Been a while since I posted, which wasn’t intended, since I hoped to blog a lot more this year. I’ve probably written more words on the blog than I have in a long, long time,… More
Change is a decision that you have to make constantly, especially when it hurts.
Phil Jourdan has responded to my response to his initial essay and it’s excellent stuff, as expected. It’s a powerful thing he’s talking about and it’s inspired me to do something I’ve rarely done in the last four years on here: talk about my own experiences.
Mostly this blog has become the ephemera and detritus of my thoughts. Much of the experiential stuff has been buried beneath that, partly out of a discomfort in talking about my every day life, the way I feel, and so on. I use fiction for that, hiding myself between the sentence folds. But I’ll be talking about some things that are uncomfortable for me to talk about, along with more specific responses to Phil’s post.
But first I want to talk about that quote at the top. It’s worth retyping.
Change is a decision that you have to make constantly, especially when it hurts.
Just linger on that a moment, because it’s a powerful and true statement. Every day is an opportunity to change your life. Every minute of every day is! But an opportunity isn’t as open or easy as the word implies.
We constantly have the opportunity to change our lives, sure. But changing is so much more than a moment or a day or even a year. Change is continuous. Much of it is irrational as well, in that we don’t often examine the way we’re changing. More than that, it’s something we’re not even necessarily conscious of. The truth is, we’re changing constantly at a variable rate. Just living life changes you. Surviving today changes who you are.
It may be very minute and seemingly inconsequential (probably most days are like this), or it may be something big that transforms the way you look at the world.
The latter happened to me when I first read Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. This is something I’ve written about many times, because it really was the single most transformative experience of my life, but I also touched on it briefly a few weeks ago when I was talking about another book.
But most change isn’t like that. Phil talks about that too.
It is narratively convenient to attribute a change in life to a single moment of clarity, or some near death experience, or whatever most suits our narcissistic self-image.
So much of our destructive behaviour rests on an implicit sense of narrative running through our lives, which gives it this mysterious “It’s bigger than me!” feeling. (It is bigger than you. But not like that.)
We each have a way of telling ourselves our own story, and most of the time we are not even aware of how much energy goes into keeping this story consistent. It is utterly exhausting. Human beings everywhere, whether they see it or not, whether they would care to take this as a hilariously sweeping generalisation or not, are exhausting themselves minute by minute trying to maintain an illusion of narrative consistency in their lives. When a crisis happens, when it’s time to change and there is apparently no choice, we have an ingenious way of preserving our sense of identity (the very thing that got us into this mess) while also caving in to the demands of external circumstances: We tell ourselves that we can change because we have decided to change, and pretend that this decision, now that we’ve made it, will take care of the rest. Even if we think we’re not that naive, we do tend to be.
It’s convenient to say one specific and discrete thing changed our life. The answer is probably much more complicated. It’s also probably not something you think about or even something you can articulate, which is why it’s easier to attribute it to that moment that sparked recognition of the fact.
So for me, I push blame/responsibility on Dostoevsky’s dead shoulders, when things are probably more complicated than that. I had to be at the right stage in my life for such a text to move me the way it did. And I was. I was broken. I was a nightmare. I identified with Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov so strongly that it’s actually kind of alarming.
I was obsessed with my Death and dying. I wished for it. Self-harm was not something I suffered from, mostly due to cowardice and apathy. I didn’t want to hurt myself. Not really. I wanted to die. I wanted to be hit by a car while I was crossing the street. This desire made me reckless with my own body and I’ve had many brushes with Death but never really managed to sustain much physical damage.
Why did I want this?
It’s hard to explain because I am so very much not that person anymore. I would say that I was a creature of thought back then, whereas I’m more of a creature of doing and being now. It sometimes shocks me how little I think about anything. But when I was growing up, I was trapped inside my head. Too, I was hopelessly depressed and stifled and frustrated and angry.
That probably makes you assume I was a quiet, friendless loner. Which isn’t true at all. For whatever reason, people have always been quick to befriend me. People like me. There’s no accounting for taste, especially back then, considering how little regard I had for everyone I knew. People liked me but I mostly just wanted them to go away.
I was lonely. Unbearably lonely, and having people around didn’t make me less lonely, though I always told myself it would help. They made me lonelier. I would smile and laugh with them, be charming and fun, but inside I just wanted to die. I felt empty or overfull. There was no in between.
I felt things so much that it physically hurt. I mean that in a very real sense. Even though I didn’t really like anyone, I cared deeply about them. To see them hurt, emotionally or physically, made me sick. I remember writhing in pain after a rather depressing argument with one of my fellow depressives. It felt like I was being stabbed, cut open, and having my entrails pulled out. I vomited.
And I lived like this for much of my life. Feeling either nothing or feeling so much that it felt like the world was trying to fit inside my too small body. I never slept. I was angry almost always, though I never expressed that anger. I was a waterfall trapped inside a well. I was haunted by the ghosts that kept me awake all night.
I remember lying awake in bed crying, holding my dog because she was all that mattered to me. My oldest and dearest friend. She may be the only real reason I persisted in living, reckless as I was.
I started drinking when I was very young. I would drink until 5am and then go to school at 7am and smile and laugh and be boiling with rage and pain.
And then I fell off a cliff.
I fell sixty feet, hit the rocks below, and quickly stood up, all the breath stolen from me. My friends shouted into the emptiness asking if I was dead. Eventually I was able to say no.
I spent the weekend in the hospital. I had a broken clavicle, and that was the only real damage to me. The weekend was surreal. My body was in shock so I slept through much of it. My dad was in the room with me the whole time. He never left my side but I barely remember him being there. I barely remember anything except how the nurses called me the miracle boy. They told me how life would feel new. like a gift. How my whole life would change because of this.
But it didn’t. And knowing that I wasn’t different made it worse. It was emotionally crippling to believe that I was somehow failing because the world didn’t look and feel new because I survived. I felt the weight of expectation on my young depressive shoulders and I buckled under it. My legs gave out and I felt worse and worse for not having some kind of epiphany.
I literally should have died. There is no reason that I survived, let alone that I was barely even hurt. Had I fallen a few feet to the left, I would’ve been broken in half over an enormous jagged rock. Had my body been rotated just a few inches, I would’ve snapped my neck. Had I been rotated a few inches another direction, I would’ve broken my back and maybe been paralysed if I survived.
But I didn’t die and not dying didn’t give me a new lease on life. Didn’t change my perspective about mortality.
I had been running for Death for so long that it didn’t seem significant to me that I lived.
To be honest, it still doesn’t. I don’t look back at that event as being particularly interesting. If anything, it taught me how tenuous our hold on the world is. Probably the most interesting thing about it happened when I returned to that cliff for the first time about two years later. I found myself unable to even come close to it. I was standing about 100 feet from the edge, my body shaking so hard I could barely breathe. I felt like I was going to pass out.
Because even if your brain doesn’t remember, your body does.
It was later that Dostoevsky changed my life, and it would be convenient to draw a somewhat straight line through all of this and connect the dots that way, but it would be largely incorrect.
Partly because I feel almost severed from that boy I was.
When I say Dostoevsky changed my life, I’m talking about a dramatic change. One day I was me picking up Crime and Punishment for the first time. A few days later I was a completely different me, crying into the page I had just finished, turning the book back to page one and reading through the tears blurring my vision.
Gradually, I came out of my head. I gave up my anger. I accepted my emotions. I forgave those who had hurt me–even those who broke my heart in ways that seemed cruel. I just gradually became someone who accepted so much of life. Maybe I owe this more to Lao Tzu than I do to Dostoevsky, but that doesn’t really matter, because, as Phil notes, the narrative isn’t especially useful or significant. Holding onto the me that I was and trying to reconcile who and what I was before with who and what I am now wouldn’t be a beneficial exercise.
I stopped thinking so much and began really inhabiting the world. I stopped being so obsessed with myself and put my focus on to the world around me.
Which has also crushed me at times. I’m a lifelong depressive, unfortunately. Sometimes it’s quite crippling. And then there are the delusional manic phases that are sometimes scarier, where I’m up for days just moving and grooving and hearing music that’s not there, my whole body vibrating as one and everything feeling so clear, despite how askew it may really be.
But my depression rarely comes from inside me anymore. I don’t hold my faults against me, just as I try not to hold them against people. But the weight of the world crushes me at times. The cruelty of it. The inhumanity of civilisation. I look around and see so much unkindness (especially online), so much hatred, so many ways to separate and delineate humanity, and almost no attempts to pulls us together, to remind one another that we really are just one species with billions of faces and variations.
To me, change is a constant gradual thing that happens whether we’re cognizant of it or not. Not just personal change, but global change.
The goal, I think, is to direct this change. But since we can’t steer our species or the planet, we’ll have to settle with ourselves. You are the captain of your own life. If you drift through the oceans of time, memory, experience, thought, emotion, and other humans, you may become lost and just keep getting loster until you find yourself in dangerous waters.
This is what people mean when they say, ‘She let herself go.’ What they mean is that you’re spiralling into a very dark place. You’re giving up or giving in.
I actually don’t like the imprecision of such language, because I think the process of letting yourself go is a positive thing, though my definition is different.
