See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

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 protestors 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.

Footnotes

[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.

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A Quick Note on that Ex-Googler Memo Thing

In a desperate bid to make my parents love me, Fortune.com 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:

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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.

Footnotes

[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 to 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.

Footnotes

[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.

Parallel Invaders, Post-Trump Redux

Much of my life has been a desperate chase for a particular feeling. It’s that moment where the ground shifts underneath me and everything becomes more clear than it was before. It’s as unsettling for me as anyone else, but I still love it. It’s my thrill seeking behavior, my only drug. I’m intellectually bungee-jumping and using this blog as my GoPro. Worse, I keep inflicting it on others, like these (fictional) cartographers did to C.J. Cregg:

I took my first bad trip late on November 8th, 2016. I’m still reeling from it. I’ve said it again and again today: the world has shifted underneath my feet. I have found myself in a place of fear and anxiety that exists entirely in the world instead of the recesses of my defective mind. My fear is bloodless and serious. It is measured, weighted and proportioned to the situation. I am afraid of a small but real subset of Trump supporters. True lunatics that I now estimate to be more frequent that previously supposed who gathered under a now victorious banner of repeatedly promised, repeatedly delivered bigotry.

I’m afraid of one of them burning a cross on my lawn.

That is probably not going to happen. I’m actually in pretty good shape. I’ve got a law degree and the self-protective powers that implies. While Michigan as a whole is probably going to end up in Trump’s column, my precinct is in Clinton’s. My neighborhood is getting browner, younger. It has long been wealthy and safe. The more likely result is that I face just a few more slurs, a few more but still blessedly rare moments of explicit bigotry as my son grows up through a momentarily wobble as the long arc of the universe bends towards justice. But that risk of actual racial violence, that low probability tail risk, involves an event so catastrophic the only rational choice is to take it seriously. My son is due to be born in the first 100 days of a Trump presidency. All existential risk has to be accounted for, and this risk is real.

The risk of being a direct victim of racial violence is real and is executed along a simple mechanism. There are some lunatic white people who hate people who look like me and want to start a race war.They have been partially held in check by strong signals that he rest of America, including the other white people, are not with them, that they do not have a permission slip from the powers that be to do what they want. That, no matter how much they didn’t think people who look like me belong in America, enough people who do think I belong in America were standing in the way. They are now receiving the opposite signal. It could very well be illusory (it isn’t) but that doesn’t matter nearly as much as what they perceive it as. So now I have to worry. Not just about my preferred direction of policy or American identity, but a more basic question of trust and safety. And I don’t know what these people look like. Well, actually I do, it’s telling them apart that’s the problem.

In this post I wrote about how many women reasonably perceive all men with great anxiety because the sexually dangerous men look exactly like the men who are not. Meanwhile, most men instead live in the parallel universe where sexual assault doesn’t happen – and predators use our ignorance to slip in between. I had no idea then I was writing a metaphor for my own sudden transition from a parallel universe where racial violence was mythical and rare to the reality that I am surrounded by the threat of it. I will look every at every new white face with apprehension. I will always be wondering if it is this one that will turn out to be the dangerous lunatic underneath a genteel surface. I don’t like it. I desperately want to go back to the moment before I fell into this awful world. But it’s real, the race warriors are real, and the unfairness to every decent white person I meet is also real.

This would have been true even if Clinton had squeaked out a win. Over fifty-nine million people sent or cosigned a signal that I’m not part of real America, that my job creating immigrant mother is a threat to their livelihoods, that my to be born an American son is a threat by his very existence to their children because of our skin.

I am faced with a choice of leaving my state, maybe my country or facing down the risk of racial violence every day. Of forcing my family to face that risk as I let my loud mouth attract unwelcome attention. If I have to leave America it isn’t because of disgust, but fear. I love my country. I love America. But the America that I’ve been standing in this whole time isn’t the America I thought it was, but instead the America with the shadows colored in, hiding predators. I have a duty to help bring the real America and transform it into the fantastical one, and I have a duty to keep my family safe.

I know I am not the only one who has to make that choice. And I know for many who do not have to make that choice, this sounds like the ravings of a bitter madman. But please, take our fears seriously. We’re not delusional – we just now stopped having our delusions.

Making Deals

Imagine you are playing a game. The object of the game is to have the most points after an indeterminate amount of time. The only way to get points is to make deals. Deals give you points in exchange for someone else getting points. Not making trades gives you no points.
 
