Sunday, September 13, 2015

Mixed Reviews: Watchmen Between the World and Me

There are two important books that I want to tell you about: Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman, and Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. I read the dead-tree version of Lee's book, borrowed from the library; I listened to Coates reading the audio version of his book, also borrowed from the library, and immediately went online and bought a copy to keep.

I hope I can help you understand why.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was 13. It was a gut-punch that left me weeping in my room, reeling from my first confrontation with something like the fate of Tom Robinson.

That's important. Please hold onto that - it was the fate of Tom Robinson that affected me so strongly. It wasn't Atticus or Scout that stayed with me after I put the book down. And later, it was the face of Brock Peters, the actor who portrayed Tom Robinson in the movie, that haunted me when I had reason to think about these things.

To give you an idea of my context, at that age, I was just becoming aware of the complex world of American politics. I was coming to it as a passionate Christian fundamentalist. At 11, I had gone to the front of my Southern Baptist church and accepted Christ as my Savior, surprising even my parents with my fervor. My family lived out away from the city, so during those years, I had very little company. I spent most of my time devouring books and listening to Family Life Radio - especially to James Dobson's "Focus on the Family" program. I absorbed many of the lessons that my church and faith community impressed upon me and since this was the early 1980s, I developed a strong affection and admiration for Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority that became his political base.

In my world, all of these moral influences were unified. They were all about democracy and fairness, and the shining city of purity on the hill. Our Sunday School had always sung about Jesus loving all the children of the world - red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight - and I never questioned that fairness and equality were the cornerstones of being an American Christian.

And then I was confronted with the fate of Tom Robinson.

Looking back thirty years, I can see now why I found that book so easy to read. Maycomb was a less lonely version of the environment I grew up in; Scout and Jem were a lot like my sister and I; Scout reminded everyone of my grandmother, who grew up in Depression-era Arizona. And the theme of the book - the "loss of innocence" symbolized by the titular Mockingbird - tracked with what I was going through in my life. I related to her imagined isolation from her friends; I related to her fear of the isolated Boo Radley; I related to her growing awareness of the unreliable control that others have over their savagery as the townspeople turned on her father for doing what was right.

Just as Scout had to face the uncomfortable realities of the world, I was being exposed to the world through the filter of my radio and I was learning how dangerous and uncomfortable it really was out there. I heard all about the threats to our society presented by drugs, abortion, and devil worshipers (oh, you better believe I hung on Mike Warnke's every word!) - and while it was subtle, I was being taught, too, that the people behind these threats used arguments for "equality" to force their way through our righteous defenses and erode the brains and souls of our children.

Yes, I thought that way. At age 11.

And then I was confronted with the fate of Tom Robinson.

The first time I read this book, I was primed to think that the happy ending required Tom's acquittal and vindication. I held out hope that Atticus Finch's heroic defense would convince the town to see Tom's innocence, and that they would be forced to recognize the evil of the social stratification that Atticus explained to Scout - that system where white men sit at the top, and black women sit at the bottom, and those on each tier in between can only keep their status by forcing those "below" them to "keep their place."

I thought for years afterward that Tom's conviction was the "loss of innocence" symbolized in the title. I thought that the courage Atticus showed in defending him was part of the struggle to tear down that social ladder. I was naive, but to my credit that interpretation never sat well with me, and as I grew out of this phase of my life, and learned more about America's real racial history - and the role American Christians played in it - I had to accept a truth that many readers of Go Set A Watchman apparently never did. I had to recognize that the picture of equality I had in my head, and the idea of tearing down that unfair social ladder, were not actually part of the American Dream that Atticus Finch - or my white, evangelical tribe - defended. I had a choice not to accept that truth - but I did.

Because I could not ignore the fate of Tom Robinson.

Tom Robinson was an innocent man convicted by people who cared less about the truth of whether he committed the crime he was accused of than they did about the place he occupied on the social ladder, and his sin was that he tried to take control over his fate away from them. Tom Robinson, we learn from Atticus, tried to run away. To Atticus, this was Tom Robinson's folly - evidence that he and those like him were not ready to join society, because they could not trust the system - could not trust Atticus.

Tom's choice to run was an act that Thomas Jefferson praised and enshrined in America's Declaration of Independence when he said, "But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government..."