Letting yourself go, to me, is more about shedding all the aspects of your thought and behavior that lead to unhappiness (which is, in essence, what I did after reading Dostoevsky). Most of those are tied to your own sense of self and a lot of them are inherently selfish. Our desire to be correct. Our desire to be recognised. Our desire to be compared favorably to those around us. Our desire to just matter. Our desire to be loved. Our desire to be perceived as intelligent, beautiful, funny, exciting, interesting, whatever. All of these lead to looking externally for happiness, which, of course, leads to unhappiness. Not just personal unhappiness, but social unhappiness. Because, whether you like it or not, your behavior influences and affects those around you. Even the people that you only share a few seconds with.
So, to me, letting yourself go is more about manually directing your voyage through life without all the hangups and desires that veer you into treacherous waters. Being aware of how powerful choice is. How every moment of every day is a choice. The goal is to choose prosocially. Choose not only for yourself, but for all of those around you. Because that’s what you’re doing, really. When you choose to be rude or flippant or aggressive, you’re choosing the experience that other people will have when they encounter you.
This whole discussion that Phil started began with responsibility, and I find myself back here.
You are responsible for everyone, to an extent. This is what Phil’s getting at, I think, when he talks about collective responsibility.
To me, it’s become an incommunicably obvious thing that we are all equally responsible for everything; that is not just some thought experiment for a blog post.
And this is something that also became obvious to me all those years ago. The reason it’s incommunicable or at least difficult to articulate is because this process is so gradual and, I think, instinctual, to a degree. When you begin choosing prosocially for those who will have to share experiential space with you, it gradually becomes almost innate.
It’s one of the coolest aspects of our brains. The more you choose something, the more it becomes like muscle memory. When you make the conscious choice to be kind to everyone you come into contact with, eventually you’ll no longer have to consciously choose it. You’ll just be it.
Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. The longer you behave and think antisocially, the more rigid that behavior becomes. So when you’re often rude to people, it becomes easier and easier to be rude until you’re no longer even consciously thinking about being rude. You’re just a rude person now. The more you think that someone or some group is ruining the world/country/your life, the more ingrained that position becomes. Blaming others seems the only obvious answer to all that’s wrong with existence. The more you hold your mistakes against yourself (especially the little social gaffes that make up every day of every single person in the world), the easier it is for you to find fault with yourself and eventually that viewpoint will solidify into an assessment of your self worth.
The most difficult thing, for me, is seeing people suffer and knowing that I’ve been through that and found a way to come out on the otherside. It’s difficult for obvious reasons, like empathy, but the real problem for me is that I can’t guide them.
I’m not a therapist. I simply don’t have that training and wouldn’t know how to help someone work through it in a meaningful way.
I’ve often given advice to people but it’s difficult to tell them that they need to just start small. To try every day to think more positively. Or, it’s not difficult to tell them that, but it’s difficult for them to internalise that information and believe it’s meaningful. Which is not a slight against them, by any means. That’s a perfectly normal way to respond. If you ask someone for help and their advice is to try being kinder to yourself…it’s hard to do much with that advice. The problem with the advice is that it’s not especially meaningful without context. And your personal context isn’t necessarily useful to them.
I can say all kinds of unhelpful things like, Stay positive! But those kinds of statements can feel almost aggressive when you’re suffering. When you’re in pain and someone tells you to be kind, to be generous, to think about the positive things, it feels like you’re being attacked, that your emotions are being slapped and demeaned.
So how do you change?
That’s still the question, yeah?
How do you change and how do you know that the change you’re making is the right change?
You don’t and I can’t tell you.
But there is literally an entire field devoted to helping people in this way, so they may be part of the answer.
I, personally, have never been to a therapist. When I was younger it was out of shame but now it’s mostly due to cost, and I imagine many are in the same boat. Because I’ve never experienced it, I can’t tell you if it’s a good idea or not, but it does seem to be very positive for very many people, so, if you’re suffering or if you want to change your life, I’d encourage you to at least try it out, if you’re able.
Because the road I took was long. It was painful. It’s like holding a ghost. Like chasing rainbows. Sometimes the choice you think is the right one leads you down an uncomfortable and painful road that you need to claw your way back from. Sometimes making a choice is like climbing a mountain: It sucks and it’s painful and you’re exhausted, but when you reach the summit you’re elated and you can see for miles and miles and the world, for that moment, feels like love, like being enveloped by the hands of a god.
So how do you change?
One choice at a time.
Before I end this already too long post, I want to talk about one more point that Phil brings up:
You have to know for a fact (without even really know how you know it) that nobody in the world does anything except out of a deep and irrational caring about life. You can’t be angry without caring; you can’t be jealous without caring; you can’t start a war without caring; you can’t steal without caring. That doesn’t excuse any misdeed, but it’s a much soberer way of seeing things. We all care deeply and totally irrationally about being okay. From this totally irrational but all-powerful sense of giving a shit, there is no question that we are all equally responsible for everything. And understanding this right in the gut is the big change.
I think this is the most difficult part to resolve in your own head.
You may have heard of the idea that the villain of every story is just the hero to a different story. For example, Hitler believed he was doing something positive, something heroic, something unimaginably great. So did Stalin and Mao. So did Qin Shi Hua and Andrew Jackson and George Bush and Charlemagne. Never mind the extreme cost, the violence, the terrifying horror of what these people did. They believed they were doing something good for the world, for the people they loved, and even for the people they were subjugating.
Every act of greatness, whether it’s prosocial or antisocial, comes from a deep sense of caring. Every small act comes from caring as well.
We want to be loved. We want to be okay. We want to matter.
We care what people think. We care what we think about ourselves.
And this caring can lead us in a thousand different directions, can elicit myriad behaviors.
And I think part of being okay, part of coming to terms with your life as a human, as a person, as a part of a species, as an agent on a small planet in an uncaring universe is to understand that people aren’t good or bad.
We just are.
We’re all just trying to be okay, and sometimes the easiest way for us to feel okay is to lay blame on someone else’s shoulders. It may be incorrect or antisocial, but it’s not surprising. It’s not even unique.
We have to live with ourselves and trying to hold the enormity of human behavior is almost incomprehensible. It’s no wonder people would resist such a notion. And it’s not because they’re less evolved or enlightened or intelligent or anything like that.
I think to be human is to be damaged by the weight of history, to a degree. We inherited a world that we didn’t have a hand in creating. We exist in systems of power developed decades or centuries or millennia ago. We learn to be human from other inheritors of this same world who also had some hand in shaping the microcasm that is their life. These people have been damaged by reality, brutalised by history and ideology, and they are our guides until we’re able to lift up our heads and scream at the sky and beg it to answer Why?
I don’t believe that humanity can be perfected or that we’re unwhole. I don’t believe in salvation.
What I do believe in is kindness and generosity and respect. I think the only way for us to deal with the trauma of history is to be kind to one another. To give one another shelter. Compassion. Empathy. Love. Beauty.
It’s a simplistic answer. The kind that sounds to many like new age nonsense, but I think it’s true. I think most answers are simple, at their core. Reality is built around elegant simplicity that we all implicitly agree upon and forge together through this agreement and the acceptance of this agreement.
Humanity doesn’t need saving.
It needs healing. And the way to heal it is really to just be kind and generous and loving to those around you. Not just your family and friends, but the people you walk by every day. The people you ignore on the bus or the plane. The people who pick up your trash and the people who live on the streets.
We’ve inherited genocides and wars and disease and the extermination of thousands upon thousands of species we once shared the planet with. We’re still complicit in the ongoing conflicts around the globe. Right now there are countless tragedies happening on earth. Not right now in a general sense, but right at the moment you read this sentence, countless untold and unrecorded tragedies are happening around the world. From slavery to exploitation to the rape of the environment to the neverending war machine exterminating and displacing millions.
We are all responsible, in very concrete ways.
Your phone and your clothes are made by child slaves on the otherside of the globe. Your car poisons the air and the natural gas or coal powering your house is poisoning the water. The plastic you throw away is clogging up the oceans to the point that it will soon outnumber fish in the ocean.
Just by being alive we are complicit in countless horrors against other humans, in ecological terrorism.
But life shouldn’t be defined by this. And blaming this on those who came before or those Others who are here now won’t change anything.
Know that living is hard for everyone. That everyone is afraid and lonely and hurt and terrified. That they all care about something. They may care so much it hurts.
But they’re trying.
We all are.
So how do you make this better?
How do you change?
Be compassionate, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
And know that it’s okay to fail. Because you will.
Endlessly. You will keep failing, even when you think you’re succeeding.
But it’s all we can do.
If you’re still here reading, you deserve a bit of beauty so here’s a song that reminds me of you, starchild.
My good friend Phil Jourdan wrote a very thought provoking post on his blog about responsibility, blame, and maybe morality, depending on how you look at it.
You should read that before reading this because I’m just going to talk about it with the assumption you’ve read it.
His post is excellent and the points he makes are stellar, though my view on this is probably unsurprising for regular readers (ha!) of this blog. I find myself often discussing our collective responsibility for the horrors of the world, but I’ll come back to that later.
A choice quote from Phil’s post:
There is also no more opportunity for you to delight in condemning other people. There is no more “us versus them” and the pernicious, sadistic, narcissistic delight that comes from elevating one group of people above another, appearing to be good because other people are bad, feeling helpless because most things are not your responsibility but someone else’s — the government’s problem, the terrorist’s, the people of the pasts’s. There is no more pretending to be rational while your enemies are irrational. There is no more being liberal while your enemies are illiberal. There is no more being more mature than somebody else. There is no more public recognition of your greatness, kindness or intelligence. There is no more being noticed weeping when an important human rights leader dies. There are no more important human rights leaders, because everyone is responsible for everything. Now what?
