Sunday, February 13, 2011

blurb criminal

I'm going to slap the wrist of the "Times" writer who blurbed "The Nearest Exit" (a spy novel by Olen Steinhauer). He wrote, "Steinhauer can be legitimately mentioned alongside John Le Carre."

First of all, it's floundering in passivity. Steinhauer "can be mentioned"? Mentioned by whom? Why not, "I'm not ashamed to mention" or "you will wind up mentioning" or "readers will feel compelled to mention" or "My dentist mentioned"?

And what does it mean to "legitimately mention" something? Can you illegitimately mention something? Presumably, the writer is claiming that when Steinhauer is (passively) mentioned, the (unnamed) mentioner will have grounds for his (free-floating) mentioning. In other words, the statement uttered via mention will be true. But what a sloppy way to say so! For lunch today, I'm going to legitimately eat some Spaghettios.

And "mention"? What kind of a chicken-shit, faggy verb is that? If you love a book, fucking PROCLAIM your love on the mountaintops. Or at least speak up a bit. Don't make comments out of the side of your mouth. It's annoying enough when Robin Williams does it. Don't be like him. PLEASE don't be like him. (For so many reasons, such as "Patch Adams.")

Finally -- and here I'm quibbling, but, screw it, I might as well have some fun -- what does it mean to mention the author "alongside" Le Carre? Is the (mystery) mentioner claiming (espousing, broadcasting, opining ... saying) that Steinhauer is as talented as Le Carre? Or is he -- the disembodied mentioner -- at a dinner party, sitting next to Le Carre, when he engages in (untethered) mentioning?

Thursday, February 03, 2011

civil war 2.0

In a Facebook debate, one friend -- Wendy -- insisted that all Republicans are evil. My reply:

I've met people who are fiscal Republicans but not social ones. They are pro gay rights, etc. But they don't believe in big government. They think high taxes, etc. hurt the economy. Some of them are genuinely concerned about the poor (some of them ARE poor). They just think the economy works in a specific way.

When you strip the two parties down to their stances on economics, you have two groups espousing mystical beliefs. One group believes that the economy is healthier if you spread the wealth. The other believes it's healthier if money trickles down from the top.

We have no way of know which group is right. Maybe one is right given certain circumstances (a recession, a war, etc) but not in other circumstances.

Anyone who is SURE that one of those two views is right is trucking in mysticism. And most people do seem to be sure.

And you can't go by history, because it's a dirty test tube. Greece in 1928 or even American in 1980 is not America in 2010. The system is too chaotic to make good predictions.

I don't know if you've lived outside of Indiana (or the midwest). But one thing to keep in mind is that the Bible belt only introduces you to one kind of Republican. Definitely the worst kind. In my view, their main problem isn't that they're Republicans, it's that they're ignorant -- and they have a culture that protects and nurtures ignorance.

My feeling is that the world sucks in many ways because there are Conservatives in it. It also sucks in many ways because there are Liberals in it. But it would suck way more if everyone was Conservative or everyone was Liberal. We need the two groups to act as checks on each other.

It's hard for most people, Liberal or Conservative, to see that, because, to some extent, being Liberal means wanting everyone else to be Liberal and being Conservative means wanting everyone else to be Conservative. Why would you want people to be what-you-consider-wrongheaded?

At it's heart, Conservatism is fear of change. At its most pathologic, it's a refusal to embrace change for the good. At its most wise, it's a caution not to leap before you look -- it's the reminder that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and that solutions sometimes cause bigger problems.

At it's heart, Liberalism is an embracement of change. At its most pathological, it's reckless. At it's most wise, it's brave enough to experiment when problems need to be solved.

In a world with only Conservatives, nothing would ever get better. In a world with only Liberals, eventually everyone would fall off a cliff because, hey, it's worth a try! We survive only by the two forces tugging at each other.

And survival sucks, because so many Liberals and Conservatives suck. And because the pull is towards the center, and the center pleases no one. But the center is the only option that doesn't lean inevitably to destruction.

