The Slow Revolutions of Love

Nonviolent revolutions aren’t clear and simple and swift; they’re typically exactly the opposite. Slow and halting and frustrating.

Violent revolutions have a clarity. A, typically abusive, power structure is forcibly displaced through the expending of material and life energy. This can have a certain effectiveness and speed, and so inspires hope. And there are places where it does, indeed, have a good outcome.

The American Revolution would probably be seen by most people throughout the world as a violent revolution whose outcome had good results. That is to say: the resulting power structure was generally as free, just, and fair as the one it displaced.

But most violent revolutions are more problematic. Violent revolutions have an understandable tendency to create power structures based in violence. Places where order is maintained not so much by the consent of the governed as their fear of the new occupants of the seat of power. The entire history of the Soviet Union is the most prominent and easy to read this way today.

One is tempted, when seeing injustice in the world, to want to counteract it as quickly and effectively as possible. And almost by definition, that action which is swift and decisive will be “violent.” But beyond the dictionary play, it is unlikely that you’re going to want to respect the power structure you see perpetrating an injustice. You’re going to want to overpower it; forcibly displace it; damage it.

The politics of love doesn’t work that way. Love is a slow process of transformation. It’s a revealing, and an opening, and at times it’ll halt and even seem to stop. Its triumphs are small and partial and imperfect. It is the Civil Right Act of 1963, but it doesn’t stop the madness of cases like Rodney King or Eric Garner. It is the fact that today at the end of 2014 gay marriage is legal in a majority of, but not all, US states. It is the fact that Aung San Suu Kyi is no longer under house arrest, but that Burma is not a well-functioning popular democracy. It is the fact that Tibet is still occupied by the Chinese and that South Africa still has crazy levels of black poverty.

Governments are at their best when they’re responsive to the actual will of the people they govern. And the wills of masses of people aren’t something that’s easy to change. Coercion can make a change seem to have happened from a distant perspective, but it doesn’t actually make it happen. Real change, at the level of the individual, is a slow, inefficient, and idiosyncratic process.

Democracies are at their best when they reflect the well-considered and high-minded will of the people. But the will of the people is not something that can easily be swayed by force, nor should it be. And so it’s partial and halting and incomplete, this quest for justice founded in love in the modern political epoch.


Talking About the Weather to Gain Trust

When I think back on the things that I believed as a self-assured young twenty-something, one of the more glaringly dumb ideas that comes to mind was my distaste for “small talk.” I even wrote an essay on this site pretty clearly (and aggressively) elaborating my reasons. Surely, there was some merit to it — even today I can find constant discussion of the weather, sporting events, or other recent news, kind of dull — but it was blind to a whole other facet of reality.

When I most enjoy a conversation, it’s when we’ve moved beyond the superficial and safe topics. It’s when we’re talking deeply about some topic that people don’t talk about much for fear that it exposes too much of themselves. Some of my most cherished conversations were ones about dealing with overwhelm, fear, or other traditionally protected topics.

Where my 21-year-old self was woefully stupid is that I thought it was either possible or desirable to just drop into a conversation with a stranger and expect to talk about something as deep as their spirituality or their highest aspirations for their time on Earth.

Most people are, understandably, protected and a bit apprehensive to dive in deeply very quickly. Time has taught them that they can’t and shouldn’t just trust every stranger with their deepest hopes and fears. This is a rational and understandable protection strategy. And even as I frequently pined for a world free of small-talk, I engaged in this very protection strategy. I just didn’t understand this logic of protection.

To disclose their deepest secrets to someone, anyone with a self-preservation instinct will want some assurance of safety. And for most people, trust that they understand a person, their drives, and motives is that assurance. And without some history of interacting with someone and having good outcomes result, people are unlikely to touch any topic that has a reasonable probability of leading to a bad outcome.

You disagree with someone about the weather and you laugh. You disagree with someone about politics, or the existence of God, or the fundamental purpose of life, and you may well want to strap in your seatbelt for an explosion. That — not stupidity, nor malice, nor vanity — is why many conversations are constrained to safe and dull topics.

Now I get that. And I’m getting better at, “Hello, stranger. Nice day isn’t it?”


