Tag Archives: The Problem of Being a Person

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White Supremacy and America’s Legacy

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

Hi, I’m Storey and I’m a white guy.

Hi, Storey.

Admitting you have a problem is the first step, right? Not being in denial that your behavior, your personhood, is contributing to the problems and detriment of those around you. Making a full accounting and taking responsibility for how your very existence detracts from that of those around you.

Of course, I’m not just a white guy. I’m an American white guy. And while other countries may have periodic flare-ups of white supremacy, America is all about it. I mean all about it. Yes, it’s an obvious problem, carrying a literal torch and making literal Nazi salutes, in the deplorable actions that happened in Charlottesville over the weekend. But it’s an equally insidious problem in Iraq and Afghanistan, in Yemen in Somalia, in every nation on the planet where non-white lives are worse off because white Americans are trying to take everything for themselves. This country is constantly fighting several wars for white supremacy every day, made all the more awful for leveraging primarily Black and Brown bodies in order to wage them. And I think acknowledging and understanding that reality will help us not only truly dissuade and deter the bigots flaunting their hate in Virginia, but also enable us all to see ourselves a bit more as we are seen worldwide and understand the true depth of the white supremacy problem we face in this country.

America’s legacy of white supremacy is unfettered, horrifying, and relentless. The nation was founded on the notion of Manifest Destiny, the idea that white Europeans deserved dominion over stolen land the size no country had ever seen, from sea to shining sea, by divine right. Whites were God’s chosen people, gifted a land that already belonged to someone else to divide, capture, and carve up as they saw fit. These whites already owned other humans as chattel slaves, committing genocide on one race while whipping another into submission. Has there ever been a country who from its founding breath was so ruthlessly dedicated to the notion of racial superiority? Has there ever been a nation who more effectively and unfetteredly embraced bigotry to the benefit of exactly one kind of person and the destruction of all others? Even if other nations come close (it’s hard to imagine), surely none of them pulled this stunt with such utter hypocrisy, openly touting words like freedom and equality as alleged cornerstones while abusing any possible interpretation of said words with every deed. The lack of self-awareness incumbent in the so-called American ideal is breathtaking.

Wars with Mexico and Spain were fought later, fed by racial hatred and fueled by white supremacy as the destiny of the most bigoted race spread its greedy tentacles across the continent and beyond. Local populations in Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines were subverted as though they didn’t exist. Territories were gobbled and exploited with the rapacious hunger of racism, needing to dominate, quell, and own. And I’m sure you all want to pat America on the back for fighting Nazis, but this had nothing to do with the motives for World War II. It was racism against the Japanese, fueled by the fear of Pearl Harbor, that cemented America’s commitment to this war. Racial epithets and vitriol fueled the entire war that we now whitewash as being mostly about stopping genocide. A war we entered for pure self-interest and kept alive through the ongoing degradation of other peoples, not their ideologies or practices.

Since WWII, of course, there has been no equivocation about why we fight. We fight with no regard for other races, on their soil, killing their leaders and civilians as we see fit, bombing villages to save them, hitting hospitals and weddings, utterly indifferent to the lives of anyone not white, on our side or theirs. After counting bodies backfired in Vietnam, we decided to make a policy of not even dignifying other nations’ lives with a number, attempting to will them out of existence after ending their actual lives. Whatever light hypocritical story we like to tell ourselves about how much we’re trying to help the oppressed people of X nation or Y country, it’s almost immediately exposed as a sham as we pillage the nation through exploitation and then abandon its people as soon as we can declare some sort of victory.

Think Iraq wasn’t a war of white supremacy? Imagine North Korea invading the US to overthrow Donald Trump, claiming he’d been behind someone else’s terrorist attack in Pyongyang. Then with Trump toppled and squirreled away, the North Koreans install a puppet government that’s comparably corrupt, forbid anyone who’d ever served in government from doing so again, then start losing territory to an alt-right insurgency that makes Trump look like Bernie Sanders. After years of endless bombing and death, they declare victory and leave, installing thousands of North Korean contractors to exploit every natural resource outside of alt-right control. Then the alt-right takes about a third of the country, starts instituting its policies wholesale, and starts conquering the rest of the territory. And the justification given by North Korea? North Korea is the savior. They know best what’s best for everyone. After all, they have the power to do what they want without being stopped.

Folks, it’s white supremacy. It’s white supremacy that allows you to think you know better for a country than they do and it’s your right to kill everyone who disagrees until they stop fighting back. It’s white supremacy that allows you to think you can set up the system by which the whole world will operate, all the standards and values, give yourself a 200-year head-start, and then call it “free” to have everyone “compete” on this severely tilted playing field. To say that if someone moves from one kind of poverty to another but climbs a rung in this broken game, that’s laudable progress that justifies the whole system while they continue so far ahead in wealth and success that they will never be caught. White supremacy is America’s primary export, its image for the world, its obsessive religious devotion, its mission statement. And, of course, it’s got to stop.

I condemn white supremacy, at home and abroad. It doesn’t do much for me to say it, but it’s an important step. And I acknowledge that I unwittingly and unwillingly contribute to the system in all kinds of ways. By being white, by using my privilege, by contributing to America, by not spending all of my time and energy resisting and trying to change it. I need to do more. We all do. But especially me. It’s important to say and embrace and try to act on.

But it is not enough to just look at the angry white men with torches in Charlottesville and call that out and stop there. (It’s important to start there, but not stop there.) It’s not enough to just look at the innocent Blacks being gunned down for breathing all over this nation by law enforcement, vigilantes, and other racists, call that out, and stop there. (It’s important to do this too, but not stop there.) It’s not enough to just look at the plight of Native Americans as they fight for what little rights they can on the remains of their concentration camps, call that out, and stop there. (It’s important, but not all.) It’s not enough to support immigrants, Latinos, Muslims, and every racial group who faces discrimination here. (Important, not enough.) What happens in our borders is important and is something we have a little more control over than outside of them. But what happens beyond our borders is far more destructive and deadly and is going on every single day. The longer our American war machine attempts to dominate the rest of the world through military force, the more power and backing white supremacy gets in not just the US, but the globe.

I don’t think we have to throw out America wholesale as a concept, write up a new country with a new flag and new names for everything. I am sympathetic to that perspective, I probably lean toward it at times, but I don’t think it’s necessary. But it is necessary, if we’re going to keep our concept of America, to be fully honest about what America is and symbolizes and what its history means to the world. We are not great, we have never been great, and we have a whole lot of work to do to try to be good. America is not a beacon of freedom reaching out to the arms of the world’s oppressed. It is a beacon of blinding white light, trying to drown out anything with color, whitewashing it in a bath of exploitation, destruction, and greed. Anything that America has done to benefit non-white people is coincidence, happenstance, a happy accident, not representative of America’s true goals or values.

We can change that, yes. We are probably closer to the discussions necessary to start changing that than we’ve ever been in history. But it starts with acknowledgment. Admitting you have a problem is the first step. Admitting you are a problem is the real first step.

I am sorry I haven’t done more to fight this. I will try to do better.

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Suicide: 13 Reasons Why and S-Town

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Problem of Being a Person, The Wild Wild Web, Tags: , , ,

Content Warning: This post will talk extensively about suicide. It is the author’s belief and, indeed, thesis, that talking about suicide, honestly and in detail, is the best form of suicide prevention. But if you feel differently, this post may not be for you for a variety of reasons.

Spoiler Alert: This post will talk extensively about season one of the Netflix television series 13 Reasons Why and the entirety of the This American Life/Serial podcast S-Town. It is highly recommended that you only engage with this content if you have seen and heard both of these pieces in their entirety. (Separately, it is highly recommended that you see and hear both of these pieces anyway.) Short of that, it is at least recommended that you do not proceed unless you’ve ruled out engaging with any content you haven’t engaged with, unless you don’t mind said content being spoiled.


The real John B. McLemore (left) and the fictional Hannah Baker (right).

“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.”
Let’s Talk About Suicide, 13 August 2014, a post which can be read as a kind of premise to this one

As someone who wrote the above, admittedly angrily, less than three years ago, it’s been heartening to witness the sudden success and virality of both 13 Reasons Why and S-Town. They were each released in late March, just three days apart, in their respective entireties, per the new expectations of the media bingeing culture. While the former is based on a novel that’s been out for a decade now, there is poetry in this nearly simultaneous release, and the resultant arc of fame and discussion has sparked, perhaps, the beginning of a sea-change in how we address suicide in American society.

Of course, with fame and success and audience come the inevitable backlash, which has poured out in spades for both shows. In the case of the TV series, outcry has focused on raw portrayals of sexual assault and suicide in material that is clearly aimed at a younger audience. In the instance of the podcast, descriptions of suicide are deemed more tolerable, while critiques focus on invading the privacy of the suicide after his death, converting his call for an investigation into a biography of him, unearthing a number of intimate details about the man. The common thread in these critiques is the idea that we are shown too much. That there are limits and boundaries to what we should see, what we should hear, what art should attempt to portray about its subjects.

Which shows, of course, that the critics of each of these works could not possibly have done more to miss the point of their material. For what both works do, profoundly and with abandon, is demonstrate that the desire for privacy, the urge to stay quiet or, worse, miscommunicate about our feelings and intentions, is literally killing us. That suicide is not some spectral ebola: unseen, unheard, misunderstood, and treatable only with pills. Rather, suicide is the product of our society, it is rooted in a profound loneliness manufactured by our ignorance of other people’s realities and our unwillingness to share the truth of our own. Suicide is not, as the clueless adults prattle throughout 13 Reasons Why, solely the responsibility of the individual who made the decision to end their life. Instead, suicide prevention is our collective responsibility, not just with hotline referrals, but by actually opening up our lives and our hearts to those who are suffering.

And not, as so wittily and honestly depicted in 13 Reasons Why, only after a suicide. The job of preventing a potential suicide, of reaching out and listening, helping, and trying to cause less harm, starts today, whether you know someone affected or not. Because you can watch the fictional Hannah Baker, you can hear the real John B. McLemore, and you don’t have to wait for someone closer to home to kill themselves. This is the purpose of art – to serve as a proxy for horrible things so that maybe we don’t have to learn every lesson firsthand. Maybe we can learn from the experience of others, the portrayal of realistic characters, and prevent similar calamities in our own futures before it’s too late.

Suicide is a growing problem in this country. The suicide rate has increased more than 25% since I graduated high school, now killing more Americans than car accidents, which is saying something. It’s at a 30-year high in the most recently available data-year (2015), a figure that has probably increased in the subsequent year by preliminary reports. 44,193 people took their own lives in the US that year, making it the second leading cause of death for the 15-34 age group. And for all you “guns-don’t-kill” people out there, fully half of all suicides were committed via a firearm.

(Further, for all you people out there worried about terrorism, 94 Americans have been killed by terrorists since 2001, compared to the 515,654 who killed themselves from 2002-2015. That’s a ratio of 5,486:1. But it’s worse, because 49 of those 94 died in Orlando in 2016, a year for which we don’t yet have suicide data, so the ratio is actually 11,459:1. Think I’m cherry-picking by avoiding 9/11? Including 2001 brings the suicide total to 546,276 and the terrorism total to 3,028, a ratio of 180:1. Suicide is killing one-hundred and eighty times the number of Americans as terrorism since 2000, including 9/11. Can you imagine what doing 180 times as much to combat it would look like?)

Neither of the suicides in these March 2017 art works are via firearm. The fictional Hannah Baker kills herself in a very visceral wrist-slitting scene that actually made me weep while watching it. The real John B. McLemore drinks potassium cyanide while on the phone with a county clerk, as described briefly but painfully by S-Town host Brian Reed. As critical journalists have been quick to shout from the rooftops, traditional guidelines discourage detailed descriptions or depictions of suicide methodology in fear of “contagion” and “copycatting”. But this guideline misses the fine line between sensationalizing or glorifying an act and depicting its true horror. Nothing about either depiction could be confused for glorification. Rather, the message of each detailed and even gory depiction is clear: suicide is painful and difficult. This messaging achieves two fundamental things that the critics tend to miss: it illustrates both that suicide is not an easy way out, thus deterring suicide and it illustrates quite viscerally just how much pain the suicidal person is in when they undertake the act. Indeed, Hannah is surprised at how much the razors hurt when they enter her arms, having not been a cutter beforehand. And John is overwhelmed by how much the cyanide burns on its way down his throat. The fact that they follow-through demonstrates the level of suffering each of these lonely, tormented souls is enduring, emphasizing how critical it is for those who can to try to help.

But each artwork takes an additional step to further cement the messaging, veering yet further from any possible glorification and fully into the realm of deterrence. They then keep the camera or microphone on the scene to show the aftermath. Not just the long-term aftermath: for Christ’s sake, the entirety of 13 Reasons Why is about aftermath, as is about half of S-Town. But also the short-term, immediate aftermath… Hannah’s parents coming into the bathroom, unable to grapple with what’s happened, clutching their daughter and begging her to wake up. The county clerk saying, matter-of-factly, “Every night it’s a replay. I’m still just — there’s not a night that I don’t think about him, that I don’t wake up and dreaming about it, or thinking about him. Not a night.”

One of the fundamental truths of suicide is that those who undertake it feel like the walls are closing in, the options are foreclosing, and that everyone either hates them or will be better off without them. Contrary to the “revenge fantasy” notion that the media so often mistakenly finds in suicidal behavior (and is misrepresented as Hannah’s intent and story), most suicides actually believe they are removing a burden from the ones they love in the moment they commit the act. Not only is this reality well depicted in both shows, but the objective untruth of the suicides’ self-perception is also exposed, in extensive detail. 13 Reasons Why is relentless in showing how utterly bereft Hannah’s parents are, how impossibly lonely Clay is, how much she is missed by the community that made her feel unloved. Here the message may sound like an after-school teen drama: you are loved, even though it’s not cool for us to show it or even admit it. But at the same time, the exact same message shines through S-Town, as applied to a closeted eccentric in the rural South who is upwards of 50 years old. You complain that your town is anti-intellectual and desperate, but you are recognized by intellectuals the world over as a foremost artisan in an ancient skill. You feel you have no one in your life, but there are people who are willing to do extraordinary things, make themselves uncomfortable, in the hope that you will find joy or peace. It is hard for me to imagine a more hopeful message for the would-be suicide to hear, to witness, than that they are loved beyond their wildest reckoning and would do deep damage to the ones they love.

There are differences between the shows, of course, and these differences, beyond the basic questions of truth and fiction, men and women, age and youth, make the two a fitting pair in ushering in a new, more bold and open era of talking about suicide. Perhaps the most obvious is that John B. McLemore talks almost incessantly about suicide before he does it, casually throwing around plans and notions and the inevitability like he’s talking about next Tuesday’s ballgame. On the other hand, Hannah Baker dares not speak the name of suicide, of ending things at all, until the day she does it, even then retracting her statement and being coy with the school counselor mere minutes before she walks out of school and toward her bathtub. These mirrored depictions themselves are helpful reminders that what we have often been taught to watch out for by well-intentioned experts on the subject is wrong: there is rarely a clear moment of warning or an easily detectable warning sign to look out for. There is rarely a clear shift before something actually happens, which is why so many people are blindsinded, as the world most recently was by Chris Cornell a week ago, by suicides.

By telling us to worry about and care for those for whom suicide is either so stigmatized that they cannot bear to discuss the possibility, or for whom wrestling with suicide has become so commonplace that no one really hears the warnings or takes them seriously, these twin offerings remind us of the messy reality of suicide. It doesn’t come with a clear yellow flag, then a clear red, with just enough time to react. Only the most advanced and open of the suicidal are able to give that, have a network of people to whom they reach out when the triggers and risk factors mount. Far more often, the onus has to be on those around them to reach out. Not in a reactive way, not in a biohazard suit, not in a scary way to jump the gun and say “oh my gosh, are you going to kill yourself?!” But in the calm, steady, loving way of expressing appreciation, telling someone how much they mean to their world, how glad they are to have them in their world. Yes, suicide is complicated, but it is not random. Nor is it inescapable. Had either Hannah or John had people regularly, sincerely reminding them how much they meant to them in their world, easing up on the criticisms and caustic jokes, replacing some of them with risky, heartfelt appreciations, it’s hard to imagine either of them getting to the brink.

But high school and the rural South are not places where heartfelt appreciations are easily given. Guess what? Neither is anywhere else in this country, maybe outside of a few counseling centers and non-profits that take emotional affirmation and work seriously (Glide comes to mind). S-Town does a laudable job of universalizing a region of the country we so often judge and lampoon, especially on outlets like NPR, disproving the tropey assumptions that most people bring to the first episode and recognizing John as a “citizen of the world”, a place he worries about very much. And 13 Reasons Why, to its credit, makes high school a very adult place. The subject may be, partially, about not knowing how cruel high schoolers can be to each other, but it’s also about the fact that high schoolers take their world as seriously as adults do, with fully adult consequences. Over and over, adults’ inability to understand the stakes of ages 14-18 costs them the opportunity to connect with and even save their children.

