation is not some giant die-off. I do not wish to see a war or a plague or some kind of draconian set of death panels unleashed on the species. And, incidentally, I think this reality is an interesting refutation to that particular branch of conspiracy theories that hypothesizes that people will be slaughtered en masse after some kind of major round-up as the end-game of capitalism. To the extent that there might be a unified capitalist effort, it wants the opposite result. It needs a population of 10 billion, 20 billion to generate enough people in the lower class to keep the hierarchical structures intact. Slaughtering all those at the bottom would make the wheels fall off of capitalism because it would eliminate the scarcity that keeps people at the bottom hungry, afraid, and willing to work endlessly for virtually no remuneration.

But there must be a solution to overpopulation. Because we simply can’t go on like this. If anyone really examines and considers the implications of that chart sincerely, I think they’ll agree. Most people’s only alternative to limiting our growth trajectory is just hoping blindly that science figures out ways to solve problems faster than we generate them. That science will declare that food can be generated from air alone, or that we’re ready to terraform and colonize Mars tomorrow, opening up a whole new world to pillage and ruin, or that we have a fleet of space stations that can happily hold the extra 10 billion. This is what you get when you invest everything in science and ridicule philosophy – no one is really thinking about the long-term plan and everyone just hopes science invents some new piece of magic that makes the solution seem obvious and justifies not thinking about it creatively.

After all, what science rejects most heartily is the question why. Well, second most heartily, behind the question should. Science believes these inquiries are incoherent, replacing them wholly with what and how. But why is the question we need to be asking about infinite growth of the species. Do we really need to put 20 billion folks on this Earth? And won’t the scarcity that ensues be so devastating that we’ll have found a very ugly and deadly solution to the overpopulation problem by default?

I try to do a lot of thinking about what would steer the planetary course from a growth-oriented belief structure and system to a maintenance-oriented structure. The only people who have ever thought seriously about this and happened to have significant leadership positions are the Chinese government in the second half of the 20th century. Now I’m not here to defend all of their beliefs and decisions, but the one-child policy was a serious effort to curtail the wild endless growth of the population without resorting to a more dangerous solution to curb population growth. China, for the first time in human history, was willing to question the assumed absolute right to procreate as much as possible, and the results were quite positive for their society. And I think such a belief structure and willingness could only come from a society that favored communism to capitalism, because it stemmed from favoring equality and maintenance over inequality and growth.

Of course, all of that has now been lost and discarded. China has gotten in the growth game and is doing it better and faster than anyone, embracing capitalism and easing the one-child policy and its egalitarian roots. So it goes. But it does at least leave us with one piece of the blueprint for how to, eventually, build the maintenance-society.

But even if the planet weren’t about to start coughing and spluttering under the weight of all this human growth, I think shifting to a maintenance-society would still be a moral issue we must embrace. The byproduct of the growth-obsessed society is the accumulation of wealth at the top and poverty in the long, long tail of the plurality of society at the bottom. You want to know why the middle-class rhetoric of the last sixty years in America is so appealing? Because it’s where most people want to be. Even though we are taught to dream of riches and wealth and being able to figuratively or literally own our fellow person, the intuitive home for most folks is to be in the middle of the pack. The problem is that capitalism is constantly threshing most people in the middle of the pack downward and anointing a few people up to the top, constantly striving to stratify harder and harder as pressure is applied on everyone to work harder, faster, longer for less pay.

This is not some anomaly of the last few years in a down economy. It is happening everywhere and for good reason. It is the natural design of capitalism. It solves itself as a wealth accumulation and stratification system.

And even if we can hack back the worst effects of that to constantly alter it at the margins, why do we embrace such a system in the first place? The justification given is always growth. Look at how much we’ve grown under capitalism! Look at all the shiny new buildings! Look at all the people laboring harder than ever! Look at our stock portfolios! This engine is just going going going going going forever! Hooray!

But it’s pretty empty, especially when real quality of life is diminishing for most everyone. And the breakthroughs in technology and replacement of work are making people more desperate to work for less, rather than improving leisure and relaxation. We are reaching a horizon where, despite our perilously swift growth rate in population, if work and effort were equally distributed, most people would not have to work all that hard. The payment? We’d have to accept maintenance instead of growth. We’d have to have fewer children and accept that they will have lives that are more or less like our own, maybe slightly better or slightly worse. We’d have to get comfortable with a world where that goes on forever.

