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


Let’s Talk About Suicide

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

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

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

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

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

I am really angry.*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Institutional Idealism

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, If You're Going to San Francisco, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The corner of Ellis & Taylor, San Francisco.

The corner of Ellis & Taylor, San Francisco.


Fixing Football Follow-Up: 2014 Bracket

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

After watching Russia fall into a heart-breaking and eliminating draw against Algeria, I did at least acknowledge the quality of the story that would be coming up, which would be a rematch between Germany and Algeria, offering the latter team possible revenge for the 1982 arranged German win against Austria that prompted a good bit of my post two days ago suggesting how to keep the 3rd group match competitive. However, that match should not be happening. Germany is the 6th best group winner in an abnormally competitive field (four teams went 3-0-0, which is highly unusual) and Algeria is the 5th best runner-up. They are both getting easier draw than they deserve.

Here’s the bracket as it stands in real life for the elimination games in the 2014 World Cup, starting Saturday:

Courtesy Wikipedia

Courtesy Wikipedia

But that’s nothing like what it should be. As I predicted in my earlier post, the Netherlands and Mexico are both being treated extremely unfairly, though I didn’t know then that they’d each be literally the best of their set of teams and getting the worst possible draw they could face. This is why random grouping is inferior to a seeding system.

For reference, here is how the 16 elimination rounders (on APDA, we’d call them octofinalists) fared through group play:
Group Winners

Team Points Goal Differential
Netherlands 9 +7
Colombia 9 +7
Argentina 9 +3
Belgium 9 +3
France 7 +6
Germany 7 +5
Brazil 7 +5
Costa Rica 7 +3

Group Runners-Up

Team Points Goal Differential
Mexico 7 +3
Chile 6 +2
Switzerland 6 +1
Uruguay 6 0
Algeria 4 +1
United States 4 0
Nigeria 4 0
Greece 4 -2

Yeah, I hate to break it to you new soccer fans, but the US isn’t all that good.

So here’s what the bracket should look like under my new system:

World Cup 2014 by seeds

World Cup 2014 by seeds

I broke the Germany/Brazil tie (the teams have the exact same stats overall) on how much they won their group by, setting up a Brazil-Chile match-up in real life and what’s most fair.

When we look at the comparison, here’s the teams that got lucky in reality and those who got remarkably unlucky:

Greece (+7) – it probably doesn’t matter that much, because Greece had a -2 goal differential and only got through because of a dubious call in extra time in their last game, but Greece should be getting walloped by Netherlands (the best group winner) and instead drew the worst group winner, Costa Rica. Who will still wallop them.

Costa Rica (+6) – now I’m rooting for Costa Rica and they impressed in a difficult group, but they are objectively the weakest group winner. They should be facing the best runner-up (Mexico), but instead get the second-worst (Greece). For what it’s worth, their second-round match-up would be the same (#1 Netherlands), so that’s reasonable.

France (+3) – France gets Nigeria when they should be getting Uruguay. All that means at this point is that they won’t be getting bitten, though FIFA ensured that it is decidedly less likely that anyone gets bitten playing Uruguay any time soon. In any case, this will probably actually be a close match even though France should be getting an even bigger challenge.

Nigeria (+3) – Nigeria should be facing Colombia and they instead get France. Colombia would probably mow them down, and like I said, I think they have a chance against France.

Germany (+2) – not a huge deal, because Germany is likely to destroy either Switzerland or Algeria, but they should have the harder match-up after not doing all that well in their admittedly difficult group. Though they should be getting mighty #3 Argentina in the second round, but instead get #5 France.

Netherlands (-7) – the top team in the draw may be out in the first round because they’re facing the best goal-keeper and a team that very nearly won a group with the host country in it.

Mexico (-7) – the best runner-up has drawn the toughest team in the draw that rolled through its group. Whoever wins this game is going a long way, but this game is a mighty injustice for both of these teams.

Argentina (-3) – Argentina should be getting the bye that is the United States (sorry folks, it’s kinda true). Instead, they have to deal with Switzerland, who still isn’t prepared to win a knockout game in the heat of Brazil.

Colombia (-3) – Colombia should be getting Nigeria, but instead will be facing Uruguay. This would be a really tough break if Uruguay still had their star player, but they don’t, so Colombia should still have little trouble going through.

Not only does that Netherlands/Mexico match stand out like crazy (yes, I’m going to keep harping on this), but the second-round looming match between Argentina and Belgium pits two teams that went 3-0-0 in their group and should rightfully both make the semifinals. Admittedly Argentina would probably choose Belgium over Germany, but Belgium would definitely pick the France-Uruguay winner over Argentina and they should have that more fair match-up.

I’ve come up with two objections to this improved system that are reasonable, but neither of them do I find sufficient to be deal-breaking. One is that the schedule would be problematic, because we’d need to add off-days between group play and elimination play to ensure that each team had enough time off. And consequently, we might have some teams who play in the later elimination games have a really long rest if they were in group A or B. I still think overall fairness of who you draw as your opponents and the avoidance of any possible rigging are of higher value than a precise amount of time off, however.

My friend Frese came up with the other objection, namely that Group G and H could really set their match-up because they’d know exactly where every other team would stand. Again, I think this compares pretty favorably to every team already knowing that because of the randomness that currently sets the elimination rounds. But I also question whether anyone would choose to be a runner-up instead of a group winner because they prefer the first-round match-up they’d get. After all, this system ensures they’d get a much harder second-round match-up in that case, so they’re unlikely to tank their seed because of the long-term implications.

I’m open to other objections, but I think they all pale in comparison to what Dutch and Mexican fans have to face on June 29th.

Now back to packing.


Fixing Football

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

I, like many sports fans, have been following the 2014 World Cup, though I share some misgivings about it as an institution (as do most conscious people). Clearly rotational hosting is both exciting and fun and showcases parts of the world that most of the developed globe doesn’t normally pay attention to, but it also extracts money from those least able to pay for it for stadiums that will sit dormant for decades and to line the pockets of the plutocrats that sit atop that particular society. This all also applies to the Olympics, which are great fun and give an outlet for nationalism that does not involve drone strikes. There’s a lot to ponder on whether the nationalism ginned up during world sporting events is actually a facilitator of dangerous jingoism or a kind of methadone for it – certainly the long-term likelihood is the latter and we should someday be fighting wars on the sports field if we still seem unable to resolve our differences through discussion. But then I see how people from the US get about their soccer team and it makes me just want to burn all the flags of every country. It kind of amazes me that our nation is still seeking validation.

In any event, this post will be driving by these political concerns which I think are important and going straight to the heart of how the World Cup playoffs are done. I didn’t used to like football/soccer very much and found it boring, but then playing FIFA video games taught me the complex strategy innate to the game and I realized that about 70 minutes of any given match are exciting, rather than three. And then, of course, I was hooked. I also have this weird thing where I specifically really like sports when the teams are nations because I like flags and other countries, even though the nationalism clearly embodied by this spirit makes me queasy. An unresolved paradox, but one that I usually set aside now to watch the World Cup or the Olympics.

I actually, parenthetically, did a pretty good review of my evolution with the so-called beautiful game last World Cup summer, in which I expressed excitement about an upcoming World Cup in Africa and Emily being in Liberia…. oops. Though I did, prophetically, conclude with the line “Anyone’s guess about where I’ll be in 2014 is as good as mine. Probably better.” I don’t think anyone will be bringing in their odds-laden tickets to exchange for a payout on that one anytime soon.

But here’s the point. The way the World Cup does playoffs is broken. You could argue that the way they do the whole Group staging is problematic to begin with, since they just make pots of countries and disperse them, but I actually think the status quo system of dividing teams for groups is pretty solid. If you’re not familiar, they make a “pot” of the top seven teams in the world, plus the host country, then three roughly regional pots for regional diversity, and each group is comprised of a random draw of one team from each of these pots. Given that part of the goal of the World Cup is mixing teams from diverse regions and this system prevents the top seven from facing each other in the first round (top eight this year since Brazil is hosting and is top-eight), I think it’s pretty viable as a system. Yes, every year someone gets anointed as the “Group of Death”, which, frankly, this year was probably not the USA’s group, but the one with Uruguay, Italy, England, and Costa Rica. Which Costa Rica, the only country therein not ranked in the top ten in the world, is assured to advance from, having beaten two prior champions. So the group thing clearly seems to work out.

The biggest problem with the World Cup draw is that the third game is often fixed. Okay, perhaps not fixed, but there are outcomes that are short of going all-out and trying to win that are favorable to a team. A team that knows it’s through to the next round might rest its starters. Two teams facing who both need a mere draw to advance might not fight it out that hard. In past years, there was overt fixing and agreements between teams to produce a certain result that would be mutually agreeable. In some instances, teams have even punted to really bad teams so that their knockout-stage competition will be weaker when they themselves are already guaranteed to go through. FIFA has recently instated a policy wherein the third-day games in each group will be played simultaneously to try to mitigate some of this problem, but not all of these adjustments depend on knowing the result of the other game. There has been rampant speculation in the US media, for example, that Germany and the US, helmed by a German coach, will agree to draw so that both teams can go through. Even the fact that people can discuss this openly, whether or not it happens, is a severe flaw in the system.

The problem is that there’s not much to play for beyond going through and especially nothing to play for beyond winning the group. This is because in the knockout stage, your opponent is merely someone else who went through from another group. Each first place team gets a second place team and that’s it. Even if this means, for example, that Mexico, a team that mightily impressed the world by collecting 7 of a possible 9 points from their group and drawing against Brazil in Brazil, just happens to get the Netherlands, defending finalists who crushed their opposition with all 9 points and a goal-differential of 10-3. Clearly this is a bad system.

