See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Pride Has Got Everything to Do with It

It was by God’s own grace that I went from agnostic to an ur-Christian at steps of a church, but it took a girl to get me inside the doors.[1] That didn’t, despite what proponents and detractors will tell you, change much about my personality so I spent a lot of time writing and passing notes about the sermon because the alternative was being bored out of my skull. Besides, I couldn’t let a pretty, whip-smart girl and a new religion make me one of those Christians, shorn of independent thought and decency. No, I would resist loving this non-denominational[2] evangelical church that this girl I loved attended and that her family that I loved attended and that I would be baptized in but never joined for some reason or another.

Each Sunday we would pass notes about the sermon, then help (poorly) her mom with Sunday school, and then back to their home for all of us to chat about God and issues of the day before settling in for an MST3K episode or what have you. I like to think in a universe much like this one we would have married and been happy. We wouldn’t have been, but I like to pretend there was more there than it turns out there was for some reason or another.

One Sunday, the sermon was going on about sin, as evangelical sermons tend to, specifically about how we are guilty of all of them just as we let it in our hearts. I think we were supposed to raise our hands as the pastor went down the litany of sins. Yes, I have felt lust before, gluttony before, greed before, sloth, frequently, wrath, so much wrath and envy sometimes too. Then he got to pride and I made a face at her to indicate I didn’t think I was guilty of that one and she made a face back that made it clear to me I was and I raised my hand but it felt like a lie even though I knew it was true because the other thing that was true is that I hated myself and I was ashamed of so much and kinda-sorta wished I was dead for some reason or another.

That seemed incompatible with having the sin of pride.

I didn’t know it at the time, (I think, memories fuse and splinter over time) but I was depressed. I mean, I knew I was suffering from bouts of crushing despair including one particularly awful moment where I felt (what I choose to believe was) the presence of God Himself lift me from it. But that’s not the same thing as understanding that I was mentally ill. It’s not the same thing as acknowledging I needed to get help and it’s definitely not the same thing as getting help, real help, which I resisted for some reason or another.

Depression is a killer and a liar that speaks in your own voice. And the lie it tells you is that you deserve to feel that way that you are being punished somehow for your failures. For your sins, innumerable and insurmountable. Yet for all the ways that church failed me and others, it did not tell me I deserved to feel that way, and I did not believe that anyone deserved that way, for we all deserved humane conduct and God’s own grace except for me for some reason or another.

God loves everyone you see, because before his infinite capacity for love there is no falling short. Except for me. I alone deserved to feel constantly shame for merely being alive, having fallen short of my expectations for myself that even God could not absolve me from for some reason or another.

Shame isn’t the opposite of pride; shame is an extension of pride. And for too long I was too sick to have anything else. I recognize it for what it is now. I even have just enough mastery of it to become a different kind of victim. One that chooses to find a way not to feel that way.

The church is gone now and I missed it despite never being a member for some reason or another. I knew the girl would break up with me and when a months before it happened but I stayed through to the bitter end for some reason or another. The family that had me baptized and I fell out because the mom thought I was calling her a racist for some reason or another. I didn’t back down about her ignorance for some reason or another. I tried to stay friends with the girl because it was important for me to be friends with my exes for some reason or another and she took something I said on Twitter personally for some reason or another and I didn’t reach out to correct her for some reason or another.

These failures once would have crushed me but now I know I still deserve to live life with the people who love me, one way or another.


[2] Read “Baptist but pretending not to be”

Best Interests

A friend linked me to the Judgement of the court in the Alife Evans case. It is an extraordinary piece of writing and done with diligent care. You should read it. For those of you not aware, Alife Evans was a terminally ill toddler, now passed, whose parents wanted to keep him on life support and transported to a Roman hospital for further last ditch treatment. The case is difficult and has affected people profoundly, because at the heart of it lies the key question about how we value life in the face of choice and choice in the face of death.

To many of us, it seems like the question should be simple: if he’s going to die anyway and someone is willing to pay for it, why not just let the parent’s try? What is the cost? Dignity? Alfie’s Guardian ad litem “stated that in her view Alfie’s life now lacks dignity and his best interests can only be met by withdrawing ventilation.” (Paragraph 54). Dignity is a bugaboo that stands in more for the discomfort of the viewer than the suffering of the patient. And so Justice Hayden dispatched that easily. He visited Alfie’s room and seeing him surrounded by loving relatives, gifts from supporters, and dedicated medical professionals found that Alfie lied in “an environment which inherently conveys dignity to Alfie himself. In my judgment his life has true dignity” (Paragraph 56). So no, not dignity.

Yet there was perhaps, a real and horrifying cost. In paragraph 45 Justice Hayden discusses a note given to medical experts by Dr. Hubner claiming that Alfie Evans could be transported to the hospital in Rome. It turns out Dr. Hubner lied to get into the hospital, lied about having read the evidence, and prescribed a treatment plan that was contraindicated by Alfie’s medical history. Justice Hayden was unimpressed:

“I am at a loss to know quite why Dr Hubner fell so far below the standards expected of his profession. I am constrained to say that he has failed the parents, the Court but most importantly, Alfie. Mr Mylonas makes the point that he seemed not to recognise the extent and significance of his shortcomings in his evidence. I agree.”

