being good to each other is so important

This comic came across my transom a few minutes ago. Click and read—there’s much more than just the single panel below. I’ll wait.


On the one hand, beautiful and indisputable. The power of kindness and understanding is formidable. These are values we try to teach our kids, and for the best of reasons, the repulsion of alien despots perhaps not least among them. And I love the art.

On the other… well, it was posted today, today being August 28, 2014. The referents in current events are clear enough, but in case you’re coming to this a few months or years late, let’s state them: the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent overreaction by police to local protests; the recent bloodshed between Israel and Hamas; possibly the Ice Bucket Challenge.

Or, not quite. The referents in current events are the popular reactions to these events. Winehart (Swinehart? I’m assuming he’s “Nate S. Winehart”) is talking about the conversations he’s seeing his friends having. The parallel timelines in the comic aren’t about different things happening in Ferguson, they’re about different ways to react to a world where Michael Brown is dead.

And—it’s difficult to interrogate these sorts of sentiments without seeming to prove their point, but one of those reactions is much easier to imagine when the discussants are both white hipsters who like the same coffeeshop. Who’d want to spend the day together cloud-watching, sharing a movie and a sunset. Who are friends already, whose lives are only separated by different viewing angles on the same abstraction.

It becomes harder to imagine the pink timeline when the two friends have a complicated history. When they’ve hurt each other more than once, then tried to reconcile, then hurt each other again. When one has more often, and more grievously, taken the offensive. It becomes harder to appreciate the pink timeline in light of Ferguson when the joke, the sugar for the pill, is slavery.

I’m grateful for the comic. I’m glad Winehart (please tell me it’s Winehart) drew and posted it. I’m following his blog now because his art is amazing. But—look, I’m reading this book called OVERWHELMED, by Brigid Schulte, which has nothing to do with the ideas at hand except for this:

The overwhelm, they want people to understand, is not an epidemic of personal failures, of whiny moms unable to juggle work and home efficiently. It’s a massive structural failure, and it’s holding everybody back.

The persistence of the blue timeline is not an epidemic of personal failures, of peevish people unwilling to find empathy and common ground with others.

Except when it is. And sometimes it is. But not always, not even close.

Being good to each other is so important. No question. But part of being good is not always insisting on goodness from the other party. Part of being good is respecting justified anger. Part of being good is owning up to history.

baltimore, adrilankha

I can’t be the only person in this world who wishes Steven Brust and Ta-Nehisi Coates were talking more, at least where I could hear it. Initially I just figured that they were two smart, well-spoken, well-informed people with shared interests in the Civil War and fantasy literature, and it was hard not to imagine an interesting conversation eventuating. As I’ve been reading them regularly over the months and years, some other trends emerge, both commonalities and contrasts. They’re both decidedly to the left of center, but it’s not the same “left” whose center of mass is people like me, i.e. mainly white folks with advanced degrees from brand-name universities who have a lot of opinions and don’t do a whole lot — although those people do, I think, form a large part of their audiences. They’re both from working-class backgrounds; both low on formal education, although the depth and facility of their thinking don’t appear to have suffered for it; both raised in families engaged in the work of revolution. Brust identifies as a revolutionary, but his brand of revolution doesn’t really have a place for racism as an organizing force in society, instead classifying it as a special instance of class war. Coates does not identify as a revolutionary yet, but in his recent “blue period” his dissection of the racist roots of American society is so comprehensive that it’s hard to imagine revolution can be far from his mind.

That’s perhaps overstated for parallelism’s sake. OK. But it arises not entirely inorganically when you read, from a recent post on capital punishment:

In America, the history of the criminal justice—and the death penalty—is utterly inseparable from white supremacy.

If you’ve been reading Coates in the last year, you know that “criminal justice” can be replaced with any X short of possibly dog breeding. I could say “in his opinion,” and that would be true, but I don’t want to dismiss it as just opinion–I think he makes a good case; I think it might really be true. Coates goes on to say

Understanding this, it is worth asking whether our legal system should be in the business of doling out an ultimate punishment, one for which there can never be any correction.

(The quoted “this” has a different referent in context, but I think the one implied here will serve.) Yes, it is worth asking. But it is also worth asking the next question, or rather, all of them at once: What should such a legal system be in the business of doing?

This isn’t meant to be a rhetorical question, at least not in the sense that it exposes an absurdity or a contradiction. I’m just trying to get where it goes. Criminal justice has a racist history, granted; racism still corrupts the practice of criminal justice today, acknowledged. Then what? If we shouldn’t accept this corruption in the death penalty, why should we accept it elsewhere in the law? If we shouldn’t–what do we do?