OK, that’s the set up. You are offered a deal of 5 points to 5 points. Do you take it?
 
The correct answer is “how many players are there?” If there are only two players, the net result of the deal is 0, so you might as well not make it. In fact, the very fact you are offered the deal is suspicious, so you might even refuse it if it appears lopsided in your favor. The game becomes functionally zero-sum. If however, there are 318.9 million players (he said, picking a TOTALLY ARBITRARY NUMBER) then you should almost definitely take the deal! You need those points. Deals everywhere! You might even take lopsided deals just to get more points, as long as you spread the points around, you stay ahead.
 
OK. Now the twist. What if roughly half of those 318.9 million players wore one kind of shirt while you wore a different kind of shirt? And let’s say you like the people wearing your kind of shirt, who go to your kind of bars, have families with people who wear your kind of shirt a lot. And let’s say you don’t really care for those other people, who go to the other kind of bars, have families with people wearing the other shirt color. I mean, there’s more to it than that, obviously. These are just TOTALLY ARBITRARY things picked out of the ether to point out that you identify with one half of the players more than the other half.
 
The deal rate would slow down until you found clusters of people you wanted to make deals with. But slowly you would sort yourself and start making deals again. Except maybe then you’d discover that in order to get really big points, you need to make big deals, where a whole lot of you, but not all of you, with one kind of shirt have to pool your point contributions by making 0 to 1 deals to some designated people with your kind of shirt, but shinier. And then they make a big deal with someone with a shiny version of the other kind of shirt and whatever group they rustled up. And first time it happens and you get that huge point kick back it’s amazing! So you sign up to do it again. Except, because there are 318.9 million of you and you have to execute a lot of simultaneous, 1-0 deals and hope it all kind of works out, and a lot of time it doesn’t, so maybe you stop making those kinds of deals and kinda start hating the people with your kind of shirt and lots of points who keep wanting to make big deals.
 
Another twist in this game. Not even a twist so much as noting something I didn’t say. I didn’t say when the game ended. No one knows when it ends. Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it does. But you know you feel better when it feels like you have a lot of points and the people around you have slightly less points than you and the people who wear the other kind of shirt have way less points and why wouldn’t it? It means you’re more likely to be winning and you want to be winning all the time just in case the game ends on the next move.
So there are less points flying around than you’d like, but it’s ok! Everyone has made a rational decision within the framework of the game so at least it makes sense, and you’re not sure you’re winning, but you’re definitely not losing, and the people around you who are most likely winning more than you you actually like a whole lot!
OK. Very last twist. What if what I said about winning was a lie, and the game is set up so no one ever wins. But it still feels good to get points, especially when people who wear your shirt have more points than people who wear the other kind of shirt and the people around who you like you have about as many points as you; and everyone else feels that way except a couple of losers with less points who keep telling people the game isn’t about winning even though it definitely feels like it is.
Man. Playing that game would get pretty tragic quick, wouldn’t it?

Parallel Invaders

Mary Karr has published an extraordinary piece about the entirely too common experience of sexual assault.[1] Karr:

[H]e grabbed between my legs with a meaty claw, big as a waffle iron. He also called me the “C” word with breath that stank of beer. Then he passed on into a sandwich shop with his buddy. [H]e wasn’t dope sick or a flat-out loon.

In case you haven’t been on the receiving end of this sort of assault, you should know the primal physiological response it evokes—in this woman, anyway. The stomach drops, as if you’ve been shoved backward from a skyscraper and are flailing through space. Time dismantles. […] Inside, the Grabber, as I thought of him, was waiting in line to order a sandwich. He was fine; I was the one with the problem.

Please, read the whole thing.

I don’t understand the fear of women in their full #YesAllWomen totality feel. I can’t – I grew up in the parallel universe where the sexual assaults of the real world are invisible, more fantastical than ghosts or gremlins. A universe where all sexual overtures, even of the gross sort, seem welcome on some level. Karr corrects:

One pal joked, “Oh, yeah, try it,” suggesting that for men, any sexual overture is welcome. I asked how he’d feel if a fellow weighing three-forty cornered him somewhere isolated and manhandled him. Suddenly this struck him as way more sinister.