This is the immediate and real cost of continuing treatment for Alfie Evans that many people, myself included, could not see. A seizure while flying in the hands of incompetent medical care, a painful end, inflicted on a child and those he loves in transit to his last hope.

But Justice Hayden did not rely simply on that, and neither shall we. For this is an argument about what the best interests of a child are and who gets to decide that. Hayden relied in part on guidance from The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health quoted in paragraph 46. I have excerpted the salient bits here:

II When life is limited in quality […] the severity of the child’s condition is such that it is difficult or impossible for them to […] enjoy the benefits that continued life brings. […] Even in the absence of demonstrable pain or suffering, continuation of LST may not be in their best interests because it cannot provide overall benefit to them. […] It is important, here as elsewhere, that due account of parental views wishes and preferences is taken and due regard given to the acute clinical situation in the context of the child’s overall situation.

And here we find the crux of the problem. The conflation of best interests with quality of life. Not only quality of life, but the notion you have to prove some positive amount of quality of life, not merely the absence of a threat to it. Quality of life is a tricky thing and we see wildly different understandings of quality of life in children and adults and we should value them all. And one of the ways we do this is by allowing parents to raise their children to seek a high quality life as they understand it. It is a core values question and not one we can ever outsource to professionals, medical or otherwise. So long as the law demands that we assume that the best interests of a child are to expire rather than risk treatment. Justice Hayden made the correct judgement. But the law is wrong to do so. We – as a society and mediated through our laws – allow adults to cling to life, even futilely, even if we think they would be better going gently into the night. We do not dictate when their life is insufficiently qualified to be considered worth living, they do. We do force people to prove an upside to them being alive a bit longer. We should encourage each other to ask these questions – I know I do not want to be the sort who lives just for the sake of not being dead. But that question is the province of the individual.

With a child we let parents make these decisions for them until there is compelling reason to snatch their children away from them. Some point that the parent loses the wide presumption that they stand in for their children’s truest desires and interests. And here we come to the hidden, and most compelling possibility – that Alife’s choice might be to die. Not because his life was not worth living, not just because he might feel pain – but because he loves his parents and wishes to let them move onto healing. And it is a terrifying, unvoiced thought. I do not know if that is what lies behind Hayden’s fears of Alife dying in flight, or continuing on in futility but it would make sense. A vegetative boy cannot be hurt by false hope, but his interests in his family can be. I think Alfie’s parents should have been given deference on this question, but I take comfort in the idea that their son, had he grown to a man, would have been the sort of man who would have let go of his life for his family.

To truly trust in human life is to trust the choices of the beings that live. For choice to be truly meaningful, it must be something other than merely not being dead a moment longer and it also must be something more than living someone else’s understanding of a good life. Sometimes, it means trusting that our children might be better people that we selfishly wish them to be.


My son,

You became an American citizen about a year ago. You don’t remember it now, you won’t remember it when you finally read this, and it didn’t mean to anything to you then. You had no say in it. At the insistence of your doctors, they ripped open your mother’s womb and plucked you out and forced you into the world. You screamed and you screamed and you screamed and that, that, was the moment you became an American. This is an identity that came to you by law and custom, but most importantly by birthright.

So to it was the moment you became Chinese. You are Chinese because I am Chinese, because my parents are Chinese and on and on it goes into a past none need account for. You have a claim to our language and our culture, to our rites and rituals, to claim your identity and your place among us by birthright.

So to it was the moment you became Hmong. You are Hmong because your mother is Hmong, because her parents are Hmong and on and on it goes into a past none need account for. You have a claim to their language and their culture, to their rites and rituals, to claim your identity and your place among them by birthright.

A wooden train car with a Hmong pattern, a Chinese name, and a white American star

Three gifts of identity

You are all of these things and you have a right to these things, because we gifted them to you irrevocably the moment you were born. People, even people who love you, will try to take them away from you. They will insist you must be American or Chinese or Hmong and cannot be all three and they are wrong and you must never forget that they are wrong. Your birthright to these identities cannot be invalidated. But they can be stolen away.

What I need you to understand my son, is that people who have never met you will hate you. They need to hate you because your birthright is to have your feet planted in many worlds and they must find a way to exclude you and to do that, first they must hate you.

By law and custom you are American. You are American by the blood of your parents and you are American by soil on which you were born. Just for that, that, people who chant slogans about blood and soil already hate you even though they have never met you and will never meet you. They know that your birthright enriches you, and they hope to steal it to enrich themselves. It will never work, but they will still try.

This is a destiny that was laid upon you when you were born. With the life you didn’t ask for you were given gifts you did not earn and enemies you do not deserve. But you also have help.

Before I was your father I was your uncle’s brother, your yeh yeh and your nana’s son. I was born to a life I didn’t ask for, given gifts I didn’t earn, and enemies I did not deserve. With these I made friends and I loved and I did good in the world.

Before your mother was your mother she was your uncles’ and aunts’ sister and your tias and yawg’s daughter. She was born to a life she didn’t ask for, given gifts she didn’t earn, and enemies she did not deserve. With these she made friends and she loved and she did good in the world and eventually we met.

When your mother and I chose to marry we bound our families together, like it or not, got new enemies like it or not, and got new friends like it or not. Because these are bonds of love, and while loving someone is a choice, it also transcends choice to become something greater – a responsibility willingly borne beyond the whims of want. And we were cherished and known because true friendship and family is the greatest force of the world.