Journalism’s Overreporting Problem

Right now, in the United States the presidential campaign season is hitting its stride, and all the big news organizations that are still alive have an abundance of reporters on that beat. Frankly I’m far too lazy to do any real research into this, but I’m confident in saying that every majors new organization has a least one reporter following the race, and that’s at least a dozen reporters too many.

Political horse races are an easy and banal beat. The vast majority of the stories that reporters spend their time covering are the one they’re being horse-fed by the campaigns. These reporters are jumping campaign bus to campaign bus on their way from campaign stop to campaign stop, hopefully pausing once in a while to actually put their ear to the ground and learn what people feel about all the hubbub.

Obviously there are uses to having all these journalists. Sometimes they get to ask the candidates real questions, and sometimes those questions won’t be met with a well-rehearsed dodge. And when those situations arise, it’s nice to think that your reporter will be there to ask really penetrating and valuable questions that shed new light on the story.

But has that happened yet this campaign season? Were all the beat reporters in the White House in the lead up to the Iraq War of 2003 of any value at all in making the country more aware of the war’s foolishly assembled proximate causes? Were that same cluster of reporters any better at asking the hard questions about what would happen after the country’s inevitable victory?

Defenders of the old journalistic order act as though it’s a catastrophe every time a paper cuts its staff. As though we’re losing some valuable insight into the ways of the world. But the simple reality is that for most of the 20th century reporters served in massively inefficient silos. Every paper, magazine, radio station, and TV channel that wanted a seat at the journalistic table acted as though it existed in a vacuum, and that it was truly vital that they were at the battlefront of every war, at every campaign stop, in every capital where things may happen.

In the well-connected world we currently inhabit the value of reporting for yourself from the campaign trail is massively marginal. Almost no value is realized by having ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, Time, Newsweek, the Washington Post, The New York Times, et al following the same campaign in almost the self-same way. What we really could see some benefit from, where these old dinosaurs could really prove the value of their massive staffs, would be to take 10 or 20 reporters currently following every moment of the campaign and disperse them across Washington looking for the under-reported stories. There are certainly important things going on in that town that aren’t sufficiently reported-on for people out here in the world.

The problem that news organizations still don’t have their heads around is the value of truly unique reporting in the networked world. When the paper was the way most people got their news, it was valuable for the paper to focus on the biggest 20 stories in the world and provide up-to-date reports on it. The economics even allowed them to have their own man on each of those scenes. It’s become increasingly clear in the dawn of the 21st century that there’s no room for that model any more.

Perhaps what we need instead is to have a few reporters per issue or candidate. One woman covering Mitt Romney’s campaign will be the one the New York Times gets a progress report from. And when ABC needs a stand-up piece on the front-runner, they go to her. And when Time wants  a longer think-piece about the implications of the Romney campaign, they also go to her. This sort of freelance-reporting seems like a pretty obvious way the journalism business could save money and sacrifice minimal value.

What’s absolutely clear is that shredding the vestigial print-business isn’t the only thing old-school news organizations will need to do in a new world. The sheer volume of people currently dispatched to report on all the latest bleatings of the campaigns drives that point home crystal clear.


The Problem with Revolutions

Revolutions are an appealing idea. On their face, they present the opportunity to start fresh. To wipe away the old order and replace it with one that is clearly better in all aspects. Whether at the level of countries and politics, or your life and your habits, they are massively appealing when first encountered.

But any deep inquiry into the nature and course of revolutions should quickly lay bare some very critical roadblocks. First and foremost, any revolution must inherently govern the same territory that was managed by the old regime. People think they can start fresh on New Year’s Day, forgetting that they’ll still have the same basic thought patterns, tendencies, and mental habits they had before. The brain is malleable, but like with soft soil your habitual paths will have made a noticeable groove; it takes hard work to wear away old trails. It will not be easy-going the first time you endeavor to cut across all the old ruts.

At the world-level, it’s easy to miss the fact that any revolution that cuts off the metaphorical head of the snake will still exist within the environment the snake inhabited. In more traditional language: allies, interest-groups, and citizens will still have the same basic interests in a new world order that they had in the old one. Businesses will still want a stable and friendly regime, the military will still want its power and toys, etc. The reason the military is currently prevailing in Egypt is that the military previously prevailed in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak may have been the head of the snake, but the tree upon which he rested remained in place available for anyone who it likes to climb.