The problem is that we’ve conflated economic growth with all other kinds of progress. Making this declaration does not mean we’d stop researching science or inventing technology or curing diseases, let alone creating art or entertainment or social advancement. It means, in fact, that the focus would be on those endeavors for their own sake rather than as a means of economic advancement. Which mostly just means we’d lose the worst renditions of all those efforts. Gone would be the lousy mass-market paperback, the blockbuster action movie, Viagra for dogs, and anything else that exists merely because an army of marketing geniuses can convince you to buy it when it serves no purpose. Instead, we’d only have room and time for the truly inspired art, the worthwhile science, because these efforts would be made for communal benefit and their own inspiration instead of a cutthroat game of accumulation and self-advancement.

It may sound dreamily utopian, but it’s really the immediate natural consequence of a philosophical shift from growth to maintenance. The profit motive has happened to inspire some incredible things, it’s true. But those things did not require the profit motive to motivate them. People still want to make art and cure diseases even if no one is going to pay them for it. But the worst science and creativity we’ve seen is entirely motivated by making quick cash. And that’s what we need to eliminate.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the bloated legal and financial architectures that are, to date, swallowing most of the best young minds I know. There is nothing gained from a society that invests most of its energies and prestige into these institutions. Law should be a technical thing that guides behavior quietly in the background, not that generates an entire industry that is constantly growing and consuming swaths of the society, putting more people in prison than in any other realm and making everyone fear for their endeavors and hire their own team of lawyers to read the fine print. Financial instruments, if we are to have them at all, should gently enable people to maintain their holdings so they can subsist at a reasonable quality of life, not gamble to be able to bow out of life artificially early or take advantage of others in society and leave them destitute. These things are crazy. No one would design a society willfully, philosophically, from the ground up, and include American legal and financial systems.

And yet the high remuneration and the twin pressures of a student debt machine and a terrible economy are funneling the best and brightest into these worlds, ensuring they do very little good for the world. The best among them promise that they will donate their riches someday to efforts that are actually producing something good for the world (or more often just trying to bail water from the negative byproducts), but this is much like nobly promising to repair a house after spending a life ransacking it. Isn’t it just better to do upkeep on what is, frankly, a pretty decent house in the first place?

All any of this takes to change is changing how we think about the world, our values, and what is good. Capitalism has taken an infectious and dangerous hold on our world outlook and it’s about to bring us all to the brink of ruin. Maybe not in my lifetime, maybe not in yours, but if we don’t start thinking about the 2150 world now, we’re being grossly irresponsible. It’s no coincidence that janitors and maintenance folks are the people we revere the least in our society. We have to flip our values, and fast, if we’re going to avoid the doomsday scenarios of slaughter, plague, or just barrenness on this planet.

They made a movie about a lot of this stuff last year, a movie that critics loved and no one wanted to see. It was really unnecessarily violent and brought me to the edge of walking out on those grounds alone, but the point it was making was excellent. It was called Snowpiercer and it modeled our planet as a perpetual-motion train, tiered by rigidly-enforced classes, and running literally on the sweat and toil of the torture of the children of the underclass. Periodically, a certain portion of the underclass would be slaughtered to maintain a safe number of people living on the train so that the little world did not grow beyond its means.

This movie got almost everything right with a grand metaphor about human structures. Where it failed, though, was limiting the size of the train. We don’t have some maniacal person at the top orchestrating the slaughter of the lower classes. We just add more and more people at every level and institute systems that wherever most of them are born, they will eventually die at the back of the train. And we hold up the few people who jump cars as models for everyone to show how fair and great this class struggle is.

The problem is that we have the resources to put everyone on the train in the middle of the pack. They’d just have to be okay with the train stopping. With us appreciating exactly what we have, exactly what we’ve been given. With striving and struggling to create new ideas and inventions for their own sake rather than to be better than our neighbor. With choosing to be a basketball player or a musician or a president because those are our true calling, not because they come with extra pay. With choosing to be a janitor, maybe, because maintenance is noble and true and what we should actually aspire to.