But when Tom tried to throw off such Government, even Atticus condemned him for it. Atticus was wrong, and even though it was a wistful, paternalistic condemnation, it was still unjust. And a man was dead for the sake of principles of pride that Atticus articulates later in Watchman. Pride that requires that someone be "below" for someone else to have their Dream. He died, not because he deserved it, but because someone believed their race required his death to maintain their pride.

Tom Robinson was shot to death "off camera," so that the reader would learn this about Atticus as he explained the events to Scout.

For those millions of readers who didn't take away the same lesson that I did, they continued to view Atticus Finch as a moral hero. They saw him taking the stand he did as defending the innocent Mockingbird, and felt betrayed when Watchman presented a very different picture. It was not something they were ready for.

In the new book, the reader follows Jean Louise as she returns to Maycomb for a visit, and she sees Atticus in a situation that literally turns her worldview inside out. Most of the reviews I read expressed shock and revulsion that Harper Lee "turned the heroic Atticus into a racist" - and I think Jean Louise would agree with that sentiment. The entire second half of Watchman shows her dealing with that very reaction, and her sense that Atticus had betrayed her deeply, fundamentally, and for the whole of her life.

But Atticus did not change between the first and second books.

The Atticus of Watchman is the same heroic defender of what he sees as right that he always was. If anything, I learned from Watchman that Atticus does believe that the social ladder that victimized Tom Robinson in the first book should be destroyed...eventually. But he believes that it is dangerous and counter-productive to do so in a way that upsets those on that ladder. He spends the second half of Watchman trying to convince Jean Louise that the way to true equality is to make the negroes (his word, not mine) earn their way up.

"Honey," he says to Jean Louise, "you do not seem to understand that the Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people...They've made terrific progress in adapting themselves to white ways, but they're far from it yet. They were coming along fine, traveling at a rate they could absorb, more of 'em voting than ever before."

What he fails to take into account is that "white ways" are not purely the good and noble things that he would like to believe them to be - any more than singing "Jesus loves the little children" in Sunday School means that the evangelical culture I was part of gave a damn about the life of someone like Tom Robinson. Jean Louise tries to articulate what is wrong with Atticus's point of view, but I sympathize with the difficulty she faces. It's a pervasive, self-assured kind of bigotry, compounded by thinking itself to be kind and generous. She lashes out, curses at him, but pulls her punches because, after all, this is her Atticus. Finally, she compares his actions to those of Hitler and Stalin, and he just smiles, as if he thinks she is exaggerating. But she persists:

"You're no damn better. You just try to kill their souls instead of their bodies. You just try to tell 'em, 'Look, be good. Behave yourselves. If you're good and mind us, you can get a lot out of life, but if you don't mind us, we will give you nothing and take away what we've already given you.' ...How they're as good as they are now is a mystery to me, after a hundred years of systematic denial that they're human. I wonder what kind of miracle we could work with a week's decency."

There is barely a mention of the fate of Tom Robinson in Watchman - he is referenced by Jean Louise a few pages before in this same scene as "that rape case" - but his ghost hung over this book as I read it, forcing me to stare into that gap between "denial that they're human" and "a week's decency" and see the pile of bodies at the bottom.

But Tom Robinson is a fictional character.

It is easy for someone like me to stand up for fictional people, because they don't have a lot of messy reality behind them. They aren't necessarily on the streets of my city, clashing with police. They have only the past that we are told about, and whatever pity their stories might evoke, our sense of morality requires nothing more than saying that it's awful what happened to them before we move on to the next book on our summer reading list.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, is a real person. He offers another book that reminds us that Tom Robinson's fate is uncomfortably real. Commonly real. Unjustifiably real. In Between the World and Me, Coates writes a letter to his teen-aged son that describes his experiences on that rung of the social ladder that Atticus defends as Coates's right and proper place.

Coates begins his book by describing to his son the experience of appearing on a news show and being asked by the host "why I felt that white America's progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence." He uses that construction - "people who believe that they are white" - because he knows something that the people at the top of the social ladder don't want to know about themselves. He knows that for all of the high-minded talk about equality being part of the American Dream, as long as some see themselves as part of the "top", they will always require someone to be beneath them. And he also knows from a lifetime of experience that as long as those at the "top" consider themselves to be "white", no one with black skin can avoid being shoved down that ladder.

