Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else
05/05/2017Posted by on
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.
11/10/2016Posted by on
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.
08/11/2016Posted by on
Mary Karr has published an extraordinary piece about the entirely too common experience of sexual assault. 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 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. 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. 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”.
 If you think the numbers are inflated, I challenge you to find a number of sexual assaults you would accept as reasonable.
 Especially ones with the impudent swagger of the never-punished.
 The double invisibility of male sexual assault victims is beyond the scope of this essay.
 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.
08/10/2016Posted by on
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.
07/30/2016Posted by on
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.
05/27/2016Posted by on
We’re collectively obsessed with having the right answers when we should be making sure we’re asking the right questions. It’s an unfortunate tendency, perhaps most obvious in politics. President Obama visited one of our core allies today, a little island nation that, some seven decades ago, we dropped two atomic bombs on. So, of course, we’ve been asking if Obama will apologize (he didn’t) less time on whether he should, and almost no time asking whether the bombing was justified in the first place. But I get it. Questions are hard.
We really do have to ask the right questions, because otherwise we may confuse an argument for a question, and a question for an answer. Whenever the morality of the bombings is debated a host of bad questions-as-arguments-as-answers arise. “Why didn’t we just wait for them to surrender?” “Wasn’t Truman worried about the rising Soviet empire”? “Why did we bomb Nagasaki after we’ve proven our point at Hiroshima?” “Why drop two bombs?” But we forget other, more salient questions. “Should Imperial Japan have been allowed to hold Chinese territory as Manchukuo?” “Should Imperial Japan be allowed to occupy Korea, the islands, and New Guinea?” The Allies chose to answer no; Japan may live on, but the Empire would have to end with Japan’s surrender or occupation. So, let’s ask the right question: in light of what the Allies knew, suspected, and should have known about the Empire of Japan’s intentions, were the atomic bombings justified?
In order to answer that question, we must establish our baseline. Where did the Pacific War stand on August 5, 1945, the eve before the bombs fell? Well, for the Empire of Japan, it was a combination of failure and resistance. Since mid-1944, the Empire of Japan had been in complete strategic retreat, having lost control over several of its holdings. The only possible bright spots in this string of losses were some efforts in China and Indochina, parts of which they managed to control through puppet states or straight up occupation. The Imperial Japanese Army did manage to achieve some victories, but they were so strategically unimportant that they have been mostly forgotten. So in a real sense, all the Imperial Japanese Army accomplished was sacrificing the lives of their men to kill Chinese soldiers and civilians. In June 1944, the Allies stepped up strategic bombing raids. Which is to say they carpet-bombed Japanese cities with bombs designed to cause massive fires, Japanese had few trained firefighters and fewer bomb shelters with which to resist the firebombs, and little apparent interest in making more. In October of 1944, the Imperial Japanese Navy started forcing its young, talented pilots to fly aircraft laden with explosives directly into Allied ships in hopes of slowing the Allied advance. And so it went on. Low on fuel and short on victories, the Empire of Japan fought a bloody, vicious retreat month and month, stealing from its own future by ordering its young men to suicide. All while his cities and people burned without hope of relief.
On July 26, the Allies had asked – demanded – the Empire of Japan surrender with the Postdam Declaration. The Postdam Declaration was simple: surrender or be destroyed. Ten days of deliberate Japanese non-answer, with no intention to change.
That is where the world stood on August 5, 1945.
The moral worth of a decision is made by weighing the alternatives. So what were the alternatives, from the night of August 5, 1945, to dropping an atomic bomb on August 6? Ending the empire meant victory, and without a new plan, victory meant strategic bombing and invasion. Even for a war that had seen death on an immense scale, an invasion promised to be bloody beyond nightmares. The Empire of Japan had inculcated in its people a sense of desperate resistance, a devotion to the final defense of honor, home, and family. Surrender was not an option for his people, as the Empire chose otherwise. So the Allies had thus been left with two alternatives left. One, spend countless lives, kill countless more civilians, extend the war to obtain total military victory. Two, find a sufficiently dramatic way to force the Empire of Japan to surrender.
So it was that on August 6, 1945 downtown Hiroshima and around 80,000 of his people evaporated into a mushroom cloud. Truman warned of more, saying that if the Empire of Japan “do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.” The Empire of Japan again stayed deliberately silent in non-answer. The heads of the regime wanted a dignified surrender. They wanted to keep control. They did not want puppet governments and occupation. When the Soviets marched to war, they continued to demand these conditions. After all, they had determined only one or two more atomic bombs coming. The Empire could survive the bombs, even if another Japanese city would disappear into ash.
So, on August 9, another bomb was dropped. A miss of 1.3 kilometers during the Nagasaki bombing run meant only tens of thousands of people in the Urakami Valley were annihilated instead of the targeted downtown area. Finally, finally, that was enough to spark the decision to surrender, though that in turn sparked a coup attempt in order to continue the war. The plotters were defeated and the Empire of Japan finally announced their surrender August 15, 1945.
So, were the atomic bombings justified? Well, in the end it did not take an atomic bomb to force Japan into surrender; it took two.
 And if how would people interpret it anyway? And how will it affect the upcoming presidential election?
 Perhaps it is a feature of our culture that we don’t like asking these questions because we take a question itself as a sign of challenge or even guilt. Somehow the idea that asking if bombing Hiroshima or Nagasaki could have, should have been avoided necessitates the answer be something other than “no.”
 The late Pacific War was primarily an American war effort against the Japanese, but I feel it is appropriate to share credit and blame among the allied powers broadly, especially in light of the China factor.
 It seems they knew with precision how bad occupation got from one side and had no interest in the other.
 This was an estimation by Admiral Toyoda, Chief of the Naval General Staff. He was wrong, many, many more bombs were slated for production.
03/27/2016Posted by on
Easter is about hope. Easter is hope. It is the tomorrow that promises many other tomorrows. But it is also a day like any other. Many people will die today. Many people will suffer. Many people will give up hope forever and let the darkness swallow them into death and into evil. That is because Easter is not the end of the story. Easter is not a magical panacea. Easter is hope.
Christianity – at least the sort I am part of – is a story that leads to a relationship. A relationship with God, with Christ, with Love itself. These, for the Christian, are the same thing. (Also different things, our relationship status on Facebook is “it’s complicated”). That story cannot end in death on Saturday and still have the same meaning. Perhaps any meaning, because without a better tomorrow, all we have are the Powers. Christianity is actually…
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03/26/2016Posted by on
From last year, a favorite.
Holy Saturday is a pause. It is the narrator of a tragic tale silently waiting on stage refusing to leave. And the Christian watchers have already had the ending spoiled for them. At the Episcopalian service that I attended last night, the liturgical service ends in silence. We were to leave the sanctuary dark like a tomb, but stilled and at peace. The effect was diminished somewhat by parishioners chatting gaily upon entering the vestibule. It was the first time in a long time I felt I belonged, if only for now.
Allow me to recap the end of my conversion story. It has been a long time since I’ve been to church. I mean sure, there have been the stop-offs at an Easter Vigil here and there. (Say what you will about the Catholics, and I have, they know their ritual). And there are the funerals and the weddings…
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03/25/2016Posted by on
From two years ago.
The hero has been beaten, broken, and slain
the sun retreats in sorrow
the darkness will take us soon.
The joy of Christmas has turned to ash
the powers drown out the angel’s chorus
salvation has died on the cross and hope is next.
The storyteller has fallen silent
but he has not left.
patient, patient, patient.
Sunday is coming.