Which is why I find the most frequent criticism of 13 Reasons so powerfully laughable: the idea that it’s inappropriate for young viewers. The response that any of the actual students at Liberty High would make is as follows: “So we’re young enough to live it, but not to watch a depiction of someone else living it?” Given that the most crippling and yes, suicide-inducing feeling, especially for teens, is isolation and loneliness, the idea that no one understands or cares, how can we bash a work of art that bridges that divide for bullied, assaulted, harassed, or suicidal teens?! That shows them that They are Not Alone and, maybe more importantly, that Their Problems are Real. Enforcing the reality of their problems does not make someone suicidal go over the edge; it’s the feeling that one is crazy for caring about these problems that entrenches an unconquerable loneliness and self-hatred that pushes people past the brink. Remember that the first step is admitting you have a problem? If everyone else thinks the problem is poppycock or silly, then you’re just pathetic for not being able to cope with it. If there’s acknowledgment, you can start to tackle it like a problem that’s as hard as it feels.

Which is why, as a subplot, the unvarnished and horrifying depictions of sexual assault are also part of the fundamental deterrence of bad behavior and affirmation of feelings found in the show. Like suicide itself, these kinds of scenes tend to be anesthetized on screens or, worse, sort of glorified and glamorized as in Game of Thrones. Talk about reaffirming your rape culture! By stark contrast, 13 Reasons takes every pain to show both the heartlessness of rapists and, more importantly, the immense deadening suffering experienced by their victims. By doing so, by creating a scene that itself may actually be traumatizing (another oft-lobbed critique), 13 Reasons sends a powerful antidote to any guys who may brush off their actions as un-serious, no big deal, or any of the other hundreds of excuses that rape culture makes for its atrocities. By sending this message not only to 14-18 year olds, but perhaps to the tweens as well, it serves as great counterspeech to the messaging of pornography, toxic masculinity, Game of Thrones, and society as a whole. No one can watch those scenes and not loathe the rapist, not have their heart break for their victims, not reel at the permanence of the damage that was wrought. There is nothing sensational or attractive about these illustrations, but they are real and honest and do good, hard work to deter rape without victim-blaming.

The sexual scenes in S-Town are perhaps more ambiguous in their nobility. Indeed, explorations of John’s romantic history and latent penchant for consensual mutilation have been cited as voyeuristic and, while humanizing, possibly a bridge too far for a posthumous podcast. I find this critique more understandable than those levied at 13 Reasons, but still insufficient. Through his endless talks, his extensive writing, and even the initial invitation to Brian Reed to come down to Woodstock, Alabama and start recording, it was clear that John’s search was to be understood. Or, short of that, to be heard. It is hard for me to imagine John being upset with his fate as a kind of tragic anti-hero, someone brilliant and misunderstood, loved by more than he thought, possibly felled by his own ancient practices with mercury and self-inflicted isolation. Do we need to know about his disappointing encounters with men or needles to get the full picture? I think we do. It is only by understanding the depth of his loneliness, how hard he tried, and also how unbearable his ongoing mental agony, that we can start to understand why he was in the position he is, why he did what he did.

And that’s what this is all about. Why. It’s right there in the title of one of them. The other, S-Town, is short, of course, for Shittown, the moniker the borderline anhedonic John gives his environment. Shittown is his reason why, after all. As Brian evaluates in the second episode, before we’ve learned of his suicide, “The shitty misfortunes John fixates on, they’re not a bunch of disparate things. They’re all the same thing. His Shittown is part of Bibb County, which is part of Alabama, which is part of the United States, which is part of Earth, which is experiencing climate change, which no one is doing anything about. It maddens John. The whole world is giving a collective shrug of its shoulders and saying fuck it.”

Brian goes on, even more meaningfully: “What I admire about John is that in his own misanthropic way, he’s crusading against one of the most powerful, insidious forces we face — resignation, the numb acceptance that we can’t change things. He’s trying to shake people out of their stupor, trying to convince them that it is possible to make their world a better place.”

That’s what both of these shows are doing, too. They’re campaigning against resignation, numbness, acceptance. Against the resignation that suicide will always just be there, a problem plaguing us. Against numbness to the feelings that lead some people down that path, against numbness to the idea of feelings at all: that they matter, that we are here to connect, that we should take risks with each other to create meaning instead of just following the same pattern of being cool kids who make cutting, sarcastic jokes. Against acceptance of what happens to us: cruelty, isolation, loneliness, rape, suicide. These things don’t get better by putting up posters, by labeling people, by pointing the long narrow finger to go talk to some other person who can handle you and your problems. They get better by us seeing care for others as our collective responsibility, reaching out, taking risks.

Most critical pieces on 13 Reasons Why, especially in statements posted by anti-suicide organizations, have cited a notable uptick in calls and even hospitalizations stemming from the release of the show. How or why this could possibly be a critique of the show rather than a compliment baffles me. With well over 40,000 suicides completed each year, plenty of people are failing to either seek or receive the help they need to stay alive. If more people are seeking that help in the wake of a show that speaks honestly about these issues, isn’t that an improvement? When more people sign up for health insurance, health-care advocates see that as a victory. Why not the same when more people call the suicide hotline? Isn’t that the whole point of posting suicide hotline numbers everywhere? To get people to actually call and talk?

Your mileage with suicidalism and with these pieces may vary. It’s worth noting that, despite the binge-ability of these works, I just finished each of them within the last 24 hours, having taken weeks to absorb both. Part of this is because I’ve been doing a lot of writing in the last two months, as well as some debate travel, so I haven’t been in a position to just sit down and listen for seven hours or watch for thirteen. It’s quite possible that the emotional overwhelm of that experience is less manageable than manually stretching it out. That Hannah’s descent into cascading calamity feels more like madness at that pace, that John’s depression is contagious at that speed.

But I still fundamentally deny the premise that suffering like that is so contagious, or that it redoubles the pain for those already hurting. We are all trapped in our own skins, all living with ourselves constantly and hoping to make fleeting contact with other souls on this isolated rock. Hearing about and, more importantly, really understanding the pain and reasoning of a relatable human being is so often soothing. Yes, if all the inputs are for hopeless despair, that can get overwhelming. But in showing that Hannah and John were loved more than they knew, were understandable, in treating their lives and deaths with respect and compassion, we get tragedy without hopelessness. We get a model for what not to do next time, in our own lives, how not to turn away and isolate ourselves and others.

Both shows are meditations on time. John with his old clocks brought back to life, his painstaking evaluation of the value of a life. Hannah with her examination of causation, of the precise point of no return, of minutes on a tape until it clicks. All we have is the time we are given. And in seeing honest examples of those who choose to cut that short, we might better appreciate the use of it when we awaken tomorrow.

If we shun these depictions, if we shame them as showing too much too riskily, we build taboos around suicide as strong as any stigma that we’ve carried from our cultural history. As shown in these shows, suicide is hard enough to talk about sincerely and seriously without slamming the few major media pieces that can actually manage to do so. If we want people to ask for help, we have to be ready to give it. And that requires being willing to see, hear, and think about suicide in all its messy horror. Hopefully 13 Reasons Why and S-Town are just early heralds in this new open, honest, and authentic approach to an issue we are all, in some way, affected by.


This is the part of the article where I’m supposed to provide the number for a suicide hotline. A suicide hotline may help you connect with someone to talk about why you’re feeling suicidal and how things can get better. Call 1-800-273-8255 if you’re in crisis or need to talk to someone. Yes, it can be awkward and weird. But as I’ve always said about suicide, if you’re willing to entertain ending everything, shouldn’t you try everything else first, just in case?

But I’m also going to invite you to reach out to me if you want. I’m assuming pretty much everyone here reading this blog knows or has known me in some way or at some point, so hopefully you feel comfortable reaching out. If you don’t know me, the proverbial door is still open. E-mail me at storey@bluepyramid.org. Make no mistake, the call to the hotline above will be faster and put you in touch with someone more officially trained in ways of dealing with suicidal ideation. But I am a 27-year survivor of suicidalism and may have some ideas or insights or tips that are not part of mainline conventional wisdom in suicide prevention. A list of some of these tips is available toward the end of this post.

So if you think I could be helpful, reach out. It’s only by people connecting with other people that we’re going to start to beat this thing.


Joyce Hayes died yesterday morning. Not by suicide, but at the end of a long illness. She was 72. By any rights, this post tonight should have been about her, but I am still processing her death and what it means to me and the countless lives she touched and saved. I have been thinking about this post for a long time, it’s been building, and I had to get it out of my system before addressing the power of Joyce’s love and its impact on the Glide community and beyond. Hopefully that will be up in a day or two.

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This Land is… Your Land?

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

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I feel about the United States of America. I suspect I am not alone in this.

In fact, I know I am not alone in this. Every post on Facebook, half of the reports on the radio, and a third of my conversations in Uber drives involve people thinking and feeling about America. This country, its values, and its way of doing business in the world have never witnessed such scrutiny in my lifetime. And on face, that’s a great thing. I have, in many ways, been wishing for an event to prompt this self-examination my entire life, or at least my whole life since I first took a serious history class.

But self-examination doesn’t only apply to others, of course, no matter my history of self-critical reflection on this nation and my role in it. Self-examination starts with… the self.

Last night, a paradox hit me that I am still kind of reeling from and can’t quite solve. And the more I considered the paradox, the more that I realized it’s the same paradox most Americans seem to have about America, except it’s inverted. And I don’t quite know what to do with this conclusion, other than explain it, offer it as lived experience, and try to see where other people are on this spectrum. I know how alone I am in most of my conclusions about the advent of the Trump administration, so I suspect I’m pretty alone in all of what follows. But I’m curious what this dredges up for anyone reading it. I’m curious what articulating it will dredge up for me.

I am someone who goes around saying that they hate America. This is not common. Increasingly, this might be dangerous. Hate is a strong word and most people who hate are prone to violence and violence against the country is the scariest thing anyone thinks exists since 9/11. Of course, I’m also a pacifist, but one who doesn’t aspire with the best of them to live without hate in their heart. I have hate in my heart. Lots of it. A lot of personal life experiences and impersonal history have combined to make me angry a lot of the time. When I’m not angry, I’m sad. When I’m neither sad nor angry, I’m usually really ecstatic. This is probably because I am a manic depressive. It might just be because I’m really aggressively not afraid of my emotions, which – near as I can tell – amounts to the same thing.

But this isn’t about mental health. It’s about hate. What does it mean to hate America? The conclusion most people have about people who hate America is that they hate freedom or that they are fanatically devoted to some sort of cause hell-bent on the violent downfall of America. This is not how I feel. I was born here. My parents were born here. Their parents were born here. I know that some of what separates me from most of those who don’t hate America is that I don’t feel like those facts make me in any way special. Lucky, yes, but not special. I know and have discussed how much I would’ve wanted to be born in America had I been born anywhere else, not because America is a place I would want to be, but because America is the seat of power of the world so far in my lifetime, and also the seat of harmful influence on the world’s people, and I would be committed to changing that. And I can imagine the angry quarrels I would have with friends in foreign cafes, where they would look at me bemusedly across the table and claim that if I were born in America, I would not be capable of hating it, because where are the Americans who hate America. And I would glare back at them and say I knew, I knew they were wrong. How could anyone be aware about the role of America in the world and not seethe?

Of course, the other issue with the chain of births in America leading to my own is that I lack contact with living ancestors who lived elsewhere and voluntarily came here. I don’t have a relatable ancestral story of someone clinging to a raft or looking over a boat railing or sneaking aboard a vessel or over a wall into what they thought would mean freedom. I did not grow up on stories of how much was sacrificed and forgone so that I could be here on this red, white, and blue soaked soil. I can understand how it would be different if I had. If dad or granny had sold all their possessions for a sketchy ticket to this nation under the cover of night so that their grandchild or child could be born American, then it would be harder for me to feel the way I do. It would feel ungrateful, no matter what else the facts or feelings about the country said. It would feel like betrayal.

So what do I mean when I say I hate America? If I don’t want it destroyed and I don’t wish to do it ill, what does my hate really mean? And if I don’t hate freedom or immigrants or the colors red and blue, how does my hate manifest? What is it I hate about America? Its people? Its ideas? Its success?

The best one-word answer I can give is this: hypocrisy. There are many things I wish America did differently, or had never done. But it’s the hypocrisy that really riles me up, gets me actually angry and upset. It’s that America parades around in the world pretending to be a beacon of freedom, hope, and light, while actually serving as a vehicle of empire, destruction, and manipulation. If America unapologetically embraced its imperial attitude in the world, it would actually make me less hateful. At least there would be some truth, some sincerity in advertising. At least other countries would know what was coming and why. It’s the old difference between a backstab and a “frontstab” as we used to call it in weekend games of Diplomacy in Albuquerque. You can have begrudging respect for a “frontstab”. A backstab is just evil. There’s a reason Judas is a greater villain in history than Napoleon, why Dante put the betrayers in the ninth (and worst) circle. If you’re going to do a bad thing, at least let people know. It’s the absolute least you could do.

This is why I have felt so powerfully alone in the wake of Donald Trump’s first fortnight as President of the United States. The people who love America, who feel like America really does represent freedom, hope, and light in the world, they only feel betrayed by the President now. This two weeks, or maybe the three months since the election, these are their introductions to the stab of betrayal I’ve felt since I first took a serious long look at the nation’s history. To them, the country is good and Donald Trump is leading it, single-handedly, astray. To me, of course, Donald Trump’s values look exactly like America’s values. Naked self-interest, self-serving hypocrisy, abridging rights and freedoms at will, bullying, manipulation, and intimidation in the service of empire. I can recognize that he is being more brazen and escalative about these values, but again, if anything, that makes it a little more like a frontstab. He’s not making much of an effort to dress the emperor in clothes, to cloak his actions in the finery of noble causes. He’s basically going commando to the world, nude and proud, saying “come and get it, this is what we are.” When you think it’s what we’ve always been, it just doesn’t feel like that much of a change.

If you’re sitting here wondering what I could possibly be talking about when I discuss America as hypocritical or problematic, then I don’t know exactly what to tell you. I guess my best recommendation would be to watch this video that Russ Gooberman and I made ten years ago about America’s transgressions against humanity, often including its own people. The motif of the commercial was making fun of Chevy ads with John Mellencamp’s insipid “This is Our Country” tune celebrating a nation that had just wrecked Iraq and conducted Abu Ghraib as standing beside “the idea to stand and fight”. Make no mistake, Photoshopping Chevrolets into a series of American atrocities was just a vehicle (!) for reminding people of said atrocities:

And that entire two-and-a-half minute barrage is pretty light on the last fifty years, leaving out the CIA’s role in destroying democracies across the globe, barely touching on Vietnam or Afghanistan, not engaging with drone strikes or corporate imperialism or police shootings. And if you didn’t watch the video, it ran through slavery and the Native American genocide, firebombing Dresden and nuking Japan, Japanese internment and lynchings, Abu Ghraib and mass shootings, 9/11 and Katrina, the Martin Luther King assassination and the Rodney King beating, poverty and Kent State, border guards and Donald Rumsfeld, the KKK and the Westboro Baptist Church. If you think Trump is a betrayal of American values but those events don’t all make you want to throw up in your mouth, I don’t understand you. I just don’t.

From what I can tell, the way most people reconcile this endless history of human abuse and slaughter with loving America is precisely in the same way that I find America hypocritical. It’s because all those events diverge from the purported rhetoric of America. For some reason, America claiming to represent what’s good and right, claiming to represent democracy and freedom and openness, can forgive a million sins against those ideals. Because, according to this perspective, at least we’re trying. No matter that Soviet or Chinese shortcomings on their purported ideals of equality and freedom are written off as deliberate fraud while we make these claims. No matter how many people who observe this hypocrisy are branded as enemies and shipped to Gitmo or summarily executed by sky-robot. Our sexist and racist Constitution, our rosy image of the wealthy white male landowners who killed Britons over taxation with insufficient representation, our acceptance (and exploitation) of immigrants from select countries over the years, these are enough to absolve us of any missteps along the way. That, and we maintain the belief that we are always improving. No matter how many disastrous and catastrophic wars are fought by the last administration, no matter how many freedoms suspended in the wake of the last perceived threat to America, we always feel like we’re moving forward. Until now.

It doesn’t wash for me. I can’t do it. I can’t get through the mental hoops required to look at all that history, all those deliberate injustices and murders perpetrated in the nation’s name, and just write them off as innocent mistakes on the ledger of our role on the planet. Sure, this probably blinds me to some good that America occasionally does that I’m forgetting. But that’s just applying the same standard America does to every other leader and country on the planet as long as we’ve decided the time for them to face our wrath has come.

But the weird thing, the revelation the other night, the paradox, is this. I kind of love Americans. And I really love the place that is America. Like to a kind of absurd extreme in both cases. And driving for Uber has really reminded me, profoundly, just how much that is all the case.

I’ve been to 48 states and lived in nine cities. And I’ve been to most of those states three, four, five different times. I feel like I’ve done a tremendous amount of traveling, but it’s mostly been domestic. I really know this nation. I have been most everywhere and seen most everything. When discussing wanting to visit San Antonio a few months ago, I stated it’s the major US city I’m most interested in visiting that I’ve never seen. But then I had to pause to realize it may be one of the only ones. Indeed, after visiting Omaha this summer, San Antonio (7th) and El Paso (19th), also in Texas, are the only two cities among the US’ fifty largest where I haven’t logged time. Corpus Christi (60th) is next on the list after that. And one road trip, a pretty accessible journey from New Orleans, could probably knock all of those out.