There’s an obvious solution: seeding the playoff bracket. Instead of just putting A-1 against B-2 and B-1 against A-2, FIFA should rank the eight group winners as though they were all in the same group (i.e. points, then goal differential) and do the same with the eight runners-up. Then you pit the top group winner against the bottom runner-up, the bottom group-winner against the top runner-up, and so on and resolve the bracket like any normal sports playoff. Thus, every team will be directly incentivized to win every match by the maximum score, just as they are in the first two matches and every knockout stage match. The third group game is this bizarre competitive anomaly that at best gets people to play more weakly than they should and at worst creates actual rigging that cheats some teams out of the chance to go through.

We can’t run through an example of what this would look like for 2014 yet, since only two groups are finished, but I promise you that the horrifying Netherlands-Mexico match in the round of 16 would be delayed to a much later stage where it’s deserved. But we can take the example of 2010, which should be a good illustration:

Group Winners

Team Points Goal Differential
Argentina 9 +6
Netherlands 9 +4
Uruguay 7 +4
Brazil 7 +3
Germany 6 +4
Spain 6 +2
Paraguay 5 +2
United States 5 +1

Group Runners-Up

Team Points Goal Differential
Japan 6 +2
Chile 6 +1
Portugal 5 +7
England 5 +1
Mexico 4 +1
Ghana 4 0
South Korea 4 -1
Slovakia 4 -1

I broke the one tie (South Korea/Slovakia) on how many goals were scored total, which is the prescribed method in the World Cup.

So this creates the following bracket:

A better World (Cup)

A better World (Cup)

For the purposes of comparison, here’s what the actual 2010 World Cup did with these 16 teams:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Courtesy of Wikipedia

While the changes may not be obvious in all places (the two most exciting first-round games, Germany vs. England and Spain vs. Portugal, are actually intact!), the rubber really hits the road in the second knockout round. For example, real-life Germany vs. Argentina pitted the #5 seed vs. the #1, a matchup worthy of the semifinals, but happened in the quarters (and Argentina got trounced). Top-ranked Argentina deserved a much easier draw in the quarters, for example the winner of US/Japan. Similarly, the real quarters matched #2 Netherlands against #4 Brazil, surely creating a too-early exit for Brazil. Now, granted, the new quarterfinals create the blockbuster match of Brazil vs. Germany, but at least that’s the kind of #4/#5 matchup that we’re used to seeing as close and exciting in a quarterfinal. And #2 Netherlands can go on to get an easier draw, namely the winner of Paraguay/Chile.

Here we also see that Spain’s road to the Cup last year relied a bit more on luck than just pure skill. Maybe they would have beaten every team in last year’s knockout stage, but rather than drawing more deserved #3 Uruguay in the quarters and #2 Netherlands in the semis (their actual finals opponent), they instead got to face #7 Paraguay and #5 Germany, respectively. Not that Germany is some kind of pushover, but still. Having easier draw might have made it easier for them to have enough left to win it all by the time they faced the Netherlands.

Surely these matchups are just as exciting, but without the sheer injustice of things like this year’s Netherlands/Mexico match will be for whichever team gets eliminated therein. And more importantly, they prevent the greater injustice of collusion or strategic resting by teams that have no incentive to try to collect 9 points and maximum goal-differential. More competitive and contested games make life better for everyone – the teams, the fans, the nations. Why wouldn’t we do this?


Violence is About Violence: Elliot Rodger and Memorial Day

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

America, we have to stop meeting like this.

America, we have to stop meeting like this.

Every time there’s a mass-shooting or -killing in America, which is roughly constantly these days, there is a groundswell of effort to claim the event as political leverage for or against some particular cause that those behind it attribute to the source of the violence. This is a natural human reaction to tragedy and one that, unlike many people who observe this trend, I don’t dislike. People say that it’s about the guns or it’s about mental health or it’s about a lack of security or it’s about bullying or it’s about hopelessness or it’s about video games or, in the latest instance, it’s about misogyny.

All of these people are right, at least to an extent. There are tens of little causes that contribute to each one of these killing sprees that the United States churns out and it’s worth examining each one to try to see what could have been done to prevent any given incident. Tragedy is bad enough for people to experience, individually or collectively, but it is totally wasted if we fail to try to mine it for lessons about our past and future and ways we can change the shape of society to save lives and prevent similar future trauma. We are hard-wired to do this as an evolutionary species and we should embrace this reaction to tragedy as it prompts us to have hope in the midst of heartache.

Most of the time, however, we focus on entirely the wrong thing. The voices advocating conciliation after 9/11 were drowned out by those who said it was a lack of security that had caused the incident, not a policy that uniformly oppressed and incited people in foreign lands. And I think the entire emphasis on mental health in the wake of so many of these recent shootings is a bit naive, implying that somehow there is a regimen of mandated screenings we can pursue that will remove all potentially uncorked people from walking the streets ever again. The gun question is certainly relevant, but seems also to fall a bit short of the boat when it must be acknowledged that illegal guns are nearly as plentiful in this state as legal ones. And certainly arming the populous to replace mass-shootings with daily shoot-outs at the OK Mall seems a little short-sighted, especially in light of the recent sprees by police in my native Albuquerque and other cities that have embraced a culture of shooting first and obfuscating questions later.

The issue has always struck me as a little more fundamental than guns specifically, though I agree we certainly have a gun problem in this country. It’s about a culture and society that routinely honors and glorifies violence and, more damningly, specifically advocates violence as a solution to problems. Finland does not have a significant problem with mass-shootings, despite the fact that plenty of people are toting firearms up to Lappland to slaughter reindeer. Anders Breivik aside, this problem doesn’t seem to frequently plague the rest of Europe either. And despite their poverty and desperation, no developing nations not ensconced in civil war seem to be frequently beset by marauding young men taking arms against a sea of troubles and massacring their friends and neighbors.

America is not the only country that fights wars, has a military, or advocates killing for your country. I am often criticized for failing to see this, for failing to throw just as many proverbial stones at all the other nations who seek to subjugate the rest of the world with firearms and explosives as I do at my native land. However, the fact that America spends as much on its military as the next nine largest military spenders combined seems to indicate that we have a bit of a disproportionate issue. Nowhere else is violence so frequently lauded as the answer or is more energy, effort, money, and time expended to train people to use violence to solve the society’s perceived problems.

But more pivotally, violence is the only universal coherent explanation for what is wrong with all these mass-shootings. The biggest problem with the shootings is that they kill and injure people. That may seem like a really juvenile or mundane statement, but it is also transparently true and I think it’s a little profound. We can argue that if we had better mental health services or banned violent video games or washed racism or sexism out of our society that these incidents would be less likely. And maybe they would. But nothing would actually eliminate all of them other than getting rid of the urge and/or willingness to do violence. It is not the content of the message or frustration or even the precise means and weaponry that is problematic about killing sprees. It is the killing.

The fact that this is not the starting point of widespread discussions of this unending series of killings indicates just precisely how far down the rabbit hole of presumption of violence we really are. No one would question on a national talk show why Elliot Rodger would choose violence as his method of expression in this circumstance, because of course people take out their actions in the form of violence. No one turns the lens on how pervasive violence is in our societal values and our advocacy because it’s just a given that violence is necessary and honorable most of the time. People see these killings not as innate perversions of humanity by invoking violence, but merely a misuse of the tool of violence since everyone else who uses it is a “hero”.

I’m not trying to say that Elliot Rodger was a prime candidate for pacifism. I am more than familiar with the critique of my viewpoint as impractical in a world where wars are so common and the desire to damage the bodies of others is seen as innate to our nature. However, saying that these shootings are not, most fundamentally, about violence clearly seems to miss the point. Without violence, these would be uncomfortable screaming matches or maybe even fringey protests or blog posts, not tragedies that leave tens dead and hundreds more lives shattered in pain and loss. To defeat the rise of mass-killings and prevent them in the future, we really only have one option of what to try to limit, which is violence itself.

And since we can’t eliminate violence by imprisoning everyone and isolating them entirely from each other (or at least we probably shouldn’t), we have to try to convince people that violence is not the answer to their challenges. Which seems to start first and foremost at the top, with setting a new precedent for how the country is going to resolve differences with its rivals. And while I’m glad we didn’t invade Ukraine in the recent spring unrest, we still are a long long way from resolving our differences with others peacefully. And rarely is that more obvious than during Memorial Day, as especially augmented by the unending stream of enforced patriotism surrounding public events thereon, ranging from camouflage-style uniforms on the baseball diamond to jingoistic graveside speeches. Whatever you may think about some past wars in American history and those who fought them (I recognize that few of you are zealous pacifists like me), it is impossible to ignore that modern patriotism and militarism are manifest to convince vulnerable young men and women to kill in wars of convenience for economic imperialism. Even if you believe the “heroes of World War II” actually “died for your freedom”, that memory is being warped into an excuse for de facto drafting the poor and would-be noble of our nation into oppressive attacks on the innocent children of other countries.

Kind of like the oppressive attacks on the innocent children of our country.

I’m not saying, either, that if all displays of jingoistic militarism went away tomorrow that all the Elliot Rodgers of the world would too. But I think there’s a high correlation between the existence of both and that the causal links are strong and possibly measurable. (A future version of this post may try to track incidents like this on a graph.) I don’t think Rodger came up with the idea that violence was the best expression of his rage on his own. I think it was something he was taught, something inculcated in him by a number of influential and powerful sources from a young age, something we are raising people to believe in a society whose ode to bombs bursting in air begins each important event within it.