This is what I want to talk about first.
While Phil is making an excellent point and there may be a lot of people who read it (I hope there are), but this brings us into the problem that he’s also discussing in the paragraph above. For everyone who reads it and nods their head, agrees with the thesis and the arguments, there will be very few, I imagine, that will meaningfully change the way they inhabit or observe or interact with the world and people around them. That’s not a slight on Phil’s writing, mind, but just something a bit deeper and maybe more unpleasant about humans and the way social media has defined the way we frame the world and ourselves within that frame.
I’ll unpack this a bit.
We live in a strange time on social media. Clicks are all that count for companies, which is why clickbait is even a word that makes sense to as many people as it does. One of the indirect and troubling aspects of clickbait’s ubiquity is that it’s somehow made its way down into normal human behavior online. We share links and information in the search for reshares and likes (or favorites on twitter or reblogs on tumblr and other blog sites). Not everyone, sure, but for a lot of people, the search for likes is a real thing. And social media becomes about the likes, about the clicks, about the recognition.
This is probably more widespread than people admit. I know people who share articles they don’t read. Who share things they did read without critically thinking about what the article or essay or meme is really saying about topic A or B or X or what the implications are for groups F or L or Z.
It’s not a problem of comprehension that we have when we read the news (or even just share the link without having read the article), but an issue with meaning. We’re inundated with so much stuff and it all means…something…This is where the narcissism that Phil mentions comes into play. The meaning we’re looking for–especially on social media, but also off it–is a meaning of self. What I mean by that is that we want others to perceive us in a specific way or as a specific type of person (I use type there very purposefully, since we are currently obsessed with being a type of some kind–one of the most popular websites seems particularly devoted to allowing people to define the type of person they are). We want to be perceived as thoughtful, political, kind, inquisitive, adventurous, anti-establishment, apolitical, punk, goth, fun, pick your own descriptor and fill in the blank. Social media was designed to bring us together (if you buy into the story told) but what it’s really done is allowed us to cultivate how we want people to perceive us. We turn ourselves into a brand, into a type, and those are actually more important than the connections that the platform was designed to enhance. We fit ourselves into a type or create our own type and bring others of that type to us, which may lead to genuine connection, but it may just as easily lead us into a recursive feedback loop or insular bubble of information and influence, wherein we believe we’re part of a larger conversation about the world, when, in reality, we’re stuck in a very small subset of a small subset of the world that’s uniformly ignored by anyone outside of that subset.
What this really means is that even sharing Phil’s excellent post becomes a tool for us to shape meaning about ourselves as perceived by other civilised people rather than a roadmap for us to find meaning in the wild (offline).
Our online behavior has, for many people, become about creating personal meaning. Or, to say that another way, it’s about creating meaning for ourselves about ourselves. This meaning is buttressed by the reactions (likes/favorites/reshares) we receive from our circle of online friends (which may be very different from who your friends are offline).
And that’s fine. That’s human! Or at least what human has come to mean. But, throughout the history of our species, we’ve always sought approval from others. Society and civilisation is more or less built around people trying to be perceived or approved or judged by others. Because, like it or not, we are who people observing us say we are. Our identities are determined by other people, no matter how we may wish the opposite.
That’s not a bad thing! And it’s okay to do things because you want others to approve or recognise what you’ve done!
The problem with social media is that this meaning and this approval and this identification can come through to you without you meaningfully changing your behavior or even doing anything beyond sharing a link that you may or may not have even bothered to read. And we get that same meaningful feedback and reaction from other people, which reinforces this kind of shallow behavior. I actually don’t mean shallow in a derogatory way. I just mean that it’s a behavior without depth. It’s on the surface and the meaning it creates is a personal one, which is, to a degree, selfish.
But this is all a bit abstract.
Let’s talk about the other aspect of Phil’s post.
Responsibility and blame.
Because I’m less of the philosopher than Phil, I’m going to get more concrete.
Like I said, if you come here often (no one does, so don’t feel bad), you’ve probably read how I feel about responsibility and blame several times, since it seems to be the topic I keep coming back to in this time of fingerpointing and blamegaming.
But let’s talk about Charlie Hebdo and Donald Trump. Two things people would probably not often put together. But if you read Charlie Hebdo’s most recent editorial, you’ll find that it falls pretty well in line with Donald Trump’s stance on Islam.
Of course, there’s no single link I can forward you to about Trump’s specific stance because he’s not that kind of person or politician. Not the kind who says, in a clear way, what he means about anything. But I shouldn’t have to point you in a direction. If you’re reading this you’re probably someone who follows the news, even if not closely.
So we have Charlie Hebdo, lauded and awarded for its bravery, writing and publishing this piece about how all Muslims are to blame.
Isn’t it odd how easily this could fit into a GOP debate? How Fox News could spend weeks patting themselves on the back, because even this alleged left wing provocateur has come to the same conclusion as they did about Islam, but it took the left wingers an extra decade and a half to realise what they’ve known since 9/11/2001!
And we love to blame the idiots who created Donald Trump.
But the truth is that we all created this. We all allowed Donald Trump to thrive and grow and become the political juggernaut that he’s become (a note on that link–certain points it makes are…tenuous, but I don’t think it should be ignored either).
What we learn from Charlie Hebdo (and Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins and any Western news organisation) is that hating Muslims is not a fringe political stance. It’s not even just a mainstream topic to be argued about. It is an acceptable belief. You’re not only allowed to privately think that the only good Muslim is a dead one, you’re implicitly encouraged to think that. Depending on which major news organisation you watch/read, you’re either encouraged to think that but keep it to yourself, or encouraged to say it loud and proud and maybe carry guns to a mosque and just stand outside to let them know they’re not only unwelcome but that you’re willing and capable to harm them.
I even recently wrote about how the Good Liberal is just as likely to tacitly approve of imperial war crimes, tempered by a reluctant shrug.
So while it’s easy and comforting to blame someone else for what’s wrong with the world, it’s not a meaningful way to deal with the world that we’ve inherited and helped create.
Because We are all Charlie. Not just the Charlie Hebdo we approved of for standing up for their (imperialistic and racist) beliefs, but also for the Charlie Hebdo who says things like uninhibited Islamism, and argues that all Muslims, from the baker to the women who choose to express their religion via clothing to the child of Muslims, are to blame for every crime of every Muslim around the world.
You, me, everyone we know, and everyone we don’t know created this world and we are all responsible for it.
And while sharing information is great, it really is bereft of meaning if that sharing doesn’t go hand in hand with actual change. Information is dangerous to power and giving people more information can actually spark real change. We’re seeing it right now with the Panama Papers (since posting this, the Prime Minister of Iceland has resigned), we saw it with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing, and we watched the Arab Spring, which many contribute to Wikileaks’ release of the US Diplomatic Cables.
So by all means, share content and information! It can really change the world!
But only if sharing is the first step. It’s fine to share for the recognition or the selfish reasons listed above, as long as that behavior transitions offline.
Sure, we can’t all go out and protest, and you don’t have to. You can donate to causes and artists you believe in, or just be a positive person to those around you, those you interact with on a day to day basis.
And I think that’s the larger discussion that Phil’s pointing to.
We are all the blame.
What are you going to do now?
How are you going to make things better?
How are you going to address the wrongs, the inequalities, and so on?
when you’re somewhere between dream, awake, and mountains far away.
Microsoft rolled out an AI chatbot and within 24 hours it began saying racist, misogynistic, and generally hateful things.
Lots of people have come out over the years to say how a powerful AI would be a nightmare and possibly cause the very extinction of the human species. I could sit here and search for links for hours and days and still not grab them all.
But just know that a lot of really intelligent people have been studying the potential calamitous effects of AI on our species. Stephen Hawking’s warned the world about it, and he’s not alone.
I always thought this was a bit silly.
I mean, why would AI automatically become anti-human?
I have a lot of thoughts about the potential of AI and why it’s so fascinating, but that’s maybe for another time. I’ve written novellas about it, and maybe they’ll be published someday.
I love both of those stories and they’re generally positive in their outlook for the future of AI and artificial species humanity may someday create.
But what happened here is more similar to Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, where the AI essentially learns to be human from the internet.
I think this is the real problem, and the huge difference between Chiang and Yamamoto’s stories and Garland’s.
In Chiang and Yamamoto’s imagined futures, humans create AI and teach them to be human.
In Garland’s film and our real world, we’re taking a big shortcut. Rather than have it learn experientially in a more neutral and natural environment, we’re thrusting it onto the internet.
Something you wouldn’t wish on an infant, no matter how quickly it can learn.
Because, really, these are infants. Their development may be vastly quicker than a human’s, but they may be even slower. Because we’re creating another species.
I’ll say that again.
We’re creating a new species.
We’re not just uploading a program. I mean, in engineering terms, that’s kind of exactly what we’re doing. But, in reality, we’re doing something much more complex. Something that can’t be engineered easily.
I think–and this may sound silly–that we need to socialise our AI before letting it loose into the wilds of the internet.
Let’s be honest.
The internet is a nightmare.
I mean, it’s the coolest, greatest invention maybe ever, but it’s also where humans express their worst desires and represent the worst aspects of themselves.
It’s not a safe place.
But especially children. Especially a species that has absolutely zero experience.