And so to you, we give you still more gifts. Family and friends, relatives and cousins and aunts and uncles and those who are strangers by blood but are still aunts and uncles. They all know your name. They will love you and they guide you and they too will help you defend your birthright.

A painted wooden locomotive shape reading

Gifts of family and friendship

We have given you all these gifts because they are yours by birthright, absolute regardless of whether you deserve them. But I hope, my son, I hope and I trust that you will rise to deserve them. Right and responsibility exist in tandem with each other, and they always have for you. The destiny that laid on you at your birth is also a debt that I hope you will choose to acknowledge.

You have been given worlds to plant your feet in so you may grow mighty and true. You have been given companions to nurture you and guard you from harm. You have been given love, so much love, so that you may love and be loved in a world constantly short of it. When the choice comes, I hope you choose to take advantage of these gifts, and when the choice comes, I hope you choose to not only be powerful but good. To be true friend and family, secure in your rights and happy in service to others.

You are my claim against the world, because I love you more than you any merit you can earn. And you are my gift to the world, because I believe you will choose to honor your birthright. That you will choose to walk the worlds in right and in responsibility.

Be powerful my son. Do good.

Mormons of La Mancha

I spend a decent amount of my time observing Mormons, most recently the drama that has followed Russell Nelson’s accession at the head of the First Presidency and appointment of Dallin Oaks as First Counselor, and Dieter Uchtdorf’s release from the same body. Uchtdorf is perceived as a “liberal” – an especially loaded term in deep-red Utah – and a leader committed to a compassion first attitude. Oaks is literally a lawyer and has a reputation for being conservative and legalistic. And in this melodrama, Mormons are teaching us despite themselves something important about America.

Actually, drama may be too severe of a word. See, Mormons, at least on Twitter don’t get mad and swear – they get sad and talk about how heartsick they are. It’s a very restrained form of culture war between factions that the winning, conservative, side has mostly pretended doesn’t exist. It’s a very false sort of civility but one that in these trying times I take comfort in as I observe one of my favored subjects. Despite being a nevermo (never having been a Mormon) I’m familiar with them through my oldest surviving friendship. My best man was and is a Mormon and through him and a long study of American religion I’ve fallen a little in love with the quirkiness of the culture and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints itself. Like all religions and people worth knowing, they’re weird. Weird in a particular and often deliberate sort of way – a setting apart.

Mormons, everyone agrees, is a profoundly American faith. They are led by a President of the Church and his two counselors (vice presidents), and then a 12 member body called the Quorum of Twelve that everyone compares to the College of Cardinals but is really more like a board of directors. Then there are a series of quorums and regional presidencies and ranks of priesthood all the way down to the bottom where two 19 year olds with black ties, white shirts and bycicle helmets come to introduce you to the Book of Mormon. There is obsessive invocation of keeping the sabbath as a special day for God and family, the valorization of the nuclear family, modesty, modesty, modesty, and of course the prudishness about cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine and other drugs. Eden lies in America in Mormon belief, literally (if unimportantly) in Missouri, more figuratively and imminently in a 1950s America that never was. And that is where the magic is. Not in the undergarments, but in how Mormons form their counter-culture.

Most American cultural conservatives wind up somewhere in the 1950s, where men could be men and women were women and there were no divisive politics. And that’s all problematic for a lot of reasons, but the biggest one is that any responsibility of men in this vision is accessory to the privileges of the moment. When European men first started writing about the downfall of chivalry, they were writing about a time when rich, well armed thugs raped and pillaged their way through whatever they felt like, and oh yeah, something about how you’re supposed to write your love letters and the conditions under which you may stab someone of equal rank. Thuggery was reality, and chilvary is the dressing. The 1950s were a time of nuclear terror and systematic discrimination – Leave it to Beaver is the dressing. But just as Don Quixote bought into the fiction of chivalric Spain, Mormons aren’t selling us a fiction to get back to history. They’re trying to get back to the fiction. A bowderdized 1950s America, where the men don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t smoke, and don’t cheat. Good fathers and kind husbands. Women who are pure and kept away from the uncleanliness of politics, which itself has been stripped clean of all personal ambition. That vain hope echoes as Mormons struggle against each other and accuse one another of bringing in politics to the mere choosing of an ecclesiastic and administrative head of their church. As they pretend that any twelve men, however holy, could be in perfect accord without distinction and meaningful disagreement. That Mormons, alone among cultures, can be without faction but the good and the self-aware bad.

Mormonism, like all Christianities worth examining, is riven by the great paradox of believing in man’s inherent sinfulness, created in the image of God. Their solution is not mine, but it is beautiful in its own way. They exist not merely to perpetuate, but to instantiate a myth of America. A mere story. But what can a nation built on an idea be but a story that we choose to instantiate. And the Mormons have chosen to see the American story where men and women structure their lives to be pure, good, and full of joy. If I don’t believe in their version, I should still be trying to do them one better.