The language of revolutionaries is easy. It is nice, and clear-cut, and simple. Those things are bad and these things are good. Because of this, it’s a terrible way to actually see the world, but a great way to misunderstand it. The soft revolution that Barack Obama promised in the 2008 election never materialized because one cannot make a new world by words alone. The only way to truly forge a new order is to systematically disassemble all the interest groups that made up the old order. To do this quickly (that is: in a revolutionary way) almost always requires either killing people or making them scared for their life and safety.

And that’s a thing I absolutely abhor. All sane freedom-loving people similarly abhor it. But those revolutions that succeed require a strong force of violence–either physical or psychological–to carry them through. And this is certainly no guarantee of long-term success. China was a brutal and suppressive state for much of the mid-twentieth century, making it one of the most durable and ideologically pure communist revolutions carried out. While it still exists in name, anyone who thinks that the Chinese Communist Party today rules over a country that the party’s founders would have appreciated is a fool.

The “revolutions” that succeed, and are looked upon fondly even after the newness have worn off, are barely revolutionary. The only notable revolution I can think of that one could meaningful call a success in the fullness of time is the American. But it’s worth making clear that the American Revolution was only revolutionary insofar it it was a revolt against a very small feature of the existing power structure. The Americans were largely satisfied with the basic political landscape in which they existed, they just didn’t like the nature of the head of the snake. Nothing about the day-to-day life of Americans changed much after the revolution, save for the location from which taxes were applied and protections offered.

Other revolutions, the Eastern European “revolutions” of 1989 come to mind, which eschew violence and succeed are held against feeble regimes. I’d even argue that it makes less sense to think of 1989 as a revolutionary moment, than as when it finally became clear that the Bolshevik revolution could not last. The militaristic psychological control exercised by Communist bureaucrats to keep themselves in power–the only thing that made it appear to last–had run out of believers to enforce it.

In the fewest words possible, the anti-revolutionary case is this: revolutions do not work. They are enticing, they are exciting, and they have no ability to forge lasting change. Neither in personal nor political life will any sensible person ever ask for a revolution. Because sensible people know that the world is complacent, lazy, and uncomfortable with change. Sensible people know the world is too complicated for revolutionary language, revolutionary ideas, or revolutionary soldiers to achieve a lasting and praiseworthy impact.

american society, big ideas, personal

On Privilege

White privilege, as you may know,

is a sociological concept describing the advantages enjoyed by white persons beyond what is commonly experienced by the non-white people in those same social spaces (nation, community, workplace, etc.). It differs from racism or prejudice by the fact that a person benefiting from white privilege need not hold racist beliefs themselves.

There is also some noteworthy scholarship on male privilege and heterosexual privilege. All of it speaks to the ways in which being white, male, and straight allows me the freedom to never be asked to speak on behalf of any group in which I was randomly born a member. How my poor behavior is rarely seen as a reflection on anyone but myself. How most people will assume that I’m intelligent, safe, and trustworthy. How history, as conventionally told, is brimming with people who look like me and by people like me. How role models that look like me are everywhere in this culture. How people are unlikely to harbor any negative ideas about me because of who I am.

And aside from the privileges bestowed by being white, male, and straight, I’m college educated. My parents are still married. My parents are upper-middle class. I’m an American. I live in the United States of America. I have little discernible accent (at least to American ears). All of these are seen as things that make me a better person, despite my responsibility for none of them.

And those are merely those privileges that I can enumerate right now without effort. I’m sure there are many more that I’ll discover later and probably untold ones I’ll never be made aware of.

Discussion of privilege can quickly degenerate into theoretical issues and nit-picking on substance. Surely, you might argue, there must be some privilege’s in being black, Latino, or Asian. I wouldn’t contend that there aren’t. But that’s immaterial to the fact that white (or male or heterosexual) privileges in most countries–and especially this one–are far more numerous than those conferred by other identities.