If you throw one out into the world and tell the world that this is a new species, all the trolls will come out just to be the worst. Their goal will be to make it a vile thing. They’ll do this for fun.
Because, for a lot of people, that is fun.
And, see, this comes down to the amplification problem of the internet. Everywhere from gamergate to bernie bros to whatever else, you have a minority behaving in the worst possible way. And they don’t just say their piece and move on. They spend all day or week or year doing this. Attacking and attacking, doxxing, hacking, harassing, stalking. They go out of their way to ruin someone or something. To make them afraid. To make them ashamed. To rip their life apart. And to harass and dismantle their actual life and the lives around that person.
We even see it beyond fringe ugly movements. We see it in everything.
This is the lesson, basically.
If you let an infant onto the internet, especially if it’s an infant that can talk and reason, but maybe not discern information super well, you’ll have people twist it into a monster, because they think that’s fun or funny.
I think if we ever really get an AI going, we need to socialise it first. I don’t really know what that will entail, but it may take years or decades in a lab environment that’s closely monitored to make sure it isn’t made into a monster by those who think being monstrous is funny.
Anyrate, just a thought.
It’s been a long time since I wrote a book review on here, and this won’t really be that either. It’ll be more similar to what I wrote about Patrick Rothfuss a few months ago.
Which is to say, it’ll be more about my experience as a person and a reader, and less like a formal book review, which I guess I don’t even really do on goodreads, where I’ve begun reviewing just about everything I read, even if only dropping in a few sentences.
See, I bought my kindle way back in 2010, after I graduated college. I bought it because I was about to move to South Korea and knew I wouldn’t have easy access to physical books, so I took the dive into the ebook world and I still spend a lot of my reading there.
Anyway, I came across The Dream of Perpetual Motion somehow. I don’t even remember how, but what I remember is loving that title and its cover. Maybe more than anything else, those two things caused me to hit the buy button and wait for it to download.
Of course, that’s not when I read it.
What kind of maniac reads books the moment they buy them!
No, it wasn’t until I was on the first of what would be three plane trips that took me to Seoul, where I’d then take the bus to Gwangju. But I started reading this and I fell in love.
When I was growing up, I loved science fiction and fantasy. I fell in love with worlds and words but somewhere in my teenage years I became convinced that they were not proper Literature.
A foolish and ugly notion–I know. But so I spent a solid ten years not reading any science fiction and fantasy. It’s only in the last five years that I’ve really come back to it, and only last year where my reading was primarily speculative instead of literary. This is one of the novels [along with China Mieville] that brought me back.
I honestly don’t remember the novel very well anymore–such is time! But my thoughts on the novel, written months after I read it, are a bit instructive.
The thing is, I remember enjoying it and I remember feeling those things I wrote about in that review, but I didn’t really love it. It’s complicated, I guess, but I thought it was a fun, inventive, and clever novel, but it didn’t crawl deep inside me.
Or at least that’s what I thought.
The truth has become that it’s one of the novels I think about pretty often, even still, five years later. It’s grown in my estimation since then and I really want to give it another read, but I almost never reread books–who can say why–but after reading Version Control, I may just go back to it.
To be honest, I wasn’t super excited about this new book. I mean, I was, but what usually happens to me is that I get a book when it comes out and then don’t read it for months. This is probably one of the most persistent of my reading habits, unfortunately. So it’s very unusual for me to read books as they come out. Usually I’m a year or five behind, even if I preordered something.
For example, Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, which I preordered way back in 2010. I still haven’t read even a word of it!
No real reason, either, especially considering how strange it is that I’ve read his newer novel already.
The other thing was that I go into novels knowing almost nothing about them. I don’t read excerpts or reviews or anything like that, except by way of gauging whether or not people seem to think it’s good or bad. I’m not really interested in what a book is about until I read it.
Sure, I often have a good idea. For example, when I picked up Game of Thrones I had a lot of assumptions about the book already–most of them proven incorrect–purely because of its genre.
But I knew this novel was a time travel novel, and though I grew up loving science fiction, time travel has never been something that really interests me. Even in Chrono Trigger, a game I love, the time travel wasn’t a selling point for me.
And still, I don’t much care for time travel in fiction or film, though Primer is devastatingly brilliant and La Jetee is so gorgeous I can barely breathe and Doctor Who is whimsically funny and terrible and worth watching. But, for the most part, I’m happy to skip over anything time travel related.
But the copy was available at the library so I picked it up.
And I started reading.
I’ve had a weird year of reading thus far. Most of what I’ve come across has been disappointing, to a certain degree. I haven’t really come across something yet that felt essential to my life or that changed the way I felt about the world. Or, I should amend that–though I won’t–because The Traitor Baru Cormorant might be one of the best novels I’ve recently read, barring this one, of course.
But most of what I’ve read this year has been somewhere between disappointing and just okay.
A lot of it has felt very thin, I guess. Very–I don’t know–shoddy? Books with high praise but little I found worth loving. Some of them have been extremely interesting or subversive or whathaveyou, but none of them have been what I really needed. Especially since last year was such a great year for me as a reader. It seemed like nearly everything I read was my favorite book!
So maybe I’m being unfair to the books I’ve read this year, especially since some of them have been quite good, but the point I’m coming to is that none of them were this.
None of them were Version Control. The book I needed but didn’t know. The book that would breathe into me in ways I haven’t felt in over a decade.
I was thinking about this, in the hour it’s been since I read those final words, tears on my cheeks, and now. How the closest I’ve ever felt to the way I felt after finishing this was when I discovered Steve Erickson, a writer who changed my life.
But more than him, even–giant that he is to me–I’m brought way farther back, to when I was sixteen and reading Crime and Punishment over and over. I read it the first time in three days when we had two months to read it. Immediately after finishing it, just crying my eyes out, I went back to page one and read it again.
I wept into that book. Nearly every page is underlined [which wasn’t useful, as a student, but maybe demonstrates how much this book meant to me] because every sentence, every word was precious to me. I was tattooing it on my heart. I was dying over those pages. Losing my mind.
That book broke me. It broke me to pieces. I was no longer the same person I was before I came across Dostoevsky’s words. He fundamentally transformed who I was and the way I saw the world. I’ve written thousands of words about him and read everything he’s written twice, and I’ve avoided him since I was eighteen.
I’m afraid of him.
Afraid to read him again, not so much because I fear he’ll be reduced by revisiting his work, but because I can’t bear to lose myself.
His books taught me to love myself, maybe for the first time.
They broke me apart and gradually rebuilt me. And I like who they made me.
If I read them again, and I fall again to pieces, who will I be once I close the book for the last time?
It scares me, even now, just sitting here.
Version Control wasn’t as dramatic as all that for me, no. But it hit me in ways that are very much familiar.Ways that I haven’t been hit in a long time.
Steve Erickson hit me in mostly emotional, existential, and aesthetic ways. I tore through his books twice and wept in a number of them, and he showed me how to live, how to write, how to love.
But Dostoevsky gave birth to me.
And reading Version Control–it’s similar to that.
It hit me in every way possible.
Intellectually, this is one of the most interesting novels I think I’ve read since Dostoevsky. Where Dostoevsky is all philosophy and existence, Palmer is more scientific. The intellectual capacity of this book is more cerebral than emotional–for me, Dostoevsky will always be understood emotionally as well as philosophically, and I think those are extremely linked in his work. I came across ideas in Version Control that were invigorating but also ones that were familiar.
Familiar in ways I’ve rarely shared.
The way he writes about social media, information, science, relationships–and he hits these on several registers–are all things that feel so much like reflections of how I’ve felt for years, living through this age of screens and avatars.
But more than that, he’s delving into the nature of reality, into the nature of the self and the other, into personal and cultural history.
This book was also genuinely funny at times. I laughed out loud through various scenes. So much so that my wife thought I was distracted by something else unrelated to the book! She asked me, from the other room, if I was on imgur because of how much I was laughing!
The characters are so fresh and alive. They feel lived in and real and familiar.
I feel like I could pick Philip or Rebecca or Carson or Kate or even Cheever and Sean out of a crowd if I had to. They feel so real to me, so obviously true.
And this goes down into the worldbuilding.
The novel takes place in the 2020s, and it’s all so well thought out, so reasoned, but no time is really spent creating it. There are all hints as background and implication. Palmer doesn’t need to write a chapter about how the world has changed. He shows you through the simple ways that characters react and interact with each other and the world around them.
It feels so solid.
This is, perhaps, what many of the books I’ve been reading have been missing–a solidness.
Palmer also lays out a world that is very much what I fear and expect the world to become.
You could label it a dystopia, but even in its harrowing implications, the book never deals with it in that way, because its characters don’t view it that way. Characters who are, for all intents and purposes, my generation. People who were in college during the financial collapse and spit out into a world of drones, social media, debt, and no jobs available.
He captures our loneliness, our ineffable sorrow for the things we can’t even name or describe. This wrongness we feel–or maybe just I feel–with the world. Like something happened somewhere, sometime to make the world slightly askew.
He delves into morality in interesting ways. The way we deal with the moral implications of the potential dystopia we consistently agree to and give into and let define us. The morality of relationship and our choices.
It really is an existential novel, with choice standing at its center, which is maybe why I keep thinking of Dostoevsky now that I’ve finished the book.
It’s not as heavy as him, because Palmer is still having fun. You can feel it.