Most Liberals and Conservatives are utopians, because they believe there's a non-sucky option. They insist on acting like, one day, "the other side" will go away.

Conservatives aren't going away. Nor are Liberals. Like it or hate it, we will always share the planet.

Someone else pointed out to me that " can't strip it down to economics. Not for me, anyway. My economic theory isn't about what's best for the economy. It's about the obligations that come with being a member of a decent, functioning society. We need to provide for the poorest among us not because my economic theory says so but because I believe it to be the right and decent thing to do. We need to pay for these things by taxing the wealthy because the wealthy are benefiting from a healthy educated workforce and therefore pay for these things. That's not economics for me, it's (again) what's right and decent.

Therein lies the problem. It's impossible to separate economic theory from moral judgement, and it makes it hard to argue with those who you think are just out and out wrong."

When I talked about "what's best for the economy," I meant for PEOPLE -- not for corporations, except in the sense that people get their paychecks from corporations.

Presumably, we all agree that if the economy is in good shape, there are fewer poor people. But we differ over what we need to do to keep the economy in good shape.

Sure, there are asshole Republicans who don't care about poor people. But there are others who genuinely believe that Conservative economic policy helps the poor better than Liberal policy does. They may be wrong. I am neutral about that, because, frankly, I think anyone who is has a strong opinion about ANY economic policy is nuts. Macroeconomics is voodoo.

One of the caricatures of Liberals is that the bleeding-heart type. He will be told that if he invests some money that he has, the dividends will help 1000 poor people next year. But there are ten poor people in front of him right now, so instead of investing, he gives all the money to the ten. So only ten poor people benefited when 1000 could have. (I don't think that's a very good caricature, and I'm not promoting it. I'm just saying that "helping the poor" can take many different forms, depending on one's beliefs.)

My point is that at least some Republicans agree with you -- that you can't separate economics from morality. And they'd say -- and believe -- that their version of economics is the morally right one, the one that is most likely to help the disadvantaged.

Also, it's possibly a mistake to lump Fred, the Republican next door with "those people in Congress." Wendy talked about how horrible it is that Republicans side with those rape-redefiners in Washington. Well, one thing worth remembering is that many Americans, on both sides of the Red/Blue divide mistrust politicians and don't think of them as "their peeps."

I'm that way. I would call myself a Liberal -- at least when it comes to social issues. I'm pro gay rights, pro choice, blah blah blah. But those Democrats in Washington are NOT my folks. You may feel they are your folks, and, of course, there are plenty of Republicans who feel at one with Republican politicians -- but there are also plenty who don't.

I can't remember a president in my lifetime that I've liked. I'm a Liberal, but I'm not big Obama fan. I wasn't a fan of Clinton or Carter, either. So it's worth remembering that just because Fred's a Republican, that doesn't mean he likes the Republicans in power or agrees with everything they say.

You can bet if Obama does something horrible -- something you disagree with -- people on the other side will point at you and say, "See what YOU PEOPLE do?" That would be massively unfair, unless you happen to blindly support "your team."

"I get that some conservatives might think that their policies will help the working class, the poor, and the general population. But the facts aren't always on their side because America has proven recently that economic growth hasn't trickled down all that much.

Moreover, many of the people they choose to stand in for them use language that suggest that their notion of 'help' includes a form of condemnation. Reagan said that the unemployed were 'unemployed by choice' and held up one (as of yet never been located) 'welfare queen" as proof that welfare was not helpful but enabled people to cheat and have babies just to collect checks. The Tea Party and Conservative darlings of today say that unemployment 'spoils' people (Sharron Angle) and that unemployment insure 'rewards people who don't look for work' (a sentiment uttered in one form or another by about two dozen members of the Senate within the last year, all of whom were Republican).

So if Conservatism (economically) is aimed at helping the poor or the working class, it might need better spokespeople."