I love road trips across America. I love the high speed limits and open scenery of the freeway. I love roadside truck stop gas stations with their cheesy trinkets and sincere drawling service staff. I love Waffle House, wherever it is, yellow beacon in the dark promising delicious cheap greasy food and heartfelt cooks and waitresses. I love Cracker Barrel and its hard candies and needlingly difficult little triangle-peg game. I love Taco Bell drive-throughs at three in the morning, often with an Uber rider or five in tow. I love unique diners and farmers markets and scenic overlooks and cheap roadside motels where insomniacs wait behind the desk for middle-of-the-night arrivals to talk to about their rambling thoughts.

I love specific places, too. I love every National Park I’ve ever been to (except maybe Cuyahoga Valley, because it just looked like a random unimpressive urban park and I think only exists because Ohio wanted to pretend it has nature). I love the perfectly carved depths of the Grand Canyon and the bubbling vapors of Yellowstone and the majestic cliffs of Yosemite and the alien landscape of the Badlands. I love other natural wonders less storied in our landscape: the waterfalls off the Columbia in Oregon, the golden beaches of Biloxi, the rocky windswept shores of Maine. I love the cities, so many cities. I’ve passed the cable cars traversing hilly San Francisco daily, reminding myself each time to appreciate how fortunate I was to see such a sight as part of a mundane commute. Ditto driving through the low-slung French Quarter each night, now, these days, in my life, past gaslamps and into narrow three-century alleys. Ditto hiking through the crooked streets of Santa Fe from its oldest hotel to the Capitol building to simulate representing a foreign country in annual Model UN competitions. Ditto driving through all those roadtrip hallmarks to college campus after college campus, full of old quaint chapels and high brick libraries and grand domed ceilings and modern glass facades. Ditto waking up each day for a year in the Castle, now doomed to be reunited with the gritty earth of Waltham, Massachusetts. I love Harvard Square and OMSI, the Georgia Aquarium and the L train, the dingy chess shops of New York City and the forgotten bookshops of New Orleans. Powell’s, the Frontier, the Smithsonian, the Gateway Arch, the Space Needle. Chipotle and Southwest Airlines ticket counters. I love so many places in this country that does so much damage.

I play a little game with many of my Uber riders. When they ask about my background, I see how long it takes before I can talk about a place that I know and love that they’ve been. Maybe they’re from there. Maybe they just visited. Maybe they’ve always wanted to go, but they’ve read more about it than I ever will. When it comes to America, I’ll put my experience here up against most folks. It’s rare that I get stumped, that someone’s mostly been in central Texas or the west coast of Florida or Alaska or North Dakota or one of the other small pockets I haven’t traversed. And when we find that connection, whatever it is, we usually bond over our mutual love of something there, or a shared memory of a place we visited separately. Sometimes it really hits home – a couple who grew up in Albuquerque or a woman who also did Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in her youth or a student who went to Rutgers or Brandeis. But more often, it’s just a place I’ve passed through, remembered, taken to heart. And in that process, I come to love these people too, these kind wonderful appreciative people swirling in their newfound awe of New Orleans as I drive them to their hotel or to another bar or to the show. They are good people who want good things for themselves and others. And I want that for them and theirs as well.

So what can I hate about America? Is it really so that what I hate about America is the idea of America? Or, more perfectly (!), how the idea fails and becomes the reality of our actions, our collective actions, our place in the world? Do I love the sinner and hate the sin, love the place where we commit the sins but hate the consequences? That seems about the size of it. I should hold these people more accountable for all of our collective actions, perhaps, but they seem so remote, so uncontrollable. Even with the soldiers or their families, even with the corporate attorneys.

This is what my best novel, still unpublished, American Dream On is mostly about. How bad things happen from good people. And how beautiful the backdrop is. I put so many of those little places that I love throughout the book. Not just because I wanted it to be an epic that encompassed the whole idea and reality of America. But because so much of the place is so memorable and so great. Is that really all that people who love America see? Or where they stop?

Of course, the more unsettling and alienating reality, for me, is that most people who love America and hate Trump increasingly seem to hate many places and people in America. And, to be fair, ditto those who love America and love Trump. The cataclysmic divide accentuated by this election and the string of shock doctrine actions by new President Trump has created an America united in its self-love, but bound in conflict by mutual loathing. Red America hates Blue America and vice versa. People lampoon the iconography and geography of the “other” America, discredit its people as unthinking or unfeeling, sabotage the other half as irrelevant or downright evil. I am not here to get preachy about why you feel that way and that you shouldn’t – I get it. I get why so many people say that anyone who even said the word “Trump” without hate in their heart during the year 2016 is complicit with his racism, sexism, and xenophobia. And I get why so many people observe this as hypocrisy when Obama did much that was similar, if more measured, muted, and dignified. I get where y’all are coming from. Maybe because I feel like I love all of you. Really.

What do I do with a country I hate full of people and places I love? What do you all do with a country you love full of people and places you hate?

You tell me. Because I really don’t know.

by

What We Could (Should) Have Done for Aleppo

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

As a pacifist, one of the most frequent criticisms I face is that I am advocating “doing nothing” in the face of atrocities near and far. There are just bad people in the world, the argument goes, who will kill you and take all your stuff if you’re not careful. And so violence is required in response, because the only alternative is to “do nothing” and “let it happen”.

This reality frustrates me for a variety of reasons, but the biggest is probably that it demonstrates how locked into fight-or-flight thinking we still are, despite several millennia of post-evolution attempts at being civilized. We are willing to apply all of our creative genius as a species to developing more sophisticated and efficient ways of killing each other, but refuse to spend any of that energy on developing meaningful alternatives to violence as a response to violence. The rapid development of technology in the last 150 years has only heightened this problem as we now believe that we will magic our way out of problems by developing ever more advanced technology, so we spend even less time considering problems of human mindset and organization. Most people who believe the extant models of catastrophic climate change seem to believe it’s more likely we’ll find some near-magic solution through technology than that we can alter our ways of thinking about societal structures to literally save the planet and everything on it. We’ll see, but my bet is not on technology that, throughout history save maybe the last thirty years, has failed to consider its planetary impact whatsoever.

Part of the problem is that humans tend to assume the way things have been is the way they will continue to be, despite all evidence to the contrary. We believe that the models that predicted the last election will accurately predict the next one. We believe that people will continue to feel as they felt before. We believe that our society will be just as stable and whole and coherent as it was in past decades. The obvious reality is that almost all conditions are fleeting and almost all of these things change, often with little warning. But that reality is unsettling so we prefer not to consider it, instead continuing to invest in the longevity of the status quo. Some of us get lucky and live in an ongoing status quo for most of our lifetime. Most of us are not so rewarded for our natural complacency.

Nonetheless, these assumptions of stagnation lead to further assumptions of greater stagnation. For example, humans have always done violence, so it’s inescapable. Humans have always eaten meat, so we can’t stop now. Humans have always been selfish, greedy bastards, so the best we can do is put systems in place that reward that behavior and steer it to be more profitable. There’s always going to be someone to mess it up for everyone else, so let’s construct society on the assumption that everyone is The Worst.

Not only do these assumptions ignore fundamentally good qualities of humanity, like charitable behavior and compassion, but they ignore really seminal events in rapid positive change. The rapid rise of the gay rights and gay marriage movement is an excellent example of something that was far more ludicrous than non-violence just decades ago, and has now become codified law in many leading societies. We do not have a long and storied history of religions and advocates noting how important freedom of sexual orientation is, yet now it’s come to be predominantly (though not entirely) accepted. Even the existence and proliferation of Wikipedia defies commonly understood norms about human behavior, the innate selfishness and money-motivation of humans, the inability of a democratized system to advance expertise and knowledge. And yes, technology played a role in the creation of Wikipedia, but it’s really more a restructuring of how we think about human structures and behavior that is the real catalyst. After all, there’s also a bunch of capitalist garbage on the Internet. Very little about the technology is innately egalitarian. What we assume will always persist as negative and necessary truths about humanity is just as valid as most of our assumptions about people.

That’s all part of it, these false assumptions. But I think the other part of it, and the one that I hope to address here in this post, is that people just don’t consider non-violent alternative approaches to violent situations that ameliorate them or minimize the loss of life. Other than King and Gandhi, basically no one has ever even attempted them in collectively remembered history. And despite the fact that those were super-effective models for creating revolutionary change in the face of overwhelming force, the next problem is always faced with the presumption that those were non-repeatable quarks, not blueprints for a better way.

One of the reasons for this is the old hammer-and-nail adage (“when you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”). In the United States, we spend more on “defense” (the military) than anything else in the budget, than everything else in the budget combined. We spend more than the next twenty countries behind us combined. We spend so many resources, people, political capital, and propaganda on having the mightiest fighting force the planet has ever known so we can use it to dominate global politics and influence events through what is functionally a might-makes-right paradigm. We are living in an era of one of the greatest proliferations of the concept of rule by violent force in human history. Even though it’s tagged as democratic and wears a smile and isn’t overtly conquering the rest of the world via armed invasion (only with ideological demands backed by implied threat), it’s still fundamentally about the force. And in this context, this world, especially when 9/11 quickly replaced the void left by the Cold War (a void that provided great opportunity for non-violent creativity because we had our mandate to live in fear briefly suspended), it’s hard to think of any thoughtful or creative ways of helping people avoid violence that do not cause violence.

This is all the more problematic because of how obviously flawed our violent solutions are. You don’t have to be a pacifist to recognize that almost every military intervention conducted by the United States in the last sixty years has been an unmitigated disaster. Vietnam, a seeming outlier of embarrassing defeat for the US military at the time, has ushered in an era where local insurgent fighters have the upper hand in every conflict and essentially make it impossible for any outside invading force to ever truly conquer a country. In a world where people learned quickly from their mistakes, this reality would be a recognized godsend, because we would realize that each nation has true sovereignty over their own affairs and that outside imposition by force is a fool’s errand, thus understanding that change requires more delicate and dignified approaches. Instead, we’ve continued to drop the hammer on a variety of nails that ultimately penetrate our own skin, from Latin America to Africa, Iraq to Afghanistan to Iraq again.

And where we have not directly bombed and invaded, we’ve meddled in violent ways that only escalate chaos. In the name of “regime change”, we armed bin Laden, Hussein, and ISIS, not to mention countless forgotten warlords and would-be dictators who seemed to align with our slightly preferred interests at the time. We gleefully drop drone strikes into Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan with only the vaguest understanding of the geopolitical situations there or the ramifications of turning yet another far-flung nation into a fiery fearful hellscape. For thirty years, the primary US intervention in other nations’ affairs has been to sell arms to rebel groups of some kind, just betting on the idea that more arms for more violence and chaos will destabilize the bad guys enough to make something better. It literally never works. Never. There is no instance where the US has fomented a violent revolution through arms sales and covert operations to spur a change in regime from something ruthless and dictatorial to something open, democratic, and truly free. It simply doesn’t happen. The situation is always more complicated, rights always get trampled in the few instances where the revolution is successful, and the backlash is always fierce and bloodier than the initial terror of the regime we’re trying to replace.

You can say it’s all motivated by money, a horrifically powerful military-industrial complex that profits on blood money worldwide, often selling the same weapons to both sides of the conflict. You can say, conversely, that it’s all totally innocent, that we really sincerely believe we can arm the rest of the world into oblivion and the right people will always win and the next time will be the precedent that proves it. Ultimately, I’m less interested in which side of it you believe. The reality is that it’s one of the most long-running and ineffective campaigns imaginable. If I were ever to advocate for continuing a set of policies and actions half that ineffective, you can only imagine how much flak I’d get for being a wide-eyed dreamer. But because their solutions involve guns and bombs, which we associate with “realism” somehow (does it all just devolve into macho stereotypes?), an utterly failed approach to the world that kills hundreds of thousands is reaffirmed as the only rational approach.

So what are the alternatives? Whether or not doing literally nothing would be better than throwing guns, drone strikes, and occasional full-scale invasions around (I think it clearly would be), are there actual concrete steps that can be taken that are both non-violent and would improve the situation?

Yes.

Let’s look at Aleppo.

The whole world is watching Aleppo now, watching tragic videos of people holed up and facing their impending death as the last major rebel stronghold in Syria falls under the regime’s brutal re-conquest. It is impossible to be a compassionate person and not feel torn apart by the news reports of slaughter, by the plaintive cries we can see on social media, then to immediately feel remorse at not doing more to help prevent this situation, to help come up with some way that all these innocent people didn’t have to die so horribly.

(Last little soapbox note here: It is of primary importance to remember these victims in Aleppo the next time we contemplate the US dropping the bombs or going house to house with military force. Just because the videos of victims of American drone strikes do not tend to go viral in America does not mean we are not directly causing lots of little Aleppos all over the globe. And often these victims have no warning, no time to prepare a farewell. They’re just snuffed out as irrelevant collateral in our quest for dominance. The scale of magnitude may be less than Aleppo, but the principle is the same.)

Diplomatic solutions are the traditional alternative that people would expect from someone like me. And I do believe there’s more – much more – we could have done through traditional diplomatic channels. Just as the US and Russia were able to swiftly work with Assad’s regime to destroy his chemical weapons stockpile, so too were there many times when Assad and Russia were willing (indeed eager) to come to the bargaining table to negotiate ceasefires and eventual peace. It was primarily our own stubbornness that Assad should not be part of any peaceful solution that facilitated where Aleppo stands today, at the bottom of a massacre. In demanding that we got to play a role in picking the ultimate winner of the conflict, we ensured our ultimate defeat and perhaps a million innocent Syrians are paying for that mistake with their blood.

I should be careful and clear here. Obviously the primary person responsible for the slaughter is Assad himself. In my haste to point out our own culpability, it sometimes can sound like I’m blaming the US for foreign atrocities more than those actually firing the weapons or giving the orders on the atrocities. I am not doing that. There’s plenty that we are primarily uniquely responsible for (e.g. drone strikes, see above) that I don’t need to lay the entirety of Aleppo at the feet of the US. However, I feel like the US had the power and placement to negotiate an end to this conflict that would have prevented this kind of horrific worst-case scenario. It’s hard to say whether the mistake was prompted more by hubris at assuming “our” side would eventually win and defeat Assad or by indifference to the fates of those who would lose the most if we were wrong.

But if nothing else, our own crimes against humanity should be evidence that a standard of us refusing to negotiate with dictators or terrorists or murderers is just laughably impractical. For coming from the school of so-called realism, it’s frighteningly unrealistic to just refuse to talk to some people because they’re so bad for killing innocents, especially when we kill our own fair share of innocents. Especially when the ability to talk would save innocent lives, which is supposed to be what it’s all about. There were ways to work out a compromise in Syria that spared both the Assad regime and most of the rebels, that could have avoided mass recrimination and punishment of rebels now being gunned down in the streets. That would have actually stabilized Syria and restored infrastructure to a people who have been suffering for several horrible years.

But let’s say you don’t buy that. You believe that the US did all it could, or for some reason Assad going was more important to stick to in principle than saving hundreds of thousand of lives. You believe that Assad would have just slaughtered everyone anyway after the peace deal. Whatever it is, you just think diplomatic solutions were a no-go. Surely no alternatives but bombs and guns then, right?

Wrong. The United States has an enormous navy. We have a huge disciplined fighting force that is advertised on American televisions and movie screens as a mere search-and-rescue team. It’s a feel-good story that usually doesn’t bear out in practice. But it could have.

The area controlled by Syrian rebels was in the extreme northeast area of Syria, running up from the coast to the Turkish border and then about seventy miles inland to Aleppo. They held this territory for years during which the conditions were deteriorating. The fact that the Turkish border was not hostile to these rebels is a big part of why so many refugees were able to escape through Turkey and head north to Europe.

So here’s what you do. You send the American fleet (not all of it, but a lot of it) to the coast. In the earlier years, you could have parked it on actual Syrian (rebel) territory, but later you’d have to use the extreme southwestern Turkish coast instead. And you tell everyone in rebel-controlled Syria that you will evacuate them, no questions asked. And you set up a US-run refugee camp somewhere. It doesn’t have to be the US, though that would be ideal, but you might have to pay an ally a billion dollars (you know, the cost of two state-of-the-art bombers) to set up the camp in their territory that’s ideally closer to Syria to save on transportation costs. And then you just run it, using the full force of the American military and all their logistical expertise, to ferry all the civilians out of harm’s way.

Any soldiers that hit the Syrian beach to help load up refugees don’t bring weapons with them as a show of good faith. You don’t send people further inland than the beach, though you provide logistical support and advice for how to set up the human caravan to get people out safely and quickly. You work with Turkey, an ally, to set up the pipeline through their territory, monitoring and stabilizing and helping all the folks along the way.

You think once you’ve started doing that that Syria or Russia are going to risk a war with the US by interfering with this operation? That they’re going to risk the PR nightmare of firing on the soldiers conducting a purely humanitarian mission, much less one of the ships? There’s no way.

At that point, rather than chaotically distributed refugees all on their own harrowing journey of woe, many of them drowning in the Mediterranean after handing their entire life savings to a smuggler, you have an organized camp somewhere safe and stable and you begin processing the refugees for eventual long-term placement. At the point when the US has stuck its neck out so far to help these people, it’s pretty impossible for Europe or other rich nations to just turn a blind eye and say they don’t have to help. You work with Germany, Canada, whoever will help, to safely process and transfer refugees. You take in a lot of them in the US. You meanwhile keep the diplomatic channels open to try to influence the eventual stable Syria so there’s a chance a lot of these folks can go home someday, will want to. But you set up a contingency for the idea that they’ll never be able to and that it’s obviously better to live free in the West than die captured in Syria. You recognize that if one or two ISIS fighters get caught up in the camp and end up committing an atrocious act of violence in the camp or Berlin or Iowa that it’s an acceptable price, that it’s still so much better than the human cost paid of actually doing nothing.