He knows that the cornerstone of the American Dream is made out of the bodies of those we keep at the bottom of the ladder, in the gap between their humanity and our kindness. That is his theme, and I have known this lesson since I learned it as a child, reading To Kill a Mockingbird.

I recognized that painful truth about the cornerstone of my American Dream back then, and it set me on the course of questioning that made me what I am today. Holding my Dream accountable for the damage it caused meant shedding beliefs that weren't based in reality. My church was my Atticus Finch - kindly, well-intentioned, morally straight, loving...and wrong. It meant walking away from the childish faith I was raised to accept, and recognizing that the world we are in is only as scary and dangerous as we make it.

When I read Between the World and Me, I have the same choice before me again - the same choice that you have now: "Is my dream to actually realize the equality and fairness that I say I hold dear, or is it to keep climbing and the ladder while pretending that I am not hurting anyone?"

When Ta-Nehisi Coates writes to his son about the ways that Americans "who believe that they are white" have systematically deprived him and people like him of control over the very security of his own body, he is talking about that choice. He expresses in eloquent and straightforward words the same idea that the fictional Tom Robinson expressed by trying to run away from those people. "I am not safe as long as you don't view me as a person." And "I am not safe as long as you view me as a threat to your Dream."

Now I am going to tell you the main idea of this review. I buried the lede here because I knew that if I put it up front that you would not read it. But I want you to understand why so many people did not like Go Set a Watchman, and why so many of the people who have based the safety of their own bodies and the bodies of their children on the idea that they are "white" will reject Coates's book and the ideas in it. I want you to confront the fate of Tom Robinson, and the evil honor of Atticus Finch, and I want you to set one fact in the center of all of these things. Let this be your new cornerstone:

I, as a 13-year-old white boy, had the luxury of weeping in my room over the vileness of what happened to Tom Robinson...and then putting the book down in my large, safe room, and turning on a radio that told me I was good, and noble, and that my tribe was all for fairness and equality. At the same time, Ta-Nehisi Coates, a 10-year-old black boy, risked death every day just going to and from school on the streets of Baltimore. He could not simply put that book down, and do something else.

That is what is meant by the phrase "white privilege". That difference in our dreams - one boy dreaming of being safe, the other dreaming that his privilege has nothing to do with putting the first boy in his place - is the gap between us.

The beauty of Between the World and Me is that, as a letter to his son, Coates is not lecturing White America on how it should behave. He talks about having been a radical when he was younger, but he is no longer calling for a "revolution." He is explaining to his son how America behaves, and why, and he explains how his life wound its way from the dangers of his old neighborhood to a place where he could have and raise a son. He describes the ways he used to think, and ideas he explored as a young man - ideas that those who must believe they are white hold up as evidence that people like Coates are "not ready" to join the rest of us on these higher rungs of this ladder - and how even though he outgrew that and succeeded, so that he could give his son privileges associated with the Dream, it is his son's job to be on guard. There is still danger in simply being a black man around people who need to believe they are white.

Coates does describe the tragedies that are happening right now, in Ferguson and Baltimore; tragedies that white privilege allows so many of us to pretend aren't happening or aren't our fault because we have the luxury to put down the book, or turn off the TV, and do something else. But these examples are not rallying points - they are simply the mirror held up to the American Dream, and to Dreamers who are not unlike Atticus Finch in despising the disorder more than the cause. He doesn't try to take away from their sense of their own nobility, but because of the million thoughtless ways Dreamers have denied the cost of their Dream, he has to tell his son to beware of them.

"I do not believe that we can stop them, Samori, because they must ultimately stop themselves. And still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors. Struggle for wisdom...But do not struggle for the Dreamers. Hope for them. Pray for them, if you are so moved. But do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves, to understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers the planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos."
I love that passage in particular - that the Dreamers "will have to learn to struggle for themselves" - because it echoes and answers the paternalistic condescension of Atticus Finch with almost his own words, and turns them both into a plea for patience and a defiant claim of maturity. It simultaneously urges the wisdom of self-reliance, the necessity of patience, and the promise of forgiveness.

When David Brooks read Between the World and Me, he saw the importance of the book, but he also saw the attack on the American Dream, and chided Coates for that attack. What I saw was that my neighbor is being hurt by a Dream that harms both of us. Brooks asks "Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?" In a way, he answers his own question a few paragraphs later - but he thinks that the choice is between the Dream and no dream. I see that what Coates demands is a different choice: if the Dream is a lie, work on a better reality. That goal is, by definition, a different dream.