You may call me a dreamer. But there are alternatives to the nightmare train we’re on. And we can either choose to get off or watch the train, eventually, go over the side of a cliff. Sometimes it takes radical change that’s voluntary to avoid much more devastating, involuntary radical change.

by

Moment of Reflection

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , ,

The face of equal opportunity in America.  Courtesy a website apparently doing a documentary of my old workplace, Glide.

The face of equal opportunity in America. Courtesy a website apparently doing a documentary of my old workplace, Glide.

Last night, I had a disquieting and somewhat absurd realization that most people think it’s fine for some people to be rich and other people to be poor. I was struck anew by how difficult I actually find that to believe.

I’m a debater at heart and can defend any proposition if I really need to for the sake of argument. And I know all the arguments and have been through them with people. I’ve been called naive and I’ve dealt with incentive arguments until the cows come home. I’m not sure I really want this post to be about that. Because I think, sometimes, we get lost in the analytical and it takes us away from the profound wrongness of the assumptions so often underlying our society.

It hit me when Alex was talking about a cruise she went on in childhood during a particular time in her upbringing when her family had more access than other times. And I just thought “gee, not everyone gets to go on a cruise when they’re young.” And it seemed obviously, fundamentally unfair. Not necessarily because cruises are the yardstick by which we ought measure a life, but because it’s just one of those things, like getting to go to Disneyland or having enough to eat at home or not being beaten, that is extremely unequally distributed among children. And even you hard-core right-wingers out there will have a hard time arguing that children truly deserve the fate they are born into. That the children of tycoons deserve hundreds of times the upbringing that the children of the homeless do, just for winning the lottery of birth or sharing genetic material with the already successful.

I’m not really trying to elicit an analytical reaction here, because I think that it gets in the way in this instance. Which brings up an interesting paradox, because the longer this post gets, the more our analytical brain takes over and starts opposing the initial thesis and coming up with justifications. Maybe I should just end it now and leave you with the image of a refugee fleeing their home in contrast to an heir lounging by the pool. But somehow even refugees miss the point, because as hard as their lives are, no one builds refugees into the plan. Pretty much everyone acknowledges that we should help refugees and try to prevent their need to flee. But it seems not so with poor kids. We’ve deliberately designed our society to generate poor kids.

It’s very popular these days to say “no excuses!” and to trot out examples of the few poor kids who overcome their hardships and make it to the top of the food chain as a demonstration that anyone can overcome any circumstance. But it’s rarer to ask why we have a food chain at all when designing a society. Animals have a food chain, but they lack flush toilets and libraries and the ability, perhaps, to ponder their place in the cosmos and to try to alter it profoundly. Aspiring to a system of incentives based on animal behavior seems too close to being able to justify slavery or endless war or eating one’s fellow person, literally or figuratively, if nature appears to call for it.

Which I think gets to the critique I most often am asked to wrestle with, which is just how radical or “out there” my arguments sound to the average person. The naturalistic fallacy, that what is innately is what ought to be, is still the predominant justification for war, torture, poverty, vast incarceration, and all the other ills plaguing our species. It’s actually a defter and more advanced rendition of the naturalistic fallacy, which is that what is is awfully close to what must be. It actually tends to leave “ought” out of the equation altogether. This is where I get into gradualism vs. radicalism debates with people, because the underlying assumption of most folks seems to be that radicalism is infeasible, so gradualism is just the best we can hope to do.

I find this unsettling because the only things keeping gradualism afloat are the boundaries of these underlying assumptions in the first place. It’s very circular. If one believes that we cannot quickly overhaul our systems to ditch things that reward abhorrent behavior because things will always be that way, then we cement the very mentality that makes it so. People have actually made this argument to fight the abolition of slavery, the equalization of rights for women and minority races, and gay marriage. None of which were achieved by gradualism and all of which represent sea-changes in the order of society for those who were oldest when they were enacted. And yet no one standing in 2015 can really comprehend the depravity of 1850s America and its treatment of all these oppressed groups or could imagine traveling there and putting up with it.

So why is contemplating that same level of change in the next century or so so difficult?