I also want to address the proximate cause du jour that so many are citing for the latest mass-shooting. It neither bears having its own post on the subject nor does it really dovetail perfectly with my above point, so I’m just awkwardly throwing up that dividing line and starting over on this subject. There’s been a lot of discussion of Facebook along the lines of this Guardian article, blaming the killings in Isla Vista on misogyny and the idea that he was entitled to female companionship.

While there’s no doubt that Rodger was a sexist, a misogynist, and a terrible human being, there’s something to be said for the idea that the article above and its ilk are a slight misinterpretation of the facts. I don’t think Rodger was upset because he was taught that he should be able to just have any woman who he wanted and that no one should ever reject him. Rather, I think he was frustrated with being a chronically lonely person in a society that promotes sex and sexuality, with being unable to connect with people when so many others around him were making so many connections, to feel like his college experience, when “everyone” is hooking up and getting it on, was punctuated by the worst time of his life, not the best.

This is in no way meant to justify or explain his actions. I have already done the explanation above that violence is the core issue. But I think that not enough is done in general in our society to examine how we treat the lonely and socially isolated. These people are not necessarily mentally ill, even if we set aside the fact that our culture slaps a “disorder” on top of anything that makes us uncomfortable or seems hard to explain or is different. And these people may have really unsavory aspects that prevent them from connecting with people, like being sexist or racist or jerks. But the hard part of this whole question is that there are honestly just some people who are lonely for things that are not fatal character flaws. They simply aren’t attractive, or are weird, or try too hard, or are socially inept. These sometimes fester over time and become larger problems that manifest in resentment and morph into sexism or being a jerk, but the characteristics themselves are often just unfortunate problems that don’t have an easy solution.

I’m not saying anyone is entitled to the company of their preferred gender of choice or to a relationship, per se. But doesn’t it seem like everyone should be able to experience companionship if they want to? Doesn’t it seem cosmically unfair if some people are just too hopelessly weird or awkward or unattractive to avoid eternal loneliness? And this does not obligate any one person or group to do anything about it… relationships are the most intensely personal, important, and choice-based thing in someone’s life – they are entirely up to the person and no one should be a martyr for someone else not being lonely. But what do we do with people who see a world that worships togetherness and romantic and sexual contact and can simply never have it on a meaningful level? This is not something that is easily washed away by saying they did something to deserve this loneliness. All too often, they didn’t. They just are on their own through no fault of their own.

Again, I stress that this is not Elliot Rodger’s story, almost certainly, but he’s enough like someone in this story that it’s worth discussing this conundrum. The person who provides the best example of this kind of phenomenon isn’t a person at all, but a fictional half-blood wizard, namely Severus Snape. Lauded as perhaps the most complicated, developed and intriguing character in the Harry Potter series, if not all millennial literature, Snape provides us with vast insight into what it means to be lonely and unable to do anything about it. And while his story is the more typical trope of unrequited love for one specific person, I see in Snape aspects of the modern lonely high school and college students who go without any connections and would be happy with a number of different possible people as long as they had someone to love, cherish, and connect with.

Snape is weird, vaguely unkempt, and deeply unattractive. And while his resentment of the bullying James Potter and the cool kids who get the girls leads him down a dark path toward revenge and elitism, Snape is not innately a sexist or a misogynist or a hater of any kind. He’s just a victim of losing the genetic lottery and being unable to make himself normal enough to fit in. His is the story of countless young people (disproportionately men, probably, because of the shape of our society, but not exclusively by any stretch) and their isolation is something we don’t like to talk about, think about, or even admit because of its deep unfairness. No one in America ever likes to admit defeat or the unfixability of anything, but the idea that some people are just doomed to loneliness by the nature of who they are and the choices that others will make about them is devastating. And while this conclusion may not be entirely true in an absolute sense, this country, like all countries, will continue to produce loners and outcasts.

Only by looking at these people head-on and trying to give them other things in life to be excited about and other ways to find connection and meaning can we have a hope of limiting the unfairness of their unfortunate circumstances. I won’t go so far as to say that this kind of active engagement will prevent mass-shootings, because we’ve discussed the only real way to do that, but it might just bring people off the ledge from believing that so little in their life matters that they can throw it away and, worse, use it as a platform for ending others.


The Limits of Surveillance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Facial Recognition

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

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

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

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

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

Which one of these people would you trust?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


What is Wrong with US?

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

This is a sign of distress.

This is a sign of distress.

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

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

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

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

“I will always love [America].”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Baseball and Society

Categories: A Day in the Life, Let's Go M's, Metablogging, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Tags: , , ,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Legal Troubles

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

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

Here is your picture for this post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


No News is Very Bad News

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

Have you seen this woman?

Have you seen this woman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Post-Privacy World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Let’s Talk About Class, Baby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Barack Obama and the Legacy of Martin Luther King

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

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day in the United States, the day we’ve set aside from everything to honor a man who did more, at least in our modern understanding, than any other single person to promote the Civil Rights movement and efforts toward racial equality in this country. He was also bestowed a day, presumably, because he advocated and used non-violent means, one of the few times in history those means have been tested (to great effect) and, it must be said, because he was assassinated. Those felled before fulfilling their full potential are always deserving of greater honor, given that only time would have told what the full range of their impact would have been. For example, I have little doubt that a life-long MLK would have been our first Black President. Instead, that honor has gone to Barack Obama.

Yesterday was also the unofficial but very much observed Inauguration Day in our country, the day we’ve set aside to reappoint President Obama to his position for another four years. The opportunity to reinaugurate the first Black President on MLK Day was simply not to be overlooked, and thus the formalities were done Sunday, while the spectacle of Americans celebrating their peaceful transfer of power from one man to himself was observed yesterday. It is not a popular time to note how badly President Obama has deserted, failed, and possibly even betrayed the legacy of Dr. King. But I don’t see anyone else saying it, so it’s time to step up.

Or, perhaps, to quote MLK himself, quoting the statements of the Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam in his seminal 1967 speech “Beyond Vietnam”, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.”

It is precisely this Martin Luther King, the MLK of his last years, that I feel Obama has disappointed so badly. Yes, much has been written on how Obama is terrified of making waves or standing out for any sort of issue of racial equality or anything that could come near being perceived as a racial issue. He has taken no actions to limit the drug war which disproportionately punishes minorities for non-violent offenses. He has done nothing to discuss the cradle-to-prison pipeline spun by the prison-industrial complex, the mass-incarceration of generations of young minorities who were unable to carve the opportunities he did, very much against the odds. He has acted in all ways as someone entirely blind to any possible plight of racial minorities whatsoever, presumably for fear of preventing future people who look like him from being elected since they would seem to only care about such issues. All of this is well documented, and all of this alone is enough to excoriate Obama’s record on the issues MLK is known for.

But the direction MLK was taking his legacy in his final years of life was far different. Or rather, it was in the same swell as the initial movement, but far broader in scope and perspective. While he was surely under no illusions that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 fixed the problems the movement sought to redress, MLK had shifted his attentions away from race, where he had made much progress, to equally large and even less surmountable issues of institutional violence and poverty in 1967 and 1968. He took a position of prominence, power, following, and especially acknowledgment from national power-brokers, and he risked it all on pushing for further lasting gains that would truly change society for all Americans. And they shot him for it.

Lyndon Johnson and other figures in government felt deeply betrayed by Dr. King that he would take their partnership on Civil Rights issues and then turn around and condemn their failure to act justly regarding the War, to act meaningfully to reduce poverty in a society that, by today’s standards, looks egalitarian and upwardly mobile. They were fundamentally political animals, dealing in the world of quid pro quo and horse-trading where Obama has been able to excel (or at least get by). But MLK was not, essentially, a political person. He was a populist, a man of rhetoric and the pulpit, a person whose vision transcended what we would today be told was practical or sufficiently incremental. Even at the time, most of his colleagues decried his shift away from the areas where he had found success to issues he found to be more profoundly important at the time. Why move away from race when progress is being made there, why say that all races are suffering under the draft, under the iron grip of despair that comes with being poor? And MLK’s only answer could be that these were the most pressing issues of the time, the place where the most progress was needed. Even from a purely racial lens, the biggest threats to minorities, as well as the whole country, were war and poverty.

So he spoke out against the war. He drafted an Economic Bill of Rights and launched the Poor People’s Campaigns with one of the original plans to occupy a major US city. He planned to display that the opportunity cost of war was the people of the society who bore its burdens. He said:

“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way…and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.'”

It still happened, for six weeks, after MLK was assassinated, and was broken up by tear gas and riot police after violence was blamed on those in the shantytown in DC. Without the fiery leader to convince people to stay on the straight and narrow path of non-violence, without the hope of a figure, a true leader, who commanded the respect of the authorities, the movement was unable to thrive. The war raged on for years and poverty only worsened, pretty much every year, until 2013.

Martin Luther King gave his life for his commitment to non-violence and ending poverty. These were core issues for the man. What has Barack Obama done about these things? The man who dares to invoke King’s legacy – in what ways has he taken risks for these causes?