And surely white privilege–even all the privilege’s I possess–doesn’t dictate my lot in life. A poor gay black man from Zimbabwe could make himself far more successful than I’ll ever be. But I feel rather certain that he’d have had to fight a lot harder to get there.

If–or when–one recognizes that they’ve received so many unearned privileges the obvious question is: what do I do about it? One bad answer to that question the easiest to give: nothing. To assert that though you’ve received these unearned privilege’s you should essentially forget about them. Or worse, you can make the absurd and disgusting claim that they’re rightfully yours because “it was earned for you by the hard work and self-discipline of your ancestors and relatives, whom you should learn to appreciate.

There is something to be said for conscious awareness of it. To recognize and understand what it may be like on the other side of that divide. It wasn’t until I spent fifteen minutes in a mostly-black grocery store near downtown Detroit that I ever recognized what it’s like to be on the minority side of any social situation. Aware that even if these people meant me no harm–and I’m sure of that–there was the immutable fact that I felt out of place. For a white heterosexual male who has lived most of his life in predominately white parts of a predominately white state it was an eye-opening experience.

Real awareness, I think, leads directly to action. Perhaps the greatest action you’ll ever undertake is to spread awareness of these privileges among others. Perhaps you’ll just vote for politicians who you think understand and would do their best to countermand these unearned privileges. Perhaps you’ll become an activist against these privileges.

Perhaps you’ll do absolutely nothing. But I do hope you’ll at least think about what a privilege you’ve been given, to be able to ignore the ways in which you’re privileged. The unprivileged have no such choice.

politics, USA

Moderating the “Undocumented” Issue

corazón girlDallas Protest March

They have a lot of names. Invaders. Spics. Terrorists. Wetbacks. Identity thieves. Less harshly, illegal aliens. Illegal immigrants. Undocumented workers.

They have been, over the last few years, one of America’s most important political flashpoints. Derided by some as simple lawbreakers who deserve no rights or preference. Praised by others as hardworking immigrants in the greatest American tradition that deserve a full place at the table.

Efforts to solve the problem that by various estimates includes 12 million, 17 million, or 20 million people have failed. After efforts to pass moderate reform laws twice failed, George W. Bush’s executive branch decided to make it appear that their Immigration and Customs Enforcement arm was serious about the problem. Raids on employers followed, with the brunt of the effort harming lay workers and the not the corporations that employ them.

This has brought the president some greater credibility with the “law and order” conservatives who seem to oppose any reform that doesn’t involve building a giant wall between the United States and Mexico and forcibly deporting all the undocumented.

But the Republican presidential field now lacks a member of that group. Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo–the immigration opponent–ended his presidential bid last month and threw his support behind the Massachusetts governor who had been accused (accurately it turns out) of running a “sanctuary mansion.” This detail came out in the same debate in which it was unveiled that the other governor, Mike Huckabee, didn’t oppose giving scholarship to the children of the undocumented. And the former mayor of New York City, like most other mayors of large American cities, had run a “sanctuary city.” John McCain, perhaps worst of all, twice supported the president’s push for moderation on the issue.

The Democrats’ history on the “undocumented” issue is much harder to pin down, current and former Senators that they (almost) all are. But Hillary Clinton fell into the fray about New York’s failed plan to license all drivers, legal citizens or not.

The whole issue has long been mired in two competing narratives, neither of which tells the whole story.

From the far right comes the narrative of inhuman criminals who are here to steal jobs. These Mexicans–they’re rarely seen as anything “white”–have broken the law by coming here, broken the law by living here, and broken the law by working here. The only way to make sure they leave never come back is to assure that their life in America is an impossible hell. We’ll have to assure they’re deprived government services, the right to work, and probably arrest a lot of them. And we’ll have to build a giant wall to make sure they never come back.

From the far left we get the narrative of the deprived and desperate economic refugees from an impossible life in Mexico. They’ve come here with hope and hard work in mind. They’re vital parts of their communities and should be treated with respect. Citizenship should be made available to them, as should larger quotas so people don’t have to come to America illegally.

The stark contrast between the two views is clear. As is the impossibility of a détente between them.

