See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Monthly Archives: August 2017

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.

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.