There is a certain hubris to being in the present. We assume that we are the terminal point in human understanding and achievement because we feel so much better than all those who came before us. We revel in the progress we’ve made since 1850, or 1550, and assume that we must be reaching a vanishing point of accomplishment. Because we’ve learned about radical change in history books, we assume those are the only radical changes that were necessary. And, more damningly, because they already happened, those changes feel inevitable. Because they happened, we lose sight of how radical and scary those changes were at the time and we assume they would have always conspired to take place. We feel pride in our institutions, our upbringing, our whereabouts, because this is a natural human bias. And everything in our society inculcates and reinforces this pride, not least of which is the endless stream of politicians telling us that contemporary America is the best that ever has been, that ever will be.

But some people still get to live their whole lives rich and others live their whole lives poor. Some people will suffer and struggle and face every possible obstacle, while others have advantages at every level of access and freedom. And all of this simply because of the design of our society, because we have chosen to structure the rules this way. How is this possibly a thing?

If you’re arguing against me right now, with something about natural order or the need for incentives, or the way things have been done or life being cold and cruel and unfair, that’s fine. But ask yourself if the same argument(s) could be used to justify slavery in 1850. Ask yourself if the same argument(s) could be used to justify feudalism, or divine-right monarchy, or the practice of pillaging and enslaving a conquered society. Ask yourself if the underlying assumptions you apply to 2015 were applied to generate imperialism. Because I have a funny feeling you will have a very hard time indeed making an argument that doesn’t apply to those past situations. And I bet you find those past states of being to be unthinkably abhorrent.

The only thing keeping us from a world of fairness, equality, and reasonability is ourselves. We imprison our own futures with the walls of “possibility”. We rule out what is morally necessary with the presumption of what is physically doable, not realizing that it is only those assumptive limits that set the parameters of what we can do. If we all decided tomorrow that being poor was simply an unacceptable burden to place on a child, we could implement the steps in society to make it so.

We have made this radical change time and again on so many other policies that seemed like they’d long been obvious as soon as they were finally implemented. Think about what 2150 humans will look back on with disgust and start believing that we can change that in 2016, not 2149.

by

Fire in a Crowded Theater

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: ,

This, I predict, will be an unpopular post.

Yelling "fire!" into this microphone:  not free speech.

Yelling “fire!” into this microphone: not free speech.

Few events in recent memory have brought such universal calls of immediate condemnation as Wednesday’s massacre of cartoonists and staff from the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. As a pacifist, I join the world in condemning these horrible acts of violence and murder.

It is worth noting that the fact that people feel the need to open their articles and reflections on this event with such condemnation despite its universal obviousness speaks to a certain widely felt paranoia in the realm of journalism, blogging, and writing of all sorts. The presumption seems to be that anyone who would offer any perspective in addition to endless outrage or sadness about these events – offering up any nuance, lessons, or further reflections on the massacre and its origins – is a stone’s throw away from being lambasted as a closet terrorist. And indeed, our society is structured to be “with us or against us” in the post-9/11 rabbit hole, a deliberate tactic to stifle dissent or even critical thinking about an increasingly draconian state at war with its own shadow. I’m sure I will feel impelled several times throughout this post to remind everyone that I find the murders abhorrent, that I am not justifying the murder, that I do not believe in the death penalty for cartooning (or indeed, for anything, including murder and treason).

What I find discouraging about the response to the attack on Charlie Hebdo is how quick everyone has been to defend the magazine’s actions, even to stand with them to the point of saying that they are, literally, Charlie Hebdo. I know murder is galvanizing, even canonizing, to the victims, but it is a small vocal minority that points out that Hebdo and its cartooning staff in particular were crass and offensive, if not overtly racist. There certainly was a double-standard between criticizing Islam and criticizing Judaism, wherein people were fired for alleged anti-Semitism but allowed to flout the most holy standards surrounding the holiest person in Islam, using a blasphemous image to decry everyone in that religion. It’s hard to even imagine what the reaction would be were a similar level of insult levied at a Western-World-approved religion, especially Judaism. And say what you will about the history of anti-Semitism that France has to be guarded against – isn’t that kind of exactly the cultural context and sensitivity to offense that the proponents of so-called free speech are trying to guard against?