The country will not solve the problem unless the two views are rectified. And there are only two ways for that to happen. Moderates to win control of power in Washington, or the most determined partisans realizing that their views make them look like ham-handed buffoons (I doubt the latter will ever occur).

Americans do need to raise legal immigration levels, especially from Mexico and central American countries that have supplied most of the tide of illegals. They need to recognize that their immigration enforcement system is badly broken and in need of systematic repair. They must recognize that amnesty is not the answer, but also that a long wait, big fines, and a thorough background check is not amnesty.

Progress on this issues has been halting and frustrating. And though I sincerely hope that the new year and new president (I know that doesn’t officially happen until 2009, but it effectively happens in November) will bring a wiser political class with greater willingness to accept compromise and moderation, I recognize that I may be waiting some time.

metablogging, personal, ruminations

But What Is a Blog? & My Answer

Source: topgoldA Blog is a place…

Aside from having been described by Jerry Seinfeld as a terribly ugly word (which it is), “blog” is a hard concept to pin down. Of course the word’s evolution from the original meaning of “web log” would suggest that they’re necessarily linear expressions of a set of idea, thoughts, and goals. A diary almost. But I’d hope that this “blog” doesn’t feel like a diary, or have substance very similar a teenager’s secret journal.

I wrote a few weeks ago about the difference between a “writer” and a “blogger” but came to little more than my frustration with, and inability to parse, the distinction. I wrote a few months ago about the different types of blogs I see on the internet. But neither of those seemed to answer the question of “what is a blog?” and more specifically “what is a blog to me?”

I think the easiest analogy–and it’s not really a surprising one–is that like a “book” or a “magazine,” it really varies. Like both of those forms, there’s a certain idea that people usually associate with the word “blog.” Where for books they probably tend to think of a novel, or for magazines, a news weekly (about politics, “news,” celebrities, what have you), with a blog the default assumption is roughly that it is a place for a person to write irrelevant blather to make themselves feel important.

But a “book” also includes the notions of long non-fiction, short fiction with illustrations (picture books!), short story collections, or diatribes about politics, gods, or “man.” So too can a magazine be a heterodox collection of fiction, nonfiction, short bits and long blather. It can be exceptionally experimental or staid and boring. It can be exceptionally timely or exceptionally timeless.

Of those two, my description of a “magazine” is closer to my understanding of what a blog is. But neither fits exactly. The point is perhaps as simple as this: a blog, like a book or magazine, is what it’s made into.

This is no revelations, even to me, but for some reason I can and frequently do lose sight of it’s truth. Too much time online regularly convinces me that all blogs (mine included) are the same. That it’s all inane blather that does little more than serve to create circles of people patting each other on the back and never realizing that they’re producing drivel.

Nor does it help that finding blogs I like which update regularly often feels impossible. Much of what passes for political discussion in the blogosphere feels like arguments about inane topics that no one but the most nerdy cares about (see: Kos, Daily). Most of what passes for discussions about life is journaling about the events of your day (see: dooce). When what I want–as Leslie said accurately–is “a new breed of philosopher” (see: my blogroll?).

The difficulty faced in finding what I want in the “blogosphere” is enough to make me despair and desire to run away from the medium. But I’m also pretty certain that flight and despair are choices built for fools.

The type of blog I’m making here is the kind of blog I’d like to read. Even if they sometimes feel few and far between–among a vast wasteland of seething and wasteful punditry, savaging of celebrities, and “get rich from blogging” sites–I persist. If only because of my own stubborn and insolent insistence that what I’m looking for, what I’m making, is worthwhile.

Perhaps I’m a quixotic fool. The artist who dies destitute and sad. Whose brilliance–whether real or imagined–is discovered only after death. Or not at all.

Whatever the reality, I must again thank those who read this. Whatever it is or is not.


OPW: David Callahan on Honoring Work

On today’s “Other People’s Words,” a quote from the book I reviewed Monday, The Moral Center. I do feel the need to apologize for bringing it up again, but I can’t seem to avoid it. In this excerpt, Callahan makes some interesting observations about the how attitudes towards work and collective struggle have shifted over time.

In arguing that welfare betrayed work, conservatives offered a simple solution: Get rid of handouts and make people responsible for themselves. The solution fit naturally with American individualism and the belief that opportunity is available for all.