Brooks frames his question as if "disagreement" is merely an intellectual exercise. But I can see, just watching the news, that this goes beyond philosophy. Tom Robinson was shot "off camera" but in just the past few years, an alarming number of black men have been shot, choked, and beaten to death on and off camera. And the same people who rail against the arbitrary tyranny of the State when they are inconvenienced or have to pay taxes suddenly become the purest advocates of unquestioning respect for authority when they are confronted with this raw brutality. It's not mere "disagreement" - it's philosophical alchemy!

That's why Coates expresses rage; because the effect of "disagreeing" is far more devastating to him and his children than it is to me and mine. I see my white friends and neighbors stroking their guns and lustfully warning that the next time there is trouble, "they might come up our way - and we'll be ready!" Somehow, they express this fear almost joyfully - as if they've been waiting for the chance to openly defend their Dream. They clearly disagree with Coates's premise - and they go further, defending the system of prisons and ghettos that they clearly believe the inhabitants belong in. They display their willful blindness to their own privilege, as well as the willful ignorance of their own contribution to the trouble that is brewing. Their joyful fear is more horrible to me than the crowds who might be gathering in downtown Baltimore, waiting for the spark from a pending trial.

When you read Between the World and Me, you can see why Atticus Finch was wrong. No, that's not quite right, because Atticus was not real. You and I are real, and Ta-Nehisi Coates is not Tom Robinson any more than I am Scout. While we both live in Baltimore, and are roughly the same age, and both love writing and love our children, there is very little else that ties us together other than the roles we have played in our lives - he as a proud, intelligent black man, and I as a privileged, if not wealthy, white man. Brooks and my neighbors would have me take offense that Coates is accusing me of building my life on his body. But when I read his letter to his son, I see more in him that I love and value than I have seen lately in the people who share my privilege.

When you read Between the World and Me, you should see why we are wrong to allow ourselves to exercise the privilege of putting down our book and going about some other business. You might disagree with minor semantic points, but you may not ignore the facts. "White privilege" is choosing to believe you are white, and choosing to prop up a fading Dream on the bones of our friends and neighbors, when our friends and neighbors desperately need us to do something else.

They need us to wake up, and show a week's decency. Preferably every week.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

What You Won't See On the News

We spent the afternoon walking Baltimore.

I am more afraid of the consequences of my wife knowing that than I was that we would get hurt. And if you stop reading here, I hope that thought stays with you: the fact that there is no reason to be afraid.

We started in Harbor East - this is the upscale centerpiece of the downtown area, where my daughter works. For the past several days, National Guard troops have been lining these streets, carrying AR-15s, looking bored, and watching yuppies and hipsters scurry back and forth from Whole Foods and the wine shop to the ritzy hotels and apartment buildings.

First, we went west, towards the Inner Harbor. We waved at Mr. Trash Wheel (I'm a huge fan), and we headed over the bridge by the National Aquarium. There were probably close to 100 soldiers and cops lining Pratt Street, shoulder to shoulder, looking up the empty streets toward City Hall. To call their apparel "full riot gear" seems an understatement; there were half a dozen carrying gas guns and bandoleers of tear gas.

We said hello to some of the soldiers (and airmen!), and we were not afraid.

There were a lot of civilians, like us, roaming nervously along the water and eyeing the situation. We walked down past where the forces stood arrayed against what might come, and found a crosswalk. On the other side of Pratt, there were almost no cars, and very few people. There were a few young, 20-something black men, mostly in pairs, walking towards us, talking about the protest march.

We said hello to them, and we (and they) were not afraid.

At City Hall, there were a lot of people milling around. Most of them were either black and holding hand lettered signs, or they were with the press. There were a couple of groups on the side streets, that appeared to be part of different religious organizations, speaking to each other over portable microphones, but they were out of sight of the media.

The news vans were packed bumper to bumper around the square, and easy-up tents were erected over sound boards, lighting equipment, and scurrying techs. There were dozens and dozens of people there, but the mood was light; a lot of the folks had their kids with them. Two adorable twin girls were with their dad, and their schnauzer; they carried balloons that said "All Lives Matter," and they posed by the barricades in front of the lines of Guardsmen while their dad took their pictures. Then they turned and waved and blew kisses at the soldiers.