I say so-called free speech because the argument that has been lost in all of this, the argument that will be the central thesis of this post, is that Charlie Hebdo‘s offensive cartoons were not protected as free speech and should not be considered within the bounds of that most sacred of Western liberal democracy values. I feel like I may need to repeat this since nothing has been more universal than the repeated utterance of the idea that this magazine’s publication and the slaughter of its staff are free speech issues. They’re not. The cartoons went beyond the realm of free speech.

You see, free speech is not, and never has been, and really shouldn’t be, say whatever you want. Traditionally, that standard was called license, something reviled in traditional liberal democratic theory as something wanton, anarchic, and for those who don’t think about their principles very much. There are countless exceptions to free speech standards and statutes everywhere. The most famously touted, though possibly least significant in terms of actual practical exact application, is yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater. Free speech does not protect your ability to yell fire in a crowded theater because doing so is harmful to the society as a whole, likely to cause a stampede of theater patrons that results in unnecessary death. It is dishonest speech, manipulative speech, speech that predictably ends in violence and bitter resentment. I think you can see where I’m going with this argument. Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons were deliberately and wantonly inflammatory. They served no social good, no valid political message (unless hate-speech, something banned in many quarters of liberal democracies, is now considered valid political speech), and were intended to push the envelope for the pure sake of enraging a portion of the population.

Critical, vital reminder: people do not deserve to die for violating or overstepping free speech standards. They should not have been killed. The killings were abhorrent.

There are other myriad exceptions to free speech as well, speech that, when shouted from the rooftops, is not protected and is highly illegal. One can not advocate the violent overthrow of the standing government. One cannot make specific threats of violence against any person or group of people. One cannot publicly, with a wide audience, lie about the actions or behaviors of another person. One cannot willfully defame another person through the use of falsehoods or misleading statements. These are all universal or nearly universal exceptions to free speech that instead go by names like treason, threats, slander, and fraud. No one would stand up and defend people committing these acts and create the hashtag #IAmTheDeathThreatener or #IAmSlanderer. Even if they were killed, presumably. And yet defamation of a whole class of people through something misleading is pretty much exactly the standard upheld by Charlie Hebdo. The only reason that people are uniting with and defending this message, other than the rush to sanctify the recently murdered, is because it is seen as “okay” to bash Islam and its adherents in modern Western culture.

Which brings me to the other grossly misapplied use of the Free Speech Flag in recent Western culture and social media, so recently trotted out before this as to make the whole scene appear to have a surrealy orchestrated quality. Which, of course, is the film The Interview, a movie advocating the assassination of a sitting leader of a foreign country. Oh yes, sure, it’s an entertainment too, and a farce perhaps, and a vehicle for bad jokes and racism against all of North Korea and its people to boot. But none of this erases the fact that an actual current leader is depicted, by name and resemblance, as being assassinated and that much of the point of the movie is to get the audience to spend the whole movie rooting for and anticipating his eventual killing. These kinds of depictions are exactly why authors, disingenuously or not, put those little disclaimers at the beginning of books depicting horrible events to fictional characters, stating that no resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is intended. Why? Because it is not free speech to advocate the killing of other living human beings. That is outside the bounds of protected speech. That is punishable speech in all free societies.

And yet, when North Korean agents or bored teenage hackers or irate former employees, whichever it was, infiltrated Sony and hacked the daylights out of them, eventually threatening to bomb theaters if The Interview was released, Facebook’s masses and the media that influence them clamored to call this a free speech issue. The cancelling of The Interview was labeled the biggest calamity to befall free speech in the history of everything, at least until events less than a month later overshadowed them. I was a lone voice in the wilderness pointing out that the intent of the film was clearly to push the envelope as far as it would go and that sometimes, when you try to see exactly how much you can get away with, you don’t. You don’t get away with it. Because it actually tramples free speech and barges headlong into the territory of license, of saying wanton and destructive things just for the sake of that wanton destructiveness, just because you can. And that has never been included in anyone’s definition of free speech, beyond the most ardent libertarians and anarchists.