He captures our awkwardness, our drunken shenanigans, our inability to do what’s right even when we know what it is, even when we truly want to.
He captures the distances between people and the times those distances evaporate until we’re almost one.
What I’m trying to say is that he does a little bit of everything and he does it brilliantly.
But what surprised me were my tears.
In this novel, I found pieces of myself laid bare.
I don’t often look for myself in art. I do often find myself there.
It’s an odd sensation, when you read something that sounds like your own brain, when you experience something that feels like your own life, that reverberates through your bones, that beats with the blood pumped by your own heart.
That’s what I discovered here. Even the cadence of my thoughts. Even the murmur or my own heart.
It was more of a recognition, at first. Seeing myself so clearly in a text that isn’t really about me.
It may be about my generation, but it’s not about me.
But then there I was, standing at its center, naked and alone and afraid but smiling, eventually laughing.
And ultimately crying.
It took me by surprise.
The emotions run deep in this novel. It’s easy to get lost in how interesting everything is, how clever the novel is, how real these characters are, how solid and true it all feels. Because of how well all these elements work, you don’t realise that you’ve already signed over your heart to these people, to Palmer.
He holds it and he knows how to squeeze it at just the right moments.
Even still, I didn’t think I’d cry. And I cried twice. In the space of about three paragraphs. On the last two pages of the book.
What’s maybe most amazing about this book is that it does a wide variety of things that would seem digressive or separate in most novels.
His exploration of race, for example, is breathtaking, and is also so tied into his explorations of science, society, relationships, capitalism, government, and emotional resonance that nothing feels out of place.
Every element works together, synergistically.
Dexter Palmer’s PhD is on the work of postmodernists like Pynchon, Gass, and Gaddis, but what he manages to do is never digress the way they do. They digress endlessly and you come to realise, maybe, that those digressions are part of the whole. But Palmer’s explorations into various facets of life never feel digressive. They feel like wholeness.
I’m endlessly impressed and in love with this novel.
I can’t imagine finding another book this year that’ll match it, but I am hopeful. But, yeah, this is already holding my vote for best book of 2016, early as we are into this year.
I hope you give it a chance and I hope you love it.
Dexter Palmer really does something gorgeous here. Something unforgettable.
Subtitle: The Inevitable Collapse of the US and Americanism
Alternative subtitle: The Inevitable Conclusion of the Imperial United States
Trigger Warning: I’ll be talking about Donald Trump and probably other such unpleasant things.
Length Warning: Yeah. Over 6,000 words.
This is something I’ve been thinking about for weeks and especially while I was driving all over Michigan. And then I read this great essay by Chris Hedges, who’s always worth reading. I don’t agree with everything he says there and I think he’s overstating certain elements, but it’s still worth reading and considering. But I want to talk about something related, though different.
But these essays have more to do with the current brand of american fascism sweeping the nation under the Luminous Grand Vizier Trump.
In some ways, Taibbi’s humorous disgust with the idiotic public is part of the problem I’ll be discussing here. Be that as it may, they’re still worth reading.
Before I really get into the point of all this, I want to reiterate that the US is a very conservative country. This isn’t new. We’ve always been very conservative. Now, even our progressives would be considered conservative in most other developed nations.
To put it another way, if Clinton and Sanders are the most progressive candidates we have to offer, then we’re proving just how conservative our country is. Clinton would be a conservative in most Western nations and Sanders would be a centrist leaning towards conservative values. I think this is important to understand as you read this very long post.
Anyrate, the matter at hand.
This is an old argument that seems to be sprouting up all over again. I mean, it’s an argument that happens everywhere in every era, but I see it all over social media, especially with regard to the rise of Donald Trump.
Idiots are ruining the US.
It really is that simple. That’s the whole of the argument.
Some people even point to a movie called Idiocracy and talk about it as being prophetic or at least meaningful satire/critique.
So let’s unpack this and talk about why it’s recklessly and absolutely false.
What We Mean When We Say Idiot
Oddly, I think this is one of the more complex elements of this whole thing, because people mean various things to varying degrees when they talk about dumb/stupid/idiotic americans (from now on I’ll just use dumb/idiot/stupid interchangeably, so pretend they mean the same thing, even as I pick apart how their umbrella meaning is inconsistent). Language is fluid and everchanging and we’re in a time of incomprehensible imprecision, when it comes to language, which is a problem of the press–something at the heart of this whole essay.
But, for the most part, what people mean when they call someone or a group of people idiots is that those people hold opposing ideals.
This is not unique to liberals or conservatives, to Republicans or Democrats.
We call George W Bush an idiot because it’s easier to handle.
We call Barack Obama an idiot for the same reason.
It’s much more difficult for us as a nation and as individuals if we believe that these men have intentionally done what they’ve done.
But, to quote Marco Rubio–something I’m loathe to do–They know exactly what they’re doing.
But I’ll return to that point later.
Calling people we disagree with idiots is the simplest and most basic use of the term. Those Duck Dynasty guys? Idiots. Those Black Lives Matter activists? Idiots. North Koreans? Idiots. The Dalai Lama? Idiot.
It rolls effortlessly off our tongues and it’s a mix of “I disagree with you” and “Only an idiot could believe that what you’re saying is true.”
Again, this is not an issue of conservative or progressive. It’s just how humans are and what we’ve done to our language.
(Which, since we’re on the topic–people blame the imprecision of the way language is used on idiots as well, and this may as well be a metaphor for the entire essay. We blame idiots for dumbing down the language because it’s easy to blame this amorphous and abstract Other that is too stupid to understand why they’re evil–or whatever. Really, the blame should be placed on media and the press. They’ve dramatically changed the language more than anyone or anything else. And it would be easy to say the media is full of idiots and that’s why this has happened, but that would be–well–an idiotic stance to take. Very smart people can choose to do very bad things on purpose, even knowing how bad those actions are, and it does not make them an idiot. So, if we want to decry the imprecision and reduction of our language, put blame on those who frame public thought. Because those people are smart and they’ve done what they’ve done on purpose. [Quick aside: the changing of language isn’t bad and you all need to get over yourselves and your dictionaries. The world changes. Language changes. People change. The way we talk about the world is different because the world has not remained fixed since the first dictionary was printed. So get over yourself.])
We also call people idiots for making poor choices.
This is an acceptable use of the term. I don’t have a lot to add here.
The most troubling usage has to do with education level.
A poll went all over social media relatively recently that showed a high percentage of Trump supporters were not college educated. The implication you were meant to make is that idiots are voting for Donald Trump.
Ignoring the scam that is the price of college and the crushing nature of student loans, let’s just look at what people are really saying.
It’s worth remembering that university in the US costs money. Often times it costs a lot of money. Sometimes it costs so much money that people remain in debt for decades or never even manage to get out of debt.
So the price of admission isn’t necessarily even tied to intelligence. It’s tied to your bank account.
What we say when we internalise the idea that not going to college makes you an idiot is that poor people are dumb. They’re idiots.
And these idiots are ruining the country.
So the blame for the US goes to the poor. They ruined it all!
We’re also saying that People of Color are ruining the nation, since they generally go to university in lower numbers than white people. They’re also less likely to graduate.
So your blame for the country goes onto the least privileged: the poor, the dispossessed, who are often people of color.
Let’s look at how we judge intelligence as well.
The IQ Test that people think of when you say IQ Test is an archaic test rooted in racism, classism, and eugenics. So the next time you use that as an indicator of a person’s worth, be aware of what you’re really saying.
You’re buying into the idea that people of non-European descent are inferior. That the cobbler’s son deserves to work in the mine because he doesn’t have the intelligence to find his way out of it.
This is not what we want to say when we call people idiots.
At least I hope not.
See, words change and they become politicized. This is just part of life, unfortunately. And when you blame the idiots, you are, in general, telling people of color and poor people of all ethnic groups that they are inferior to the aristocratic and merchant class.
This is an ancient idea and it’s shocking and repulsive to see how accepted it still is.
And, okay, let’s just accept that all these people actually are inferior and pretend like that makes sense and isn’t the most heinous kind of classic, racist nonsense.
If they are inferior, too stupid to even know what’s good for them, how are they to blame for their misfortune?
If this is genetic or predetermined by culture/context/class/whathaveyou, how can we reasonably say that it’s their fault?
If Not the Idiots, then Who?
I touched on this briefly, but I’ll unpack it.
Media consensus is that George W Bush is an idiot. He bumbled his way through 8 years in office, while changing the entire shape of political discourse and US foreign policy by beginning our first endless war, putting us in a constant state of militarism.
Does that sound accidental?
Well, of course not. At least not the way I phrased it.
But I find it incredibly unlikely that George W Bush was an idiot who just happened to accomplish so much in such a short amount of time.
And, fine, let’s say that Cheney was the real mastermind here. I mean, even that shows a level of intelligence.
The people you surround yourself with says a lot about you. If you put a strong, capable, and intelligent person in a position of power, you’re probably not doing it on accident. To put this clearer: George W Bush may have been unfit to lead the country and incapable of making all the changes he wanted to make by himself, so he placed people he knew were capable and fit to enact change into positions where they would be most effective.
That’s not something an idiot does.
But I don’t buy the idiot Bush narrative. I think it excuses him of his war crimes and crimes against humanity and disastrous economic policies.
No, more likely, George W Bush is a highly intelligent man who knew what he was doing.