No argument here re bad spokespeople. Again, though, as a Liberal, I can relate to this. I rarely hear a Liberal politician speak and think, "Yes! He's a good spokesperson for me." It sucks that Conservatives hear these clowns talking and think that just because I'm they're liberal and I'm liberal, they speak for me. They don't.

As I said, there are plenty of Liberals and Conservatives who DO feel like their politicians speak for them. But this isn't the case for all Liberals and Conservatives.

This is the sort of thing that bothers me, and it's the sort of thing said by both sides: "America has proven recently that economic growth hasn't trickled down all that much."

Being very specific, what has been proven is that economic plan A did not work in county B at date C. That same plan might (or might not) work in a different country at a different time. The problem is that different countries -- or even the same country at different times -- are massively different from each other.

Saying that the the trickle-down effect works (or doesn't work) is like saying "you should always wear three layers of clothing." That's not true, because weather systems fluctuate. It's a bad idea to wear three layers in the Summer.

But the weather is far-less chaotic (in terms of what you should wear) than the economy. You CAN reliably say that it's a good idea to wear a coat in the winter, because one winter is more-or-less like every other winter: cold. But no economic place or time is like any other.

The variables for Summer/Winter are basically temperature and wind. The variables for the economy are stock-market fluctuations, interest rates, levels-of-inflation, job market statistics, consumer confidence, deficit, etc., etc., etc.

To say that predict that an economic policy is likely to work, you need to have seen it work or not-work before in with all the variables the same. If ONE variable between last time and this time is different, your prediction is worthless.

This is why no one has been able to predict most of the major economic crisis of the past, even though tons of highly-educated, brilliant people try and try and try. We will always be blindsided. Nassim Taleb has a great book about this called "The Black Swan." Its thesis is basically that no matter how many times history proves that when it comes to economics, it's impossible to know the answers, people keep insisting that they DO know.

This drives me batshit insane when it comes to politics. And whats funny is that both parties pull EXACTLY the same shit. If the economy goes South when a Democrat is on the throne, the Republicans jump up and down and point fingers: "See! Liberal economics don't work!" WRONG! Liberal economics doesn't work in this specific time and place, which will never come again. And, of course, Democrats do the same thing when Republican policies fail.

It's like everyone is picking random lottery numbers, and then blaming each other when those numbers fail to win the lottery. It's madness.

When the job market or the economy improve during a presidency, people are SURE they know why it happened. If the market improves tomorrow, half the country will INSIST this is because Obama did it. The other half will insist it was due to an effect that started before Obama came into office. Neither side knows the truth. Neither side CAN know the truth. So it all boils down to "rah rah my team!" Few people have the ability to say, "I really don't know why the economy improved, so I'm going to shut up."

I do agree that when you've heard the 200th Republican say something crappy about the poor or gays or whatever, it's human nature to feel that all Republicans suck. Natural as this is, I think we have to fight it like hell. This is ALWAYS a harmful thought.

If someone gets robbed by ten black people in a row, it's natural for him to think that black people are thieves. If he said this, we'd chastise him for being a racist, but he'd just be doing natural, human, inevitable pattern-matching. It's impossible to not do this. At the same time, it's VITAL that we continually urge people to overcome it. As we know, with race-based remarks, that sort of thinking, natural though it may be, leads to all sorts of horrible problems.

Whenever we hear "black people are...", "Christians are...", "Republicans are..." comments, we should be scared. We should, over and over, as tedious as it is, remind ourselves that not ALL black people or Christians or Republicans are... We need to be firm about this, because though it's true, it's not a natural way of thinking. We are always going to backslide into prejudices. And those prejudices are deadly.

LIBERALS should speak out when they hear someone lump all Republicans together. Christians should speak out when they hear someone lump all Atheists together. Men should speak out when they hear someone lump all women together. Poor people should speak out when they hear someone lump all women together. This is very, very hard to do. We tend to let groups stand up for themselves. (If woman want to be treated as individuals, let THEM work towards that goal. Why should men bother with it?) That's natural but deadly. We need to take a stand, in principle, against all forms of prejudice.