There are two key rebuttals to this set of arguments that I anticipate: one about satire and the other about making the difficult judgment on the nature of this speech. I really think the latter is super-weak, so let’s start with the one about satire.

It could be argued that both The Interview and Charlie Hebdo‘s cartoons are satire and that satire’s business, by its very nature, is to go way beyond normally accepted bounds of speech, to delve into the absurd and outlandish and offensive in order to prove its point. And that, as such, the rules for satire should be bent way beyond those of normal, serious speech.

I have several arguments against this idea, but the first is by analogy. In working with students at Rutgers, I ran into a frequent phenomenon of people making racist remarks in the context of satire, supposedly making fun of those remarks by trotting out the exact same remarks in a sarcastic voice. An actual example was someone (fakely) rebutting an argument that a particular African-American was good at debate by saying “but all Black people are dumb,” voice dripping with sarcasm. I spent some time going on a mission to stamp out this kind of behavior, leading to some extensive and impassioned discussions and even arguments against what I’ve seen in some areas labeled as “hipster racism”. My argument is that no matter how sarcastic or allegedly satirical the speaker is when making that statement, no matter how absurd they think they’re being, they’re still uttering a racist remark that shouldn’t be part of the environment of that team (or, frankly, anywhere in society, but I couldn’t really police that). And that hearing those words, even ironically, does damage to people who have heard those same words not in jest. And that putting that out into society helps perpetuate the negative stereotypes, even if the alleged intent is to make fun of those same stereotypes.

Thus, I think a tremendous amount of supposed satire actually backfires, actually just perpetuates the myths and bigotry laden in whatever mythology or bigotry is allegedly being made fun of. We would be better off without that speech entirely, either through carefully rebutting it or simply disregarding it and making powerful counter-speech that does not attempt to carefully skewer the original speech. Yes, satire is sometimes, even often, an effective weapon against hypocrites and damaging forces in our society. But I think it also often misses the mark, sometimes horribly, and does damage to its original intent, and thus cannot be placed on a pedestal as speech more worthy of protection or immune to critique and censure than any other kind of speech. To be clear, my argument is not that satire should be banned, limited, or uniquely targeted – merely that it should not be deified into a separate, higher class than all other forms of speech.

Additionally, I would argue that The Interview is simply not a work of satire. Granted that I haven’t seen it, so my basis for judgment is somewhat limited, but I would argue that it’s a propaganda piece against North Korea and its leader. While it may not technically be an advocacy piece in favor of the assassination of its leader, I think it’s at least pretty close, and I doubt it does anything to make people sad about a world where Kim Jong-Un has been killed. It’s the kind of movie that, were it released in a Muslim country with the US President named and depicted as the target, would be the instant justification for drone-strikes and possibly full-scale invasion of the society that failed to ban it, with all the collateral deaths of children and innocents that come with it.

Which brings us back to the intent of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Were they mere satire with the aim of lampooning? Or was the intent slightly stronger, more sinister, more aggressive? It certainly seems like the point was to get people to view Muslims negatively, to see them all as hypocrites, to simultaneously blaspheme against their religion and inspire disrespect of followers. Where is the line between satire and hate-speech? And even if you don’t believe in laws against hate-speech, doesn’t it at least seem unwise to sponsor and uphold the vitriolic criticism of a religion when the nation where this stuff is published is bombing Syria and could easily already be considered to be in a culture war against Islam? I know France’s standards of freedom of religion are less robust than those in the United States, as exemplified by their banning of burqas in public, but it’s hard to imagine this being deemed acceptable in targeting any other religious group, cultural group, or race. (Yes, I know a lot has been made about Charlie Hebdo also skewering pedophile priests. That is making fun of specific criminals and their criminal acts, not all priests or all Catholics. It’s categorically different.) And if there’s only one group that’s “okay” to target, that’s not free speech, or at least not a form of it that seems right. It’s just bigotry. And arguably incitement to violence.