Yes, I know there are those of you out there who will credit Obama for “ending” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Never mind his outspoken defense of the latter war, his perpetuation and escalation of it, and his continued advocacy of a military budget that dwarfs that of the next seven most belligerent countries combined. Nor, of course, his intervention in Libya, his willingness to assassinate Pakistanis and Yemenis daily without warrant, notice, publicity, or a chance of them defending themselves. It’s hard to picture a President King taking any of these actions, of course, or failing to call them out on a daily basis, regardless of the race of the President in power.

But even the most brazen defender of Obama would not be able to offer me a single action he’s done to aid the plight of the poor. While bailouts and endless lines of interest-free money have streamed toward big banking and big business, the poor have had to be content with ongoing unemployment benefits and the theory of health insurance where their biggest benefit is not having to pay a fine but still not getting health insurance. The truly poor rarely vote, rarely make their voice heard, are so often incarcerated and disenfranchised that they cannot afford to be advocates for themselves, let alone the power-brokers who make and break Presidencies. Where is the right to a job, the rights enumerated in the Economic Bill of Rights that became a national joke as soon as Dr. King was in the ground? Where is the advocate for the worker, the would-be worker, the poorest of the poor, who is not immediately laughed off as an impractical dreamer? Where are the people who, on the day named for him, will truly give their due to Martin Luther King?

Not in the land of the free and the home of the brave. You won’t find them here.

And for what, President Obama? What are you running for (or from)? Whose favor are you trying to curry now? You’ve been re-elected, you’ll never run for anything again. Maybe, just maybe, you can meditate on the legacy of your forbear, you can consider why you are even able to sit in that Oval Office in the first place, and start to pay down some of your enormous debts. Maybe you can consider the plight of those who were less lucky than you, as Dr. King did before you. And maybe, just maybe, we can have the first term of a Presidency in decades that is not entirely beholden to corporate interests and increasing the power of the wealthy elites.

They might shoot you for it. But Dr. King knew there were more important things than living through the misery that other people would subject you to. And Aaron Swartz has reminded us that sometimes dying for a cause can be just as powerful, if not more so, than living for it. Have some courage to stand up for something that might actually sound like the change you promised us five years ago. Or at least the bravery to be willing to change yourself.


Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), Guns, and the Consent of the Governed

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

The founding fathers were the original terrorists.

Before you read anything I have to say, I think you should go read this. In the article, Glenn Greenwald illustrates how the judicial bullying and eventual suicide of Aaron Swartz, Internet genius and activist, is symptomatic of a much larger problem in our society about might (or in this case money) making right. The article seems longer than it is because of all the comments, many of which are not the insipid drivel that comments on the Internet so often are. It’s worth reading the whole way down.

The money paragraph is something my friend Russ originally posted on Facebook and I copied and is making the rounds:

“The US has become a society in which political and financial elites systematically evade accountability for their bad acts, no matter how destructive. Those who torture, illegally eavesdrop, commit systemic financial fraud, even launder money for designated terrorists and drug dealers are all protected from criminal liability, while those who are powerless – or especially, as in Swartz’s case, those who challenge power – are mercilessly punished for trivial transgressions. All one has to do to see that this is true is to contrast the incredible leniency given by Ortiz’s office to large companies and executives accused of serious crimes with the indescribably excessive pursuit of Swartz.”

Swartz was an activist unafraid of committing civil disobedience against bad laws. His activism against SOPA was powerful, moving, and influential. But he was not always able, in life, to convince a public with scattered attentions that the causes he fought for were just and worthy of lawbreaking. And as they have on Bradley Manning and other voices in the wilderness calling for transparency and accountability, the US government landed on him. As hard as they could. And it ended his ability to resist.

This country was founded by people who resisted their government. Ardently, violently (unfortunately – which is why they were terrorists), and without fear of failure or a Plan B to account for it. They had, by comparison to residents of the modern United States, absolutely nothing to complain about. They felt squeezed by tiny little taxes currently dwarfed by the burdens levied in any state in the nation which they founded. They were concerned that the government didn’t listen to them because it was far away, not particularly financially, but physically. They demanded a certain amount of accountability and ownership of their lives in a situation that looks something like anarchy compared to the surveillance, regulation, scrutiny, and stricture of the modern American landscape.

And they put in a provision to make sure that the outgrowth of their successful terrorist campaign would never get to the point that it has in 2013. It was called the Second Amendment and it was the most important thing the colonists could think of to protect when they got past the reasons most of them lived in the colonies instead of jolly old England in the first place (the ability to practice religion, speech, the press, and assembly). It was the right to say no. It was the right to resist. It manifested in the most powerful weapon the terrorists could think of, the same weapon that had just felled the mightiest Empire on the face of the Earth across all of history: the militia.

The reasoning was clear. If the people can rise up and create a terrorist militia that says no to whatever law is passed, then laws will truly rely on the consent of the governed. This system of voting and choosing representatives and convening from time to time is all well and good, but the only real defense of consent is the ability to have an alternative to consenting. To be able to pick up weaponry that can contend with that assembled by the government and have it out with them, to break away, to be free. And they even recognized that what that actual weaponry would look like that would be necessary and sufficient would change over time. Surely the militia would take the same form, for what fighting force could be more effective at felling great powers than terrorists? But in general, the most general word possible would have to suffice. “Arms.” This would cover all possible weaponry, muskets to cannons to whatever insanely powerful firepower would doubtless be invented in the future, and grant individuals the right to keep them as a defense against the state.

That this statute, second alteration to the country’s sacred text, is being used to justify the possession of semi-automatic assault rifles by hunters is laughable in two regards. For one, there is no world in which such weaponry could be used to defend against the full force and power of the United States government. For another, the purported purpose entirely misses the point of why arms are a protected class of possessions. You don’t have a right to guns as an American because you like shooting for sport or it happens to be your hobby. You have a right to a nuclear weapon, an aircraft carrier loaded with bombers, and anything else utilized by the American military, as a defense against pretty much exactly what the US government looks like today.

The first significant test of this amendment and its ability to protect the consent of the governed was the Civil War. And while I am in no way defending what the South was fighting for, any more than I would defend anyone fighting ever with violence for anything, it should be noted that this critical moment in American history was a resounding defeat for the Constitution. By everything that the US had stood for for nearly a century, the right to secede should have been ironclad. The South formed a militia to defend their perspective against that of their would-be oppressor. They dissented to a series of laws. They had a right to do this under the textual understanding of the Constitution and its amendments, as well as the ideals laid out by those who wrote them. They were governed and no longer consented. They, like any of us at any time, were free to do so.

It didn’t help that Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and took all manner of extra-Constitutional measures to hold an unwilling union together. And implemented conscription for the first time at the national level, a violation of how the terrorists felt those living in their legacy should fight. Indeed, most of the modern methodology of wars and suppression have been inspired and brought about by Lincoln and his methods during the War Between the States.

Like President Obama, I want to be clear. I am not advocating that people take up armed resistance against their government. I’m not saying people were right to fight for the right to own other human beings as their property, or to be racist, or to not pay taxes, or any of it. What I am trying to do is put in perspective what the Second Amendment is actually meant to do and how it got perverted over time. The Second Amendment, like most of the Bill of Rights, is entirely about the consent of the governed and the right to say no. It’s not about a hobby or pastimes any more than you have a right to a battleship to use for whaling excursions. It’s not about the ability to intimidate or execute your neighbors for no political end any more than you have a right to make death threats under free speech. It’s about being able to say no.

Which, incidentally, no one seems to much want to do. And those that do get squashed.

Which is why it shouldn’t be that surprising that the Patriot Act and all of the other post-9/11 activity of the US government has gone in two parallel tracks of increasing the power of the state over its people while trying to suppress any possible ability to resist that people could make in the traditional method of violent terrorism. People have been explicitly barred from harboring or accumulating or putting into their possession any sort of anything that could remotely threaten the supreme force of the government while also being subjected to endless abridgements of their basic liberties. Their ability to say no, act on no, or even think no has been stamped out, ridiculed, wiped away in the name of protecting lives that have never been endangered since the original incident.

Do I think violence is the right way to say no? Of course not. But I also don’t think the government has the right to the monopoly of force and power that it’s accumulated, especially when it is endlessly incentivized to grease the wheels of corruption that ensure it will only be a protection racket for the rich and powerful while masquerading as some sort of egalitarian wonderland. Go back and read the Greenwald article. Count those incarceration figures again. The Civil War was fought, allegedly, to prevent slavery, but there are more people in chains than ever. And if you think a cache of semi-automatic assault rifles is going to be the tipping point between your resistance movement succeeding or failing, go visit Waco and Ruby Ridge. You can’t fight the law when it’s backed by that kind of firepower.

The only resistance we have left to us is words. Swartz knew it. Manning knows it. Even if you wanted to violently resist and believed in that, it would be impossible. Even Kim and Ahmadinejad know that, deep down. The only way to restore the consent of the governed is to say no, to talk about no with others, to post about no on the web. Consent requires an ability to have an alternative to consent, one that is meaningful and powerful and exercises a dominion over one’s own conscience. The Internet, in part because of the ruckus-raising efforts of people like Swartz, is still free and mostly unfettered, today. It’s a truly egalitarian and level society where the tools of the big boys with the big bucks can still be used by anyone freely and openly, where voices are heard based on merit and resonance. The windows on these sorts of things are closing, perhaps rapidly, and it’s kind of a minor miracle that a state this obsessed with magnifying its own power has allowed this to continue.

Part of that is about this illusion of freedom and the bizarre self-image that America must maintain. But most of it is about the fact that most Americans truly want the society they claim to have. They just have to be reminded, constantly and loudly, how far their society actually is from that ideal.