Jesus, Hefner and Joseph

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has a piece on Hugh Hefner and the failures of the Catholic Church out in America worth your time even if you, like me, do not particularly care about Hefner one way or the other. I have many quibbles, but here is something Gobry gets absolutely right:

Men will always be drawn to pornography, but only a society that had already been trained in a subconscious, Gnostic contempt for the body and especially the female body, could have responded positively to the Playboy aesthetic. And the training was done by professing Christians, without notable alarm from the church at the time.

Gobry, frames this as a failure of the (Catholic) Church to hold fast important values and letting bad atheists twist ideas. Alas Brother, the rot goes deeper than that. American Christians are active participants in the toxic culture of sexuality, with our own special brand. Let me demonstrate with a little story about Joe.

Joe was once a Baptist minister. He then started to manage pop stars. Here he is talking about his big success:

“Jessica never tries to be sexy. She just is sexy. If you put her in a T-shirt or you put her in a bustier, she’s sexy in both. She’s got double D’s! You can’t cover those suckers up!” Joe Simpson said.”[1]

Did I mention that Joe is Jessica’s dad?

But this story about Joe isn’t about how Joe is a creep. Joe isn’t even the villain of this story. It’s about how Joe navigated his daughter through a toxic Christian sexual culture that treated her a some cross between Jezebel and chunk of meat.

Joe gave Jessica a pretty ring once, when Jessica was 12. It’s called a “purity ring” which, for those of you who don’t know, is a ring meant to symbolize the wearer’s commitment to chastity, specifically in the form of abstinence before marriage. There is also an odd overlaying culture where young girls take wedding-like pictures with their fathers as a sign of their obedience to his rule until they are given away to their husbands.[2] I don’t know if Joe and Jessica took pictures, but I’ll bet the tone was similar.

Joe tended to move his family around a lot finding work as preacher and Jessica got to sing a lot with Christian Choirs. Well, kind of. See, they didn’t let her have solos, concerned as they were about how improper she was. I mean, it must have been bad, right? Maybe they thought her clothing was revealing or her singing was too Marilyn Monroe-like? No? I mean, it was at least about a coquettish wink or two, right? Well:

[Jessica was] forbidden to sing solos, she remembers, “because my boobs were too big and they said it would make men lust.


Thing is, it gets worse. For us, not Joe. Joe’s Jessica’s manager now, and she got signed on to do an album and tours for a Christian music label! Sure, they got kicked off the tour circuit because of Jessica’s breasts. Sure, the label went bankrupt before release. They still managed to go from there to get her signed onto Columbia Records. Why? Well, sayeth Tommy Mottala:

“She had a great little look and a great attitude, a fresh new face, and something a bit different than Britney and all of them,” Mottola told me. “She could actually sing.”

Ok, that started out a little weird, but it’s the music industry. And they recognized her talent! That she could actually sing would be key to her career and marketing strategy. They would make her the anti-sex symbol! Just talent! So the next step would be to her announcing she was going to remain abstinent until marriage.

Wait. What?

Yeah, that’s more than a little weird. Like the anti-sex appeal thing wasn’t about focusing on her talent at all but some sort of… anti-sex thing. I mean, they sold a lot of albums, so it worked at least. In the short term anyway, before the next album, an MTV marriage, the Dukes of Hazard movie and other signs of total capitulation to using sex to sell.

It’s almost like Mottola, Joe and Jessica were dealing with a culture fundamentally uncomfortable with the female body as anything between Madonna and Whore. One where Jessica couldn’t just be a woman with a body and a voice, but instead one where she was blamed for the urges and failures of Christians who can’t handle their own feelings of lust.

I wonder if Joe thought about that when Jessica, his daughter, wanted to sing a solo but couldn’t because she happened to have large breasts.

I wonder if Joe thought about that when Jessica, his daughter, got married and gave him that purity ring back.

I wonder if Joe thought about that as he shepherded Jessica’s, his daughter’s, career through an industry that treats women as meat with a fast approaching expiration date.

I wonder if Joe thought about that that when he gave that quote I started his story with.:

“Jessica never tries to be sexy. She just is sexy. If you put her in a T-shirt or you put her in a bustier, she’s sexy in both. She’s got double D’s! You can’t cover those suckers up!” Joe Simpson said.”

I wonder if Joe was trying to say, “my daughter isn’t doing anything to you to provoke lust, that’s you.”

I wonder if Joe was trying to say, “my daughter has the body she was given by God and we have no way to hide it.”

I wonder if Joe would have said, “my daughter has a body and a voice, and God gave them to her, and if you have a problem with it, that’s on you, you toxic latter-day Gnostic heretics” if he hadn’t been stuck in that toxicity himself.

As I said above, Joe isn’t the villain of this story. He’s not the hero either. He is both victim to and enabler of a Christianity that can’t handle sexuality because of their deep inner loathing for their own bodies. A culture that hates and consumes pornography and loathes pornographers almost as fast as they produce them.

God produced us in his image. He made us with bodies and he made us male and female. And if we hate, down deep in our bones, the female bodies he created so much, what does that tell us about our supposed love of God?  And what has it wrought in the Christ-haunted secular society which held up Hugh Hefner, if only a moment, as a champion?


[1] Widely reported, never denied, but apparently in the original GQ interview only on print.

[2] No, really. Although it’s not a “traditional rite” so much as a thing from the 90s abstinenc-only education.