There's nothing wrong with saying, "Anti-gay legislation is evil." But once we slide over into saying ALL Republicans are evil, we're lost. And we're playing with fire.

We're in a terrible state right now, because both Liberals and Conservatives are FURIOUS and FRIGHTENED. And people in those states need to vent. Wendy needed to vent, and I understand that. I often do to. And here I come saying, "Not ALL Republicans are like that." That screws up her venting.

Whenever I hear Liberals making all-encompassing-remarks about Conservatives or Conservatives doing making them about Liberals, I speak up. It doesn't make me many friends. One thing both camps seem to agree upon is that I'm irritating. This is because both camps WANT to caricature the other.

I think many people feel -- and I understand this, because I often feel it too -- that though it's true that not all Republicans are this way or that way, it's okay to vent as if they are when you're around friends.

And sometimes it is. The problem is that right now it's not. Right now the country is crashing and burning. We're edging closer and closer to something that, at its worst, could turn into civil war. My greatest fear is that this train has reached a point where it's unstoppable.

Just prior to WWI, people used to chant "We want war! We want war!" I'm scared that we've reached (or almost reached) a point where this is the case in America. I think there are many people (I admit I'm one of them at times) who are sick of the fighting and would be thrilled to see Liberals and Democrats duke it out in one, final, apocalyptic battle.

What's tragic to me is that most Conservatives think that the biggest problem we have right now is Liberals. And most Liberals think the biggest problem we have right now is Conservatives. Being a Liberal, I DO think Conservatives are a big problem. But there's a bigger problem right now -- and it's the fact that America is almost at a boiling point. Tempers are so high, many people are beyond being rational. They are out for blood. They want their team to win at any cost. They want the other team crushed. Everyone needs a timer out!

No matter how right you are, it's always important to think carefully about whether your rightness is worth going to war over. I'm not saying it's never is. Sometimes it definitely is. It's just worth considering, and very few Americans are considering it.

I suspect this is because they don't think internal war is really a possibility. The assume we'll either just go on being angry at each other forever or that one side will win. Both of these (especially the first) are possible. But war is possible too, and it happened in America a very, very short time ago. Just 150 years ago!

I think we actually learned some lessons from WWI, WWII and The Cold War. Not enough, but some. But, strangely, in American, it's as if the Civil War never happened. Collectively, we learned nothing from it at all.

We need to make a choice. We need to go ahead and get Civil War II over with. Or we need to start working -- NOW -- to bridge the Red/Blue gap. That will be hard as hell, if not impossible. But if we don't make the choice, fate will make it for us. And it probably won't be pretty.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

the party line

I just realized a huge change I went through, starting sometime in my late 20s/early 30s. It's a little hard to explain.

When I was a child and teenager, it was often the case that I hadn't made up my mind about some issue. Or I didn't have a strong aesthetic sense about whether some movie or book or actor was good or bad.

But I felt it was important that I have -- or seem to have -- a strong opinion. I decided that "grown ups" were always sure about things, and I wanted to be grown up.

So, instead of honestly reporting my confusion or undecidedness, I pretended to have a stance. Sometimes it was a stance I copied from someone else -- someone I liked who seemed sure of himself, at least about whatever issues I was currently thinking or talking about.

Okay, I suspect that what I've described so far is pretty common. What may or may not be common is that I somehow felt that my stance was a kind of truth.

Someone would ask me if I liked Shakespeare or not. My true feeling, at my core, might have been something like, "I don't know. I haven't read much Shakespeare. And what little I have read was hard for me to understand, and I didn't like that, because it made me feel stupid. At the same time, I did understand parts of it, and I liked those parts..."

But, having decided that Smart People Like Shakespeare, I'd take that stance and say, "Yes, I like Shakespeare very much." On a simplistic level, we'd call that a lie.

But, of course, like everyone else, I sometimes told lies, and I knew what it felt like to tell a lie. This felt a bit different. It felt like the option I was working towards. Like an almost surely true prediction of what my option one day would be.