I told them that I liked their balloons, and none of us were afraid.

We followed the barricades up Gay Street, and under the Jones Falls overpass at Saratoga. Brent bought two "Black Lives Matter" shirts from a guy hanging out and selling them from his car. We live in the future, so of course his phone had the square thing for swiping credit cards. A black lady approached me and asked if the shirts came in any other colors, and I told her that I had only seen them in white. 

We kind of looked at each other, both thinking the same thing, and I think both of our mouths twitched a little bit, not quite sure enough of each other to laugh about it outright - but the point is, we weren't afraid.

Back up on President Street, we stood across from the police headquarters; Fayette was closed and barricaded, and there were a couple of Guards and a cop taking a break and eating some dinner - behind them, on the wall of the police headquarters was a huge recruitment banner.
A photo posted by Tad Callin (@tadmaster69) on
We roamed back toward the car, stopping for some impulse book shopping. (I bought a nifty edition of the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and selected writings to include the Federalist Papers and Common Sense. I wish more of our leaders would read them.) We dropped the books off at the car, chatted with some soldiers and airmen who were getting some food, and headed eastward from Harbor East towards Fells Point.

The soldiers were less prevalent, but they were still there - Humvees were parked down side streets, and patrols of one or two Guards strolled around their assigned blocks along the cobbled brick streets, while cover bands blasted their versions of Bob Marley, 311, and Rusted Root songs. The patrons weren't numerous, but there was a kind of defiant cheerfulness about them.

My favorite was this guy, though (note the Hummer and soldiers in the background):
A video posted by lydiandude (@lydiandude) on

We weren't afraid.

Why not?

Partly because we're privileged. I have to acknowledge that - two white guys and a white girl walking the streets (two of them in "Black Lives Matter" t-shirts) aren't going to get looked at twice by any of the police or soldiers. The fact that we're veterans doesn't hurt - the Network Warfare guy and I hit it off in the Five Guys, and were instant buddies. And even before buying the shirts, none of the black people protesting gave us any reason to feel uncomfortable in our city - we were all neighbors, equally free to be in the public square, and equally exasperated with the media circus.

But the main reason we weren't afraid was because the people who are angry are not angry at us.

The national news has made much of our city's story this week, but for all of the hand wringing and race baiting in the national media, they have failed utterly to tell you the truth about Baltimore. And that truth is this:

Baltimore is full of angry black citizens who are fed up with having their friends, family, and neighbors killed in police custody. They're tired of the corruption of their police department, and the failures of city leaders - not just recently, but for a long time, now. (2013 example, 2012 example, another 2013 example, and many more from the Baltimore Sun files.) If you want to understand this situation, you must read David Simon's take, and Ta-Nehisi Coates's piece.

While the rioting is certainly a Bad Thing, and in no way justified, it isn't the main thing that has happened here this week. A lot of people behaved badly, but focusing on that violence is misleading. Reporting only that is an example of saying something that is factually true while still being dishonest - because as many have pointed out, the same people pouring out their derision on the rioters have said nothing at all about the 100 people who died in the custody of the Baltimore police since 2010. And here's the uncomfortable truth about the riots:

They were the smallest part of this week's events.

The rioting was limited to one night - and while I can't point you to a news source that says this, it seems to me from reading the Facebook and Twitter posts of friends and friends' friends that what happened at Mondawmin Mall - the spark that set off the violence and looting - was also due to actions taken by the police. There were hundreds of school kids who were trapped on the streets because the city suspended bus services, and they had no way to get home from school. The police - in full riot gear - started busting up groups of them, and to indulge in an understatement, things got way out of control.

As I heard it told, there were about 250 looters arrested - and most of them were released after 47 hours, because even with a special order extended the time allowed for submitting charges, there weren't enough commissioners to do the paperwork, and they were set free. That tells me that these "riots" that have been hyped and fretted over were not the central event here. And I only hope that as the charges against the six officers involved in the death of Freddie Gray are taken to court, that the media attention will stay focused on that, instead of on the rash behavior of one or two nights.

Because the discussion that needs to happen is about repairing trust in the local government and law enforcement. I hope that the angry people I saw in the square outside city hall today will stay involved, and hold their local representatives accountable for making these changes. I hope that the rightfully outraged, and non-violent citizens of all ethnic backgrounds in the city will ignore their privileged, suburban critics and keep demanding that accountability.