Which brings us to the second argument, about who makes the judgment. If there is a line between free speech and license, how do we guard it, how do we call it, who is responsible for putting things on one side of the line or the other? I will grant that this can be tricky, but it’s also interesting that no one seems to bring up this question when the accusation is of treason, slander, defamation, or anti-Semitism. And as much as people will accuse my advocacy in this piece of being illiberal in failing to defend unpleasant or even abhorrent speech, I would choose to turn the tables. I think that by decrying anti-Semitism but defending these Charlie Hebdo cartoons, it is you who is being illiberal in refusing to defend all groups equally. You are conveniently ignoring the power structures present in your society and that it willingly oppresses some groups while championing and defending others. It’s just racism and bias dressed up in the sheep’s clothing of free speech and erring on the side of caution. The history of oppression of the Jewish people in the past in Europe has combined with a handful of so-called terrorist incidents attributed to radical Muslims to make saying anything you want about one group be deemed free speech, while saying much of anything about another group is over the line.

Call me crazy, call me illiberal, but I don’t think the proper response to this is to have open season on Judaism as well. Rather, I think it’s to take a big step back and examine our norms and standards around how people speak about Islam and its adherents. Unfortunately, now that the massacre has happened, any efforts to rule out inflammatory speech against Muslims will be deemed “giving in” and “letting the terrorists win”. It is of paramount importance in contemporary Western societies that we refuse to change anything about our behavior after an attack other than increasing bombing and violence in response to it. This is hand-in-hand with the continual refusal to recognize that other people have reasons for their violence, while it is taken as given that Western societies have a monopoly on reason for using violence. I have gone over this particular argument so many times in my recent writing that it barely bears repeating, but I still am flummoxed by how often serious media outlets insist on saying that one cannot attempt to explain the reasons behind an attack by others or that any attempt to do so should be considered justification.

This is like saying there can never be a motive for a murder. Generally speaking, unless the person committing the crime is legally insane, motive is a key part of any case against any murderer. We all just spent three months of our lives obsessed with the Serial podcast, largely for its examination of motive and its apparent absence in a murder case. And yet, as soon as the murder is committed by someone we label as a “terrorist”, logic and motive flee the scene as though by divine mandate. Those who attempt to unpack the motive are brandished as “with the terrorists”, an act that would be precisely akin to someone in the jury standing up and accusing the prosecutor at a murder trial of being an accomplice for attempting to attribute a motive to the accused.

It’s totally nuts. But not only is it nuts, it’s extremely counter-productive. Because just as motive is necessary to understand a murder and even prevent future murders, so is understanding the intent behind “terrorism” and other killings or attacks essential to actually preventing them in the future. This is neither justification for the acts nor is it blaming the victims of the attacks. It is merely recognizing that those committing the acts are also human beings (something actually argued against in a frightening number of pieces attempting to dehumanize the “enemy”) and thus have reasons for their actions as well.

The dichotomy between France, the US, and other Western powers saying it is committing drone strikes for reasons, or keeping Gitmo open for reasons, while refusing to even engage discussion on the reasons of those opposing these actions and fighting back, is the single biggest impediment to the West making progress against those who would commit terrorism. As long as you think you’re just fighting animals, you will be a victim of your own propaganda and will never be able to engage in the changes necessary to actually bridge the divide of misunderstanding that ends in death.

But the West continues to dehumanize Islam and its adherents, continues to uphold Charlie Hebdo‘s grossly offensive cartoons as the gold standard of free speech and liberalism. It is thus terribly unsurprising that there would be ardent defenders of Islam who would react extremely negatively and violently to this. Not justified that they would do so, but unsurprising.

As societies, we need to choose free speech over license. We need to remember that minority rights are a key pillar of liberal democracies, in addition to the strong loud voice of majority rule. We need to rebuild a society where all people feel free, not just those with the traditional power. And we need to have the humility to recognize that changing how we act and choosing to respect others is not being intimidated, but is sometimes the ultimate act of courage.

Maybe if there had been voices in France decrying Charlie Hebdo as crossing a line, even censuring some of their cartoons as beyond the realm of free speech, then fewer adherents of Islam would believe the entire nation of France is unified in a culture war against their religion. And maybe that, in turn, would have saved the lives of those cartoonists. Which is not to blame France for what happened – the killings were abhorrent and were the fault of the murderers alone. But we still try to figure out how to prevent murders, even if our failure to do so beforehand does not make it our fault. I don’t see why this set of murders should be treated any differently just because the killers were Muslims.

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