This reframing, alone, doesn’t let us understand the fear or see the real universe from our parallel existence. But I think we can begin to glimpse it by imagining these overtures not only as coming from a rough, gigantic man[2] but that he is one of countless rough, gigantic men. That there are nothing but rough gigantic men, the ninety-some percent of the human species sexually drawn to you. Some of who are quite decent! But they look the same as the other ones or maybe better. Karr:

a voice rose from the sidewalk. “What’d he do?” It was a man on a rectangle of cardboard you might normally step around.

“He grabbed […] my private zone!” [I said. He] jutted his jaw out, saying, “He cain’t do that” with such fire that I started dialing 911. […] My new friend on the cardboard said, “Go, go, go!” and I started to trot. They broke into a sprint, outpacing me right off.

There also needs to be action with our empathy. The heroes of this story are Karr and the man with nothing but a cardboard home and a sense of righteousness who helped her. The Grabber is the obvious antagonist, as is the system that will fail to end the Grabber’s threat. But I keep thinking of the Grabber’s friend. He, I think, is the true villain of the tale.

There are two ways to exit the parallel universe where men exist without fear of sexual assault. One is to be forcibly wrestled into the real world by the sudden visibility of assault. To have your loved ones become the victims and seeing the world their eyes, or worse, becoming a victim yourself.[3] The other is to catch glimpse of the assaulters as they pass from our world to the real one and back again. They alone among parallel men can transit between worlds – doing their damage and then hiding among the good parallel men still none the wiser. They alone know how to erase the borders between worlds, to seduce us into their conspiracy, that we do not know enough of the real world to see something when their mask slips. They alone among the parallel universe men know we live in is fiction because they help create it.

Of course, our world is better. So we need to bring the women here, where sexual assault is as fantastical as ghosts and gremlins. We need to make our world the real one, freed from the malignant influence of a horrific parallel universe where men destroy women with word every word and every touch.[4] It is our duty to stop the parallel invaders we have been fooled into thinking are friends.

Yesterday, I announced that “all that I am” was in preparation for fatherhood. I hope you begin to gauge the full meaning of “all”.

Footnotes

[1] If you think the numbers are inflated, I challenge you to find a number of sexual assaults you would accept as reasonable.

[2] Especially ones with the impudent swagger of the never-punished.

[3] The double invisibility of male sexual assault victims is beyond the scope of this essay.

[4] The full strategy for how good men can stop bad men is way beyond the scope of this essay. But spoiler: it involves norms and cultural thinking.

It Has All Been For This

I try to tell the truth. I don’t just mean “don’t lie” and I don’t mean “preach the good news” or even “speak truth to power”. I mean that I’m constantly trying to understand the world and then convince other people to understand it too. I’ve been doing it for a painful lifetime. But what has it all been for?

Truth telling is one of America’s great fetishes. Mind you, this is not the same thing as actually valuing and rewarding truth telling. No, plenty of research has proven that truth telling is worse than useless. In fact, it repels people away from you and your ideas. So while I’d love to believe that my truth telling comes from pure motives, I am certain it does not. Maybe it’s a desperate grasp for power in dangerous world. Maybe it’s self-destruction, Churchill’s black dog now hunting me.

I remember meeting the black dog for the first time. It was after one of many sleepless nights at my first undergraduate college. My sleeping patterns had gotten so bad that my biology professor (bless his heart) had to call and wake me up so I could take an exam. Finally, I decided I couldn’t, wouldn’t live like that and I walked over to the student health center. While in the waiting room I look for more truth to assimilate and pick up a pamphlet on depression. I force myself to check off my symptoms. I check off all but two boxes. I see my black dog for the first time, promising the comfort of self-destruction. My past takes on a new cast. My new thoughts cannot be trusted. The black dog is always with me and speaks with my own voice.

* * *

I’m in my first elementary school. I’m perched alone on the smaller of two metal slides, with my feet planted on the top step. I’m watching my classmates run around the field. Someone asks me what I’m doing. I tell her I’m trying to understand why the boys are chasing the girls. I shift my posture and keep watching. They call me Mr. Detective. I’m outside, looking in.

I’m in my middle school. I’m talking to one of my few friends. I brag about being able to talk to almost all of the cliques in the school because I’m not part of them. But inside I know I’m an outsider everywhere and always will be.

I’m in my second elementary school. A special place for children like me, with brilliant but fragile minds, in love with the world. I recognize myself in all three traits. I open up so I can join the Community that will take me to high school and beyond. I have hope.

I’m in my high school. I’m nudging a friend to make the decision that will make her happy. I’m getting worse at listening and better at talking. I wonder again if I’m manipulating people or doing what’s right. I forget to wonder why I don’t take my own advice.