And I don't expect it, but I hope all of my friends and neighbors in the surrounding county areas will stop foaming at the mouth about "Castle doctrine" while they stroke their guns. Fantasizing about getting the chance to take a shot at their fellow citizens and blowing racist dog-whistles on social media is not going to solve problems for anyone; I hope that instead, they'll remember that they're supposed to be models for good behavior - especially the Scout leaders - not pouring fuel on the fire that brought the National Guard to our streets.

Yes, of course we should support the hard working police - the three of us went out on the streets today in part to do just that - but those police are working hard for us...and "us" should include everyone who lives here. That isn't the case, yet, and the protesters are out there on the streets to make sure that happens. Maybe you are one of the people who finds their anger and their protesting scary, but you're only getting a taste of the fear they live with all the time.

Yes, it's #NotAllPolice that are the problem, but it only takes one (or sometimes six) to do irreparable damage, and it's clear that more needs to be done to weed out those "bad apples".

When that happens, none of us will need to be afraid.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

On a Battlefield

I'm writing this post on a miraculously tiny computer with a weak internet signal from a tent on the site of a battle from a war that ended 150 years ago.

I can hear someone playing a guitar somewhere, and I can hear my friends telling stories by a fire - a fire where our scout troop just retired six worn flags. In the flag ceremony, we heard about the men (and women!) who fought to keep our country together, the first responders and emergency personnel who keep us safe, and the civil servants who represent us in public office. It is one of the only times an American can burn the flag - and there are a number of customs incorporated in the ceremony to demonstrate respect for it.

It's hard to convey the depth of this to a gaggle of tired young people who just spent a day on a 15-mile bike tour of the battlefield. It's hard to convey to them how close they are in time, as well as space, to the people who died here.

Listening to some of them talk about war, and winning, and glory... and killing... I wish I could say something to them about what I'm seeing on this battlefield.

Because I understand that while we - the United States - won the conflict, we're still fighting that war. I study my family history, and I know how many of my great-grandparents fought, suffered, and sent children and fathers off to return broken, if at all. I know what those people wanted their war to be about, and I know that to these children, 150 years is an unimaginable eternity, and few of them grasp how profoundly different their world could be had things on this battlefield not turned out the way they did.

And I doubt their parents have thought about how remarkable it is that these children think Evil was defeated here. I don't know how we can explain to them that when the fighting ended, evil was still our neighbor, and forgiveness had to begin.

I heard some of the boys talking about other wars - castigating the British, denouncing the Nazis, and bitterly repeating what garbled accounts they have in their minds about Vietnam. I wonder when they will realize that in every case, once the guns fell silent, the survivors had to figure out how to put their world back together.

I have no doubt that some of these boys - maybe even my own - will end up in a uniform, trying to survive so they can put the world back together again. But I'd rather hope that we can figure out how to keep the fighting from happening.

This battlefield is a tourist attraction now. It's a solemn one, but there's no denying that people are here in their RVs, tents, and campers to enjoy themselves. Part of me feels bad about that.

But then I look into the fire at the ashes of retired flags, and realize that this is what the fighting was about. It was always about making a future that was better than what had come before the fighting.

And I'm on this battlefield, sleeping not far from my future, writing about it on a miracle.

That's how I know it's better, and that we won.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Sunday, March 8, 2015

My Boring Inner Demons

Over the past year, I have grown increasingly angry.

This anger stems from events at work. I love my job - despite the past year's events - but I am not at liberty to talk about work, and that's part of the problem. Fortunately, for you to understand my anger, you only need to know that I've watched helplessly as my management has systematically applied the OSS Simple Sabotage Manual's rules to running our organization. (Particularly Timeless Tips #1 and #3.)

But events at work are not why I'm writing this post. They are just the catalyst that have propelled much of my behavior this year.

If you've known me and followed my blog for any length of time, you may be able to figure out how I deal with stress. Some people struggle with self-destructive behaviors, some people indulge in physical activity; others take solace in their religion. I indulge in my nerdishly obsessive hobbies. In extreme cases, the choices people make can upset their life completely and force them to start over. When that happens - when their entire life seems to go up in flames around them - either they or someone they hurt in the process will describe them as struggling with their Inner Demons.