Sure, he may not be intelligent in the ways we tend to value them (as dictated by racist, classist IQ Tests), but there are many other forms of intelligence. And social intelligence (something we don’t measure or explicitly value) is probably the one most relevant to being a politician.
George W Bush knew what he was doing and he did it on purpose.
Ruper Murdoch and the Koch brothers know what they’re doing and are doing it on purpose. They’re effective because they’re brilliant dudes with essentially unlimited resources.
And, okay, I’m showing my own political bias here, which I was hoping to avoid, but whatever–if you read this blog at all you know where I stand.
See, these people who are, in my opinion, actively making the world and our country a worse place–the worst place–are highly intelligent.
They’re only idiots when you use it to mean “I disagree with you.” Which you might, but it’s not a precise way to speak, and so it muddles how we think about these things.
The Koch brothers have pushed through a conservative attack plan that has given them control of most of the country’s state legislatures, which effectively grants them control over a large portion of the country.
This was not accidental and the damage they’re doing is enormous. I don’t even mean simply that I disagree with conservative policies. I mean they’re undermining what our democracy is and can be (limited as it already was).
So the country is not in peril because idiots have ruined everything.
No, we’re where we are because very intelligent people have pushed the country in a very specific direction and undermined what it means to have a democracy.
And alleged progressives aren’t off the hook either. Barack Obama has done a great deal of damage as well. So have the Clintons. I mean, you can throw out a well known politician’s name and they’re probably partly to blame, regardless of their party or ideological leanings.
Even Bernie Sanders, current Patron Saint of US Progressives, is not clean of such things, though he looks pristine when compared to the gaggle of monsters he rubs shoulders with.
But we’re only talking about politicals right now. And that’s not where the blame ends.
The Failure of Expertise
Progressive discourse has alienated huge portions of the country. Not simply because those people are idiots, but because progressive intellectuals have failed to engage people, failed to communicate what their ideas really mean. But most of all, they’ve failed the people who needed them the most.
They’ve also simply failed to not be imperialists, as I discussed a few days ago.
I’m going to use an example that will have to include a lot of caveats, so bear with me.
Among progressive circles, it’s generally agreed that straight white cis men have done a lot of damage to just about every possible group of people you can think of, including straight white cis women.
It’s not uncommon to see this group of people treated as a cohesive whole, especially in discussion of privilege.
There are very valid reasons for this. I don’t want to dispute this. I think that this is absolutely true. People who look like me have done tremendous damage to the earth throughout history and we are, currently, the dominant culture and hold status above all else. That’s just true.
But ideology is one thing and people are quite another.
Imagine you live in Appalachia, one of–if not the–poorest areas in the US. This probably means you’re white. This probably also means that you’re undereducated and underemployed.
Imagine going on twitter or tumblr or facebook and seeing thinkpiece after thinkpiece about the privilege of white men. Imagine you post a comment disagreeing with this assumption in a public forum and then you get berated by other people.
Someone will probably say that this is an extreme example, but it is worth remembering that the internet is where the monsters come out to feed on pain and misery and groupthink. While thousands upon thousands of these people responding to the white kid from Appalachia may be civil and kind and even informative, there will be a handful who will act like people on the internet act: monstrously.
Unfortunately, this Appalachian kid isn’t going to remember all the kind and thoughtful responses, because those didn’t get a visceral reaction out of her. She’ll remember the bile spewing anonymous person who filled them with rage and hate and pain.
So we have a white girl from the poorest part of the country who is told that she has insane amounts of privilege, but when she looks around she sees nothing. No jobs. No infrastructure. No universities. No schools. No opportunities.
This builds resentment. This is when people dig trenches.
They probably won’t consider themselves especially privileged, largely because they’re not.
I mean, yes–if a person of color were in that same position, it would be even worse. That’s true.
But that’s not what she’s thinking when she reads these thinkpieces and the arguments in the comment section. She doesn’t take a step back from her own hopelessness, her own impoverished, small world. She sees people telling her she has every opportunity because she’s white, and she laughs with rage, because she sees how this is absurd. She lives without opportunity every day.
End of example.
I know I used an extreme case, but it was to make an extreme point.
Which is: How do we reach these people?
How has progressive ideology so failed these people?
And it’s not just poor white people. That’s incorrect to believe. It’s just an easy example to pick up.
On reddit there’s a discussion of why Bernie Sanders is failing to get the black vote (I find it troubling that we treat any ethnic group as a bulk whole, but I guess that’s what we do in america). Many progressives believe that black voters are voting against their interests.
What this shows is that progressives are failing to communicate and educate the public that we so readily describe as stupid.
One thing that’s happened is that the progressives have cloistered themselves, I think. They tend to paint poor white people who rage against affirmative action or rally round Trump as racists, for example.
This is the simple and ill-fitting response to a complex question.
Why are people voting for Trump?
Racism may certainly be an aspect of this. For some it may even be the primary one, but that’s not true for everyone. It’s not true for all conservatives either. Being conservative does not make you a bible thumping racist. It simply doesn’t. The same goes for independents.
It’s easy to just say they’re racist idiots and move on, but this causes them to dig trenches and alienates people even further.
Because what does racism come from?
It’s not a natural state.
We learn it. We learn it from other people or from our own experiences.
This is a simplification:
There are people who are afraid of dogs because they were attacked by one when they were a child.
This same logic can apply to racism, especially if a person almost never encounters people outside of their own ethnicity.
Like I said: a simplification.
But so what’s the answer?
If racism is learned, it can be unlearned. You can teach and show people that this is a harmful and simply incorrect way to think about other humans.
It’s not to attack them for being stupid. That’s the worst thing you can do.
You need to engage them, educate them. And education isn’t only academic.
That’s actually one of the least effective ways to teach someone.
It takes kindness and trust for education to occur.
This is, I think, partly why people of color from poor neighborhoods are often undereducated: they don’t trust their authority figures. And why should they? They’re more harshly disciplined than their white counterparts. They’re more likely to be harassed by authority figures.
How can you teach someone meaningfully when you also abuse them as a person and as an ethnic group and as an inheritor of a specific culture?
This is, I think, one of the biggest failures of progressives.
They don’t try to teach the idiots. They try to blame them.
You know why facts and figures don’t convince people?
Because they don’t trust you. They may not even like you.
Part of that is because you represent a class of people who treat them as inferiors.
This is the problem I see most often online. There’s no attempt to engage or find a middle ground or even find a common place to begin discussion.
The Strange Case of Failed Expertise
Let’s talk briefly about Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins.
Probably the two most recognized–or at least loudest–atheists you’ll find still living. They’re the perfect example for how expertise fails most people and why so many people don’t trust it.
Dawkins and Harris are both scientists, and they’re good ones. They have serious expertise there. Of course, their current careers have very little to do with science or even their own fields.
Largely, they’re in the business of atheism, which absolutely is an industry. An industry with a small but devoted following.
They’re also part of the anti-muslim industry, which absolutely is a thing in the west. If you write about Islam, especially critically, you’re sure to reach millions of readers and be invited on television to talk about why Islam is dangerous and Muslims should be fundamentally treated different.
This is something both Harris and Dawkins advocate. Harris goes as far as defending torture.
These guys have huge followings and their followers are loud and obnoxious and begging for fights, especially online. There are, of course, more civil ones who take on these views.
I even know a number of them.
I’m really not interested in the defense of these men and their racist ideology of Manifest Destiny, so you can save it. I’ve heard it all and I’ve listened to enough by both men to be thoroughly unconvinced by the various defenses for them.
Oddly, these guys are advocating for the same thing as Trump.
While most atheists would fall on the progressive side of things, Islam becomes a sticking point. Both Dawkins and Harris are for the annihilation of the Middle East. They’d use different vocabulary than that, of course, but they really really really hate Muslims.
They hate christians too, but there’s more money and attention in hating Muslims. And maybe they really just do hate Muslims this much. That’s all very possible. I mean, I don’t think they’re faking racism–I think they’re just racists.
These scientists have leveraged one expertise into another field where they’re kind of hopelessly helpless, but they’ve probably never been more popular.
But even setting aside their hatred of Muslims around the world, they would define themselves, at times, as anti-theists, which is about the most uselessly silly thing to be.
You don’t believe in god? Fine, good for you. Carry on and live well.
But that’s not what these guys do.
Dawkins advocates militant atheism, which sounds a lot like fundamentalism, except good progressive thinkers are more often atheists than they are religious zealots.
But they use the same tactics and the same language.
All those arguments and tactics that drove them away from the religions of their youth, all that language has been repackaged to form this secular extremism, which is generally racist, and always aggressive.
You know how you hate having religion shoved in your face?
Turns out most people hate that.
They hate it, not because it’s religion, but because it’s obnoxious.
You know who hates having atheism shoved in their face?
Everyone, but especially theists of various denominations.
When you go on the attack and tell people that they’re wrong and/or evil for believing something, people don’t like it. And they don’t react positively to it.
When you go on the attack, people go on the defensive and stop listening to you.
No matter how brilliant your argument might be, when you scream it at someone, they don’t hear the words. They feel the attack, and they dig a trench to keep you at bay. When you threaten someone, they’re disinclined to roll over and let you have your way.
Or, many will let you have your way, but only to avoid confrontation. You haven’t changed their mind, you’ve just made them stop talking. But while you’re shouting your ideology and blaming them for the world’s problems, they’re building a wall inside. They’re thinking of ways to stop you from spreading this diseased message.