Courage in the Face of Charlottesville

So. How was your Saturday? Yeah. Me too. To recap: the political movement that we call the alt-right[1] scheduled a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville Saturday, ostensibly to protest the removal of a statue of Confederate Robert E. Lee. On Friday they held a pre-rally with what appears to be citronella Tiki torches to the mockery of most of the internet. It ended in a brawl with counter protesters and the police breaking up the fight. On Saturday, they started marching around noon but almost immediately clashed with police and counter protesters and were dispersed. At some point inside there, someone drove a car into a crowd, killing one person and injuring several others.

In sum: it was bad, but way less bad than it could have been. But one of the worst parts is how it has completely discombobulated everyone who isn’t an alt-righter. There is a war raging on my social media feed as my friends and loved ones fight over the best way to resistance the alt right presence. Mock them or take them deadly serious? Fight speech with speech or body with body? Behind these conflicts is a seemingly rational panic: they’re Nazis[2] the most evil and dangerous force history has ever known, we have to get it right, right? Maybe not.

It’s bad…

Something like Charlottlesville has been in my nightmares for a while now. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, I was sincerely concerned someone would burn a cross on my lawn. My private estimate for this event was 6-9 months into Trump’s term. It would start somewhere around the inauguration: an emboldened force of racist lunatics would confuse Trump’s election as a sign they were a majority free to act as they please. They would cause incidents and either overwhelm or co-opt police resources. Left-wing activists would engage in counter-violence, leading to less radical right-wing racists to join the fight, who would in turn radicalize the left. A rising tide of racist violence and counter-violence would sweep the nation until it finally broke out into large scale armed conflict that we were destined to lose. That’s the nightmare scenario. But timing is everything.

…but it’s not that bad

We’re actually winning. It feels like we’re losing because of who is in the White House and the speed-of-Twitter pace we expect events to resolve at, but we’re winning. It took 7 something months of the Trump Presidency for the alt-right to gather enough power to put a whole 1,500 people for a jumped-up national Klan rally. While at that rally, the alt-right fused its public identity to those of Neo-Nazis and the KKK, robbing them of any patina of respectability. The established right in response, with one important exception, ran away from them as fast as they could. The one who didn’t is Trump. And while that matters, both Trump and the alt-right are rightfully being mocked for their pathetic nature and transparent teenage angst over the denied blowjobs they think they deserve. It’s rational to be afraid, even terrified, of what could happen. But if you were betting your money, would you bet on them? Look at how your feet are betting. We’re winning. Of course, the Union forces essentially won at Gettysburg, and it took two more years of military action to break their army and 15 decades and counting to put the Confederacy down for good.

Courage in the face of danger

Even the pathetic can be dangerous. In fact, that’s the great terror and power of firearms, automobiles, computers, and other deadly machines. They give power to the otherwise powerless and bridge the gap between idle hatred and murder yesterday. The means are everywhere and the opportunity is growing. And motive, well, they’ve obviously got plenty of that, right?

Maybe not. The alt-right, in addition to their psychological damage (the obsession with black men and the women that were never actually theirs, the front-row back-row kids angst, the toxic stew of pornography, frog memes, and ironic detachment) crave respect and power that they do not have within themselves. Our outrage is what gives it to them because deep inside they have less than nothing. In the seven some months it took them to get a whole fifteen hundred people to show up with citronella candles I’ve encountered them directly and indirectly. They’re pathetic. Genuinely totally and completely. They provoke with memes because they cannot stand being laughed at, know they cannot get your respect, so they soak up your outrage as their form of validation. They indulge in ironic detachment because a mere moment of sincerity could undo them. Laugh at them. Not merely to hurt them, but because you deny them motivation.

There is a continuity of people, men especially, that exist mostly on the far corners of our political spectrum, who are just waiting to prove themselves. Who want to prove that they have what it takes to fight the enemy. They want it so badly. It’s the anti-facists who dream of being the strong arm of a new civil rights movement. It’s the open-carry protesters dreaming of holding off sharia law. It’s the armchair revolutionaries talking about putting me against the wall when the reckoning comes and weekend warriors who will defend an America that doesn’t exist against the phantasmal threat of her own government.

They’ll never start the shooting on purpose. It won’t be a plan. Only by accident of circumstance. A guy screaming to his friends to hold him back who is unlucky enough to encounter another guy screaming the same thing when neither of their friends are bothering to hold them back. We shall resist them, but not with the opponent of their choice. And so we deny them opportunity.

We cannot take away every deadly machine. But we can do some more to restrict them and strip away their political power by making them toxic to every politician who contemplates utilizing their support and voting them out. By this we will deny them means.

Courage in the face of Charlottesville is not a passive acceptance of dangers to come, but a cultivated stillness in pursuit of victory.


[1] There are many, many, arguments about what we should call these people and why that are supposedly strategic in nature, but I’m going to call them the alt-right because 1.) that’s what they call themselves and 2.) it is in fact a mutant right-wing ideology whose particular components will be addressed later in the post.

[2] They are not Nazis. But given their ideological cocktail, plus their symbolism and possible organizational links, they’re Neo-Nazis.

A Quick Note on that Ex-Googler Memo Thing

In a desperate bid to make my parents love me, published an essay of mine on James Damore’s famous, if incoherent, memo. My essay was focused on proper argumentation, how Damore’s memo lacked it, and how we all need to focus on the fights that actually matter (like how you define fairness) instead of arguing about unprovable facts that don’t (like exactly how much of gender discrimination is due to biological factors). Please go ahead and read it so my mother will finally put something I made on her fridge.