And if people make enough noise at the same time, no matter what kind of people they are or what they want, they can create a type of power. Not one that can avoid being swept away by nuclear bombs or organized trained militaries. But one that can at least be a needling voice of conscience in the back of the heads of those with their fingers on the buttons. One that can create a sort of mental terrorism, nipping and biting at the heels of those firm in their convictions to do wrong, to serve the self, to exercise power for its own sake.

Say no. It’s the only way to make saying yes mean anything at all, which was the whole idea in the first place.



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

It’s really hard to tell whether there’s an actual crisis underway in the US federal government over sequestration. The original title of this post was going to be “Sequestration Now!” and it was going to be written as many as five months ago at various points in history. History cannot be undone, any more than money can be unspent or elections can be unwon. We have the government we have and most of us had about as much choice over that as we did about whether our neighbor bought a gun, about whether they or anyone else we know chose to use it. For all our talk about freedom in this country, a world of seven-billion does not afford us much actual discretion over how our lives go.

There is not a lot of discretion used in the so-called discretionary spending of the federal budget. Of the $1.277 trillion ($1,277,000,000,000.00) spent by this entity each year, $712 billion ($712,000,000,000.00), or 56%, is spent on “defense”. Defense being one of those euphemisms like “pro-choice” (there’s that choice issue again), “pro-life”, or even “fiscal cliff” being used to refer to the edge of something that would probably be great for America. In our language, we are so accustomed to embedding a viewpoint that we don’t even think of it cognitively anymore. We merely accept the nature of our slanted universe and try to amble awkwardly toward our destination without getting seasick. No wonder so many people choose to rebel against the order without words. They seem corrupted before we begin.

Given that there’s already a 56-44 split in discretionary spending toward guns and bombs, it actually seems rather unfair that only 50% of the sequestration cuts would be made toward defense. The cuts themselves are a mere 9% of the total budget, hardly a drastic reduction for a private spender to contemplate amidst a financial collapse. And despite the fact that they would heighten the split advantage for attacking people, I’m still in favor of the cuts going forward. Some reduction in death is probably favorable to no reduction in death, or so the media seems to represent that people believe these days.

The nature of the fiscal cliff and the allegedly radical sequestration cuts that were proposed to force compromise are reminiscent of what a parent does to an unruly child. If you can’t get along with each other, then both of you will lose something you dearly want. One could argue the cuts don’t go far enough, that all of the dessert should be taken away, at least for a while, but I suppose 9% is about as much as one could hope to take from those who have everything. It remains to be seen whether even this sort of third-grade punishment will work on a Congress so detached from the realities of everyday America that their approval rating is competitive with the percentage of those cuts they’re trying to impose on themselves. Maybe they should try grounding themselves next. It’s hard to take cuts seriously when your first stop after budget negotiations is a foreign island or a Swiss ski resort. After all, only the little people pay taxes, which is why we’re facing this kind of precipice in the first place. Cuts to other people’s livelihoods, salaries, and programs must still feel rather remote compared to the bottom-line of the account safely secured in the Caymans or Delaware.

Nevertheless, it’s worth noting that sequestration would have a significant impact on the American psyche, if not the actual numbers. Everything is always supposed to grow in this country, under this economic regime, making any sort of cut feel like a direct personal insult to our individual sense of entitlement. The notions of being responsible, of restraint, of imposing restrictions on oneself and then following them has very little to do with the American Dream. We’re supposed to be bigger, better, stronger, more reckless and ruthless. Tithing to the god of fiscal responsibility is a dramatic step back from such lofty goals. It might force people to recognize that zero-growth is the future, that living within our means is the metaphor for the twenty-first century, if there is to be a full century. It offers some hope that the only voluntary cuts we make will not be in the classroom and will not originate from the barrel of a gun.

No, it will not result in a change in elections. The approval rating of Americans for their Congress peaked at 21% in 2012, right before they elected 90% of incumbents who were running to return to their jobs in Congress. This is not cognitive dissonance so much as proof that the system is rigged to offer no choice, no discretion, no option for real or lasting change. There’s gerrymandering, the two-party system, cynicism and entrenchment, corporate sponsorship, the desire to vote for a winner, and a whole host of issues I rail about here from time to time. In sum, calling our elections a democracy is not, at this point, all that different than calling Mubarak’s Egypt a democracy. Elections are held, people vote, their votes are tallied, and none of this in any way resembles a process by which individual preferences would create some sort of government. The way an objective history or even a contemporary outside perspective would describe the status of the American experiment is so radically different from the way we see ourselves that it may actually defy gravity. Self-awareness is not really a featured highlight in American exceptionalism. It’s not something we compliment in our daily culture. We find the delusion of grandeur lovably entrepreneurial, while knowing one’s limits is somewhat trashy and banal. This is the culture that created the reality TV star while shunning those who urge caution and honesty.

A fitting mascot for the US’ current trajectory, in the context of the world, might be Don Quixote. But someone made the mistake of arming Quixote with nuclear weapons, armored vehicles, and the world’s largest military budget to throw at those windmills. The windmills are no more of a threat than whatever the US is fighting, but down they go all the same. It seems to be a time for attacking those most vulnerable, those least likely to pose a threat.

And I’m not really referring to the shooter in Connecticut who opened fire on an elementary school, though of course I’m referencing it indirectly. At least 176 children have been killed by drones alone in Pakistan alone since 2004. Is there a reason we find this less horrific than what happened in Sandy Hook? There’s racism, I suppose, since most of the Connecticut kids were white. There’s nationalism, for sure, since they were all Americans and most of us can’t place Pakistan on a map or name one fact about it other than some vague notion of it being Muslim and therefore an enemy. Religious prejudice then, too. And I guess some sort of institutional versus individual distinction. If one person comes up with the idea for slaughtering a school full of children, we’re horrified, as long as that person doesn’t serve in some sort of official role with the government or its “defense” wing. Slap a uniform on Adam Lanza and he becomes a real American hero.

Oh, I know, you’re saying there’s an intentionality issue too. Lanza meant to kill kids, while Obama only means to kill those that would somehow kill us. But doesn’t that miss the point? Isn’t it actually kind of worse to just happen to slaughter 200 children as a byproduct of some goal you assure us is lofty than to intentionally kill 20 of them? I’m not defending the shooter any more than I would defend any committer of violence, but if we’re making a comparative argument, at least he did precisely the damage he intended, which sort of recognizes a certain dignity to human life, however much he violated it. America is so indifferent to the wake of its damage that it assures us that 176 children couldn’t possibly matter, since they aren’t citizens of our country. We think, like imposing the fiscal cliff on ourselves, that grossly disproportionate response is the only response, which is how we justify causing hundreds of 9/11’s in other nations in response to the one we experienced.

The problem, in part, is that the US doesn’t know who its enemies are. We assume that they must live in foreign mountains, must sail from ports abroad. They are the expendable children we can send robots to exterminate before they even know that danger is pending. No time to hide or huddle or seek an adult for comfort before their body parts are scattered to the four winds. We do this. Our tax dollars. Your flag that you stand and salute represents the maiming and killing of hundreds of children. This is your contribution to the world.

And for what? So that we can tote our guns and feel superior. We are the best people in the world, we who turn the gun on ourselves. We are our own worst enemy, our only enemy, somehow, the only one who truly means us harm. It is our own children who grow up to pose the threat to America. And in some twisted self-referential vortex, maybe Adam Lanza knew that and took the drone strikes home to our own children, decided to be the robot and short-circuit the cycle against a future enemy within. And before you click the red X at the sickness of what I’m suggesting, you should know that I’m not defending or justifying his acts of “national defense”. That’s the whole point. There is no defense of this defense. There is only offense and offensiveness and horror. This is the end result of chasing enemies with firearms and firepower, of looking for the threats and wiping them out.

Life is a threat. Existence implies an end to that run. Chase the enemy long enough and you’ll shoot the mirror. The only one responsible for your own mortality is you, because you were born.

If Adam Lanza had been sitting in an Air Force office in Nevada and pressed a button that dropped a bomb on a Pakistani elementary school, killing 28, you would salute him in the airport as you both flew home to see your families. You would thank him for defending you against those horrible brown people who must be posing some sort of threat. You would honor and revere him, so grateful that he did what he did.

We are the bad guy. We are the world’s bogeyman. We are the ones who make it bad in the name of good.

Only when we stop being everyone else’s enemy can we begin to consider no longer being our own.


My Public Ballot, 2012 Edition

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

I first did this four years ago, when I lived in a state where the people are permitted to actually exercise democracy instead of republicanism and vote directly on a lot of issues. I also explained in a contemporary post why I didn’t vote for the eventual winner of the Presidential race.

I’m back again, voting for the first time since 2008 (I was moving in 2010 and didn’t get notice of my polling station… and I felt a little resentful about the democratic process given what the person in my life who was its biggest advocate also chose to do with her life), publishing my ballot here with a little more explanation than last time. I’m explaining for two reasons… one, because informed voting is good, and two, because I may be creating the website with the most information about a Highland Park ballot that exists this year. It took me hours of Googling individual names to come up with any sort of information about many of the candidates and I am missing California deeply right now and their comprehensive state-issued booklets with positions and statements from all local, state, and national candidates. California takes democracy and voting much more seriously than New Jersey. I suspect that the powers that be in Jersey prefer word-of-mouth, lawn signs, and straight-party ticket voting to an informed populous.

As to why this is public, (A) my life is public and (B) I truly believe that a public voting system is preferable to private in an era when voter fraud and malfunction are bigger threats than recrimination and retaliation. I don’t really think anyone in 2012 America has to fear the latter. And if your vote is your voice, as everyone tells me, why are you whispering?