I don’t mean to suggest Coates should have an answer here. I’d appreciate one, but I don’t want to minimize the importance of anatomizing the problem. In any case, I wrote this post because the problem made me think of Brust and revolution. If the corruption in the system, whatever that is, is bone-deep and indelible, is there any other option?

Well, I imagine Coates saying, there’s always getting by. Living how you can. Talking about the problems, not out of any hope of fixing them, but out of fear that they’ll get worse if they’re overlooked. That’s a genuine form of hope, I guess; and even if it isn’t, maybe the idea that hope is necessary is an affectation of those who’ve never had to go without it.

John Scalzi’s latest Big Idea is LONG HIDDEN: SPECULATIVE FICTION FROM THE MARGINS OF HISTORY. I still need to finish Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America”. From experience, it’s easy for nerds to think this stuff doesn’t matter. But there are whole worlds you wouldn’t think to build; whole worlds I’m sure I never will.

a taxonomy of ideologies

One for the philosophers, maybe.

An online community in which I participate is currently engaged in a pseudo-periodic paroxysm over feminism as it relates to changing one’s name at marriage or vice versa. I’m generally in favor of feminism and have a vague sense that the idea of “choice feminism” is vacuous inasmuch as it amounts to sanctifying acts based on the genitals of the actor—but there’s much I don’t know about the history of feminism, to say nothing of the history of marriage, changing one’s name thereat, naming in general, and all sorts of things that seem keenly relevant to the astonishing variety in the ways that contemporary (liberal, overeducated) Americans choose to name themselves and their offspring throughout their lives. So I don’t especially want to engage.

In thinking about whether or not to engage, though, I arrived at a way to classify ideologies that may or may not be interesting. The question that arose in my mind was, “Is it feminist to insist that others be feminist?” Internet caricatures of feminational socialism notwithstanding, I think the answer is at least plausibly “no.” It depends on which others, of course, but part of the very impetus for feminism is the fact that lots of women are very badly oppressed and suffer sanctions when they stand up for themselves. Insisting that women court death or maiming in exchange for a negligible effect on such a culture doesn’t seem like a pro-woman thing to do. (The same might apply to men in such cultures as well, but doing something disadvantageous to men is less obviously non-feminist.)

Anyway, it seems strange for an ideology to have such a property, and you could try to view it as a defect. But I’m not sure it is—or if it is, I think it’s widespread. Generalize the question to “Is it X to insist that others be X?” If X is “Christian,” I probably know more Christians who would answer “no” than “yes” (obviously some would answer “yes”). If X is “left-wing” as Americans understand it, I think the answer is almost certainly no—or, at least, the American left tries to make a good show of tolerating some cultures with values that don’t sit well with their (our?) own. Presumably the answer is “no” for any non-evangelical religion; it’s interesting to wonder whether it’s true for “tolerant” or “open-minded.” As for “agnostic,” well, hard to know.

On the flip side, there are ideologies for which this is straightforwardly true. “Fascist” would be the most obvious one, and you could spend a while playing a left/right split here, but I think it’s not quite so clear. “Environmentalist” seems to be a big yes, for example; likewise “vegetarian” and “vegan,” although those bump a bit because they read more as practices than ideologies. “Libertarian” is a minor minefield—it seems like the answer ought to be “no,” but libertarians do in fact proudly insist on less government for everybody, which, when you phrase it that way, magically transmutes it from individualism to paternalism (“If you just *understood* how much better off you’d be with less government, you’d vote for me”).

There’s obviously a bit of wiggle room here. A lot turns on the word “insist” and the unquantified word “others”; changing those would change a lot of answers. But I don’t think I’ve construed them in ridiculous ways above.

In any case, once you’ve got such a classification system, the question is what it’s good for. I suppose the obvious prediction it makes is about memetics: “no” ideologies should be at an evolutionary disadvantage relative to “yes” ideologies, because “yes” ideologies carry a stronger urge to self-replicate. But is this really true? It’s hard to tell in part because it’s hard to make a minimal contrast between “yes” and “no” ideologies; going back to the ur-example, you can perhaps imagine feminisms with different answers, but they’d be different in ways other than the answers, perhaps most notably in that they appeal differently to the self-interest of different groups of women. Putting that aside, though, it doesn’t seem clear that “no” ideologies are all that unsuccessful. Buddhism seems like the paradigm “no” ideology, and it is huge and ancient (acknowledged: there are many Buddhisms, perhaps some are evangelical, I’m not an expert). Fascism is, as I half-joked above, the paradigm “yes” ideology, and it has enjoyed terrifying epochs of dominance—but has it ever been as popular as Buddhism?