I know enough to realize that everyone has some kind of Inner Demon to deal with - something within themselves that they struggle to control and steer into constructive work. Most people easily recognize that struggle when they see someone acting out in stereotypical ways. We've all known someone who destroyed their body and their relationships as they tried to numb their pain with excessive partying; we've all known a few people who have done the same damage chasing after salvation through a faith, through a lifestyle change, or through simply hitting the reset button and walking away.

Whatever you think about my characterization of people who use these different techniques, you have to admit that you understand them. These are ways that normal people deal with adversity - whether internal or external in origin. And those of us watching from outside can be very creative when it comes to figuring out why people choose those actions - that's why such a colorful and fraught expression like "inner demons" is used to explain them. It's useful to unpack that phrase and see how it simultaneously tries to put blame inside the person who is suffering AND blame some external force beyond anyone's control.

As someone who does not believe in literal demons, I fully appreciate the usefulness of the metaphor. It's easier to acknowledge that one is having problems if there is a kind of entity apart from oneself to put the blame on. I can point to my "demon" and say, "That's an unfortunate part of myself that I need to get rid of in order to be happy."

But the truth is, no one really wants to get rid of their demon.

In my case, my demons are not the young, attractive, Buffy the Vampire Slayer-style demons that you can kick in the face and turn to dust with a stake. I am not haunted by the sexy ghost of James Dean or driven to act out through excessive drinking, driving fast cars, pursuing damaged women, or any of the other socially discouraged (but secretly admired) behaviors that sell so many songs and movie tickets.  No, my demons are as nerdy as I am.

My demons drive me to obsessively focus on details. They push me to ignore basic, fundamental everyday personal maintenance and spend hours... days... digging through dry texts and looking for small truths. They compel me to catalog, sort, order, and process things that don't need to be ordered; and they do this at the expense of things that do need to be dealt with.

For me, the vicious cycle is not to drink away the pain, and then face the physical hangover the next morning with the "hair of the dog" - no, for me, the cycle is one where I spend my whole day pursuing records for obscure relatives and wake up Sunday morning having failed to do my taxes.

My inner demons, in short, are boring as shit.

And I hate that I allow this cycle to continue. I hate that I can sit here and analyze it, and know exactly what I'm doing (or not doing) and just helplessly go along with it. I hate that what I'm addicted to is some elusive kind of success that only my inner demon cares anything about. I already know that nothing I do will win me enough approval to make up for the things I keep neglecting.

And that adds to the stress.

And the stress fuels that demon.

The worst part is that over the years, I have been able to channel my energy into useful and productive pursuits. My success at work (until this last year) has been driven by my ability to dive into mountains of detailed data and come out with a compelling story. That same ability is behind my family history blog, and the projects I'm trying to work on there. I can even credit this inner demon with focusing my energy on the single-minded, obsessively detail-oriented things I needed to change in order to save my marriage. I managed to break away from the lifestyle of arguing on the internet to do that - and that was no small thing for me.

It boils down to finding the right way to escape from the stress and using the anger to do something constructive. I want more than anything to be good at what I do - in whatever context I am doing it. I want to be good at work; I want to be a good partner to my General; I want to be a good dad. But when I fail at those things - and all of the subtle ways that I fail seem to resist a solution - the pressure builds to retreat into my current obsession.

There are a number of things I should have been doing instead of writing this. I should have been doing our taxes. I should be sanding and painting our hall closet. I should have been planning and arranging some kind of 20th anniversary celebration. I should have...

but that's the problem.

As hard as I try to force myself to do things I'm not comfortable doing, and as hard as I strive to trivialize these tasks in my mind to reduce the sense of burden attached to them, I can't fool myself; I know that I'm terrible at these tasks. They will eat up most of my day and likely result in failure; it will also be a failure to not do them at all. And that double burden of failure starts the cycle. As soon as I am distracted, or my subconscious can find a reason to do Something Else, my Inner Demon will gladly "forget" what I was trying to do... and I will wake up the next morning with a back sore from sitting in my crappy computer chair, eyes red and tired from staring at the screen, wanting nothing more than to dive back in and chase the breakthroughs that will justify the time and effort of doing the research in the first place.