Democrats face a harder sales job. Most liberal solutions to the betrayal of work boil down to some form of collective action, whether it’s getting more people organized in labor unions or using government to raise the minimum wage and expand the safety net. The problem, though, is that collective thinking–the notion that we are all in it together–comes much less naturally to Americans nowadays. Institutions like government that once embodied commons hopes are now distrusted, and not just because we loathe the Department of Motor Vehicles. Given the choice, many people would rather do their own thing than compromise their autonomy to work with others.

Meanwhile, the workplace has turned more individualistic and atomized. Far fewer people work in coal mines and steel mills and big auto plants–places where it was easy to understand one’s common interest with others, and where a fusion between the ideals of hard work and shared struggle was easy to grasp. Worker are more alone now, both physically and psychologically. The same trends that have undermined the value of work have also isolated people in their own predicaments–as temporary employees or independent contractors or some other fleeting figure in our seven-jobs-over-a-lifetime economy. Unions are virtually defunct in the private sector, not just because of union busting, which has gotten worse, but because it’s harder to organize a fragmented labor force.

The more alone we are, the more alone we feel. When the screws are turned on people, their reflex these days is to pull inward and individualize their problems. The losers in America have always been told to blame themselves, not the system, but now they do so more than ever, encouraged by claims that character defect lies behind every story of economic hardship. The solution to our woes, we are taught, is to focus ever more intently on our self-interest: Try harder, get up earlier, make smarter investments, take bigger risk–and oppose taxes or social programs that cut into our paychecks. The potential for a reinforcing dynamic is obvious. And widening insecurity fans an every-man-for-himself mood, it undermines common efforts to make things better, which leads to even greater insecurity and further insularity.

It doesn’t help that the media cover the wealthy around the clock, with endless stories of the self-made rich that blot out far less sexy statistics about downward mobility. People may know intellectually that the traditional virtue of hard work doesn’t count as much as it used to, and they may know that the deck is stacked more solidly against them. Yet it is easy in the age of Powerball and the Google guys for them to imagine that they will e the one who defies the odds.

politics, review

Review: An Unreasonable Man

Before we begin, you should know that I have long harbored some affection for Ralph Nader. In 2004, when I was just starting to get seriously interested in politics, I saw him speak. Nader seemed to me to be the best candidate for President. He cared about and talked about issues that the other two well-known candidates weren’t. For further illustration of my enamorment (the best made-up word yet actually, that appears to be a word), notice the rhetoric of the two major parties being equally bad in this letter. That’s exactly like Nader.

To explain its title, the documentary begins with a quote from George Bernard Shaw:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

In these two sentences, the film’s thesis is clear: Mr. Nader is both unreasonable and, more importantly, progressive. As the filmmakers tell the story, Ralph Nader is not unlike Frank Capra’s Jefferson Smith come to life: an idealistic reformer unwilling to yield to the status quo.

On the possibility that Mr. Nader was a misguided reformer, the film is ominously silent. There are no memorable opponents to his landmark reforms of the 1960s and 1970s shown on the screen. The only opponents the filmmakers do show seem rather absurd anyway.

The most memorable opponent, and also most likely to lead us to like Mr. Nader, is the misguided men of GM. During the years that Nader crusaded for safety reforms for cars, they had him tailed by both private eyes and seducers. And not only did they not get any dirt they could use in a smear campaign, they were also embarrassed publicly and forced to pay damages of almost half a million dollars.

Throughout, the film shows Mr. Nader to be a hardworking man doing what he thinks is best, and with a group of young and reverent helpers. The notable exception is the great deal of screen time given to two men convinced that Mr. Nader’s run for President in 2000 and 2004 was not only the cause of the Democratic candidates’ defeat, but also the insane plans of an egomaniac.

In the end I have the feeling that this movie may be disliked by some. The conclusion that at least I took away from the film was that there is a very really possibility that Ralph Nader is, as Bill Murray said during his 2000 campaign, “the best American I know.”

Whether or not you agree with that statement, or are at least willing to let the film try to sway you to that conclusion, will probably determine how you feel about the film. I, for one, think everyone should give it a chance.