There’s the human benefits, sure. Totally enormous, incalculable. But if you want to be selfish, if you want to be a realpolitik American who cares only about America, here’s what else you get: the greatest optical boost to the US in seven decades. Suddenly, the US, target of terrorists around the globe and would-be forceful hegemon, has expended enormous human and financial capital in conducting the largest humanitarian rescue operation in human history, to save innocent victims in a Muslim country. Can you imagine? Can you imagine how that would change how we’re viewed in the rest of the world. Best of luck to al-Qaeda and ISIS recruiting new anti-American suicide bombers after that story sinks in across the planet. Oh yes, there would be propaganda and spin for a while that we were actually squirreling them off to live in human slavery or that the camp was a concentration camp. But in a world of social media, that spin would have a pretty short shelf life as pictures came back of a clean, well-maintained, well-organized camp meant to hold people only briefly before they were sent off to a new viable, safe life in a new nation.

Within a few years, any threat of terrorism against the United States would be gone. That single act of humanitarianism would erase decades of wrongdoings, bury so many hatchets and such ill will. It would be ludicrous to paint America as anti-Muslim, purely militaristic, hell-bent on world domination. The snowball effect of this great charitable act would allay nearly every fear we currently feel we face, roll back every doomsday clock to a comfortable hour.

Wouldn’t you rather live in a country that did things like that? Wouldn’t you rather vote for leaders who advocated such bold grand moves? Wouldn’t that news two years ago be better than today’s news out of Aleppo?

It doesn’t just apply to Aleppo, of course. The coast is convenient, but it probably would’ve been even easier to do something like this for Rwanda. Just paratroop some folks in to set up safe houses. You think people with machetes are going to attack uniformed US personnel keeping watch over safe houses? They don’t have to fire a shot, just be present. I would posit they really wouldn’t even need to bring weapons or be military personnel – we could have sent a corps of volunteer observers over there and accomplished the same results. Would-be genociders would never run the risk of provoking the most powerful country on the planet.

And this is where the great opportunity exists for American power. I ranted in my last post about how it’s never used for good and has been amassed for, at best, thoroughly selfish ends. But now that we have all this power and wealth and influence, we could use it for good. We have the power to mitigate and prevent the worst atrocities on the globe. But to do that, we have to stop leading with force first. We have to stop seeing ourselves as just part of the super-militaristic rat-race that everyone’s engaged in, because that only allows us to commit more violence, not bring more peace. After the ravages of ISIS across norther Iraq, even the most diehard neocon can now recognize that the Iraqi people have spent the last 13 years worse off than they were under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Our military policy makes the world worse: more dangerous, less stable, more prone to failed-state quagmires that fester in war and decay for decades. But the power we’ve put behind it, the power and capital and leverage we have across the world, it’s almost limitless raw potential to do and be good.

All we have to do is apply the same creative vision and risk-taking we laud in the corporate or military world and apply it to curbing the impact of violence non-violently. When stacked against profit or selfishness, it should seem infinitely more motivating. When stacked against decades of failed efforts to change regimes and quell countries through violence, it should seem infinitely more practical.

So what’s stopping us?

This is the kind of thing I hoped Obama meant by “we are the people we have been waiting for.” Despite his Nobel Prize, this has nothing to do with what he meant.

Obviously, I know Trump doesn’t have big plans to use American power in this way. But neither did Clinton.

We need leaders and leadership that have the courage to use our power to heal, not hammer. Until then, we have to look at the images of Aleppo, weep, and feel a tremendous guilt at our collective lack of imagination.

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My Frustration Runneth Over

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

I may have spent too much of 2016 posting on Facebook about politics.

Remember the dilemma I discussed ten days ago about working on entertaining quizzes for millions or serious books for a handful of people? That’s my only defense. Facebook is today’s version of standing on the soapbox in the town square: one immediately gets the attention and reaction of hundreds of people. And for a long-time APDA debater and coach, that means hundreds of people who are interested and interesting, with tons of practice discussing and arguing about issues in a serious (and sometimes snarky) way. It’s a perfect venue for jumping into the open forum.

Except, of course, it’s not a perfect venue. Because my ideas are not, generally speaking, popular. It could be reasonably said that I think most things most people are doing most of the time are in some way wrong. Doubly so for politicians. We live in an imperialist society that believes murdering other people is the best way to “get things done.” That action always trumps inaction, as long as that action comes in the form of a threat, a drone strike, or the spread of unfettered crony-corporate capitalism. A society that slaughters billions of animals for food and clothing, that believes its own citizens are the chosen people who deserve to rule in wealth and power because they happened to be born on American soil. There’s not a lot I look at and say “you know what, we’re doing that right!”

And people don’t like being told they’re wrong. Especially by someone whose opinion is the outlier, is the exception, is discordant with the chorus of self-aggrandizing societal voices that proclaim how America is the best that ever was, is, or will be. That mantric doctrine of our greatness is a great antidote to the self-criticism that is necessary for self-improvement. But it would hardly be fair for me to exhort everyone else to self-reflection without engaging in it myself from time to time. And at a certain point, I have to wonder what good is being done by pressing the shiny blue button to reach out to hundreds of over-educated people and poke them with a stick about this election and the related questions it raises. And it presents a really difficult set of quandaries. On the one hand, I believe in means and not ends, and the means of trying to provoke thought and get people to question themselves is one I believe in. On the other, if I’m not actually eliciting that reaction in much of anyone and am instead just hardening their resolve to fight me, then it seems like a bad use of time and energy. And one that demoralizes both me and those who disagree with me, which is hardly the point.

I would imagine this fatigue is not unique to me. I would guess that plenty of people with vastly more mainstream views have hit the point, perhaps repeatedly in 2016, where they just don’t know what good it is anymore to talk to other people about politics. My Dad and some of the more conspiratorially minded folks out there might argue that this is the carefully constructed reality of 2016 in America: make everyone lose interest in politics by putting up two thoroughly hated candidates and having them argue vitriolically like the whole world hangs in the balance. At a certain point, no one will even care. This is part of what fuels my conviction that about 5 people in each state (not literally) will vote by the end of it – the demoralization factor is just too high of facing another 100 days of intensifying outrage about ClinTrump. But I think my fatigue has a deeper tenor to it when coupled with the realization that no one outside of a narrow band of far-left fringers is embracing what I find to be the most important issues in 2016. Or issue really: let’s stop bombing the daylights out of everything that moves in other countries.

It is horrifying that we live in a nation that can indiscriminately bomb a hundred civilians that we’re allegedly trying to save in Syria and mention of this incident escapes both national conventions. Horrifying. If any other country did that to us, to our special American people, we’d be clamoring for their immediate death at both conventions. Oh wait, we are doing exactly that. Hey, in the end, maybe “they hate us for our freedom” is right after all. Since our definition of “our freedom” includes the right to kill anyone else in any other country at any time and not even notice.

So what is this post for? I guess just to blow off steam. To reach out to the few like-minded people (and there are a few, several even, since my snarky frustrated Facebook posts still get some likes and laughs and whatever emoji are out there to make us feel reaffirmed across the digital divide). To put on the record that if I stop posting where anyone can see or will regularly react, I still felt a certain way and was still upset and still registered my dissent somewhere in the ether. After all, everyone who disagrees with me thinks that voting is not the place for dissent and they sure seem to get frustrated when I use Facebook to voice it. Ultimately, what I’m realizing is that the centrist Democratic movement is just not interested in dissent at all. Just as America will always vilify the next enemy, often an enemy of our own literal creation, as the real biggest, most existential threat we’ve ever faced, so too will the pseudo-left always say that this next Republican nominee is the real biggest, most existentially threatening potential President.

The left is the Chicago Cubs of American politics, always having to wait till next year no matter how promising this year’s candidates seemed. We are Charlie Brown and the Democratic Party is Lucy and we keep waking up on the ground with a concussion wondering how the hell we fell for it.

So here I offer a series of lines I’ve almost posted on Facebook this week, every time choosing not to as I wonder “what’s the point?” and “am I doing more harm to my belief structure than good?” before choosing to let hard-core Democrats just revel in being Democrats in peace…

A note of warning: I am not trying to start a fight. If you are hard-left and dissatisfied with ClinTrump, read on. If you are able to be self-critical about the Democratic Party, proceed with caution. If you are just looking to revel in your love of Hillary and the American electoral system, you should probably go read Vox or Slate or the New York Times right now instead. Seriously. I am not trying to upset you. I am just trying to say this stuff somewhere, quietly, where the people who are open to this can hear me.

-I am so proud to live in a country where every President’s wife can dream of someday becoming President.

-There are plenty of reasons you can choose to prefer Clinton to Trump. Likelihood of starting World War III is not among them.

-Nothing makes it more clear that we need to update the Constitution than hearing every Democratic speech punctuate on “all men are created equal” while they nominate a woman to be President.

-The two major parties in America are obsessed with American greatness. One says America was great before we offered rights to most of our citizens. The other says this moment of unending war and maximum wealth inequality is the height of our greatness. I want a party that says we’re not great, we’ve never been great, and we’re going to have work very hard to even start being good.

-The Democrats lecturing American voters about how Trump is too crass and embarrassing to be President contrasts especially poorly with giving Bill Clinton a keynote address.

-To everyone who posted that outrage about the papers running a picture of Bill Clinton with the headline about Hillary Clinton winning the nomination: Hillary wasn’t even at the convention that day! Are they really going to run a grainy picture of her appearing on the jumbotron with that headline? She chose to make Bill the headliner of the night, to make him the story. You cannot choose to run almost entirely on your husband’s coattails and then feign outrage or claim sexism when the media parrots that narrative. This is why Hillary being the first woman President is so bad for feminism. It presents that image. And the only reasonable response is “well, the first woman President had to use this path to the Presidency,” which is an even worse message for feminism. And not a true one. Elizabeth Warren would have won this nomination in a landslide, and beaten Trump in an even bigger one.

-Facebook really needs to add “eyeroll” to their reaction-emoji slate.

-I’ve clicked on several articles which compare the DNC leaks issue to Watergate, wondering if someone has finally made the proper analogy. But they keep comparing Nixon to the leakers, not the DNC. It was the DNC trying to use every tool available to shut out their opponents and secure a particular election outcome. And if you say “but Bernie never had a chance,” how good do you think the Democrats’ chances were in 1972? Even if you’re right, that’s totally not the point. Nixon still resigned over attempting to rig an election he already had locked up.

-The Democrats really have entirely subsumed the Reagan Revolution mantle. Morning in America. War footing with Russia. Wealth inequality is a-okay. Thanks, Clintons.

-Democrats will always blame the left for everything. They are incapable of seeing flaws in their own series of centrist do-nothing warhawks. If Clinton loses to Trump, the left will be blamed. When Gore lost to Bush, they blamed Nader instead of blaming a candidate so uninspiring he couldn’t even carry his own home state. This is a formula for silencing the left. Democrats are not interested in allowing the left a seat at the table, only in taking them for granted, whipping them into submission, and shaming them for all of their own shortfalls. The Democrats could literally have nominated Mussolini’s ghost this year and all they would do if they lost is shame the left for not falling in line behind this year’s alleged savior.

-Literally nothing is less relevant than the party platform. Like any platform, the candidates just walk all over it.

-I still cannot fathom how the lesson we carry forward from 2008 is that Obama did a good job saving us from ourselves and not that capitalism creates existential disasters out of thin air. Any country less in love with itself would have let capitalism die, sobered up, and worked to develop a new system of ordering society. I would feel sad that 2008 was the one missed opportunity to make sweeping change and fix things, but I know that capitalism will offer many more such opportunities and soon.

-What every Democrat telling leftists to suck it up and wait for 2024 misses is that, if we have 16 solid years of Obama and Clinton, the left will have been utterly eradicated from the party by the end of that. Everyone will look at 2024 and say “well, we can’t risk a leftist – look how successful we’ve been with all these centrists!” There is no plan to eventually incorporate the progressive movement, just to assimilate it into centrism.

-It is hilarious to see Democrats taking credit for progress in the last eight years. I know many people love Obamacare and forget that it was a Republican-authored plan. But gay marriage had nothing to do with Democrats and all of the Democratic leadership disavowed it until the absolute 11th hour when it had already become inevitable. Change does not take place incrementally through political machinations. It is sweeping and it involves changing people’s hearts and minds. The civil rights movement did not quietly work in legislative halls, they took it to the streets and illustrated the injustice of the status quo. If Martin Luther King had taken the modern Democrats’ advice, we would still have Jim Crow, just a slightly milder version, and the Democrats would be shouting from the rooftops how great those slight rollbacks of Jim Crow were.

-Gay marriage is a vastly more radical idea than stopping war. It’s been around a lot less time as a concept and was far weirder to people when first proposed. Why is it just so unthinkable to both major parties that we would ever stop war? There are so many creative ways of influencing world events for the better that don’t involve murdering people. This is literally the only lesson that’s been clear in 6,000 years of human history. Why is it so damn hard for people to internalize?


I don’t know what image to use for this post, but posts should have an image to catch people’s eye on Facebook and Twitter. Which I’m not sure I even want to do, for reasons stated above. Even in quietly venting my frustration, I’m still thinking in terms of getting this out, at least to people who agree in whole or in part. Ah, the problem of being a person. So what image? Here, have a picture of Bernie looking like I feel:

FrustratedBernie

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That’s Entertainment!

Categories: A Day in the Life, Politics (n.): a strife of interests masquerading, Telling Stories, The Problem of Being a Person, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , ,

Trumpemon

When I was in high school, I had a discussion with my father about a long-prior discussion he’d had about the state of the world in the mid-1970s. He mentioned, in passing, that his conversational partner of the time had said what people really needed in the world was to laugh more. He then echoed this sentiment, circa 1997, as an obvious truth of the universe. My mind immediately went to the somewhat moderate bullies of my high school, the jocks and the idiots, and everyone I knew who seemed to make laughing a key priority of their existence. I thought laughter was, if anything, overrated in a very serious world. Being a bit stubborn and prone to engaging wherever possible in a keen argument, I intimated that the great problem with the world is that everyone needed to laugh less.

I raise this issue now not to pick or resurrect a generational fight two decades in the making, nor to pick on my Dad, with whom I agree about more things than I’d argue most of my (or any?) age agree with their fathers. But I think this moment of discord speaks to a larger perspective on the world that has changed, perhaps since the 60s or 70s, perhaps even more recently, about the nature of entertainment and its influence on our world, or the world of contemporary America as it now stands, embarrelled in choppy waters and facing what almost everyone can universally regard as a rather steep cliff, with barely any water in the fall to soften the rocky crags below. Far more recently than 1997, my father predicted that this summer would look a lot like the summer of 1968, the least stable of his lifetime to date. Halfway through the summer, that seems like a pretty safe prediction, as news of attacks, shootings, coups, and executions compete for headlines daily as we rush headlong into an election where the major party candidates make Nixon and Humphrey look like popular young gentlemen you’d want to bring home to the parents.

So what’s trending? Pokemon Go!

It is a sign of age, diving into my late 30s, that many of my friends have taken to the waves of the Internet to literally decry the children gathering on their lawns to play this latest video game to capture the American imagination. And also a sign of my generation that a nearly equal quantity are regaling us with stories of their own particular lawn catches. I am not here to moralize about the perils of Pokemon Go. While I am not playing (I just missed Pokemon as a phenomenon the first time around, entering college when it hit the streets. And the last thing I need is another excuse to haul out the smartphone [begrudgingly purchased for Uber] in public.), I definitely understand the appeal. And more importantly, it’s the first video game since Dance Dance Revolution that is getting its players off the couch and into something resembling physical shape. And the first ever (unless you count its natural predecessor Ingress, and nobody but Brandzy does count Ingress) that gets people out of the living room and into the real, living, breathing world where they might interact with other real people.

So, is Pokemon Go a giant scheme designed to replace our outrage with police killings, mass shootings, and an endless upward cycle of violence against seemingly everyone with, well, the digital equivalent of dogfighting? Or, perhaps more accurately, a dogfighting-themed scavenger hunt? Is the timing of its release sufficient to mollify a public fomenting with the desire to rebel, replacing the revolution with the placid need to “catch ’em all”? After all, the game is insidiously embedded in a very real and very corporate world, wherein savvy companies have already latched onto their geographic placement in the game to win friends and influence people.

I am inclined to believe that the release of illusory pocket monsters into the world is largely coincidental with the second coming of 1968 as it arrives on American shores nearly a half-century later. But I’m also inclined to believe that there are no coincidences.

Pokemon Go is just another aspect of our cultural obsession with entertainment. There was a time, I believe, when art was separable from entertainment in a real way, when politics also enjoyed a distance from the desire for laughter. It is hard to imagine what such a separation would truly look like at this moment, when the entire orientation of Internet culture around social media has turned us like plants toward the sun, seeking fulfillment and sustenance purely from the notion of being amused. Our educational system is rapidly trying to catch up, bringing games and electronics into the classroom by the armload in an effort to compete on the giant entertainment battlefield. Maybe everyone in the 70s really did decide that we all just needed to laugh more and they spent the next four decades making it so, ensuring that the concept of entertainment seeped into every element of our waking life, so we would judge each decision by how much comic relief it brought to our brain.