I don’t have a great coda here, except maybe this: The urge to self-replicate might not always be the dominant consideration in the success of *any* kind of replicator, memetic or otherwise. This seems like a proof of concept, at least, that there can be other ways to take a firm grip within a population characterized by ceaseless and ruthless competition.

the state of the art in anti-surveillance countermeasures

I am still trying to get my head around the implications that the British government’s equivalent of the NSA probably holds the world’s largest collection of pornographic videos, that the stash is probably contaminated with seriously illegal material, and their own personnel can in principle be charged and convicted of a strict liability offence if they try to do their job. It does, however, suggest to me that the savvy Al Qaida conspirators [yes, I know this is a contradiction in terms] of the next decade will hold their covert meetings in the nude, on Yahoo! video chat, while furiously masturbating.

— Charles Stross, “Rule 34, meet Kafka


stross & sterling on intelligence

We human beings are primates. We have a deeply ingrained set of cultural and interpersonal behavioural rules which we violate only at social cost. One of these rules, essential for a tribal organism, is bilaterality: loyalty is a two-way street. (Another is hierarchicality: yield to the boss.) Such rules are not iron-bound or immutable — we’re not robots — but our new hive superorganism employers don’t obey them instinctively, and apes and monkeys and hominids tend to revert to tit for tat quite easily when unsure of their relative status. Perceived slights result in retaliation, and blundering, human-blind organizations can slight or bruise an employee’s ego without even noticing. And slighted or bruised employees who lack instinctive loyalty because the culture they come from has spent generations systematically destroying social hierarchies and undermining their sense of belonging are much more likely to start thinking the unthinkable.

Edward Snowden is 30: he was born in 1983. Generation Y started in 1980-82. I think he’s a sign of things to come.

Via Charlie Stross. The longer Bruce Sterling article linked therein is also worth a read.

guns, slavery, and civil rights

This issue is no longer live on Facebook, so people may no longer care—if indeed they ever did—and it’s solidly outside my wheelhouse(s?); but I’m going to swing anyway. Wish me luck.

TruthOut said, about six weeks ago, that the Second Amendment was ratified to preserve slavery. You’ll remember that the Newtown shootings were much closer to the front of people’s mind in mid-January than they are now, and it’s perhaps testament to the evanescence of what passes for political thought on social media that the headline already sounds a bit absurd, like “why would anyone go there?” But you’ll remember that we were all quite concerned about saying how concerned we were about guns back then, and this bit of analysis got passed around. The topic sentence is at the beginning:

The real reason the Second Amendment was ratified, and why it says “State” instead of “Country” (the Framers knew the difference—see the 10th Amendment), was to preserve the slave patrol militias in the southern states, which was necessary to get Virginia’s vote.

The sheer political convenience of this construal is cause enough to doubt its veracity, if you’re ignorant like me—but, if you’re ignorant like me, you’d better at least not be dumb enough to say flat out it isn’t true, and I won’t. I don’t know nearly enough about the political machinations surrounding the Bill of Rights to confirm or deny. What I will say is, then there’s this:

The History of the Second Amendment in two paintings

The WaPo link doesn’t contradict the TruthOut link, and for all I know they are both true. But the WaPo link complicates things more than a little. Arguably our major problem with guns today is not so much the Second Amendment itself, as its reconstrual to emphasize individual (rather than collective) rights to bear arms. And that seems to have been an unintended consequence of the reconstructionist Republicans’ very understandable desire to suppress insurrections and allow black families to defend themselves in the postwar South.

Which makes it seem a little off to go after guns with guilt by association to slavery.

By the same token, it’s off to valorize guns as a keystone of our civil rights. We’ve used violence for truly noble purposes a few times in the nation’s history, for purposes ranging from questionable to downright vile a bit more regularly. If we buy both articles linked above, what we learn is that the framers used the Second Amendment for bad, then the reconstructionist Republicans twisted it around to use it for good, but what was good back then is bad now. And even that is probably too simple.

It’s good to know history. But I think that knowing history tends to foreclose convenient analogies. It’s appealing for liberals (of whom I am one) to blame the South for things we don’t like—and the South has its share of things to answer for. But if we reject Virginia, we reject Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, all of whom owned slaves. Adams never owned a slave, but spoke out against emancipation. Hamilton was anti-slavery, but tried to kill Aaron Burr in a duel with a gun. And, of course, today’s President, beneficiary of a transformational respect for civil rights that is still new and far from total, only recently “evolved” enough to acknowledge the full civil rights of his gay countrymen.