I want to take a moment to say: yes, he should have been fired. No, I haven’t changed my position that generally speaking you shouldn’t fire people for unpopular ideas. As I wrote when Brendan Eich was pressured to resign:

Brendan Eich may well have some sins to answer for, and for some of those perhaps he should pay his price publicly. It is quite another thing to say that the price for those sins is his job, and that Mozilla is responsible for making him pay it.

So what’s the difference, other than Eich was a C-Suite employee and high profile and Damore is not? Well, Damore’s sins weren’t just abstract politics or ideology. He insulted the women he was working with, not because he said they were inferior to he because of their gender, but because he wrote so sloppily that such an interpretation was reasonable under the circumstances. And more importantly, he did it as part of his company role, publishing his memo onto Google’s internal social network, for the explicit purpose of influencing Google culture and policy. And it was a profoundly lazy attempt at that, which damaged relationships between Damore and his coworkers and Google employees generally for no appreciable or foreseeable gain. It was, plainly speaking, useless and dumb. Damore’s primary contribution to our public dialogue was a useless freak out where conservatives pretended only the good parts of the memo were there and progressives pretended that the memo was coherently evil when it was just incoherently bad. Damore served his view point very poorly and lowered the level of debate. That isn’t a good reason to fire him either, I suppose, but the way he harmed his fellow employees trust certainly is.

So, next time you want to put together a long controversial memo? Do it better. And maybe post it anonymously on Reddit instead of to your company’s social network.

How radical are we actually getting?

I have of late found myself in the uncomfortable position of being really upset with writers I otherwise admire and respect. In part this is because the writers I go out of my way to read are smart people who think differently than I do. And I, like all people who put pen to paper, am a relentless egotist who finds disagreement to be a personal insult.[1] Pascal Emmanuel Gobry is one such writer and he recently went off on a tirade about the left’s position on racism. A tirade I found insulting and completely off base. But Gobry also had this had this observation:


The more I think on it, the more he is talking about something very real and very dangerous. It does certainly feel like everything has gotten worse, tenser, and more extreme. But something doesn’t quite sit right about his model of what’s happening. For Gobry to be correct, political partisans would have to believe in more and more extreme positions that are even more diametrically opposed to each other. But I don’t think that’s what is happening at all. Rather, it is our image of each other is becoming more radicalized. Let me demonstrate with the incident on hand.

Gobry was ranting in response to this exchange:



Gobry, it seems, saw this exchange and interpreted as if Beauchamp had thrown the entire idea of nationhood, inheritance, borders and anything short of a single global borderless state as inherently racist. I, on the other hand, saw a reasonable and/or historically obvious case that US immigration restriction has historically been racist and the claim of any non-Native American American to have claim to the soil by blood to be laughable.[2]

How did we see the same thing so differently, assuming for the moment we are both reasonable men? Well sticking just to the US context, Gobry and I are members of different tribes, meaning different friends and affiliations. So I am naturally inclined to interpret, edit really, the exchange to be more reasonable and he more inclined to see the worst. In fact, our interpretations are also likely to feed off of each other, since nothing causes an idea to take hold and spread quite as fast as anger. This process is well explained by CGP Grey in this wonderful video which you should watch right now if you hadn’t already.

The relevant gist is that ideas about the opposing tribe that make you angry are the most likely to take hold and spread among people you respect and like, and they can trigger mirroring rage inducing idea about your tribe in the opposing tribe. Everyone got that? Good. This is what Gobry said that I found offensive enough to go on a long rant about the historical racism of US immigration policy:

What’s funny about this tweet enraging me so is that I don’t self-identify as a progressive. And yet I was enraged and stopped giving Gobry the benefit of the doubt, despite our multi-year history of fruitful dialogue over Twitter. I use this experience as an example, not a proof. But I think all of us can sense a building tension between tribes.

Let me propose that what is going on is not that we are radicalizing each other, but we are radicalizing our images of each other. This does not cause more radical policy on our end, but it does cause more radical behavior in the form of less benefit of the doubt and more insults to the opposing faction.[3] Because why would you bother being reasonable with a radical? Then again, straw-men and stereotypes about opposing factions[4] has always been with us.

One factor is that social media has not only made it easier to connect with your tribe, but made it way more likely to actually encounter the ridiculous straw-men you paint the other faction to be. Or at least people who are so caught up ressentiment they act like it. The other obvious factor is the election and Presidency of Donald Trump. I mean, the man is nothing if not a walking conflictionator. He constantly produces a miasma of stress, rendering social trust by his actions. And, there is the crushing onslaught of news as Trump flails about and journalists dig in. We’re all on edge, scrambling to and fro for the security of priors and fellow tribes(wo)men.

So now what?

First off, don’t hate read.[5] Second, recognize the problem is you, not social media or your smart phone. This is a very human thing we are doing, an old human thing in new mediums. And finally, embrace charitable construction and questions. Don’t argue with the dumb version of what someone said, but the smart, reasonable version of what someone said. Cut away the snark, find out what it is someone really meant and act reasonably, and more often than not, you’ll find something worth engaging with. And if you don’t, fall back on not hate reading in the future.