Anyway, to the ballot:

Presidential Electors: Jill Stein/Cheri Honkala
I’m a registered member of the Green Party, proud to vote for this ticket that is not openly advocating voting for the Democrat in swing states and is willing to stand up and criticize Obama’s moderate-corporatist agenda. Obama wasn’t half the President I thought he might be when I still declined to vote for him in 2008, and this statement: “Ultimately, I can’t end up supporting someone who has made one of their only concrete policy articulations a description of exactly how many Afghans they want to kill” proved to be fairly prophetic about an administration whose main weekly task is combing a kill list and summarily executing people thereon with flying robots. Meanwhile, Jill Stein has advocated for peace, the poor (not just some vaguely upwardly-mobile middle class), the environment (and would actually help the environment, not try to prioritize “the economy” over it), and sustainability. Not to mention that I just think it’s important to vote for alternative parties in general, since the two parties being bought out by corporations and pretending they have differences is probably the second or third biggest issue I care about, behind war/peace and poverty.

US Senator: Gregory Pason
I wanted to vote Green here, but Ken Wolski seems particularly uninspired to me and also spent a huge portion of his time working in Corrections, which seems bizarre for a Green candidate. Gregory Pason is the Socialist candidate and seems younger, more motivated, and more active. The Socialist agenda is basically identical to the Green one, maybe with a slight prioritization of labor over the environment, which I see as being a tough toss-up to decide. Ultimately, it just feels like Pason would shake things up more and Wolski is kind of going through the motions.

Member of the House of Representatives – 6th Congressional District: Herbert L. Tarbous
Most everyone running against incumbent Frank Pallone, Jr. is a conservative of some sort or another, including someone who ran in the Republican primary. Pallone is exactly the kind of corporatist moderate Clintony Democrat that makes me hate the party. He claims to be most concerned about the environment, but he’s ardently pro-military and seems to be a rubber-stamp for the Obama agenda. I’m not that intrigued by almost any of the alternatives, but Tarbous seems to be the best of a very poor field. I would consider writing someone in, but I do like the third-party protest vote better than that where people are trying to provide an alternative. And ultimately, I do like the Reform Party, with the major exception of their views on immigration, which are nonsensically draconian. Even Reform, though, doesn’t advocate for deportation, and their other stances are ardently dovish and sensible. Tarbous also just seems like he’s not skeezy or a crook, which is more than I can say about the Libertarian candidate. That may be a shallow way of voting, but if Jersey would give me a damn voter guide, we wouldn’t have this problem.

Surrogate: Lynda Woods Cleary
The first major-party person I’m voting for is a Republican. Ack! It actually took me a long time to figure out what a Surrogate does, and it appears to be like a County Clerk who handles records and certificates and such. The incumbent has been in power for over two decades and his entire platform is experience, which a decent number of news articles suggest is corrupt and kick-backy. Can I guarantee the challenger wouldn’t be corrupt and kick-backy in her own way? Of course not. But when it’s a toss-up between a career politician and someone who seems to have the skills for the position and the position isn’t really ideological at all so much as skills-based, I narrowly choose the challenger.

Members of the Board of Chosen Freeholders (2): Abrar “Sam” Khan and Write-In
This is a pretty awful field. We have incumbent Democrats who seem even more likely to be corrupt than the Surrogate and we have Republican challengers who seem to advocate for all the typical Republican garbage. And then a crazy Independent actually going under the banner of “America First”, which I think he must not understand the historical import of since he seems to be a first- or second-generation American. In any event, Sam Khan is running on a platform of increasing diversity, a weird tagline for a Republican, and seems to be clear-eyed about the present corruption in these offices without yammering about lowering taxes and small business stuff like his fellow Republican candidate. The Democrats are clearly party-boss patsies that it’s hard to even make eye-contact with in replica without feeling slimy. I’m not excited about Sam Khan and I literally can’t tolerate any of his opponents, so I’ll write in some co-worker at Rutgers who I respect or something with my second vote. Yay protest.

Members of the Borough Council (2): Susan Welkovits and Write-In
Susan Welkovits seems kind of cool in her website profile and my moderate to liberal friends will be elated that I’m finally voting for a Democrat. She seems like one of these competent, compassionate reasonable people that occasionally get into mid-level politics before corporate donations and party whips take over. I would love to know what the Republican believes, but Herbert Gross has literally zero campaign websites or positions anywhere – his Facebook group is liked by 8 people and only has scarily conservative quotes from people like Goldwater and Churchill on it. Weird. Welkovits’ fellow Democrat is a funeral-home director named Potts (you can’t make life up) who was appointed to replace a resignation and seems to be riding it out without taking stances and seems wholly uninteresting and uninspired. As one of the only Highland Park residents I know, I guess I’m getting a vote for Council.

State Public Question No. 1 – Building Our Future Bond Act: Yes
Probably the only thing I like in the state of New Jersey, aside from a handful of people, is Rutgers. This is literally a giant check to Rutgers and possibly some of the other state universities. “Storey, would you like this state to become a giant cash funnel to your favorite Jersey institution?” Why yes, Jersey, I would. Thanks for asking.

State Public Question No. 2 – Something About Judge Salaries: Yes
From everything I’ve read on this, this measure is to close a loophole whereby judges and judicial employees were permitted to not have to pay more toward their pensions when all other state employees were made to. Apparently judges were protected to the point of this requiring a Constitutional Amendment to change. Which is ridiculous. But I’m all for equality and not thinking judges are more special than other state employees.

School Election – Borough of Highland Park (3): Claire Berkowitz, Adam Sherman, Darcie Cimarusti
There are signs all over HP advocating for voting for everyone but Berkowitz, but I like non-incumbents and she seems eminently reasonable and good. And lawn signs make me kind of suspicious that the person left out just isn’t part of some insider machine, which is good. Sherman is young and a recent Rutgers graduate and fourth-generation Highland Park, which I kind of don’t care about, but someone who grew up in the system and can still remember high school is always good on a School Board. Cimarusti just seems awesome – she’s some sort of education reform crusader who has spoken all over the state and taken on the establishment and is one of maybe three or four people on this entire list that I’m actually genuinely excited to vote for. So the one left out is Catherine Bull, who seems to be another one of these career coasters, who has almost nothing of interest to say in her platform, and is the School Board President to boot. Let’s shake things up a little, I guess.

I don’t really care if you vote today. I can understand you believing the system is sufficiently broken that participating indicates tacit acceptance of the results of a broken system and you may not want to do that. But I do think casting protest votes and upping the percentages for third-party candidates, especially those advocating sanity in a country so in love with its hubris that it thinks targeted robot assassinations are totally acceptable and not even newsworthy, is worthwhile. And some local elections probably have good people trying to get elected too, so maybe go support them. The important thing is to talk about this stuff in a way that isn’t just rah-rah democracy, but to actually be clear-eyed about what’s wrong with the system and be willing to support fixing it.



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

I shouldn’t be writing right now. I should be reading. I have time away from my apartment, the limbo between a day off and a day on, waiting for our debate event tonight and hoping that my absentee landlord is deciding to fix the drip in the kitchen sink that’s become a stream verging on a river, hoping he’s decided to do what he said he would do, something that seems to be so problematic for so many people on the eve of this presidential election in America.

I’m writing instead of reading perhaps because I feel moved to be, but mostly because I can haul my computer around and write from most anywhere on the globe, transporting my thoughts instantly to whoever might choose to put in the little code called a URL and access them. It’s an unprofound element of life that we take for granted these days, though trying to explain it to a contemporary of my youth would be as fruitless as my father found explaining the value of FAX machines to most of his contemporaries circa the same time. I’m sitting amongst an endless array of colorful bound tomes whose demise has been predicted far longer ago than the advent of my ability to convey thoughts to you through this medium. And yet they persist, overlooking the windblown leaf-strewn streets of New Brunswick like a challenge to all the unpublished, unheard-of students who duck in out of the cold. What we say matters. What you say doesn’t, not yet.

Right now, you pay money for the right to speak, the right to write. When someone pays you, you have made it. You are doing something. Not yet, young ones, not yet.

The ambulances race in sirened slow-motion down the streets, just a pace ahead of the t-shirted runners who seem to hear the wailing reminder of the fragility of life, to heed its warning in the hopes that by outrunning an ambulance we too can outrun death itself. Outrun death not only of body but of spirit and legacy and all the other deaths we die over the course of a lifetime or just beyond it. Death of relationship, death of friendship, death of the very notions of ourselves that made all our selfish hedonism seem so warranted and vital before the realizations that came to stamp on prior identities like the youngest of our species, curiously, on a wayward beetle. Just to see what parts, like the misgivings that haunt our every decision and misstep, would spill out, half-squashed, revealing hidden inner-workings only imagined before the catastrophic collision of shoe on bug, awakening on assumption. It is through trauma that we learn most swiftly, most thoroughly.

And yet these halls of learning would no more offer a major in trauma than they would routinely call their classroom masters and mistresses, dubbed as professors and mostly refusing to dress up, to trod on their students with steel toes in the hopes that an organ would pop out of place and induce the better informed glances of their peers. No doubt many of them feel this is the level of disruption required to get the students to look up from their laptops (on which they might be reading these very words right now) and pay attention, but what course is required to learn to connect to the internet? Auto-didacticism has always been the religion of the fringe malcontents and non-conformists, but now they have an intangible series of temples arising, plenty of non-believers nonetheless carrying their holy book whose colors and shapes change with the whims of forces unseen.