I’m in my room. My dad and I had another fight yesterday. Today he brought me Spider-Man. We don’t talk about yesterday. I read about Peter Parker failing his father figure, about him being hated by his city. I embrace the pain, the power and the responsibility.

I’m in a psychiatrist’s office. It’s been years since I beat back the black dog, but it’s back. I beg him to get rid of it. He tells me a truth: I want to change the world so I can be happy. I cry because then I can’t be happy.

I’m in my first elementary school. Someone is doing a presentation. The scotch tape and rulers holding up the prop stand keep falling apart and I keep scooting over to fix it. The teacher tells me to stop. I don’t. They call me Mr. Fix It.

I’m in a Christian home. I’m still not comfortable being one of them. I’m telling them that I’d be bored in heaven. I’m here to fix things. It’s my calling.

I’m in my home. I’m trying to save a friend again by typing the right words or making the right late night phone call. I know that there is a price and it may be her friendship. I can’t think of a reason it shouldn’t be me that pays it.

I’m in my high school. We’re asking if the Community and respect or the individual and self-actualization is more important. I say the right answer, that each serves the other. I instead try to love without being loved.

I’m in my room. I’ve been crushed by my consistent failures. My parents hate me. I’m angry at them for hating me. I’m angrier at myself that I have given them good reason. Then something touches me and I feel totally and completely loved. I call it God.

I’m in a psychologist’s office. I dropped out of college last year. The fog is lifting. I did the right things, wrong. I start to do the right things, better.

I’m in my second college. A long string of failed friendships-turned-romances is behind me. A cute stranger is in front of me. I do something new, something better. I ask her out on a date. I love her. I ask her to love me. She loves me. We get married in a house, in a church, and in a field. Friends and family tell me I finally did it right.

I’m in a physician’s office. A week ago she told us my wife probably miscarried. I don’t dare to hope. The physician spins the ultrasound’s display towards us. There is a heartbeat.

It has all been for this.

* * *

I have never in my life done something for a pure reason. My virtues have served as apologies. My generosities have been desperation. My love has come from self-hatred. But I’ve still done good. I’ve still loved the world. Purity is a crock anyway. Without purity I’ve learned and I’ve grown and I’ve grasped what power I have to change things and tried to change things for the better. I have engaged in the noblest work of lifetimes.

So here, now, I make my claim against the world, and announce my gift to the same. His name is Franklin, due in the second week of February. Take care of him, for I will raise him to take care of you. Let him be born free of kings and bound by righteousness. Help him serve and be served. Help him change and be changed. Help him love and be loved.

All that I am has been for this.

The War on Racism May Not Be Won After All

I used to think that the war against racism had been won. That (with others) Martin Luther King Jr. had dealt the critical blow and won the decisive battle not so long ago. That his martyred spirit would guard the victory into eternity. That all that was left would be the decades long mopping-operation where we as a society moved on from racism to slowly dismantling the booby-trapped structures and systems that racism left behind. It is ugly, painstaking, divisive work, but it is planned along a schedule of inevitability. Alas, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy.

The forces of racism have counterattacked in force. They have tapped their reserves, they have recruited partisans, and they have struck with their guerrillas. And now, the bolstered forces of racism – ugly, no modifier, hunting for a race war racism – think they have not merely infiltrated but seized control of the party of Lincoln. They think they’re about to march on Washington to take it over.

They may be right.

We are too used to arguing about whether and how to dismantle each bit of structural racism. That is an important fight, especially now that we no longer are on the schedule of inevitability but upon the question of never. But it is not the most important fight. The enemy is at the gates. Racism is coming for us, and it would be well pleased if we snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, all just to bludgeon each other. It’d be so easy.

Racism is an idea and thus immortal. But though it cannot be killed, it can be beaten. Racism can be captured from our hearts and left to rot alone in well-guarded closets when it cannot. Racism can be undermined, it can be weakened, it can and it must be routed.

But none of those things will happen unless we can first repel racism’s foot soldiers as they march upon our capital. None of those things will happen until we band together to do it. We do not have to abandon our struggles over whether and how to dismantle the structures of racism, but the when for continuing that argument must be in the future if it is to have a future. We will not dismantle the structures of racism when the enemy has taken control of the land.

So come, friends. Put down your pens for but a moment so you can take them up in service; by each other, with each other, and for each and every other.