[1] I am mostly joking. Mostly.

[2] In the history of US immigration policy we have excluded races by name in legislation as well as have had the category, taken from the legislative text, of free whites of good character. The case that the history of US immigration policy is steeped in racism is a slam dunk.

[3] Tribe! I meant tribe. Or did I?

[4] Whoops. Did it again. Funny that.

[5] Except you should hate read me. I am sustained by your hatred. Take your weapon. Strike me down with all of your hatred.

Kids, Kimonos and Cultural Appropriation

So, via Bored Panda we have a charming tale of a Utah mother throwing a themed birthday party for her child and the inevitable performative wokeness tumblr fight because “our nature is not only destitute of all good, but is so fertile in all evils that it cannot remain inactive [for] man is of himself nothing else but concupiscence.”[1] Questionable bukkake[2] joke aside, the piece transcribes the tumblr users on the right side of the argument. But some of you still may have questions about how to judge the parenting of a Utah woman for a party she threw in… jeeze, 2012? Seriously? Sorry Patty. Anyway, if you want to know the line between cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation I’ve got an answer for you and it has to do with factions because factions are everywhere.

For those of you reading me for the first time, some context: I am Chinese. I am also American. My parents are both Han Chinese who emigrated to the United States as adults and had me and my brother here.[3]  I am married to a woman of Hmong heritage (via Laos) who was also born here. This will all become relevant shortly.

So, when I say I am Chinese, the thing I need you to understand is that there are people you would indisputably recognize as Chinese that would not call me Chinese. They would call me American and find my claim to be Chinese spurious. But many Chinese would be happy to recognize my claim. Thus, we have our first factional split. This is probably the most visible layer. Any group will split along the issue of who is to be considered an insider – a member of the group – and who is an outsider, not a member of the group. Who is Chinese? Who is American? Who is a Jew? There are of course, far more than two options for this factional split but there will be at least two groups, includers versus purists. Let’s dig deeper.

The next layer of factions I want to point out is between sharers and hoarders.[4] Sharers within a faction want to take the elements of their culture – food, philosophy, food, language, food, clothing, food, music and did I mention food[5] – and share them to as many people as possible because these things are good and it is good that people partake in them. Think of the yogis who spread their practice across the world. The hoarders on the other hand, want to restrict the elements of their culture to those who have a “right” to it, often by blood and legitimacy, taking offense to outsiders stealing their heritage away, especially as to sacred symbols and idiots in costumes on Halloween. This factional split, between sharers and hoarders is both distinct and interlocking with the split between the includes versus the purists. In turn, this is distinct and interlocking with people who want a culture to adapt and change, and those who want a culture to stay the same.

These three factional conflicts between who is in the group, how should the culture change, and whether it can be shared with outsiders, do not cleanly split into two sides. But for simplicity’s sake, we will model them as if they do. On one side of a community you have progressives who recognize many claims to a culture, wish to share that culture, and wish for that culture to adapt. On the other, you have conservatives, who recognize fewer claims, do not want to share the culture, and do not want it to change.[6] Sometimes, progressives and conservatives can come to terms. For example, the Māori people have a tradition called tā moko – tattoos that indicate identity and status within the Māori. Outsiders got moko, because they thought it looks cool[7] which many Māori found offensive. As a solution, some Māori have developed the idea of kirituhi. Kirituhi are meaningless designs that anyone, including outsiders can wear.[8] Problem averted, right?

Of course, not all factional conflict can be settled by clever compromise. Should, for example, a white man who marries a Māori woman, be allowed to wear moko? That is the sort of question that will irrevocably split a community into factions with very little compromise available. It is not an abstract question for me, either, although in my case it has nothing to do with moko. When my wife and I married[9] I did it in Hmong dress within a Hmong cultural ceremony. I was, in a very real sense, culturally appropriating my wife, at least according to some of the Hmong. And this fear of outsiders taking our women, lies deep in the dark hearts of hoarder factions. It always has and it always will.

So, what does this have to do with you, a well-meaning and curious outsider, especially a white outsider, trying navigating the world and it’s many traditions? Unfortunately, everything. As I have said before:

Something that every racial minority knows implicitly is that factional struggles within our race are won by convincing whites and our victories are enforced by co-opting whites. … When whites wring their hands about cultural appropriation of minority cultures, they side with the isolationists within those minority cultures over the assimilationists and boundary pushers. … These choices are almost never made to make one faction the victor. In fact, these choices are most often made ignorant of that dynamic. But you cannot help but choose. The moment you, as a culturally powerful outsider, essentialize another culture, you finger one faction as the true, authentic representative of that culture.

It is of course, not just about race but any axis of identity. Whether you are progressive or conservative, the victor of factional struggles are determined by outsiders. So we try to convince you, the outsider, to take our side, and we play to win. We start screaming things about cultural appropriation on the one hand, or accuse our opponents of being allies to the Patriarchy on the other.

So, the issue at hand, with the child, the Japanese tea themed birthday party? Something important to know is that kimono manufacture is a dying art in Japan, because the Japanese of Japan aren’t particularly interested supporting the industry! I mean, would YOU buy traditionally made ball gowns or tuxedos if you had the choice? So part of what keeps the art and its artisans alive in Japan are tourist and exports to foreigners. Something the Japanese descended in America are fighting against for their own reasons.[10] So, where does that leave you?