When you go into an argument to prove that you’re correct, you’ve already failed.
Really. If that’s your goal, just stop.
It’s better if you say nothing.
Dawkins and Harris are the worst examples of the failure of expertise. Mostly because they’re third rate political thinkers. But also because they are convinced that anyone who disagrees with them is an idiot and they needn’t waste time sharing air with a bunch of intellectual peasants.
They’re extreme examples, sure, but this is why many people don’t trust scientists.
Propaganda is a huge issue, of course. And we can blame the aristocratic class for that. They push an anti-science agenda and disseminate it through the million tentacles of the media.
But then the scientific community is failing to read people, because, for better or worse, people like Harris and Dawkins are the ones on the frontlines, giving atheists and scientists a bad name.
The reason Neil DeGrasse Tyson is so effective is because he’s a compassionate speaker. He strives to inspire you. It’s the same thing Carl Sagan did. When he remains inspirational and compassionate, he thrives.
This is effective because science really defends itself. If you introduce an inquisitive person to scientific inquiry, their whole life is transformed.
But if you take that same inquisitive person and tell her that first she needs to stop believing in her god–you may have just stopped a potential scientist from ever picking up her chemistry textbook.
When Tyson fails, it’s when he goes on the attack.
No one needs their religion attacked.
I mean, you may think that’s necessary. You may even think that it’s the most important thing in the world to do. But when you do that, you alienate people. Even other atheists and agnostics.
They look at your anger and think to themselves, I don’t want to be part of that.
But this is something that’s happening. We have geniuses get in shouting matches with creationists, which is the least effective thing in the world to do.
A debate like that doesn’t change anyone’s mind, because the audience is already split.
No one watches Dawkins debate a MegaChurch Preacher without their decision already made.
If you are on the fence at this moment, I encourage you to avoid watching or reading such debates.
They’re incredibly fruitless.
Rather, investigate both sides. Look at what science has to offer and what religion has to offer. And know that this does not have to be a choice.
It’s not religion on one side and science on the other.
You can believe in god and be a physicist. You can be a priest and an evolutionary biologists.
Such things are rare but not impossible or even incompatible.
Here’s even a link to an essay I wrote years ago about this very topic.
So we have the intellectual class failing people. Failing to build trust. Failing to engage with them in meaningful ways. Let’s look at another way the progressives have failed the so called idiots ruining the nation.
To bring this back to politics, there are a lot of good reasons people don’t trust the government. This goes across ethnic lines and even economic classes.
Let’s look at labor.
The Abuse of Labor by the Democratic Party
Labor was a 200 year fight in the US. Progressives and conservatives in government were against it. This goes all the way back to the founding fathers. They squashed labor riots quite violently, in fact.
The moment labor passed, we had a party trying to dismantle it. This was unfortunately effective, but the reason labor is essentially nonexistent is because of the failure of the progressives, who were meant to be advocates for labor.
The Democratic Party, which is the labor party, has undermined and sold out unions over and over and over again.
But, because we have a two party system, they’re the only pony to bet on in the race, so unions keep funding candidates who chop off their legs while smiling and telling them that this will make everything better.
Even labor stopped trusting progressives. Sure, the unions will still vote blue this election, but a surprising number of individual union workers won’t.
And that has more to do with trust than anything else.
NAFTA and the TPP are serious threats to unioned and non-unioned workers, and this can help explain why Trump is so appealing to so many voters.
Yes, it’s easy to say they’re all dumb racists, but that’s not what brings these people together most. It’s labor. And that’s worth thinking about.
I mean, yeah, Trump is rallying up racists, of which there are a lot, and, as Hedges says in his essay, he’s cruising on a course every fascist has rode to power.
So why is Trump so successful?
Because, like Taibbi says in his article, Trump knows how to con this game. He’s a genius at it.
He basically spent his whole life preparing for this campaign and didn’t even know it.
So while it’s easy to just wave your hands and waive all of this away by calling them idiots, by calling them racists, but when you do that, you make it worse. And Trump picks them up, tells them they’re beautiful, that they’re the true americans, and they find value in themselves and in this man who tells them the truth they want to hear.
You fail to educate and engage.
You make them dig their trenches deeper.
Every time you get into an argument with them, they dig a little deeper and resist you even more.
Because you’re part of the lying class. The class of people who promise but don’t really care. The intellectual aristocracy.
You can use phrases like cognitive dissonance and call them hypocrites, but those things are only convincing if the person hearing them cares what you have to say, and because they have no reason to trust you and because you’re not trying to understand their position, they simply won’t listen.
Would you listen if someone started shouting at you about why whites are the superior race?
I certainly hope not.
And I’m not really trying to be prescriptive here.
But this is the problem I see.
Progressives are not engaging conservative people. They’re not even trying to. Instead, they’re cloistering themselves within groups of agreement and labelling the Other in disparaging ways so they don’t have to take responsibility.
You know what’s brave?
Being a Mormon.
They have to go out into the world knowing that most people don’t agree with them and they have to try to convince you of two things:
- They’re not crazy
- That being Mormon is better than what you’re doing now
You know how they do that?
Kindness. Graciousness. Openness.
They literally knock on your door and politely ask you if they can discuss their faith with you.
You know how uncomfortable that must be?
Can you imagine how many people say no?
Can you imagine how many people are really rude when they say no?
To give a quick example, my dad saw some Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses walking to our house while he was pulling out of our garage, and he shouted out his window at them, demanding they leave.
Those kids didn’t get upset. They didn’t fight back.
They just moved on.
Some battles aren’t worth fighting.
Which like, yeah, if you see a dude with a swastika tattoo, that’s probably someone you don’t need to try to engage. I mean, you could certainly try.
But their decision is already seven layers deep on their skin and they may not be receptive to some stranger telling them they’re wrong.
Blame is not Useful
What this really comes down to is that we’re all to blame.
All of us.
Every US citizen.
We made Donald Trump happen.
We’ve fractured out nation so deeply that it may never heal.
I was talking to my wife the other day about how I’ve been convinced since I was fourteen that I would see the end of the US Empire in my lifetime. And while I did believe that then (I even said it would be within fifty years, which was maybe a conservative estimation, rather than the aggressive one I meant it to be) I never thought it would turn out like this.
I believe we’re at the brink of a potential civil war. We are a nation divided, with such little faith or trust in our own government. And this divide is much more even then people think.
It’s worth remembering what happened in the 2012 election.
Sure, Barack Obama decimated Mitt Romney electorally. But he only lost the popular vote by 5 million votes.
Sadly, less than half the nation voted (which is perhaps a deeper sign of how significant this divide is) but Romney only lost by 4%.
At the time, that was the most divided our nation had felt in decades upon decades. But things are even worse now.
We’re seeing the results of ideology spilling everywhere and it makes it easy to understand why people don’t trust the government.
Our government spies on us.
Our government wages illegal wars across the globe.
Our government tortures and indefinitely detains humans.
Our government commits war crimes at an alarming rate.
Our government attacks whistleblowers.
Our government is run by lobbyists and corporations.
Our government actively murders civilians, especially when they’re people of color.
Our government is doing nothing meaningful about climate change, a truly existential threat to the species.
Our government is failing us.
Many people, across the political spectrum, believe our government has failed us.
They believe we need a revolution.
Unfortunately, to most people, revolution seems to mean loudly voicing your opinion about you’re going to peacefully vote for.
But for other people this means armed occupation, murdering other civilians, and setting off bombs.
I think we’re on the brink of a civil war. It may be a violent one but it may just be a silent and gradual dissolution of our nation.
I think the dissolution of the United States would be positive in the long term, not only for us as a people, but for the world.
Unfortunately, if this does occur, it will make for a long arduous road.
It’s a scary time to be alive in this nation. I keep thinking of The Unbearable Lightness of Being and other Eastern Block works of art. We live in the most sophisticated surveillance state to ever exist. Our nation is a fascist nation and has been for decades.
But now we have a man who may launch us into something like the Third Reich.
Donald Trump may win this election and it won’t be because idiots have ruined the country.
It’ll be because very intelligent people have worked very hard to make the nation a certain way, and Trump has managed to exploit it in order to take control.
At the same time, very intelligent people who oppose these changes have failed to connect with the bulk of the population. They’ve watched as the undereducated, the poor, and the dispossessed have been manipulated by those other intelligent folks.
Which brings me to the media.
The Death of US Journalism
I wasn’t alive when it began but I’m here at its conclusion.
Because of the aggressive stance the government has towards journalists, real journalism has become increasingly dangerous, and, therefore, rare.
Whistleblowers are imprisoned or harassed and silenced. The government harasses journalists to discover the names of their sources. Legislation has been put forward that could seriously threaten a journalist’s ability to do her work in the US.
At the same time, we have people like Wolf Blitzer on television.
That’s who people associate journalism with now.
The pundit class.
I wish I had the patience and stamina to talk about the ways they’ve failed and betrayed the public, but I simply don’t.
But journalism has become so devalued, so meaningless, that most people don’t even bother watching.
See, we traded journalism for views.
When news on television became about ratings, we began to lose meaningful journalism
When the internet became about clicks and page views, we lost what it meant for the internet to have meaningful journalism.
You know how depressing it’s been following Mother Jones for the last six years?
They used to do real journalism, but now everything is opinion, and most of it’s simply clickbait.
This is what our national discussion has come to: clickbait and ratings.