We are all made no more of mere flesh, blood, bone, soft tissue, and brain (or mind). We are also comprised of the infinite unseen channels of wavelength that eviscerate us, bisect and dissect us, travel as easily through us as a ghost, en route to the next sacred portal of distraction, absorption, communication. We could be no more intertwined and strung together were we bound by physical ropes and chains. I am you and you are he and we are all together. A series of invisible tubes, coursing their way instantaneously to their recipients.

Has there ever been a time when it made less sense for the hubristic educated class to stand up and shout about their refusal to believe in that which they cannot see? Which they cannot feel or directly interact with? Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and yet there has never been a larger portion of those who believe in the cold emptiness of the universe, the uncaring unfeeling nature of its interrelation, the sheer vast imperviousness which we, as the rational, are up against. No serious conversation can elude this defiant yet bedeviling conclusion. And yet, how? How, when our lives are set and beset by the endless suspension of disbelief? When we make ourselves worshipful servants to money that exists only as a wispy figment of mental framework and electronic fragment? When we dictate our lives by an atomically distributed time that is the mere invention of prior people, flawed and fungible and arbitrary? When artificial structures like borders and laws and governments and corporations and militaries make millions of people do things they would otherwise consider unspeakable outside those structures’ confines every day?

Show me a border. Make manifest the rule of law in front of my eyes. Pull the strand of this blog post being ported to the computer before you from the side of your abdomen and behold it, photograph it, and send it back my way.

The world is a metaphor, and only becoming more so.

I can see my reflection now in the glass beside me, product of greater light within the building than without. Spotlights and neon blaze directly at me through the shadowy visage of self, beacons of comfort against the rising wind and failing sun. Soon it will be time to depart from this hall of type-ridden silence, to help provide insight about an event in Florida considered significant to the future of the nation which is no more visible than God itself. We choose what to believe. We craft an image of what we want to see and pretend that we see it. This works as long as we can elude the giant feet of the universe waiting to rain down on our heads to expose the parts of ourselves we’d rather not imagine.


Mitt Romney and the Post-Political Nation

Categories: A Day in the Life, Duck and Cover, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, The Long Tunnel, Tags: , , ,

People have been asking me what happened to Duck and Cover. The last D&C I wrote was in early March of this year, and that was really only because I always bring the comic back for the Oscar season and the popular segment of Duck and Cover misunderstanding each other over the titles of films and their true content. Before that, it was probably November or December when I really had any tangible momentum for the cartoon.

There are myriad factors in the decline and fall of my interest in maintaining the strip, which I cannot by any means say is dead or even dying so much as indefinitely dormant. Some of them are admittedly personal, with the advent of a serious relationship in my life that’s dragged me out of the post-marital death-spiral and into something looking a little more like normal life. But that cannot wholly explain the timing or the evolution of my feelings about the political spectrum in America at this time. It would seem for all the world that now would be the best time to be writing a political cartoon and yet I have the least interest I’ve ever felt.

It’s been a long time since I’ve felt any affiliation or any interest in the two major parties, to be sure. I long lampooned both Gore and Bush, Bush and Kerry, Obama and McCain. I voted for their unseen opponents. And yet I maintained an abiding interest in the outcomes and the fates, part lifelong geekery in the face of red/blue maps and cross-hatched lines, part genuine curiosity about the shape of things to come. Always the outcome seemed of note or interest. If it didn’t quite matter the way I imagined it mattering before my political disillusionment (circa the mid-1990’s), it at the very least seemed worth following.

And, to be fair, I am not entirely ignorant of the progress of this campaign. Largely as a vehicle for promoting the Debate Union, I set down my thoughts on logical fallacies on the campaign trail for NPR. I watched the first debate, mostly as a way to prepare for a late-October Debate Union event. (Are we noticing a theme?) I’ll occasionally check 538 and see what the projections look like. And yet, the overwhelming sense that none of this matters, that none of it could matter, resonates deeply in my tired October bones.

It was not until the debate, which I viewed with the prior conviction that Romney was actually trying to throw the election, that I realized who exactly Willard Mitt Romney is and what he represents. He is, in the post-modern American world, the ultimate politician. And like the ultimate capitalist tries to win the game of Monopoly and thus end capitalism by owning everything, the ultimate politician tries to win the game of President and end the game of politics by being everything to everyone.

It’s a cliche that politicians tell people what they want to hear, but Mitt takes it to an industrious new level. It’s not a coincidence that his much-discussed “47%” comment came at a private fundraiser for people who were part of both the 53% and the 1%. When he speaks to the people of Massachusetts, he is their son, the same as Michigan, Utah, or most any other state he can draw some inscrutable line to. When he debates Obama before the entire nation, he is a reasonable moderate. When he debates Republicans before their base, he is a hard-right ideologue. When he talks to business, he is a businessman, employees, he will get jobs, foreign countries, he thinks their enemies are overtly stupid.

And while it’s clear that he is acting like none of his events are public to more than the people directly visible in front of him, he still manages to evade the real backlash you might expect for someone who speaks so plainly out of twenty-seven sides of his mouth. His moderate stances and direct speaking scored him election-saving points at the first debate and he is within one decent debate performance of coming back from the near-dead to take the lead in an election that stands less than a month away. The man who feels his audience is always alone to the point of solipsism is a few well-spoken on-camera answers from taking the reins of what most still maintain is the most powerful nation on the planet.

And despite the hysteria this idea elicits from half the country, rivaled only by the extreme hysteria espoused by the other half were Obama to win a second term, he is simply not tangibly different from the current incumbent in any but the most fringe issues. Like every President and Supreme Court Justice since Roe v. Wade, he wants to maintain the legal status quo on abortion. He wants to cut taxes, like Obama before him. He wants to raise spending on the military, like Obama before him. He wants to ensure that corporate klepto-capitalism can survive and thrive in the face of its obvious self-destruction, propping it up with bailouts, low interest rates, promises of endless support, damn the consequences. He wants to expand US power through torture, bribery, and deception, like every President in our nation’s history (even Carter, as the new film “Argo” makes clear). He wants an individual mandate for health insurance to ensure this sector of the economy continues to grow faster than the cancer it fails to cure (prediction: if Romney is President, he will not repeal the Affordable Care Act). He wants to be open about destroying the environment instead of closeted, a nice fake distinction from the current President. And he wants to be liked, loved, revered, and adored by the masses of people and pundits who will tell him, over and over, that he is the ruler of the free world.

Am I rooting for him? At this point, almost. For while I can be almost certain that his policies will be indistinguishable from Obama’s, at least the so-called left that serves as his base will be critical of Willard Mitt in a way they refuse to be of Barack Hussein. Once the hand-wringing and wailing and pricing of flights to Toronto subside, they will dig in to critique the failure to close Guantanamo, the continued use of drones in Pakistan and Yemen, the ongoing renewal of tax cuts, the failure of the economy to improve for any but the richest in society. No longer will these sane criticisms of the government be relegated to people associated with tin-foil hats and apocalyptic sandwich-boards, but they can once again be taken up by those seen as mainstream, normal, law-abiding, and tax-paying.

It is a weird world when the person who came to power on the promise to end wars and renew America makes his staunchest rallying cries to renew that mandate for assassinating alleged enemies and ensuring that 300,000,000 people must buy something from big business or pay a fee. Romney would have killed bin Laden, along with thousands of people who the government assures us are guilty on their little pixelated remote-control screens from half the world away. Romney would have instituted something a lot like Obamacare, which was modeled on his plan in Massachusetts. Romney would have threatened Iran and gone into Libya and made all the same decisions at all the same times. It’s too politically infeasible not to do these things. The people with the money and the interest in a certain status quo are calling the shots and the men in suits want the adulation and the ability to pretend that they are making some sort of change. It’s a fun game, like a sports game. Well-attended, closely followed, thrilling the emotions of onlookers from sea to shining sea. But no one pretends that the Yankees or the Giants winning the playoffs will make some sort of difference in their lives beyond what pennant they hang in the corner of their room.

The real people running the nation do not subject themselves to anything so whimsical and fragile as an election. And the people who run for office make sure that what they say has as little as possible to do with dynamic thinking or even what actually takes place. They give the people what they want to hear. One year it’s change, the next year it’s a different message for every class and region and group. And the robots continue to track and kill anyone who might dissent or disagree, anyone who might be enraged, anyone who manifests their sense of injustice in a foreign land. From high above the clouds, where no one can see them, no one can touch them. Not even God.



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

Perhaps you saw “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” in theaters this summer. Or you’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the best-selling novel. Maybe you’ve seen or read one of the millions of derivations or mash-ups or sequels or post-scripts or pre-scripts to already established works out there in the American culture.

No? This is what it looks like…

It's a real thing.  I couldn't make this stuff up.  In fact, no one could!

It's a real thing. I couldn't make this stuff up. In fact, no one could!

It looks like that, a cover like that, but it also looks like the death of a culture. America is a place in particular that has always prided itself on its creativity, its ingenuity, its ability to come up with novel (pun intended) solutions to complicated problems. This is the birthplace of so many innovations and inventions and “outside-the-box” thinking that’s been the precursor to the wealth and riches that we lord over the rest of the world.