There is no right or wrong way to appropriate or appreciate a culture because a culture is never truly static. You cannot respect a culture, but you can respect people. But know that you will inevitably find yourself having to choose between two rightful heirs to a tradition, one who holds out a hand in invitation and another who holds up their hand to deny you, and you cannot respect one without disrespecting the other. You cannot but choose a side.

As to all the things I have a right to, I hold out my hand to you in invitation. The choice, as it always was, is yours.


[1] I am of course quoting John Calvin of double-predestination fame, and subject of my first attempt at a viral image meme. It did not take off.

[2] If you, like my wife, did not know what this was, DO NOT LOOK IT UP ON THE INTERNET.

[3] Thus, I am an American Born Chinese, ABC for short, and also the title of a good book by Gene Luen Yang.

[4] Simply by those names you can figure out which side I am likely on, but bear with me anyway.

[5] In college, I took a course on the social foundations of teaching and diversity with a woman who made very clear to us that food is not all there is to culture. But it is delicious so we had a party with diverse foods.

[6] “But wait,” you might say, “don’t progressives tend to side with the people you call conservatives when they complain about cultural appropriation?” Funny that.

[7] We might call this cultural appropriation classic: wearing a cultural design of a foreign culture with little to no understanding of its significance.

[8] Not only does this protect the cultural significance of moko it provides an income stream for artists!

[9] One of the times anyway

[10] It has to do with signaling but this post is long enough as it is.

There Are Many Parts to the Work

Conor Friedersdorf, has an excellent piece out on the Atlantic rounding up some good advice for the political left in the age of Trump. The whole thing has a lot going for it and is worth your time whether you want the left in particular to succeed or not. But the tone isn’t quite right. Friederdorf invokes a speech Abraham Lincoln gave to the temperance society, urging “kindly persuasion” and cautioning them against denouncing even the worst drunkard lest they harden their resistance:

To expect otherwise, “to have expected them not to meet denunciation with denunciation … and anathema with anathema, was to expect a reversal of human nature,” Lincoln explained. “If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause.”

This is obviously true. I know, because I have been frequently guilty of denouncing the excesses of left in public and in private (as I expect Friedersdorf is) without the necessary “kindly persuasion”. More to the point, it is lacking in Friedersdorf’s article. So in the spirit of Lincoln’s advice, let me preface begin with a positive note on the left. The left has been instrumental in creating a psychological space where people can unburden themselves of the indignities, large and small of being a weirdo, a minority, or any sort of victim. This is no small thing. It is something I have taken for granted because of my schooling and early adoption of the internet and that gives me a false perspective on its (lack of) utility. I was wrong to do so and I am sorry.

Unfortunately, creating this space, valuable as it is, isn’t enough. Friedersdorf quotes DeRay Mckesson:

“We have started to police people’s authenticity by their proximity to trauma, not their proximity to the work,” he said. “Both my parents were drug addicts. My father raised us. My mother left. I know what it’s like to sleep on the floor when they shoot too close to the house. That doesn’t make me a better organizer. It could actually just make me more traumatized. How do we stop thinking about proximity to trauma as the thing that makes you the best organizer?”

I think we are all at least somewhat aware that within the “work” (as Mckesson put it) there are many things we want that can be at cross-purposes. I alluded to this in a post a while back – there is a sort of advocacy for victims that focuses on the simple fact they are victims and nothing else.

from the victim’s perspective, whether predators emerged or were curated is pretty unimportant. The victimization happens either way, and whether implicitly or explicitly, social justice advocates are advocating on behalf of victims.

Advocating for victims in this way is agnostic to actually solving the problem. It is, rather, about solving the victim’s emotional and status needs – to have them be validated in their own eyes and those of the community. Reducing the threat to others does not help them, and the steps that are necessary to do so cut against the most obvious routes of validating a victim. And it takes a particular kind of hardy soul to expose themselves to the constant heartbreaking trauma of injustice – one can hardly expect those to escape without being a little traumatized themselves.

It takes a particular mindset – one might even say heartlessness – to respond to grief and anger with the tactical thinking required to do the other part of the work – the messy, on the ground methods of persuasion, of lobbying, of dealing with people who don’t agree with you on a whole host of the most important moral issues, and of the constant rejection by those people that seeks to validate every impulse you have to rain hellfire and vengeance upon them. And perhaps it is equally unreasonable to expect those engaged in the necessary diplomacy and logistics to always be on target

What we can expect of ourselves, however, is to be a little better at sorting ourselves into the two categories of work I outlined, and being supportive of each other, and the victims we intend to serve (or prevent) by respecting our mutual competencies. Even as children, we recognize that there are friends we go to for comfort, and there are friends we go to for help, and friends who can do both but we guide them to which we need (or let them guide us!). And when we are one of those friends the worst thing we can do is denigrate the other kind – especially if they are a friend of yours as well – just because they are doing a different part of the work than you are.

We should be sincere friends. But we need not be friends, we must be allies. The work is not about denouncing deliberate evil but ameliorating human failure, be it malicious or tragic, at every level of society. It is the work of lifetimes, and we need all the help we can get.