No wonder, then, that the major popular outlets of news in the last 15 years have all become comedy shows. That the nightly anchors of my childhood: Rather, Jenkins, and Brokaw (admittedly problematic in their universal conservative white maleness) were replaced with the guffaws and antics of Stewart and his many descendants. That Obama himself gets the most attention for the White House Correspondents Dinner, far more widely beheld than another boring dramatic turn at memorializing victims of a mass shooting. Indeed, I think the main reason so many of my friends are missing the fact that Trump should be considered the runaway favorite in the 2016 general election is that he is so much more entertaining than his counterpart Clinton. Since televisions became widely held items in American households, this is the metric that explains most every choice the general election populous has made at the quadrennial ballot box. I guess one could argue that Dukakis was more entertaining than Bush the elder in 1988, but in retrospect that was mostly at his own expense, so perhaps doesn’t count. And I don’t know exactly what to do with either of Nixon’s victories – his runs against Humphrey and McGovern were surely races to the bottom in terms of entertainment. But there are no other imaginable exceptions since the Nixon-Kennedy debates opened the television era: the more entertaining candidate always wins, which I think does more to explain the success of all the two-term Presidents since Nixon than any other single theory. Say what you will about Reagan, Bill Clinton, Bush the younger, and Obama, but they are all highly successful entertainers.

There’s a reason I have total confidence that Trump will win this November, barring assassination or other unforeseeable but still seemingly almost predictable upheaval. He is, like Reagan before him, an entertainer by trade. More than anything else that Donald Trump is or isn’t, he is a showman. And whatever the truth value of her given statements may be on a given day, the most salient and consistent critique that can be leveled against Hillary Clinton the candidate is her inability to entertain. Her most ardent supporters have tried to turn this into a strength in recent months, with a cascade of thinkpieces on how her wonky, unaffectionate demeanor is exactly what we should want in the White House. Little good this will do her after debates against Trump when the latter could literally roar, a la Russell Crowe’s Gladiator, a fitting avatar of our contemporary culture, “Are you not entertained?!” You can practically see the thumbs turning down on Clinton in the crowd, condemning her to political death at the hands of the latest champion of a very amused mob.

It is perhaps some small solace to my readers that I go on to believe that Trump is not the second coming of Hitler so much as the second coming of Vaudeville. Or, at worst, I guess L. Ron Hubbard, who called his shot about making a fortune on an invented religion and then put it into practice. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf as his declaration of intention. Trump said he’d try to run as a fiscal conservative and a social liberal on a ticket with Oprah Winfrey. No, the meme about him saying Republicans were dumb and easy to persuade isn’t true. It seems believable because he knows everyone is easy to persuade with enough money and entertainment value, even the Clintons themselves, as he will bring up even more in future debates.

Please don’t confuse my adamance about the future Trump presidency with support. I have no interest in seeing a Trump presidency, though I also have no interest in seeing a Clinton presidency. As I told Alex’s mother the night before last, I think either president would make the first six years of the Obama administration look glorious and I think those years were truly awful. I am not reveling in the future success of Trump, but I am trying to understand and explain its potency so others might harness that understanding to do some kind of counterbalancing good.

This struggle with entertainment as the dominant currency of our society and its potential battle with more serious, sober reflections on change is one that has impacted key aspects of my own life, and especially this website. While I never came up with the idea for Pokemon Go (like Uber, these ideas required a level of accuracy for GPS technology that doesn’t really predate the last five years and I think few people knew would be a certainty until then), I have concocted some virally entertaining quizzes over the years, the first couple of which were extremely well timed with the advent of Web 1.0 media like blogs, MySpace, and GeoCities. These quizzes first hit the scene when I was trying to promote my first novel and write my second, as well as make my way through life with day jobs in the so-called real world. Tired from my commute and the stresses of work, I would contemplate writing fiction that would be read by a few hundred or a quiz that would be seen by more than a million people within its first year. One would be laden with meaning that I found important to impart, the other would be infused with what little meaning I could stick between the layers of entertainment. My choice was usually clear: at least the entertainment would be absorbed by the masses. It wasn’t until quitting jobs entirely in 2009 that I could really get back to writing fiction seriously. And if my life hadn’t fallen apart at the end of that period, maybe I would have found some success then. At the same time, most of the folks who read American Dream On agreed on its biggest critique: too dark, not entertaining enough. My mother observed that I have a great talent for making people laugh in real life; why couldn’t I bring that over into my writing?

We’ll leave to the side, for now, that perhaps the primary theme of American Dream On is that our obsession with entertainment, along with the pursuit of money, is literally killing everyone.

I don’t think Trump or Pokemon Go will literally kill everyone, nor will terrorists nor the police. Though all four will probably take their cut of lives, with Pokemon Go being by far the most innocuous. And not even all the pokemon in the world will be enough to distract us from the blood taken by other forces in the world, at least not for more than a few hours at a time. And unfortunately, the structural differences between Trump’s eventual killings and the police’s ongoing murders and the terrorists’ showy acts of slaughter and Pokemon Go will continue to fade. It’s all packaged entertainment, destruction put out like a press release, neat little explanations and video and unfolding mystery to unravel like a video game. What is this latest killer’s motive? Where will Trump bomb next? Which terror group will claim responsibility for the latest attack? How did the police try to cover up their latest racist execution?

And the slew of reporters will trail after, with their graphics team and sound folks making it all as polished as the latest app to hit our phones. And we’ll take it all in, and I’ll try to write about it in a way that is just flippant and distant enough to be entertaining too. It’s not just our currency anymore, it’s our literal language, because every use of time, every decision to read or watch something is in competition with catching another Pokemon or playing a game on Facebook or downloading something more amusing. And increasingly the only way to change anything might be to win the entertainment wars first and use that to do good. Because holding the mirror up to society isn’t getting people to take things more seriously these days – it’s reminding us of selfies.

If you’ll excuse me, I should probably go work on another quiz. I wonder if “Which police shooting victim are you?” is still too macabre to be entertaining. Maybe it’s the best way we can get more people to say their names.

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One Nation Under Hate

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

HateSpeech

I guess I shouldn’t have targeted Donald Trump so specifically. I guess that’s what really brought the vitriol out of the woodwork.

When I launched the green Facebook profile pictures to support Muslims in America project two days ago, I don’t know exactly what I was expecting. Certainly I knew that my Blue Pyramid Facebook page could be the target of incredible vitriol from right-wingers. But somehow I didn’t think that the hate lobbed my way for questioning gun rights in the wake of mass-shootings could be, well, trumped. And maybe if I’d only stood up for Muslims in the abstract and not connected the timing of the need for this to Donald Trump’s consistent claim that all Muslims should be barred from the US, then there would have been fewer death threats, less invective, less utterly disturbing images on my post.

I know, I’m not really being that serious. The comparison of saying “Maybe if I’d only stood up for Jews without criticizing Hitler” would sound a wee bit histrionic in other contexts. In the context of a rising political leader invoking hate against a religious minority to label them as the ultimate threat and bar them from a nation, well…… yeah. I’m hardly the first or even millionth person to draw that parallel.

Still, by attacking the extremely popular person at the top of the totem pole, it invoked many responses which (a) assumed that I support Democrats, (b) assumed that I support Hillary, and (c) assumed that I carried the usual liberal party line. The media does not deal with issues in complex, nuanced, or variable ways, so I can sort of understand why the assumptions are all binary. Either you love Trump or you love Hillary. Either you’re a Republican or a Democrat. Either you care about the entire right-wing slate as presented by modern Republicans or the entire left-win slate as presented by modern Democrats. And yes, not many people are out there espousing pacifism so I wouldn’t expect anyone to assume that as my baseline. What I would expect is some religious tolerance. At least a little. Or some vague understanding that ISIS and 9/11 are not representative of Islam or even a tiny fraction of it.

Nope.

I got death threats. Muslims got way more death threats. People openly, with their names attached, with photos of them holding their smiling kids, called for genocide. It was unbelievable.

I’ve been torn between taking it all down to just reduce the amount of hate in the world, hate that I feel loosely responsible for since I, after all, posted something that elicited it. Torn between that and leaving it up as a little monument to a verbal atrocity. I know, I know, the rule about Internet comments can apply to Facebook pages too. And I’m sure it pales in comparison to the invective thrown at Muslims daily, though I’m pretty unconvinced that most of these folks have ever so much as spoken to a Muslim, let alone a minority of any kind. But the net impact so far of my effort seems to have been rallying a bunch of spiteful violent people against their misunderstanding of Islam. I feel like people who graffiti hate-speech on college campuses, who then see the next day as half the campus rallies in defense of the targeted group. But, y’know, in reverse.

The story of cycles of hate and violence is nothing new. Arguably, this is the only story of human history worth remembering and the only lesson we really need to learn at this stage of our time on the planet. “This stage”, in this instance, being roughly the last 6,000 years. But I don’t think I’d really realized until this week how brazen and substantial the hate is in the United States. And how campaign rhetoric like Trump’s is, as many have observed, emboldening and normalizing hate.

KillEmAll

I guess the ultimate issue is that it’s not really about Trump. That was the post I almost wrote night before last, when I instead decided to turn my frustration into a more positive show of support rather than just criticizing everything again. Obviously, if Trump can enjoy this level of support and garner more enthusiasm for policies like barring all Muslims from entering the nation, then the seeds of this sentiment are much older and deeper than the last few months. I certainly saw glimpses of this at Brandeis in September 2001 – and if I saw it at a purportedly liberal college campus, then one can only imagine what was happening in conservative small towns – but I just greatly underestimated how ready the country was to declare war on a whole religion, a whole people, and not stop till they were wiped out entirely.

I’m not saying everyone feels that way, or even most Republicans, and possibly not even most Trump voters. But the ongoing obsession with terrorism and fear, the incredibly sheltered and privileged position of America as it sits in comfort while lobbing missiles at everyone who disagrees, destroying lives and families and buildings and whole countries in a single bound. It’s coming home to roost. It’s manufactured a dangerous, spiteful, intolerant country that is all the more problematic for its claims at representing the opposite. Many early critics of Trump’s comments this week called his thoughts un-American. I think they were kind of quintessentially American in the America we have now. An America so afraid of its own shadow that it’s ready to blow away the person casting the shadow just to have someone to blame for its paranoia.

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The Muddy Lens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you ready?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MuddyLens

by

The Invisible Power of Shame

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

Everyday miracle:  everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

Everyday miracle: everyone in a theater is voluntarily quiet!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have two key responses:

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

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

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

by

Senior Retreat and the Infinite Sadness

Categories: A Day in the Life, Awareness is Never Enough - It Must Always Be Wonder, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Long Tunnel, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , , , ,

The memorable lake in the middle of the Conference Center in Glorieta, NM.  I am haunted by this lake.

The memorable lake in the middle of the Conference Center in Glorieta, NM. I am haunted by this lake.

My image of God isn’t really an image at all. I think we’re all to an extent overly influenced by religious, Biblical, and societal depictions of the divine as a white-haired bearded father sitting on a cloud and looking vaguely ornery. No doubt Michelangelo bears some of the blame for this, but the Sistine Chapel probably was just utilizing what was popular at the time. As metaphors go, an impossibly old father who is really grumpy about you staying out too late again is probably a good depiction of the Judeo-Christian assumptions, replete with the requisite wrath to take vengeance on anyone who would mess with “His” people. It’s no wonder so many people have a falling out with their birth religion and throw the whole notion of higher powers and divinity out altogether. Who wants another voice in your head telling you to get home by curfew?

It’s hard for me to really envision God as anything physical. Being bound by the corporeal just doesn’t seem very godlike, frankly, though I guess the early scholars got really caught up in that “in His own image” business. It’s hard for us to relate to something aphysical, certainly, so I guess believing that a divine being gets emotional and stomps (H)is feet just like we do would make us feel more comfortable beseeching this entity. But there’s nothing I can picture about a viable or worthwhile God that would exist physically… it’s far too limiting and strange. This probably has something to do with the fact that I don’t, deep down, believe anything exists physically. I believe we are living in a grand metaphor. That these physical lives are for those of us (hey, that’s everybody here!) too unsophisticated to understand aphysical realities, so we need it all spelled out for us in bodies and colors and sounds.

This is not to say that I see God as unemotional. Indeed, there is one emotion that I think God resonates with, resounds within, and for many practical purposes is. The problem of evil has never bothered me because the only order to the universe that makes sense to me is one wherein sentient beings are given absolute free will (within, I suppose, certain rule-based limitations). We are suffering because we make each other suffer and the goal is to figure out how we can all get along and sort things such that suffering is minimized (though I don’t think that’s actually the ultimate goal – happiness/suffering is not the dichotomy that I think matters most, which sets me apart from I guess 95% of current philosophical people and 99% of current unphilosophical ones). The challenge of life is to make moral progress without a cheat-sheet or knowing the rules. There are a lot of clues and I would argue God is omnipresent in dropping hints of varying levels of subtlety, but at the end of the day, we have to figure it out. And this collective nature of figuring it out is, as I often say, why we’re not all born on our own planet. We need each other and a lot of what we’re supposed to learn about on Earth involves cooperation and compassion. A child born into poverty may not have the free will to get herself out of it, but we collectively have the free will to ensure no children are born into poverty, or that those who are still have choices in their life.

And this is what we squander constantly. Which is why I sense the emotion that God is perpetually consumed by is sadness. Benevolent Sorrow has long been my catchphrase for the divine, and it’s really hard for me to imagine anything else. Because God clearly cares, but is limited from intervening by the choice to offer free will. (Thumbnail argument: lack of free will spoils moral choice, making life meaningless – I can walk through this in another post, but it’s pretty straightforward.) And it’s clear that we all have the capability to spend our time the right way and make the right choices to make a much better and more moral existence for all of us. But we don’t do that, over and over and over again. Our world is still largely governed by fear, hatred, misunderstanding, and greed, all of which result in violence, ignorance (in many senses), and neglect. It always surprises me when people talk about depression as disordered thinking – I find it very odd to look at human history or the state of the planet, take it seriously, and not be depressed. And there are those of you out there who believe this is the problem with depression and think I have a disease that needs treatment, but let’s be serious. Can you really get out of your own first world bubble, consider what’s going on planetarily, and not get sad? If you can, I think you have the disorder.

So this omnibenevolent sadness is out there, coursing through the universe, constantly urging us to bend back toward a level of compassion and seeing beyond ourselves that humans are so reluctant to embrace in the known course of history so far. How could you care that much and be so limited in your ability to help and not be sad? Especially when the lessons to learn and the choices to make are so simple. Don’t beat each other about the head and torso with sticks. Care about each other, even if the other people are far away or different from you. Keep trying and changing to get better.

I am not trying to stand on some great moral high ground here. While I have made a lot of progress with the violence question since discerning its paramount importance in what we’re trying to learn here, I am constantly berating myself for shortcomings in how I use my time, money, and influence for the betterment of the species. I go to sports games and play poker and play video games and eat out when I should probably be spending all of that time and energy and money on refugees and war-torn regions. This gets used as a throwaway APDA argument all the time to justify that it’s okay to make these selfish-seeming choices, but I always relate more to the core of the actual argument – it’s probably not okay to care more about your own society and mindless happiness than these other people. But I do it anyway. And as close as I ever get to changing is to periodically feel infinitely guilty and ashamed and occasionally make half-hearted resolutions to sell all my possessions and move to an aid camp in Syria (the country has been different in the past and will be different in the future as geopolitical winds ruin one land after another).

It is this kind of sadness, this deep, soul-well kind of pit, that I fell into in the crisp fall of 1997 in Glorieta, New Mexico. Albuquerque Academy, the elite private school aspiring to New Hampshire that I attended for 8th-12th grade, holds several ritual events as rites of passage for its students, but the two most memorable are probably Philmont (a 100-hour camping trip for 9th graders at the Boy Scout ranch there) and Senior Retreat (a three?-day series of workshops, skits, and free time traditionally held at the Baptist Conference Center in Glorieta). This is right near the opening of school, I think in September, and both events are held as bonding exercises for the cohorts of 150 students in their passage of time together in the pressure-cooker that is this prep school education.

My own Senior Retreat took place as I was first confronting the demise of the first serious relationship of my life, the one with the person usually called “PLB” on this website, the one where I fell in love and was engaged to someone who was exhibiting the traits of a pathological liar for the whole year, the one where the relationship ended via a melodramatic e-mail from her father telling me to stay away when the last words I’d heard from the girl herself were “I will love you forever and we’re still getting married.” The web of lies and deceit and nonsense are not necessary to revisit in painstaking detail at this juncture, but this was the first real time I’d had to spend in close confines where she might be since she’d transferred out of all the classes we’d signed up for together on day two of school. A high school is large enough to avoid someone mostly, but a quiet mountain retreat for just your class is decidedly less so. And seeing her there, the same person I’d shared so much with, cold, unfeeling, anonymous, ignoring, and illegal to approach – it was too much.