This is a long way of saying that history only takes us so far; new worlds have new problems, and we have to assess the factors on their own merits. Lazy thinking doesn’t work. Believe me, I try it every day.

(Unrelated to the more sanctimonious bits of the above, it’s dynamics like this that make me understand how people become Civil War buffs. The more I learn about that period of time, the more interesting it gets. Although it swiftly becomes apparent that you need to go back to at least the Revolution to really understand how any of it works.)

big bird’s pink slip [trigger warning: partisan bulls***]

Sorry, Republican friends, I’m in a bad mood after this one. But it’s because your guy did well, so maybe take that concession home rather than reading on? I may become immoderate.

I’d like to think Obama’s performance in the debates was part of a long game. I think it’s clear that a slam dunk wasn’t going to help him much (and, judging from Romney’s showing tonight, might have been unattainable in any case). What he wants is fresh egg on Romney’s face, something that can make the YouTube rounds until November 2. On that account, it’s a gamble; Team Obama figures that, if the President puts on bit of a meek face, he has a good chance of drawing out something Romney’s going to regret.

Even if it is a long game, though, it might turn out to have been a bad bet. Tonight would suggest that. I don’t know, though. Romney flashed that little grin every time he was satisfied with himself. I could see it happening. (But then, I would.)

It does astonish me how serenely the guy could accuse Obama of being a partisan hack who refused to listen to Congressional Republicans. Or maybe it doesn’t; you can see why Obama can’t take that bait. “No, your guys wouldn’t play ball” sounds like whining. Still and all, though, the stones on him.

I continue to hate commentators. I understand why people want to hear about strategy, truly I do—I sometimes even want to hear about it myself—but this is PBS; there have got to be a couple of donors who care about who’s going to win AND why it matters. Couldn’t we have sat the “social” “media” “expert” to one side and devoted a couple of minutes to the mildly interesting question of whether or not Mitt Romney is actually proposing a $5 trillion tax cut? Or the actual effect of Obama’s $716 billion cut/”savings” to Medicare? These are staggering sums of money we’re talking about, and in each case one man says we’re on the hook for it and the other denies it; is no further clarity desirable?

Anyway. That’s enough cycles down the drain for one night.

“a writer who can be so universally admiring need never lunch alone”

All the articles in SLATE’s Longform Guide to Takedowns are worth reading, but two stand out. I think their common strength is in using good writing, and insight trained by writing, to anatomize the failings (and, in a sense, the workings) of bad writing. It may help that their targets really are fish in barrels—or, perhaps more likely, that their targets come off as fish in barrels may testify to the pungency with which Taibbi and Morozov make their cases.

The significance of Columbus’s discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat earth. But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning the “flat world” into a metaphor for global interconnectedness. Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected world.

“Let me… share with you some of the encounters that led me to conclude that the world is no longer round,” he says. He will literally travel backward in time, against the current of human knowledge.

“Flathead,” by Matt Taibbi

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

“The Naked and the TED,” by Evgeny Morozov

“Insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering.” I’ll have lunch with Evgeny Morozov any time.

“once it was a man, and it did you service in its fashion.”

A professor of mine linked to Andrew Sullivan’s recent article, Republicanism as Religion. I try to resist my own partisan tendencies, but it’s hard for me to disagree with any of the particulars in Sullivan’s article — except the coda:

If [Obama] defeats [the GOP] next year, they will break, because their beliefs are so brittle, but will then reform, along Huntsman-style lines. If they defeat him, I fear we will no longer be participating in a civil conversation, however fraught, but in a civil war.

First, there’s the idea that the battleground is Obama vs. the GOP; if Obama retains the White House but the Republicans keep the House and take the Senate, I don’t see them “breaking.” (I don’t know whether this is a realistic scenario now; I know it was viewed as one after the midterms, but things change.)

Second, isn’t this the kind of wishful thinking that made all of us starry-eyed liberals so disappointed the last time around? Election 2012 as Gandalf vs. Wormtongue, with the fate of all Middle-Earth in the balance? I don’t want to be too dismissive here, especially as the referring professor is a friend of Sullivan’s, but it’s kind of disquieting to see Obama reappropriated as an object of center-right wish-fulfillment, having apparently outlived his usefulness in that role for the left.