But things have changed lately. In their hunger for money and the desire to turn every pursuit into a business model, originality has been sacrificed in favor of a sure bet. After all, originality also brought us credit-default swaps and toxic assets, right? Publishing houses and agents used to seek dynamic, exciting, original writers. Now they want to know what your “comps” are, books that are so alike to yours that they prove there’s a market for what you’re trying to write. A market, not because it’s good writing, but because they’ve already liked a book exactly like yours. I used to shudder in the fear that someone would scoop my unwritten plots and take the limelight of creative inspiration I’d cracked open or been lucky enough to tap into. Now I welcome the realization that the plot of American Dream On has enough thematic similarities to The Hunger Games that someone might believe I was riffing on it when I wrote it before its publication. (To say nothing of the widely reported notion that said book was just a rip-off of an earlier Japanese movie which matches major plot points almost exactly.)

This is perhaps not a surprising trend in a country racked with economic woes after a dream of endless prosperity, nor especially in a land so obsessed with safety and certainty after one terrorist attack that it is willing to attempt to subjugate the rest of the world and its own citizenry just to avoid the possibility that 3,000 people could die at once again. Not surprising, maybe, but remarkably disheartening. The best balm for the recent hardships of the nation, one would think, would be originality and creativity. But as Congress faces a patent inability to compromise and potential Presidents continue to present a rematch of rejected 1980s theories, there’s a vast dearth of variation from an ever-predictable norm. It’s no wonder that nearly every Hollywood movie slated for creation is actually a recreation or a sequel. And we continue to buy and absorb this rehash, just as we accept the two major parties’ offerings every four years. Because we haven’t the money to make a choice and we’re not in the top corporate offices where these decisions are being made.

But the snake is eating its own tail. There’s no evidence that this desert of good new material is insidiously brought about by maniacal corporate officers so much as that the system itself incentivizes them to favor the sure bet over the risky original proposition. And the consumers have only the power to choose between Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, reaffirming the apparent wisdom of risklessness. And on the cycle continues.

It wasn’t always like this, however. American writing and movies have circled the globe, gaining recognition for their depth, insight, creative power, and new way of looking at the world and its inhabitants. So what happened? When did we go from making new things to recycling the same animated plot that probably wasn’t enough for a first movie into a fourth?

There are a lot of contributions, some of which I mention above, but I think the biggest and best explanation is a phenomenon I’ve observed in countless manifestations, from people to non-profit organizations to historical nations. It’s something clearly embedded in our human nature, but fighting it may be the last best hope for people to break out of molds that earn their associative names by entrapping us with stale thoughts and decaying thinking. It seems American creative culture and its would-be admirers have crossed over the tipping point from feeling like they have more to gain from the future to feeling like they have more to lose.

This single concept, the idea of whether the future is about potential and benefits (which encourages risk-taking, bold thinking, and dramatic action) or about the possibility of loss (which encourages defensiveness, safeguarding, shoring up, and sitting tight) probably effects more of our daily lives than we would like to think about. This is what makes recessions so deep and can make poverty so liberating with the right mindset (but realistically makes poverty so debilitating). This is what makes people who grew up bungee-jumping and horseback-riding afraid of leaving their house for weeks at a time as they age. This is what turns liberals into conservatives when they become successful. It’s what turns revolutionaries into tyrants. If we could pull a lever and prevent someone from ever tipping over this apex, mandate that they always feel they have more to gain from the future than they do to lose, we would cure uncounted social ills and political pitfalls.

Alas, defensiveness is not so easily cured. Many people have an enormous amount of wealth, power, influence, and comfort stacked up, especially in this country. They chronically fear someone coming to take it away, be it in the form of regulation, taxation, theft, extortion, nationalization, or pure greed. Even if they don’t really like what they have, even if what they have fails to provide them happiness or any other higher good, they will defend it to the death if they think they have more to lose than they do to gain. It’s in our nature to hoard and protect when we are fearful or even cautious about the times ahead. It’s backed by millennia of evolution and reinforced by centuries of history.

Incidentally, this is why banks aren’t loaning money and the rich aren’t hiring people. And why those things will persist for a long time to come, perhaps as long as this country persists. No one has more to lose than the banks and the rich, almost tautologically. And the banks can continue to get free money from the government as long as interest rates stay low, so there’s no incentive to take the risk of a loan. And the rich don’t need to “spend money to make money,” because they already have money. So those tax breaks and cheap loans just go in their back pocket as they hunker down more closely over the piles of coin in the counting house.

Believing that there’s more to gain than to lose is about more than trite platitudes about happy days or mornings in America or popping anti-depressants. It’s about a belief that one hasn’t attained that much, or enough. And most often, that isn’t measured in material goods so much as notoriety, recognition, or true accomplishment in terms of changing the world. This is precisely why the revolutionaries so consistently flip into oppression as soon as they get into power, or within just a few months. The turnover from having nothing to having everything is so fast that they literally don’t know what to aspire to anymore, while they’re immediately becoming accustomed to having more than 99% have ever dreamed of. Those who have more to lose than to gain are terrible leaders, ever watchful and fearful of being criticized, unseated, disregarded, losing the power and influence they (feel they) worked so hard to gain. It’s the hungry and desperate that provide the ingenuity and spark necessary for true leadership.

So how to we hold the imaginary carrot a few yards out in order to make ourselves run for it? The key is complicated, but I think the most accessible answers to this are in two essential areas. We must first embrace a certain healthy amount of dissatisfaction with our present affairs, whatever they may be, and we must secondly and correspondingly become comfortable with change.

The latter could contain a whole volume of material (and I believe it does, perhaps floor-to-ceiling volumes, as nearly the entire Self-Help section of any bookstore is really just “get comfortable with change” in long-winded and bound format, rephrased over and over in the hopes that someone might listen). Nevertheless, the point bears repeating that change is the only constant and resisting it is as foolish as fighting a gale with saliva. Just the other day, my new boss told a roomful of people, myself included, that he’s looking to produce a line of T-shirts with the slogan Embrace the Uncertainty. It’s a powerful message and one I took to heart, especially as he expounded on the need for not freezing in place with the entire class of 2016 inbound, they not thinking about the pressures that new leadership might exude on a university so much as that their college careers (and by extension, their lives) are about to start.

I’ve always felt more at home with uncertain futures and changing venues than most, but the last three years of this blog alone could well tell you that I’m no guru when it comes to accepting whatever life surprises you with. This is a struggle for all of us by virtue of our humanity, it’s why so much advice for the species is so simple and, dare I say it, derivative. Embracing uncertainty, welcoming change, it’s hard. It’s like waking up young in the dreadful night, envisioning the monster under the bed, then jumping from above to tackle-hug it and give it a sloppy kiss. Or, put another way, it’s like loving your neighbor no matter what they do. It’s one of those really challenging near-impossibilities. Especially when you have stuff or people or circumstances in your life that you like. It takes so much work and energy to find things that you like, be they pastimes or cohorts or jobs or places, that losing them or altering them seems a fate worse than death.

Which brings us to the first part, the somewhat easier bit, the healthy dissatisfaction with the present. This is easy to get carried away on and, despite what you may think, I’m not about to launch into a call to depression for all readers. Rather, it’s important to be a critic and a skeptic of one’s own choices and the path they’ve wended. Not to the point of self-recrimination and -doubt, unless said are truly warranted, but sufficiently so that one is able to craft an aspirational trajectory for the future.

This is extremely counter-intuitive. Almost all of us have the final goalpost being happiness, however we define it. No matter how we define it, happiness consists in feeling full, satisfied, like there’s nothing more one needs or wants or has to strive for. Contentedness, comfort. And yet this feeling is, itself, a form of death. No, really. Because at the point where one is comfortable, one doesn’t want to move. And if one doesn’t move, how can one find anything interesting that one hasn’t already found?

Imagine you’re in a chair. And your chair is uncomfortable, rotting in the seat, prickly in the back, set at the wrong angle. You get up! You’re motivated to find a chair that’s not as painful. You’re ready to look around for a while, maybe leave the house and go to stores or yard sales or junkyards till you find something manageably sittable. Maybe you go through 5, 7, 18 chairs. And then, glorious then! Then you find the chair that’s comfortable, has the cushioning in the right place, well-angled armrests, the whole bit. What happens next?

You fall asleep.

And you don’t go traveling again, because the opportunity cost is time in this chair.

That chair is happiness.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to sit in that chair. I have a real-life chair much like this at home, and I spend a lot of time in it. I’m not getting rid of it (though I’m open to a future, or trying to be, in which I don’t have it anymore). I would never tell anyone to just make do with the first cruddy chair or to stop looking for a nice one.

But we also can’t sleep away our time and potential in the comfy chair. Because then life becomes the story of sitting instead of exploring, doing, interacting, being. And that, my friends, is not what life was designed to be.

Life is about the journey. Maybe the rest of the self-help books are about that. You know what else is about that? One of my favorite movies of all-time, “Finding Nemo”. Which they’re re-releasing (now in 3D!) in a month, in theaters. Because they can do that now. Spruce up a movie that’s already had its day in the sun (or I guess, more accurately, the refrigerated shade) and release it to watch while you’re wearing glasses. For more money.

Because it’s derivative.

And I’ll plunk down my fourteen bucks or whatever 3D movies cost these days and recite the lines I know by heart and bob my head with the turtles and shudder at the sharks, along with a bunch of much younger kids who don’t know how old this magic is. Who feel, unlike almost everyone else in the theater, that maybe, just maybe, they have more to gain than to lose from living into the future. Maybe they’ll have the creative solutions.

Or maybe they’ll grow up to write Finding Nemo in Abraham Lincoln’s Vampire Civil War. And oh, what a hit it will be!

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