My friends were also in this incredibly awkward position at the time. I’d been pretty bad to them much of our junior year, as people in the throes of their first serious relationship often are to friends who have been close for years. Early relationships bring this all-consuming sense of importance that shifts uses of time, usually dramatically, and I’d blown off countless invitations to hang out in favor of spending basically all of my time with my girlfriend. When she unceremoniously (and deceptively, and embarrassingly) cut me loose, I went crawling back to my friends for support, apologetically and apoplectically. They took me back with a forgiveness that was wholly undeserved, but for which I am forever grateful. But they just didn’t know how to wrestle with the depth of my despair.

This all came to a head at the Senior Retreat, where aside from one joint victory wherein we designed the winning (and ultimately unprinted, for it was deemed inappropriate) design for our senior T-shirt, I was despondent pretty much the whole time. I think I was holding up okay the first day, but by nightfall, was starting to spiral hard and fast. I remember there being skits performed by the popular crowd, skits that lampooned relationships at one juncture, and I just couldn’t take it. I couldn’t handle how carefree and young and boisterous everyone was when my world had ended. I tore out of the performance and went to stand by the lake, contemplating the depth of my misery.

Like most of my sadnesses, it didn’t just stay about me for long. If we are to picture outbursts and breakdowns of total sadness as a mineshaft opening up into brief free-fall, mine are often little chutes that then connect with the very deep wells of the larger sadness of the universe quite quickly. Feeling sorry for oneself only get so far when one quickly realizes how much other people are suffering in less recoverable ways, and especially how little one’s own self is doing to prevent and fix that reality. And then it’s just free-fall, every little injustice and wrong and rejection and failure in one’s own life and all Existence competing for top billing. When I get this sad, I cry inconsolably, and when I do that, I often end up hyperventilating, and it usually takes losing most of the feeling in my face to get me to a state where I can stop descending, can stabilize, can be numb enough to consider sleep.

For some reason, that first night in Glorieta, I couldn’t hit that stage. I kept cycling back from hyperventilation to sobbing, on loop. And when I was too drained and exhausted to manifest more tears, it was just despondent walking through the dark dark trees and rims of the lake, periodically bumping revelers who just sort of glared, sometimes trailed by my friends who were so so worried.

I have vague clear glimpses of moments of that night, including a tragicomic scene wherein three of my friends practically physically pushed my friend (and first girlfriend, who I’d callously dumped to date PLB) Alisha to talk to me and she tersely told me she had no idea why they thought she could help. I’m sure my group of friends, all male, thought a female influence would be able to get through in some way, or maybe it was her long-standing interest in psychology, but her mood at the moment was not amused and she confronted me with a bootstrappy kind of tough love that I would have to dig myself out of this if I wanted to. I was fine with that. I had no interest in digging, much less ascending. I was going all the way down that night.

I learned later that shortly before this happened, my friends had actually rallied a small search party for me since I had been missing since the skits and been seen crying by somebody and couldn’t be found and curfew was coming. I don’t remember being missing, but their worry was certainly justified, because a lot of my interest in the lake that night was one of longing, of manifesting my emotional reality physically, of sinking and going numb and never having to feel again.

I tapped into this feeling a little bit last night, some small combination of sad songs and late nights and feelings of moral inadequacy. There was no clear and present catalyst, really, unless one counts the sense of waste and loss and silliness that accompanies losing a poker tournament. I am not alone right now, though the feelings of rejection and the insanity of lost love are never far from my heart. But the world is still hurting and God is still sad and I can relate. And sometimes that’s all it takes.

I have never really talked much to anyone about Senior Retreat. I had a morning after the night that felt much the same – I think I woke up at four or five in the morning in the pre-dawn to go stand at that lake again and listen to sad music and try to will myself to break my promise to myself from seven years earlier and not survive. But I never got more than a toe in the water and here I am today. Maybe because I think that it would just be one more waste, one more thing for God and others to be sad about.

Harnessing the power of that sadness, of that feeling of infinite failure and disappointment, without it crushing you completely, it’s a dangerous game. It’s one I’m not even close to mastering, any more than I can capture the first rush of blood to the brain that precedes a migraine and live in the improved thinking before the pain sets in and nullifies all that progress. It’s feelings like that which compelled the holy folks of past generations to renounce the world and devote themselves to service or contemplation. I keep telling myself I can do more good as a member of the conventional world and use my gifts to influence others here instead. But I never know for sure. It’s so easy for it to sound and feel like an excuse, especially when there are sports games and poker tournaments and other hedonistic pursuits.

I’m sorry. I’m so so sorry.

by

Droning On

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

Good question.

Good question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Myth of Linearity

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: ,

Life:  not always improving for everybody.

Life: not always improving for everybody.

Sometimes, life gets worse.

You wouldn’t think that would be such a controversial statement. You might think, off-handedly, that it’s kind of trivial or obvious. People go from better situations to worse situations all the time. They lose jobs, relationships, marriages, loved ones. People get sick. They get really sick. They lose their house. They squander something and can never get it back. They get addicted to something and can never wrest free of their struggle.

There are so many clear and obvious examples of people going from a situation that’s better to one that’s worse that it seems like we should have a whole architecture around thinking about this scenario. That we should have a series of narratives for facing hardships and see inevitable setbacks as a critical part of life. A part of life to prepare for and recognize and make peace with. Children might be raised to tell themselves, aloud maybe, “Sometimes, in the future, my life will get worse. Maybe much worse. Maybe irreparably worse.”

But these are not the hopes and dreams with which good young American capitalists are raised. Indeed, I’m not sure anyone is raised this way. The closest I can think of are those who are told that life is going to be a series of tough disappointments – all too often, these are also parents who take it upon themselves to be the worst enemy of their child so that nothing in the future will pose a bigger threat or challenge. Some of these parents honestly might mean well, but I don’t think any of them do much of a service to their offspring.

But borderline-abuse (or, y’know, just actual abuse) is not what I’m talking about. There’s a difference between despair and hopelessness and getting comfortable with the idea that life is not a linear upward progression no matter what. But I think the two are usually conflated and this leads to no one getting the narrative about ups and downs, instead favoring up up up up up. Parents desperately want their children to have better lives than themselves and they put all the hopes and dreams unfulfilled from their own existence into their children. It is almost mathematically guaranteed from these two premises that they will raise those hopes and dreams to believe that each day will be better than the last, that their life will be an upward trajectory in terms of wealth, knowledge, understanding, and comfort.

Don’t get me wrong – there are things about growing up that tend to give one an advantage. Certainly knowledge and experience have a tendency to give one more mental and emotional resources from which to draw. Wealth is easier to accumulate over time for those who are lucky enough to have opportunities in the American economic system to begin with and happen to be raised with frugal sensibilities and to avoid debt (this is actually probably very few people these days). And, biggest of all, one gets a certain sense of perspective with age, mostly in accepting that things which seem insurmountable are not fatal. At least, that seems to be the largest sense of perspective I’ve gained over time. I’ve lost everything that I seemed to care about at least four times in my life (one temporarily) and that has given me a great sense of endurance and durability that I wouldn’t have if I’d never lost much of anything. Even if pretty much all of those situations brought me to the absolute brink each time.

But here’s the thing – I haven’t always improved. In any sense of the word. I have learned, in a sense, but I have also acquired deeply damaging and detrimental habits. My financial history has fluttered about like a yo-yo. So too my emotional history. I have figured out how to survive emotional calamities and great losses, but have done so by compromising values that were (and still are) dear to me, while becoming an angrier, more bitter, more caustic and difficult person. I am less capable, less flexible, and probably less vital than I was at 23 or 30. I weigh more. I do less with my time. I may be stronger in some grand sense and have had more cumulative experiences, but many of those experiences have served only to scar me, leaving me damaged and less able than before.

And don’t even get me started about comparing me to my 10-year-old self. Or 11- or even 17-. Granted that some of my fascination with these prior selves is wrapped up in grade-skipping and being told I was a prodigy and a whole mess of expectations and hopes that not only were not realized but, frankly, were probably impossible to realize by the time I was enrolled in community college classes at 11 or writing a regular newspaper column at 12. I guess I was due for a crash. And that may lead you, mistakenly I think, to believe that I am a grand exception in rejecting linear upward growth as a myth and that most lives that are not mine conform to this path.

But examine yourself. Are you the happiest you’ve ever been and has every year been better than the last? Are you the smartest you’ve been and have you always known more and made better decisions than the year before? Are you the richest, the most active, the most moral, the most whatever-it-is-that-you-value? Be honest.

I’m a little afraid of the fallout of asking that question since most people get through each day by not stepping back and asking these grand questions and sweeping questions can lead to sweeping change, which is often traumatic. My point in this post is not to make you unhappier or more dissatisfied, I promise. Really, it’s not. Because I think the Myth of Linearity is actually making us more unhappy than anything.

Here’s the problem. The Myth of Linearity gets tied up with hope, but it is not hope. Hope is the conviction that things can get better, that there are ways of improving things in the future and that one is capable of finding and utilizing those ways. Hope is awesome. I love hope. I am the pro-hope candidate here. Without hope, life would be, well, hopeless. It may seem like a sleight of phrase, what I just did there, but I think it’s just true. Go watch Shawshank Redemption if you need further convincing on the importance of hope. Or remember your darkest hour, and take away the hope that probably pulled you out.

But the Myth of Linearity is not the hope that things will get better, it is the expectation that things always get better. And this is a devastating distinction.

There’s been a lot of research done and a lot of literature written about how expectations are actually the #1 predictor of unhappiness. A surprising number of people born into poverty, abject misery, and devastation grow up to be happy, largely or entirely because they were raised with no expectations. As a result, everything they do get that’s better than their beginnings fills them with unbridled, grateful joy. This is not really an argument for raising children in refugee camps (nutrition alone is a good counter-argument here), but it is a pretty good lesson about the nature of expectations. The United States is often described as the unhappiest country on the planet, spinning endless numbers of us into therapist’s offices, drug addictions, drug rehabilitation programs, all manner of other addictions, and so forth. The paradox of us being so wealthy and connected and yet so unhappy has been the subject of endless self-help books, multi-step programs, inspirational speakers, great American novels… you get the idea. And have been getting it much of your life in this country, I reckon.

Many of these things, especially those that work for people, come down to expectations. Breathe deep. Appreciate what you have. Live in the moment, live in the hour, live with less, embrace each day as though it were your last, etc. These things have become platitudinous and make it challenging to write about sincerely, as I sometimes strive to do in this space. A huge part of what makes Glide special (and other places like it) is the ability to convey this message to those who society has largely forgotten. And some folks are able to reset their expectations and turn things around.

High expectations make us sad. I think pretty much everyone recognizes this at this point. Nothing disappoints us like the movie that was maximally hyped, the meal that we paid a lot for and everyone said would be fantastic, the event we looked forward to forever. Think about Christmas afternoons, let alone the horrors of December 26th. Letdowns are miserable and it’s our over-thinking and over-expecting that makes it so.

But the Myth of Linearity works more insidiously along the same lines. Because it gives us this notion that the pressure of future expectations must always be ratcheting up. That our life must feel like a perpetual escalator, that with time comes ease, happiness, understanding, love, and that all of these things just improve and improve, even if only by a little bit. That we will be able to look back and explain at any time how we have made improvements in all the areas that matter to us, or at least big enough ones in big enough places to make up for any shortfall.

Look, there’s something reassuring and self-justifying about being able to explain one’s life this way. I get it. It’s very liberating and reassuring to actually feel at the top of one’s lifetime game. It is instant justification for all the heartache, setbacks, and challenges of the past. All of those can pale a little bit if they brought you here and here is the best place you’ve ever been. This narrative is ingrained in our psyche and reinforced in our culture, the mantra of better better better, that time is always improving us somehow. It is tempting to give in to the Myth of Linearity because it makes every other story we tell about ourselves more comfortable.

Trouble is, it’s a lie. Look at what our bodies go through over time. Could we possibly have an easier, more accessible metaphor to counter the Myth of Linearity than our aging physical selves? Sure, we can undergo self-improvement rituals, and the first few years are actually building, but the nature of the body is to decay over time. And no matter how much energy we put into denying it, it’s inevitable. Our bodies are not a treadmill or an escalator, they are an arc, and the arc of the physical bends towards death.

Which is not as depressing as it sounds! It is the fact that we obsess through the Myth of Linearity that makes talk of death and decay and disaster so depressing, so scary. If we were more comfortable with these topics, more at home with the idea that life sometimes gets worse, then we would have more architecture around keeping hope alive through these things. The problem is that so many people facing a friend or loved one who has just undergone a trauma or a setback is trained to tell them that they will “be better for it.” This voice is poppycock most of the time, it’s absurd and insulting. Someone who has just been raped or assaulted will almost never be better for it. Someone who has just lost something dear to them will probably be worse off. They will probably be traumatized and injured and spend much of their life trying to recover that part of themselves. And yet so many sincere, genuine, wonderful caring people insist on saying that somehow it will all be for the best.

And when they can’t say that, they have nothing else. They are totally lost about what to say and how to help. Even the most helpful, except perhaps for the people who have done the most work with this, the best trauma counselors and those with the most perspective, are speechless when they can’t funnel someone back into the Myth of Linearity.

But this is destructive. The Myth of Linearity, when relayed to someone who knows it can’t be true, often inspires extreme reactions. I’m not saying that people who only hear this narrative turn around and kill themselves, but it is at least more tempting for those who feel there’s something wrong with them if they aren’t always improving, even after a personally cataclysmic event. If the message you’re getting from all sides is that every event in life must make you better somehow, no matter how bad it is, then you feel like you’re just broken or not a real person if you can’t make yourself feel that way.

But the truth is, this is all just a fairy tale we’re telling ourselves. It’s closely related to the growth myth and other capitalist mantras about always moving up. Life doesn’t always get better. Life is mixed. It gets better and worse and better again. It does different things for different people. Sometimes we get better in some ways and worse in more important ways. Life just is and stubbornly refuses to conform to any pre-set narrative.

This does not mean we shouldn’t hope. Hope is great. But hope is far from expectation. Hope gives us the opportunity to be surprised when it comes through, or glad, or even relieved. It denies us the need to feel only barely satisfied when our expectations are fulfilled and gravely upset when they are not. The Myth of Linearity is doing that to you, subtly, every day, making you less pleased with your progress and successes than you would be otherwise. Let it go. Accept that you may fall, that things may get much much worse, maybe permanently. Trust me, it makes getting back up again infinitely easier. Or honestly, just possible.

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Moment of Reflection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Misdirection

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: , , ,

An average American, unable to determine whether ebola or ISIS will kill them first.

An average American, unable to determine whether ebola or ISIS will kill them first.

All anyone in the media can talk about anymore is ebola. Unless it’s ISIS. Or maybe, on slow days for ISIS and ebola, pretty white women going missing from college campuses. Never mind that far more people die from frat parties than any or all of these things combined, though that only makes news at Rutgers. Never mind the guns and the vehicle crashes and the medical errors and all the other dangerous things in our society. I’ve talked about this before about ebola and before that about ISIS. These things aren’t going to kill you. They’re not. Stop.

But everyone seems to continue to go on the media, be it on TV or online or in the newspapers, whatever those are anymore, and seriously discuss the idea of shutting down our society (or at the very least our bowling alleys) over the fear of a disease. I mean, I guess I thought Outbreak was a pretty good movie too, when it came out, when I was 15. I saw it on a plane to Russia. It was a pretty freaky context, I guess, and I definitely covered my mouth for a few minutes after the movie ended and looked askance to see if anyone sitting among us was actually, in fact, a rabid monkey escaped from a lab. None were. I was fine. We landed in Moscow. I moved on with one of the more interesting parts of my life.

You are not living in Outbreak. Step away from the television. Your life is not that exciting. The world is not about to end. Really. Promise.

Nor are irrational crazy ISIS commandos about to storm your farm or apartment building or place of business. Unless you possibly count a trick-or-treating teenager with a really sick sense of humor. Over-under on number of trick-or-treating teens brave/stupid/uncaring-about-spending-the-next-20-years-in-Gitmo enough to try an ISIS commando costume on their rounds in America: 3.

Just not gonna happen. Now, maybe, maybe, if you’re in the military and dispatched to a nation where ebola and/or ISIS are active, these things might impact you. Or if you voluntarily go to deal with one or the other. They may then have sufficient impact on your life that you can worry about these things. But you will not be in New York or New Jersey or Maine or anywhere else whose Governor has deigned to have a publicly spouted an analyzed opinion on these matters. You will be in, y’know, Liberia. Or Syria.

And I really really really don’t want my cavalier and frustrated attitude about American fear to be confused with American exceptionalism or a lack of concern for the people of Africa and/or the Middle East. These people matter and their lives matter, arguably more than and certainly as much as American lives. I care that ISIS, product of American foreign policy, is killing people in the Middle East. I care that ebola is ravaging Liberia and Sierra Leone. These things matter and should be discussed, though I really don’t think the American military is the answer and probably, given the histrionic nature of our nation, its media, and its leaders, American intervention of any kind is the answer. I am hard-pressed to think of an international crisis that we improved or even didn’t make worse in the last fifty years, maybe longer. Probably not American problems to put on our back and try to “solve” like we “solved” Iraq or Afghanistan or Latin American revolutions or Vietnam or malaria.