If I could have somehow have put my this into worlds, I might have said something like, "Well, I haven't quite gotten there yet, but I'm pretty sure I'm the kind of person who will one day like Shakespeare, so let's just simplify things by putting me in the likes-Shakespeare camp. And, even if I don't actually have both feet in that camp, I promise to act like I do. I'll go see Shakespeare plays. I'll read his works. Etc. So, in terms of behavior, there will be no difference between me and a true Shakespeare fan. To say I'm not a one is just quibbling."

It was as if I had an official spokesperson, and his brief was to handle public relations. And he also made sure that, regardless of my private feelings, I always acted according to the party line. Which made the party line true -- or true-ish.

(If I told one friend that I liked Shakespeare but admitted to another that I didn't, this DIDN'T feel like truth. For it to feel like truth, I had to steadfastly ALWAYS tell the same story.)

Once I got my official-spokesperson stance set, I could utter it in confidence, without shame, and it never felt like a lie. As-far-as my internal state was concerned, it wasn't a lie.

Sometimes, my deep-down confusion would quickly come in line with the party line (and I really would like Shakespeare). I guess that's what they mean by "fake it until you make it." At other times, this process took years.

For instance, as a kid, I spent YEARS claiming to love school, when in fact I hated it. But, again, "I love school" didn't feel at all like a lie. It felt like the official party line. And, in fact, admitting to myself that I hated it was hard, because the spokesperson was screaming at me, "No you don't!"

Sometimes, all that existed was the party line. In other words, I got bored with the actual issue and stopped thinking about it. So whatever truth there was about my stand on it was JUST the stance.

(My dad is very opinionated about music. He used to play a lot of Sondheim, but he HATED the sound "Liaisons" from "A Little Night's Music." When that track would start, he's run to the turntable and skip over it, proclaiming the song's worthlessness. I aped his opinion. It became my stance. And, eventually, though the stance was really powerful and seemed true, there was nothing underneath it. TWENTY YEARS after I adopted the stance, I realized I loved that song and always had.)

In my late 20s, my spokesperson went away. I'm not sure why? It may have had something to do with my immersion in psychology and neurology books. I may have had something to do with my worsening Asperger's symptoms.

I'm not saying I never lie. I'm sure I lie at least as much as anyone. But I KNOW it's a lie. And I always know if I like carrots, hate carrots or are confused about whether I like them or not. So it's not that there's no ambiguity in my soul. There's plenty of it. It's just that I'm comfortable with it. I don't need a spokesperson to pretend I know something that I don't know. If I don't know, I don't know.

Well, that last paragraph sounds like I always have perfect self-knowledge. I don't. Truthfully, I am capable of discovering that I don't really like something that I thought I did. But that's different from having an actual truth and a spokesperson truth in my head at the same time.

When I talk to other people, I sometimes feel like I'm talking to the a spokesperson. And, again, that's not my way of saying I feel like the person is lying to me. It's more complicated than that. I feel like I'm getting a sanitized party line, and that the person I'm talking to believes that line is a kind of truth. That he feels none of the guilt or shame that he'd normally feel if he was lying.

One example is sexuality. If you're a man who is only attracted to women, you're straight. If you're attracted exclusively to other men, you're gay. If you're attracted to both sexes, you're bisexual. It's really simple.

But there are a lot of people you "identify" as gay or whatever. What does this mean? Does it mean, "I am fully aware that I am attracted to both men and women, even though I'm more often attracted to men. I am aware that the TRUTH is that I'm bisexual. But since I don't act on my occasional attraction to women, I'm just going to call myself gay, because that makes things simpler in conversation -- and it makes my life easier in a world that's harsh on bisexuals"?

Or does it mean, "THE PARTY LINE IS THAT I'M GAY and as that IS the party line, it's as true as anything else. They fact that I'm sometimes attracted to women is a non-issue. It's not my official stance. (And maybe my attraction to women will even cease if I hold to the party line with enough conviction.) In any case, the part of me that's attracted to women doesn't count. Because I SAY so!"

