See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

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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.


Easter is Not the End of the Story

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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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Good Friday

From two years ago.

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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.

He remains

patient, patient, patient.

Sunday is coming.

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Nonconformists, Parameters, the Constitution, and Heretics

There is some danger of reading this and seeing one’s self in positive terms, like a horoscope, but I think drawing lines between the different sorts of conformity and non-conformity is a useful one. I’d also add that “society” is a difficult thing to grasp here since within any one society, one can be a true believer of one faction (say, progressiveness) while perceiving yourself as a non-conformist or free-thinker.

Free speech, that is, resisting the urge to purge the non-conformists, or insufficiently true believers, is actually a very difficult fit. The inheritors of the Enlightenment have not done a particularly good job. This isn’t to say it isn’t valuable: quite the opposite. It is even more so, because it is so difficult to hold onto.

Some of this will be coming up this week vis-a-vis Hobby Lobby.

The Chequer-board of Nights and Days

So far we’ve discussed heresy as a general concept, looked at the definition of it from a Catholic perspective, and looked at the history of the concept.  Here I want to consider some of the sociological aspects of heresy.

Back here I had the following to say (editing a bit):

In all societies and cultures…beyond a certain level of complexity, you have various attitudes toward belief….  These are as follows:  1.  Sheep; or more politely conformists.

The vast majority of people–I’d say 70%, at least–are basically conformist.  Perhaps I should use that term–”conformist”–as it’s a bit more polite.  Conformists go along to get along.  They’re not extremely reflective and they tend accept whatever the prevailing religion, political ideology, or societal Zeitgeist happens to be.

This is most likely a survival trait, for obvious reasons.  In a hunter-gatherer tribe, there has to be a certain amount of social cohesion, which…

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Irreverant Bastards and Covers (Part II)

I’m writing this post while away with spotty access to the Internet, so you’ll have to excuse the lack of citations.

On Tuesday, I talked a little bit about some of the broad cultural barriers and incentives involved in the production of covers. Today, I’d like to drill down into the way the American copyright regime alters the incentives in covers.  So, have some dry background.

Being a property owner under American law is usually a pretty sweet deal. Ownership of a thing generally entitles you to posess that thing, freely exploit that, exclude other people from having that thing, and even the ability to destroy that thing. American law also centers around the idea that one of the most important rights is the ability to give up your rights, the so called right to contract. For example, you can agree to sell your property, giving up your exclusive right to possess, exploit, exclude, destroy, etc for money. Or you can agree to rent your property, giving up your exclusive right to possess, but retaining most of the rights to exploit, exclude, destroy, etc. That is the general rule. There are of course exceptions. For example, the government can condemn your land and take it without your consent under certain circumstances, but not without compensating you – vindicating your economic rights, or economic interests – in your real property. And for most physical things and land, property, and its rights and limitations on rights are generally pretty intuitive.

Intellectual property is considerably stranger. When I have a peice of personal property – say a hammer – my right to exclude you from posessing it is pretty closely tied to my right to exploit it. After all, if you have my hammer, I can’t use it. However, if you grab and copy of my Starline Vocal Band’s Greatest Hits CD (I have no idea if this object exists) I have the same ability to use that CD and its music as I did before. For that matter, if you copied my hammer, I’m not going to care much if you deface your copy of that same hammer. The same could not be said of you deface a copy of a photograph of my wife. Perhaps for these reasons, the various laws that cover intellectual property, patent, trademark, and copyright, limit the usually absolute property rights in various ways. With copyright, the property rights are limited to a time determined by law, and have certain exceptions for “fair use” but within those restrictions, are very strong. Your property right in copyright includes the ability to exclude other people from copying your works. So again, intellectual property owners get a pretty sweet deal. Except when it comes to music.

Considering the incredible power of the music industry and the lawsuit happy RIAA in particular, this might strike you as odd, but there is actually a giant gaping hole in the side of the copyright protection for music recordings known as the mechanical license. You might imagine the proccess getting a license – that is, permission – to record a cover version of a song, involving contacting the owner of the music and negotiating a fee. That is how it works for everything else. With covers, you simply contact the Harry Fox Agency and cut them a check for the appropraite amount. The only limitations? The cover cannot change the essential nature of the work, and the cover has to be produced for sale. This is a pretty unusual piece of law.

Imagine for a moment an alternative law, where the mechanical license was not contingent on the not changing the “essential nature” of a work produced for sale, but instead by the would be cover artist convincing the appropriate neutral party that the art was good. “You can cover Rolling in the Deep” you can imagine the judge saying “but only if you add something to our listening experience sufficient to justify taking artistic control away from Adele”

In my experience there are two common reactions to a proposed scheme like this. One is positive. “Of course” someone might say “musicians should be able to better control their work and not let a bunch of college kids half-ass their way through medicore imitations. Another is strongly negative, “absolutely not!”  someone might respond “there is no way we can trust the state (or anyone else, really) to decide what kind of music is valuable and what kind is not!” You might however, imagine a slightly different reaction to it. “Hold on. Maybe by letting anyone produce terrible covers, letting anyone try and fail, and fail, and fail and fail and fail, we let people produce great music? Maybe you have to be terrible before you are good.”

And this is where we wrap back around to free speech, because covers are actually a decent stand in for speech in general but with some of the parties moved around. Maybe you think can trust the state, or someone else to decide what kind of speech is sufficiently valuable to protect or allow, especially when some of the parties are more or less powerful.  Maybe you think there is no way you can trust the state. Or maybe you think even if the state can be trusted to figure this out, there is a bigger goal in mind in the long run.

That, I think, is where I ultimately come down on issues of bad speech. I don’t have a problem with the idea that there is some speech that is pretty obviously bad, just like there are some covers that are really bad, and we should all say so when they are. Maybe however, we should accept that in order to get something good, we have to allow, even freely encourage people to produce any speech, because a world with too much quiet can be just as impovrished as one with too much noise.