So the question becomes why (WHY) do Americans insist on being so doggone afraid of everything that doesn’t hurt them? While simultaneously being nonchalant about things that are really doing substantial damage like, say, cars. Or diabetes, the treatment of which now has whole two-aisle sections in your average neighborhood pharmacy because it is so rampant in our nation. (Though, admittedly, not directly contagious, I guess.) Or corporations that are trying to eliminate the practices of safety regulations and employment from their business models, with great success and the aid of Congress. Are we just beholden to whatever the media will give us?

And then comes the eternal conundrum which is that this, like many of the linked posts above, is basically just another ebola/ISIS post, albeit a frustrated one, so I am no better than the rest of the media in spitting out the same regurgitated nonsense that we are fed by our rather ruthless corporate-profit-fueled bird overlords. That every time I bring up one of these topics, if only to complain or vent about how frequently it’s discussed I am, in fact, merely discussing it myself and thus improving its Consciousness Rank for the rest of this terrified country. Such that it becomes almost impossible to even talk about the problems without being a part of them, which insidiously feels like it was somehow built in to the design as much as Obama announcing a new war on September 10th.

But seriously, why?

Did we just not go on enough roller coasters as children? Do we crave the fake drama and illusion of danger? Are we so complacent and in such a post-danger malaise that we feel a human need to be on the brink of losing our link to survival? Is this somehow ingrained in our animal nature that we lack such fight-or-flight experiences so as we generate a need to create them out of thin air? This last one seems really unlikely given the very real danger posed by tobacco and alcohol, or if you prefer violent and immediate death, cars and guns. But I guess we might believe our own rhetoric sufficiently so as to think that we’re so immune to danger that a sweeping danger that brings everyone down must be around the corner…? Maybe?

Or is just a fundamental profound unhappiness with our society and the basic nature of existence herein? America is notorious for being perhaps the unhappiest society of all-time, triply so when one contextualizes the material wealth and comfort enjoyed by all but the poorest in the society relative to the rest of the world and most of human history. And it’s a well-known trope that the end of the world and apocalyptic scenarios start looking appealing, exciting, even galvanizing to the chronically depressed, to those without hope. It’s a giant reset button, the chance to change your place in society or just outlive everyone else, or at least feel like your choices and decisions matter in a fundamental way that trips to the unemployment office or a dead-end job that keep you out of there don’t seem to have. That going down in a hemorrhagic fever while fighting off terrorists seems far more glorious an end than drowning in debt or having your used car break down and being unable to pay the repair bill.

Is that it? Are we just so dissatisfied that we need a dramatic and crazy broom to sweep away all our ennui?

Or are we being deliberately manipulated and misdirected? Do the powers that be, be they governments or shady entities behind the governments, or the corporations hiding in plain sight, just want us to be constantly afraid and hand-wringing and overwrought so that we can’t worry about anything else? So we don’t bring up the problems with the corporate state as it’s manifest, the problems with poverty or endless war, the things that actually pose a danger to our health and well-being? Surely the people who have manufactured the need for deodorant and toothpaste and Q-tips and dandruff shampoo (to say nothing of anorexia and bulimia!) are capable of manufacturing a little light fear to keep everyone sufficiently distracted and grease the profitable wheels of the fear industry, no?

Do we turn on the ebola coverage and the ISIS coverage because we want to feel the rush of fear and anger and go crazy and think that this might be the apocalypse? Or do we turn on whatever the coverage is and react accordingly? How culpable is the average viewer for what happens? Is the media responding to the highest bidder or the lowest denominator? Or just generating a narrative that they find exciting and then trying hard to out-outrage and out-sensationalize each other? Are we just enough of a movie culture that we all get sad if life doesn’t feel like a crisis movie, unfolding minute by minute? Or did movies and the media program us to be this way? If so, deliberately, or did it just kinda happen?

There is a contagious disease loose in our society, making us all rather sick. It’s not just fear, but totally baseless irrational fear. You could argue that we take a good look at the rates of cancer and obesity and preventable death and poverty in our nation and should get legitimately afraid, maybe even more afraid than the average American Governor now appears to be of ebola. But it’s the misdirection of these energies that is so problematic. Clearly we are capable of getting a lot done in a short period of time if we’re afraid enough. Especially if “getting a lot done” involves either killing foreign nationals or giving up civil liberties (or both!) – then we’re really top-notch. So why can’t we get comparably motivated to make an actually safer society, not just one that stops feeling paranoid about outside threats that have combined to kill 3 Americans all year?

Actually, strike that. I’d be excited about an energized movement to just stop us from being so afraid of things that aren’t a threat. That would suffice for now. We don’t need fear as a tool so long as it stops being such a self-inflicted weapon.

In the meantime, best hunker down this Halloween and not answer the door. No, not because an ISIS commando with ebola will show up. But because an American child who isn’t getting a decent education, is growing up in poverty, and is likely to be a victim of violence might be there. You know, something actually scary.

by

For the Love of the Game

Categories: A Day in the Life, Know When to Fold 'Em, Let's Go M's, The Agony of the Wait is the Agony of Debate, The Problem of Being a Person, Video Games Killed the Free Time, Tags: , , , , ,

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

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

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

But why?

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

My first run at a response was this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by

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.

by

Confessions of an Accidental Accumulator

Categories: A Day in the Life, But the Past Isn't Done with Us, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: , ,

“I’ve been known to say that I live much of my life as though I can assume that some archivist will eventually come in and take an interest in my old papers. Granted, that archivist may just be an older me at some point, but I still see a paper discarded as a grave tragedy.”
my post on this page, 28 April 2010

Hi, I’m Storey and I’m a pack-rat.

(Hi, Storey!)

As mentioned yesterday, I’m moving soon. And besides seeing friends and thinking deeply about the nature of transition and being, that means confronting the unsettling reality of my materialism. The truth of the matter is that while I aspire to not be materialistic and I kind of disdain the acquisition of stuff, I feel an overbearing attachment to almost everything I’ve accumulated. Not just papers, as mentioned in the quote up top, but pretty much everything.

Part of this stems from the belief that I will someday be a known novelist and thus all of my papers will be interesting to archivists who want to understand the roots of my writing better. I am aware that this sounds fairly egotistical, but then, as I discussed once with debaters on a long car ride back from somewhere north (I remember Henry and Jasmeet were novices, so it was some time ago), writing is a slightly egotistical pursuit – one has to believe that one has something worthy of convincing others, worthy of saying to people, worthy of their time and attention. (Incidentally, this is part of why my writing took such a hit in the wake of the divorce – such a rejection is about the most crushing thing one can face to the idea that one has worth in the world or advice worth giving.)

But I have to admit that I found an eerie familiarity in a This American Life piece on Andy Warhol’s “time capsules” that I heard while sanding luminarias in the run-up to last Christmas Eve. In brief, he boxed 621 of these “time capsules” full of personal junk and passed it off as “art”. While the veneer is that Warhol was once again doing something transcendentally original and avant garde and before his time, the reality is decidedly more pedestrian and human.

“[His assistant] suggested to Andy that rather than viewing the boring old cardboard packing boxes as just ways to transport his stuff from one place to the next, he should think of them as time capsules. It was exactly the kind of trick you resort to when your kids won’t eat their vegetables by making a chore into a game. And it worked. Big time… He’d found the perfect outlet for his hoarding impulses. Instead of having to throw anything away ever again, he could just stick that thing into a box and call it art.”
-Starlee Kine, This American Life Episode 514

One of the problems with debaters is that we are notoriously good at justifying things. Anything. It’s even an exercise I have people do when they’re coming up in debate. Some people call it “defending the indefensible” but my version is called a Two-Minute Drill where you have to talk, no matter what, for two solid minutes on a pre-determined stance that absolutely no one would agree with. People get good at this in debate, to the point where if they lose sight of their moral compass or never had much of a functioning one to begin with, they can become truly effective awful people. More on this later (not today).

So I’m good at telling myself, every time it’s time to pick up, pack up, and move, why I have two land-line telephones or five ethernet cables or that string of Christmas lights that would probably work if I switched out the one bulb with that one from the set of extras. Why I have my entire archive of papers from Glide (multiple boxes) that I was going to use to put together a non-profiteer portfolio for possible use in future hires, but that has remained taped shut through two moves and possibly counting, depending on whether I can just get the gumption to get rid of it already, or significantly pare it down. Why I have a Gamecube that Fish and I bought a decade ago that I haven’t hooked up in seven years.

My first inclination when I make these embarrassing revelations about myself and have to confront them is to get red-faced and hot-necked and have my eyes water up a little and try to forget this knowledge. My second, better, inclination is to talk about it on a public website so maybe there’s a chance I will have to face it head-on, fully, and, you know, do something about it.

My Dad has spoken to me a lot lately about what he calls the “Depression mentality” wherein those who lived through the Great Depression in America all became hoarders out of a survival instinct that stemmed from an era when nothing was taken for granted. He cites it to contrast with what he sees as the contemporary sense of entitlement that those in my generation and younger carry, the disposability of an era when shortages aren’t real and durable goods, while perhaps not actually durable, are cheap and plentiful. And while I can see the point that he’s making sometimes, I think that somehow I inherited the Depression mentality straight from my grandparents. Part of it, I know, is an inborn frugality whose precise roots I can’t trace that I’ve only recently (probably post-divorce) been able to shake off enough to have a little fun and relax about money. But once I’ve plunked down money for something, I have a really hard time letting go of it, especially if the resale value is paltry in comparison to what was paid upfront. I don’t really care that much about money in the day-to-day, but confronting taking a heavy loss on an item or its purchase being wasted just seems intolerable to me for reasons I can’t fully grasp.

And some of the stuff, or a lot of it, carries a sentimental burden. I’m a more emotional and feeling person than most and was raised from a young age to anthropomorphize objects of all sorts (my mother was raised on “crying peas,” but pretty much every appliance in our household was capable of speech). There’s the box of photos that I’m sure no one would begrudge (though some might prefer to organize). There’s allllllll of the books. All of them. Which is an issue I revisit frequently. I care deeply about the books I buy, even though most of them are used to begin with, and keeping all of them like a little memory of everything I’ve read. I love the look and feel and heft of books and the feel they give when reading them and I am truly one of those people who believes this process can never ever be replaced by screens no matter how many trees it costs, even though I know there’s probably something wrong with that sentiment. But. But. When I really examine how often I’m going back to these books, it’s a little uncertain, a little fishy. I’m not a re-reader at all… I can count on two hands the number of books I’ve read even a second time. It just feels like opportunity cost to me in a world where I’ll never read a fraction of what I want to. So, why keep them all?

I have this fantasy I’ve long harbored around the idea of having a child or maybe even children someday and having a library, shelves and shelves floor-to-ceiling, all with ramshackle uneven copies of books in the editions that I read along my journey. And my not-yet-sleepy 12-year-old comes bounding into the library where I am typing away on my umpteenth novel and shyly asks if we can pick out a book together. And as we peruse the shelves for new discoveries, I tell stories of where the book came from and the layout of the bookstore or the friend who gave me that copy and what life used to be. And later, as I tuck the child in after they’ve long since fallen asleep, I slide a gentle bookmark into the place where they’ve sandwiched their index finger, look at the old worn pages and my child and feel that everything has been for a reason.

I spend an inordinate time thinking about this future, doubly so for someone who is still quite uncertain about the desire to have children and how good a father they might make. For one thing, I should probably first learn how to throw something out before I try to raise someone else to make decisions on this planet, no?

(Brief Pascal’s wagery aside: Hi, future child! I’m really glad I had you! Isn’t it crazy that we invented the Internet so you can read about all your father’s insecurities at an age when I probably am unsure if you should even have a computer yet? Love you!)

I think the deepest roots of all this accidental materialism come from a really fundamental irony. Namely, that my discomfort with throwing things away is rooted in the idea of a deeper discomfort with the notion of waste. It’s bad enough, it goes in my mind, that we have to have stuff at all or that I am often convinced to buy it. But to get it and then no longer have use for it, to fill the landfill with items whose purchase could have bought food for hungry people who were dying, this is unforgivable. But instead of make use of it or do anything purposeful, I pay still more to lug it around from one state to another, replacing one guilt with a slightly shallower one. It’s actually kind of sick when you think about it.

Wow, I just really figured that out when typing this thing out. The values of writing in an unbridled and on-the-fly fashion never cease to impress. Huh.

So, yeah, I’m carting around a lot of stuff I’ll never use so I don’t have to feel even worse for having never used it. When I think about it like that, it makes me a lot more optimistic that I will actually get out some trash bags tomorrow, or at least spend some time on EBay (there’s till a market for used land-line phones, right?).

And then there’s the in-between stuff, the occasional-use stuff, that’s harder to discern. Tabling for a moment the notion of whether I will someday have a great library of well-loved books to proffer to my offspring (and whether they will even read non-digital books), what of infrequently played board games? Papers of some greater significance than work archives but still uncertain use (e.g. movie ticket stubs, cards, ballgame tickets, scribbled concert setlists)? Halloween decorations that I decided to collect at some point because of a love of the holiday but barely manage the organization to actually utilize? Cheap but replaceable pots and pans?

And then there’s all the stuff that most people would probably not think twice about parting with that I feel most tied to. Old T-shirts of fondly recalled events or places. Oldish stuffed animals, somewhere between the oldest and most loved (obvious keepers) and the newest and most relevant (hey, I have a lot of stuffed animals, okay?). Did I mention books? Because there are a lot of books.

There’s a point in this process, every move, when I decide that I’m going to create a great pile in the yard and have a bonfire and that I will feel this immense liberation at seeing the last few items smolder and turn to ash that will override the pangs of remorseful sadness and loss that would no doubt accompany. But an hour spent lingering on certain books, stuffed animals, and photos convinces me this isn’t a realistic option. So too, of course, the need to not live in an empty box in polite society. The desire to have furniture on which to plop and tables on which to set things and dressers and hampers and dishes. Modern life is all about the stuff, even for those who don’t like stuff. You need stuff to function, you’re constantly interacting with it. So even the bonfire just means a big bill is coming as you replace it with more stuff. Cue the horrible guilt about waste.

So what is to be done? How do I navigate the relatively few days I have to convert this sprawling apartment into a neat row of folded, taped cardboard squares? Having not made it big yet, the Andy Warhol option is regrettably out. And the shed in the backyard looks a little too flammable for my more pyrotechnic plans. Finding the right balance in the middle, to find just the right blend of freedom, sentimentality, wastelessness, frugality, and reasonability is something I must face on my own. Unless, of course, I can interest you in a used ethernet cable.

The current state of my office.  Spoiler alert:  it was never really better than this because we never really moved in fully because... stuff.

The current state of my office. Spoiler alert: it was never really better than this because we never really moved in fully because... stuff.

by

The Problem of Being a Person

Categories: A Day in the Life, The Problem of Being a Person, Tags: ,

There is immense suffering in the world.

Almost all of it is unnecessary. Preventable.

Most of it is borne entirely of decisions that we, as human beings, make about other human beings. Problems of distribution, problems of belief in artificially constructed institutions (e.g. nations, money), problems of the sense of entitlement and superiority. We believe, almost as a rule, that we deserve what we have earned and that we don’t deserve what we have suffered. All rewards are just, while all punishments are unjust. And we proceed, thoughtlessly, every day.

I’m going to shift to “I” statements now, and not just because it’s recommended by most mediators. The above I feel confident in saying about the planet, or at least the United States, but the rest of this will be about a personal journey and perspective that I’m not even sure I hope is relatable to the rest of you. In some ways I do, because it’s a lonely and difficult set of issues and it would probably be reassuring to have some company, but it’s also a little like hoping someone has debilitating migraines or perhaps more incurable cancer just so you can have some counterparts on the road to doom. In other words, totally unfair. And yet, arguably, the only fiction I write is in the hopes that others will join me in this sick-bay, in the vain (both senses?) wish that ten heads or twenty are better than one or two in solving what I see as the key dilemma of modern existence in a rich country.

The suffering of others is something that is hard to look directly at. It’s like the sun in that way: omnipresent, potent, driving the life that we live, and yet impossible to witness for too long without doing major, significant damage. And yet the knowledge of this suffering is never far… you can avoid thinking about the sun all you want for days or weeks, but it never really corrodes the true knowledge and understanding that the sun is up there, beating down, changing your physical chemistry for better and worse, haunting your daily move. And you notice when it’s gone or especially bright, you notice these shifts. I notice these shifts. I am haunted every day, no matter how much I try to wear hats and sunglasses and the various layers of alleged protection.

Just to be clear what suffering we’re talking about, it’s mostly that which arises from the disparities in wealth and security that come from me living a whole life in the United States of America and others, well, not. The suffering of the poor, the starving, the war-torn, the plagued. And also, to a lesser extent, the suffering of the poorer in the US as well, the abused, the neglected, the molested, the addicted. Compassion is also there for those who suffer from betrayal and the loss of love, from crippling loneliness, from overwhelming sadness of all kinds, but I won’t be focusing on that because it seems categorically different. As does, probably, anything I’ve suffered directly. I’m talking about the kind of suffering that strikes at birth, that is in no way the result of decisions a person makes in their life, that is fundamentally unfair.