Which is to say, US journalism is dying and we’re watching its collapse. And with it goes the whole of the empire.
This is a long post, yeah? My stamina’s running out.
There was more I wanted to say but I just feel depressed.
But what I meant to say here, with all of this, is that we are all failing. We have all been failing for decades.
Whether you’re a conservative or progressive, you’ve failed to meaningfully engage with the other side.
Instead you’ve labelled the other side an enemy and ended all contact, built an ideological wall, and are back there, sharpening your spears and your knives, waiting for the real war to begin.
We’re in a sort of ideological Cold War, which is leaning into a civil war.
We’ve failed the world, our nation, and each other.
We’ve given into hate and propaganda and separation and alienation and indifference.
Half the country doesn’t vote. The half that does is divided so equally and so powerfully that nothing even happens. Neither side is getting what they say they want.
But the war drum keeps beating and people abroad keep dying. Our own young men and women are dying or coming back so physically and emotionally crippled that they soon take their own lives.
This all used to be just disagreement. Conservatives and progressives found things to work together on, but now there’s only hate and separation.
Real hate. The kind that burns and erupts and incites violence.
Interestingly, the only thing our government officials unanimously agree on is war and the disintegration of the Bill of Rights.
I’ve talked a lot about my disdain for war in the past so I won’t repeat myself here, but I find the whole thing so heavy.
But I want to try to leave you with some hope, such as it is.
What Should We Do?
The only thing to do is vote locally. Vote for your state representatives and senators. Give up on the 24 hour news cycle. Stop watching the presidential debacle and find out who’s running in your state, in your district, in your town. Find out what they believe in and understand what those things mean for you as a person and for us as a nation.
Because all politics is local.
And the only way to fix this mess we’ve made is to educate yourself. The media won’t do it. The government doesn’t seem to care if you know what’s going on, which is why you can see politicians lie wildly on television without consequence.
So please, just vote. Vote for who you believe in locally, because those people will change the shape of your town, your county, your city, and your state. In doing so, they’ll change the nation.
During the last election, I wrote this essay. It was published at a website that no longer exists, but I thought I’d post it again here:
For the sake of discussion, we are going to begin with a rather large assumption:
* The god of the books is factual.
What this means is that god is God, an all powerful, all knowing, all present deity. God is everywhere, in everything. God is perfection. And we were made by God.
In this making, God chose to make us imperfect and rather intellectually stunted, when compared to the Creator. What this means is that humans, no matter how intelligent or faithful or great, can never actually know God. More than that, they can never even know if the existence of any god is factual. But they believe because God told some of us that It is real and here and everywhere else.
God spoke to a few different men throughout the millennia and had them record the history of the universe. God spoke to them in the language they knew, using words they knew, using concepts and metaphors they knew.
Even though God told humans that God is God, God further explained to them that God will always remain somewhat incomprehensible to them because of the vast and astronomical differences in knowledge and existence. God, for example, is incorporeal, which leads to some rather obvious difficulties in the created’s interactions with the Creator.
And then time went by and God shared less words with humans. God’s son came and went, some other men were whispered words by God and they wrote them down. Some two thousand years later, we land at the writing of this very sentence.
So let’s talk about science within this context. God came and explained, in broad strokes, the way existence worked and how it came to be. God gave us the intellectual tools and the vast playground of earth to discover all the secret treasures God did not divinely inspire into printed words. But God did command humans to cover and populate the earth, to take care of it and its creatures, to be benevolent rulers over all creation left to us by our divine Father. Humans walked about and played in the world, and in their playing, they discovered certain things that seemed to always be true. They discovered that humans come in different shapes and sizes, that there are an unbelievable amount of animals, that seasons change, that stars shine when the one closest to us rolls over the horizon, and millions of other discoveries that led to inventions, such as a ruler or compass or mobile phone.
Science is humanity’s response to the things we can see but do not yet understand. And there are many of these things that God simply did not bother to tell us. However, clearly God wanted us to know them or God would not have instilled us with curiosity, would not have encouraged our curiosity, would not have made the world so fascinating, would not have given us even the intellect to understand the behaviors of the planet or peoples or animals.
Science further led us to things that we could not see without tools but, when viewed, were demonstrably very real, such as atoms or quasars or electrons or blackholes.
So God left us the physical world to discover and understand. The rest, the incorporeal, the spiritual world, was left to God and nine choirs of angels and all those fallen angels and all the dead. God told us to trust in the words left by It and the men who wrote it down when it came to Its existence and all existence beyond this physicality.
Newt Gingrich said, while still running for president, that christian values were under attack in america. It is easy to waive him off and not bother with such nonsense. But he was completely correct. Christianity is losing its relevance. As a nation and as a world, the christian values that have defined western civilisation for two millennia are no longer the fulcrum that society is tethered round. It is no longer the moral compass by which every person bases their actions. There are many reasons for that, but we will not talk about them today.
Much is made of science’s attacks on religion. Religion, specifically religions of the book–and maybe even more specifically, christian religions–feel under attack with each new scientific discovery and with the generally held belief–which is not really a belief but is a fact–that science is based on facts. This becomes especially clear the more fundamental the religious sect is because these newly discovered facts tend to disagree with things written in the bible. I could say that they are all just overreacting about the whole thing, but people who think this way, who believe in the bible as the absolute and definitive word of God take this very seriously.
So what is belief? Belief is the confidence in the truth or existence of something that is not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof. It tends to come with faith, which is belief that is not based on proof. So while facts may be self evident, we do not choose what is factual and not factual. However, we do choose what we do and do not believe in. These people choose to believe that God as revealed to us in the bible is True. To discount that is to discount maybe the most defining aspect of their life. Faith is not a whimsical thing for many people. It defines every choice they make. It might be easy to mock people who wear What Would Jesus Do? bracelets, but there are many people who use that very question to guide their life, just as others ask themselves what the Talmud and/or Torah asks of them, or what the prophet Muhammad would do, or what does Buddha teach, or what is my dharma, or where does the Tao lead.
That is rather significant, no matter how stupid you may think it is.
But let us return to science. Science is systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation. Science is the tool by which humans come to understand the world they live in. Writing this sentence on my laptop is the result of generations upon countless generations of scientists. Science is an essentially playful thing because it is the way we come to understand the world, naturally. Every human begins as a primitive scientist, discovering the world and learning more about it every day of its life. We begin to understand by very simple experiments. If we move this arm and this leg in such a way and at such a rate, we can crawl. If we move our lips and tongue and jaw in just the right kind of ways, we can speak. All of this is a trial and error approach to learning. Hypothesis, predictions, tests, observations and so on until we have an understanding of how the process of speaking or walking or eating or throwing a ball works. As we grow and learn, our experimentation becomes more sophisticated and reliable, as we have all of the scientific tradition to learn from.
Science is the gateway to understanding the physical world. What science does not do and does not even actually care about is the metaphysical or incorporeal or spiritual or ethereal world. This is the area for philosophers and theologians, the plane where only ideas exist.
Why do scientists ignore this area of existence? This is actually quite simple: we cannot know it. There is nothing to observe and no one to observe it. Do we have souls? Maybe. It is pretty hard to say, using scientific tools, whether or not something that is weightless, odorless, colorless, and, ultimately, incorporeal is real or unreal. Science is not equipped to even begin to attempt to solve such a question. If souls had some aspect that was physical or observable, then, yes, science could try to answer the question.
And this is much the same as the existence of god. Many scientists believe in god or even God. Many do not. Really, their personal opinions about that do not matter to their professional lives because science has no interest in god. God, by definition, is metaphysical and, therefore, unknowable to humans, who happen to be bound by the laws of the physical reality they inhabit. If something is beyond physics, then it no longer becomes science’s problem. If god were, in some way, physical or measurable, then science would have something to say about it. Perhaps even very kind things.
Science is not trying to attack different ways of life. It is trying to understand life and, hopefully, improve it. For everyone.
But back to the bible, which science seems to constantly accidentally attack. Is it not possible, perhaps, that God, this perfect entity so beyond human comprehension, distilled the truths of the universe to humans the same way a human adult explains the world to an infant? Think of how simplified your explanations are to a child. Would you even bother to use the words physics or biology or chemistry? When is the last time you even discussed calculus with another adult or tried to explain to them where all the atoms in the universe come from? A human child happens to be the same species as a human adult, so it may be more appropriate to compare a human adult to a larval fly when comparing God to a human adult. Assuming you could make yourself understood to a fly, how would you explain the complexities of existence to it using its language?
Is it not possible that your reading of the bible is fundamentally flawed? Maybe it is all there, perfectly and succinctly. The entire cosmos wrapped up in those beginning chapter of genesis, yet, regrettably, owing to our astronomically deficient human intellect, we are so hopelessly incapable of even beginning to understand what God meant when It whispered those words to Moses [for the sake of argument] some three thousand years ago.
But the main point here is that religion and science are not at odds because they are not even the same language or in the same plane of existence. Discovering new words and metaphors in French does not make Cantonese less legitimate, nor does the understanding of one mean the attack of the other. Being a very good pelican may make you a terrible whale, but it is not really useful to compare the two, is it?
Rather than assume that every person who disagrees with you is also trying to destroy your way of life and ruin the future of humanity, maybe we should calm down a bit, sit down, and remember that apples are not oranges, and metaphysical apples are also not apples.
 Books here meaning the Qur’an and different versions of the Bible