And yet, now that I’ve heaped scorn on the analogy, the Tolkien rings true here:

See, Théoden, here is a snake! To slay it would be just. But it was not always as it now is. Once it was a man, and it did you service in its fashion.


My thoughts on this feel quite derivative and much-echoed right now — it seems every other post on Twitter has a twist or insight more worthy of dissemination than what’s rattling in my head. But I think I’ll want to know what I thought today, maybe in a few years when I’m explaining to my kids what it was like to live my third decade in the middle of the War on Terror. So here it is, for what it’s worth.

Osama Bin Laden was a mass murderer of my countrymen, and if anyone can deserve to die, he did. I think the world is a better place without him in it. I don’t feel joy at his death, as many don’t, but I don’t think I can begrudge those who do. I have two hopes right now, and I don’t know which is greater or more likely: That the families of the men and women killed on 9/11 and in the Middle East derive some comfort from Bin Laden’s death, and that it signals the beginning of our withdrawal from the deserts and cities that have eaten away at our armed forces for so long that no one any longer bothers to post body counts. I hope my children will grow up in a world where young people are not sacrificed far from home for gains no one can verify or understand. And I hope that, once we’ve healed a bit from our Middle Eastern adventures, we as a country can seriously assess the virtues of a “volunteer” military drawn disproportionately from the poor, and so taxed by the efforts demanded by our politicians that it can no longer maintain basic standards of education and good conduct for those it hires to kill our enemies.

I can’t help but feel that Bin Laden’s slaying was too convenient. Not in the sense that he was killed for political gain, or that the soldiers who killed him should have held back — those are things I’ll never know. Too convenient in the sense that we can now say, and truly, that we slew the dragon in his den. And I simply don’t think we’ve earned that kind of simplicity, that catharsis. I exclude from this the soldiers who performed the mission, and just about all others; they deserve all the experience points, gold, and magical items the world has to offer. But not the rest of us. The rest of us are not warriors; we fear death too much to risk death. Our understanding of violence is denatured, and we should not exult in it as we do in lighter contests. Recent electoral politics, the mortgage crisis, and the rapidly expanding bubble in higher education point toward the same thing, an America addicted to simple answers. Simple stories. Knights and dragons.

And perhaps I’ve mined something useful from this exegesis after all, or even exposed its hidden engine. My novel — Christ, I hate to say that when it isn’t published, but that’s what it is — THE DANDELION KNIGHT, is very much about terrorism; it was conceived in the later years of the Bush presidency and concerns the relationship between an isolationist police state and a terrorist organization constructed around the image of a Robin-Hood-like folk hero. And it’s also written very much in reaction to genre tropes in fantasy and science fiction — too much so, arguably; it rears away from them with all the forethought of a horse shying from a snake, or so an uncharitable reading might reasonably say. And I never really took seriously the idea that these political and literary concerns might be related. I like China Miéville’s contra-Tolkienist writings as much as anyone else, but I read them mostly as entertainment; I’m a neuroscientist, and all this political stuff seems rather a priori to me, and quite separate from how stories do and don’t satisfy their readers. And I guess what I’m suggesting here is, maybe not. Which would come as a surprise to no one else, or at least not to most writers, but I do tend to insist on learning things on my own. I wrote a post a few months back, a word-by-word workshop on the first two sentences in Naomi Novik’s first novel, HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON, and one of the things that rang wrong was her invocation of “the numbing haze of battle-fever,” as though geeks like her and me had any idea what that was. I suppose there’s politics in that — less in the image than the shared understanding with which it wrongly credits us. (There’s a book-length hedge that ought to follow this, which I will summarize thus: I do not endorse the dictum of writing “what you know” except in the loosest sense. I am, when I have time, a fantasist. The point is just that image should convey experience, not presuppose it. This is wrong in the limit, of course, but basically right.)

Anyway, I’ll return briefly from this narcissistic digression to issue the following qualification: I know I’m not the person to declare whether America, whatever that is, has earned catharsis. I have been housed, employed, and in the black since Osama Bin Laden became infamous; I have gone on vacations, eaten good food, published stories and papers, earned my bachelor’s and Ph.D., and married the woman I love surrounded by my friends and family. I don’t need this narrative. But maybe some people do. That’s for them to decide. For myself, I will continue to wish, faintly and with diminishing conviction as the weeks pass, that Bin Laden had been captured instead of killed. That we had found ourselves forced to treat him, not like the dragon we have made him, but like the human he had — to all our shame — been all along.