It is obviously ludicrous to think that I am in any way better than the people who suffer as described above. By definition, there is nothing they did to earn their position on the world’s ladder and nothing I did to earn mine. The decisions that sowed the seeds of my success and their failure were cemented long before any of us got here and at no point could they control or steer their fate out of this, except perhaps by blind guesses and luck. Indeed, luck is the fundamental arbiter of all of this equation. Luck separates those in countries of safety from those in danger, those in wealth from those in poverty, and all down the line.

Of course, if you want to get picky, part of it isn’t fundamentally luck. It’s the cacophony of wills, a series of decisions so vast and multifarious that it becomes sufficiently complex as to simulate luck, especially when the decisions are made entirely by other people, people with far more power and control than oneself. To make this more concrete, the fundamental decisions that impact a young mother in Iraq were made by Saddam Hussein, George W. Bush, and to a very small extent by more local leaders and by the soldiers on the ground on both sides who fought over and around her territory. Perhaps the most crucial decision was made by an American soldier sitting in a cubicle in Nevada playing a video game with people’s lives. Perhaps it was made by an aid worker who chose another village over her own.

You can start to see why I call it luck. Theoretically, the woman had a couple of choices as to whether to try to stay or flee, but the meaningful distinction between outcomes therefrom are basically akin to shuffling a deck of cards and picking red or black as the next to come up. The odds of making it out safely as a refugee are indistinguishable from the odds of surviving in place, and a place like Iraq makes clear the perils of running, even if you can stomach leaving every contact, family member, and friend behind (something most people, I daresay, can’t truly contemplate). Where are you going to run? Syria? Iran? That’s where most people fled Iraq to and we can all imagine the outcomes there. Jordan and Saudi Arabia are better, and Turkey if you can get in, but the plight of such people is still one of poverty and the kind of suffering that Americans just don’t really understand or internalize on a daily basis.

Back to me, back to the abstract. It’s luck that separates me from this Iraqi woman, luck that separates me from a malarial child in Africa or any of the two-billion people in poverty worldwide. Sheer, unadulterated luck. And while I enjoy a good game of poker from time to time, I think we can all agree that luck is a lousy differentiator for who has a good life and who has a bad one. By definition, luck is arbitrary. Luck is random. Luck is entirely disconnected from desert of any kind.

So we live on a planet where I have vastly more resources, wealth, freedom, and access than 99% of the rest of the planet. Maybe it’s 97%. This is immaterial. I am vastly steeped in privilege compared to the average person, let alone those at the bottom. I have been handed a winning lottery ticket that I didn’t even pick the numbers for. The question, of course, is what do I do with it?

This is not a new awareness or a new epiphany for me. I’ve been peripherally aware of the depths and implications of this luck and my advantages since adolescence. I can remember the first time it really hit me full-force was at an Easter brunch sometime in my (I believe) early teens. We had just been to church, in the times that we still went, so maybe it was when I was 11 or 12 and still living in Oregon. Regardless, we were dressed up and looking good and went out to a slightly nicer place than we could generally afford and it was piled high, as per expectations in a holiday brunch, with all manner of delectable food and treats. The place practically glimmered with excess, lined up for the insatiable all-you-can-eat tastes of contemporary America.

I lost it. I fell into a deep, inconsolable funk. I struggled to even precisely convey to my parents what was bothering me so much. There was a part of me that didn’t want to ruin their day, their excitement, their expenditure for us to be there and celebrate. I was young enough not to realize how my mood and emotions alone were already spoiling the event. I finally mumbled out something about how much we had and everyone there had when others were going without, how truly deeply wrong it felt to display excess when people on the planet, just as worthy and smart and human as the rest of us, went without. I couldn’t eat.

I have never meaningfully left that Easter brunch.

I have merely learned to try to control how much I think about it and fill in justifications for myself to assuage the painful panging guilt of not being a starving homeless refugee. To this day, I am triggered by displays of excess of any kind, especially around food. Grocery stores are the worst. I wrestle, almost constantly, with something that plagues me with crippling depression and guilt, yet I do massive amounts to keep the understanding of this at bay. And then, when aware of it, when in the throes of excess or an article on Syria, I feel guilt about my defensive efforts to not spend every waking minute thinking about these problems as well.

It’s a survival mechanism, of course. It is very hard to go on eating and living in an excess-laden society when one is crippled by feelings of how wrong it all is and how wrong one’s participation and part in it are every single second. So the mind creates games and distractions and ways of not thinking about it so that one can shut off the self-conscious and real part of one’s awareness and focus on whatever (truly meaningless) task is at hand. It’s the old analogy of C.S. Lewis’ The Silver Chair, the middle of the Narnia series and one of my favorite metaphors to cite of all-time. Every night for one hour, the guy who is otherwise mild-mannered and normal has to be bound up in the silver chair while he goes through his episode of raving and raging, essentially being crazy. But the big reveal at the end (spoiler alert!) is that he’s crazy 23 hours a day and the time in the silver chair is his only moment of sanity as he rebels against his enchanted curse. The self-defense that allows me to be a functional American is the curse. The real me is the one looking at piles of croissants and donuts and weeping. This is the better me, the truer me, the me that’s aware of the real reality of life on this planet.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t come out very often. And most of the time it does, I stand torn between trying to resolve to live in this state permanently and making the very radical changes that would stem from that and trying to repair to my defenses and justifications and ride it out till the next attack of reality.

The main line of justification that has been getting me out of this dichotomy for over fifteen years goes like this: Yes, I have been extremely fortunate to be born in the United States at this point in history. Even moreso, I have been lucky to be born relatively talented, intelligent, capable, and with enough resources to do something within the context of this insanely rich and lucky society. And I have had the right bounces in my life to be influenced to be a self-conscious person who aspires to be good and not entirely selfish. As such, I am uniquely poised to influence others for the better. Were I in almost any other situation, be it poor in this society or of any class in almost any other society, I would feel deeply jealous and resentful of those in my current standing, wishing away almost anything to be able to trade places with actual me and stand on that pulpit of being a persuasive American. Granted, I’m not a millionaire or in charge of hordes of people; I lack standing at the actual absolute tippy-top, but I am close enough that such distinctions are not really meaningful. As such, if I devote my entire life, not to fleeing from this position of potential power and prestige and influence for betterment, but rather to embracing it and maximizing it for good, then it will be okay that I bought clothes and books and food in America for so long, it will be all right that I frittered away money on a trip to France or a poker tournament or new socks. It will all be okay, because the ends will justify the means.

The problem is that I think the ends justifying the means is total crap. It’s not something I accept in any other context. I don’t even believe in a physical right to violent self-defense because I’m so against it. I know, deep down, fundamentally, that this is not how morality works. Morality is about using the right means, damn the consequences. Because consequences are unknown and unpredictable. And I butt up against this reality every day that I’m navigating this overwhelming debt to the moral luck of the planet and its dominant species.

I feel driven to be a writer. I feel writing is perhaps the most influential profession that exists, especially among those not using coercive force to express persuasion. I also have been told from time to time that I’m good at it and have worked very hard to improve my talents and abilities as a writer. And as a successful, well-known, and/or well-regarded author, I feel I would have a great ability to influence others to do good as well as to do some direct good myself. Given the ability to launch this campaign from the US and not from, say, Botswana, I must not squander this opportunity to do this.

But this path is full of pitfalls, of unknown outcomes that an abridging of proper means is hard to justify for. On face, there is no certainty that I will ever “make it” as a writer, that my work will ever be read by more than a handful of friends and a very few strangers. In fact, statistically, there is near-certainty of the opposite, that I will fail and wind up with a drawer full of manuscripts that go largely unknown. And even if I make it in a way that far outstrips the odds, the chances of being read by more than a small following of people is fairly minimal as well. We have to get to several standard deviations out before there’s a real chance of having the kind of voice that moves mountains in this society. And then, say that I have that platform. There’s then the inscrutable problem of how writing even influences people in general. Certainly any given book thoughtfully read will push the reader a little bit. But how much? Once in a while, a book can start a revolution or a firestorm or change an industry or a whole society. But even among popular books, only a fraction get even close to this. The realistic outcome, in well over 99% of cases, of all my moral sacrifice and compromise, is next to nothing. At best, it’s a lottery ticket for a very moderate degree of influence over a very moderate number of people. And that’s at the almost very best.

For many years after college, I tried to hedge against these absurdly long odds and depressing likelihoods of failure by working more directly with people suffering in my neighborhood. I worked with emotionally disturbed adolescent victims of abuse and neglect, unquestionably those who have suffered the most in our own society, those who can probably be deemed as much in need as most in poorer countries from the sheer depth of their individual suffering at such a young age. And when that almost killed me (literally), I shifted to doing administrative work for an agency that helped the nearly-as-needy poor and homeless living in the shadow of the successful excesses of San Francisco. I watched their ranks swell in 2008 and documented the changes, appealing to those with more to give more and help us out.

But all the while, I questioned whether even this was good work in a way. Sure, it was better than making widgets or suing people, but was it really helping the people in the most need? And wasn’t failing to help the people in the most need just a way of shuffling around excuses and justifications and comfort anyway?

Well if I could feel that way working for a non-profit that fed hungry people every day, you can imagine the qualms that come up when working for a university debate team. Don’t get me wrong – I’m passionate about debate and its ability to lift people up and improve people and I’ve always felt that being persuasive is part of what gives me the possibility to do good in the first place. And heck, as one of my students notably discussed in her TED Talk at Rutgers’ TEDxRutgers event, I even have the opportunity to lead by example between my discussion of why I refrain from meat and alcohol and drugs and my barbed critiques of America’s de facto oppression of the rest of the world. But this is way small potatoes compared to helping those who are suffering the most, or even those who are suffering way less than the most. And maybe I needed to just excel at something for a while in the wake of the rubble that my life was rendered in 2010, but maybe that was also the potential jumping-off-point for what I really should’ve been doing all along. Namely, giving it all away and becoming a relief worker, an aid worker, an ascetic, a refugee from society, or even a hermit.

Which brings us to the next problem of being a person with the crippling awareness of how much better one has it than everyone else: what is to be done? What is the best way to do the most good? Abiding by the overriding principle of first doing no harm seems to inspire the life of a wandering monk, or a hermetic self-sufficient absentee. I wrestle with the temptation every week to donate every cent I’ve accumulated and go live in the woods on roots, berries, and my wits. Of course, I wouldn’t live very long, which brings up the question of whether survivalist skills are the most important things to actually be learning, but even then, life is both unappealing and likely to be short. I recently read The Other, a meditation of sorts on what someone confronted with this perspective and increasingly alienated from society chooses to do, which is go and live in the woods. He is ironically and self-defeatingly reliant on a friend bringing him supplies for his cave dwelling from what he dubs “Hamburger World” and as soon as his friend is unable to get through one winter, he dies. Which itself, frankly, has kind of an appeal.

There comes a point when wrestling with moral questions and the need to continue consuming food and slave-labor clothing and a first-world lifestyle becomes so debilitating and induces such self-loathing, that offing oneself starts to feel like a potential service to do for the world. One less mouth to feed, one less person to displace, one less occupier of the richest land and opportunities such that others may rise to a chance at something vaguely resembling equality. Of course it’s the easy way out, and not actually all that marginally helpful. And then there’s the question of the damage one does to friends, family, compatriots, people who had hoped to enjoy one’s company and camaraderie for however long one otherwise would dodge traffic accidents and cancer. No doubt that suicide does a net harm in itself that is hard to justify as a means-based person, no matter how much psychological relief may feel like the byproduct.

So then what? Becoming a missionary without the church, a monk without the habit? It seems obviously right in some way, were it not for the nagging feeling that going to the slums, the refugee camps, the hardscrabble drought and doing manual labor is precisely not what I am suited to do. I have no special penchant for using my hands, no particular gift for moving bags of grain or checking someone’s pulse. Is it not ignorant and even slightly evil to walk away from one’s gifts and talents and devote oneself to something at which one is vaguely below-average? Or is this just an excuse, another justification, and is there actually something noble and right about walking away from opportunities at success to accept a role as a menial bystander, a day laborer in the journey of human equality, to willingly forsake the benefits one is offered and choose to be as close to the bottom 1% as one can muster?

What holds me back? Why don’t I just do this already?

There is fear, there is inertia, there is laziness, there is the paralyzing anticipation of regret. Even though I can anticipate how alive and right I would feel in so many ways, I would also miss video games and poker and baseball and friends and family. Especially those last two, sticking in one’s throat, for at a certain point the only difference between shedding everything to move to Congo to live in poverty and suicide is the esoteric knowledge of loved ones that I’m not actually dead, yet, though I am putting myself in a vastly more dangerous position. And while I’ve always been able to stave off my own suicidal instincts with the knowledge that disappearing and starting over at something is marginally better, the difference is really pretty marginal. As someone with so many close friends and the hope of ongoing contact and connection, the idea of throwing it all overboard ranges between disheartening and insulting to those loved ones.

And yet, how much do I see them anyway? One could still compromise and make a provision for a once-a-year return to the land of milk and madness. Still hedge and promise to return and share bounty and stories of the desperation one tried to help stave off for others. There is a way to do this that is not sheer abandonment of all one grew up with and cared about at one time. It could be done. If only I had the conviction that it was certifiably the rightest thing to do.

Because when one is on the brink of sacrifice, one wants to be absolutely sure that one is getting the maximum marginal benefit for the world out of such sweeping sacrifice. And this raises one of the many large problems that people are facing around the thoughtful world today – how does one do the most good for those who are suffering so deeply? Just yesterday, I heard a “This American Life” episode entitled, fittingly, “I Was Just Trying to Help”. You should go listen to it now, or after finishing this, especially the segment on relief workers and aid programs and whether giving the poor money directly or a cow is better and how that can be measured. It took me straight back, not only to my non-profit work in San Francisco and my battle with so many program managers to let data be part of, if not the whole story of, the good we were trying to do for people, but also to the question asked by this entire post. How do we even help?

So many efforts at helping seem transparently like continuations of imperialism in different forms. It is just like the overly guilty white person to feel they can be a messianic figure to poor, darker people in far-flung nations by simply coming and offering support, be it menial or, perhaps worse, institutional. How can one’s sincere offerings of selfless giving not be laden in the horrific trappings of Kipling’s “burden” and that same resurgent sense of entitlement and superiority? And the challenge is to not just give up on the enterprise and smugly accept a better standard of living and not ask these questions because there’s difficulties in navigating classism, racism, imperialism. The challenge is to confront those issues head-on and try in the humblest way possible anyway. But it’s clear that so many “development” efforts are just fronts for American capitalism and exploitation. We even have the average person in the US starting to feel that sweatshop culture is good because it eventually raises the standard of living in the long sweeping arc of time for people whose mothers and fathers were suffocated in the factories or burnt up on the assembly line. The idea that everyone, every country and society, needs to do it the dumb way in a grand race to get to a standard of living sustained by burning up the earth, burning up the land, burning up people. It’s almost as sickening as just being in the US on any given Tuesday and looking at grocery stores’ wares or the miles of pointless temporary goods we equate with happiness.

So how to be a good man in a bad state? When that state is humanity or the planet at large? How does one do unequivocal good, having the courage to forsake all that is comfortable and familiar and falsely reassuring? And how, if I struggle so much with this and still can’t bring myself to even donate more than a pittance to charity and relief efforts, let alone commit my whole self to doing so, could I possibly expect to inspire anyone else to make any sacrifice to be any better? How crappy am I to be so torn up by guilt and awareness of all of this suffering and still do essentially absolutely nothing to help?! I would hate myself so much if I were any other person in the predominantly suffering world. Almost as much as I hate myself now.

So I’m putting this here, as a reminder to myself to look at the sun. That I have to do something about this, lots of somethings, that the time of excuses and justifications has got to be on the wane. That despite being robbed blind by my ex-wife, I can still afford to offer those who actually have nothing something. That despite my aspirations for a comfortable life and recovery, life is not supposed to be comfortable and no one ever fully recovers from anything they endure. That I can’t just wash away or brush aside the urgency of any given second of life. That tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow is merely the grave. And that while I belief in tomorrows after the grave, that does little to help the people present now. That someday I believe I will have to relive this life in its entirety, on slow-motion mostly, having to answer for each decision and awareness and shortcoming and that it will be even more clear then than it is now how much I am failing every day to be a good person. That life is a gift that is borrowed, not an entitlement that is earned. That I am not paying my debts to the planet, to the species, to the overseers. That I can work my whole life and still fall short of the debt, but that’s no reason to not start working all the same.

I don’t know how to do it. I don’t have any idea how to confront these problems without being overwhelmed. The biggest answer to why I haven’t done enough is probably that every time I do, I wind up collapsed in a corner in the fetal position, sobbing, unable to confront the din of suffering and helplessness that I feel. But this is no excuse. This should be worked through, fought through, reasoned through to get to a point where life feels livable even in the light of the suffering that abounds. Not through self-justification, but through the real effort to tackle things and improve them. I have no earthly idea what to do. I am terrified as I look into this abyss and every part of me that leans toward self-preservation is telling me to withdraw. But I cannot live with myself this way. I have to do something and I have to know it is moving things in the right direction.

I am, perhaps optimistically, creating this post title as a new category of posts here. That’s right folks, it’s going to be Birthday Party Central at StoreyTelling. I am going to keep confronting this and trying to figure out what to do. Because this nagging feeling of the last twenty years is there for good reason. And it’s not going anywhere until I try harder, much much harder, to fix it. I pray for the strength to follow through.

RefugeeCamp