In other words, does the bi person who identifies as gay actually feel like that identity is more meaningful than an arbitrary category BECAUSE it's his party line?

I think my lack of a spokesperson gets me into trouble sometimes. For instance, my friends are generally not racists. That means two things: (1) it means that, in general, they treat people of all races fairly and don't discriminate on the basis of skin color and (2) they CLASSIFY themselves as non-racists.

Now, most of us -- I think -- do have the occasional racist thought or feeling. It's not terribly important, as long as we realize it's wrong, etc. What's interesting is it IS part of who we are, but it's NOT part of how we classify ourselves. In other words, we're "bi" when it comes to being racist, leaning heavily towards not.

That is the LITERAL truth. So the LITERALLY TRUE answer, for me, if you ask me whether or not I'm racist, is "Almost never, but very occasionally I have a racist feeling."

While it's almost impossible for me to believe this isn't the case for nearly all "non racists," I've noticed almost no one says this (except for those people who have taken the stance that "we're all racist"). When you're asked if you're racist, you're supposed to go with the party-line answer. Your'e supposed to let the spokesperson talk. And, of course, the literal truth and the spokesperson truth are pretty close.

But, generally, if I admit to the literal truth, people get upset. They say, "You ADMIT you're sometimes racist and you don't do anything about it? That's horrible!"

But I KNOW I'm not alone in my once-in-a-blue-moon racism." I'm just alone in dropping the spokesperson.

This is SO hard to describe. I feel like someone could read this and say, "So you're just saying people are hypocrites?" No, that's not what I'm saying. If someone has an internal spokesperson, and that's really a part of them, and that spokesperson has a strong opinion, then that opinion is true -- or it FEELS true... or it's true-ish.

Without a spokesperson, you (or at least I) wind up living in a much murkier world, in which things aren't cut-and-dry and opinions are apt to shift.

Here's one last example: most of us say things like, "'The Wizard of Oz' is my favorite movie." (If you don't happen to like that movie, imagine some other movie that you do like.)

That becomes the party line, and it IS true most of the time. But sometimes you don't feel like watching it. You're not in the mood to watch your "favorite movie." If someone forced you to watch it right then, you'd have a lousy time. Why? Because THAT MOVIE would be irritating you. A movie you "love" would be irritating you.

I'm not sure what the phrase "my favorite movie" actually means. I guess it's some sort of averaging. It's the movie that most often gives you pleasure. It's a statement that's 100% stance. "Favorite movie" doesn't feel like anything. "I'm enjoying this movie right now" means something, as does "I remember having enjoyed it lots of times in the past, and when I think about it, those thoughts tend to give me pleasure." As does "I'm not enjoying it right now."

The only feelings that exist are the ones you're having right now.

The literal truth is that sometimes you have a good time watching (or thinking about) the movie and sometimes you don't. Your experience skews way more towards "good time" than "bad time." But the bad-time experiences are certainly real. You're "bi" when it comes to "The Wizard of Oz," chocolate cake (which you hate when you have an upset stomach) and the rest of your "favorite things."

But "'The Wizard of Oz' is my favorite movie" FEELS like truth to me. It's the official party line. What's fascinating is that I can say it, with great conviction, without actually feeling anything (other than conviction). It may not be literally true in this moment (I'm not even watching the movie right now), but if you focus on this moment, you're quibbling.

Oops. I claimed not to have a spokesperson. I guess sometimes I do. Especially when I'm tired. He can take over when it's too much work to dredge up my actual feelings. Or when someone forces me to state my feelings about something I don't have any feelings about.

But though he's still around, my spokesperson seems semi-retired. He was so active in my youth. Now he just pokes his head in to say hi once in a while. And he often takes naps, during which time my true feelings (or lack of them) are obvious to me.

We sometimes simplify our internal states in order to be able to think about them and talk about them. Those simplifications can have the emotional force of truth.