 But my point is not to ask for sympathy or to motivate myself to give up my hobby for the sake of housework. The point is to explain how doing dead simple things that a normal person should be able to do without a lot of drama and agony is a major victory for me. I want you to understand that when I manage to do these things and maintain the pretense that I am a normal, capable adult, this is a Big Deal. I may not be kicking an addiction, or performing some Walter Mitty style feat of achievement, but I am winning.

Because even though they are boring, and sometimes useful, my Inner Demons are still demons.  And it's still hard to kick them in the face.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I Guess Chicks Just Don't Have a Sense of Humor

Update: the friend I mentioned whose Tweets motivated this post was horribly offended at the way I characterized him in this post. I have modified the text to be more fair to him, and to attempt to make it clearer that my criticism is not of him, personally, but of the idea that "the feminist reaction to this incident was bullying or was out of proportion."

A few years ago, I used an expression in the office to indicate that I had been mildly cheated.

I said I was "gypped" out of something.

It's an expression I've heard used without comment my whole life. In some cases, when it was used, it was indicated that it was the polite and acceptable version of a similar expression used to malign Jewish people. Most of the people I have known my whole life would never say they were "jewed" out of something (though I have heard it, obviously), but they would say they were "gypped" without a second thought.

But when I used "gypped" I was promptly scolded by a co-worker. "My grandmother was Hungarian, and she would have slapped you for that!"

I was taken aback, because after all, I spent the first thirty-something years of my life thinking that was a safe thing to say. I felt a little outraged at being scolded, of course, and it seemed like such an insignificant thing to be complaining about.

But because I am a grown up, I had to own up.

It had never occurred to me that "gypped" had anything to do with "gypsies." Nor had I put together that people identified with the Roma and Eastern European folks in general had been mistreated and maligned with this expression for generations - though I am a linguist and a generally smart person, and I probably should have figured that out at some point.  In the end, my reaction to being called out for it was to apologize and I have avoided using that term ever since.

Of course, I COULD have thrown a fit about Political Correctness Run Amok and explained carefully and patiently to that co-worker just how she should feel about me, a privileged white male, using whatever damned words I like. Or I could have decried a culture in which, to borrow from Richard Dawkins:

"An unhealthy reactionism is being cultivated whereby every action by every human is hijacked as a commentary on [someone else]."

I could have pretended that I was the victim for being scolded. But there is a term for that kind of person, too, which is all too appropriate: "dick."

So why did I tell you this story?  Because last week, the "Shirtstorm" happened.  Go to that link, and read all about it if you aren't already familiar with that story.

I really didn't want to comment on this. I have other things I'd rather be doing. But I'm writing THIS because I have one dear friend keeps weighing in via Twitter, and he told me on said public platform that he is "sort of astonished that [I] don't think the collective punishment [by feminists] of the entire scientific community wasn't warranted." So this is my response to that - in much, much more than 140 characters.

From my friend's point of view, feminists "attacked" the ESA and the entire scientific community.  They "hijacked" what should have been an amazing scientific achievement (it was!) and they should have kept their outrage to themselves.

He referred me to this USA Today article in which Glenn Harlan Reynolds (of Instapundit fame) describes the shirt in question as being "made for him by a female 'close pal'" and decries "the online feminist lynch mob" which "forced...a tearful apology". All of this strikes me as hyperbolic muckraking, since a) no one was lynched, and b) the apology was in order. (And it doesn't matter that the "female 'close pal'" made the shirt any more than it matters that George Wallace had some friends who were black.)

(Update: my friend later pointed out that he agreed that the offending shirt was in poor taste and that the he agreed the apology was necessary. That was not obvious to me until after I wrote this post, and I'm adding this because it's not fair to him to imply that he is attacking that point. But I am leaving the rest of my remarks as they stand with minor edits because a) he claimed the USA Today article "doesn't go quite far enough," thus clearly claiming the stated opinions in it - including the use of the phrase "lynch mob" - as mirroring his own and b) my argument from the start has been that the reaction from women and men within the astronomical and STEM communities that prompted the apology was merited; it was the anti-feminist response (which my friend has clearly joined) which was out of proportion - a position also publicly stated by the American Astronomical Society.)

Here are the tweet cited in the USA Today article which constitute the "lynch mob" and their "collective punishment":

The Atlantic's Rose Eveleth tweeted, "No no women are toooootally welcome in our community, just ask the dude in this shirt." 


Astrophysicist Katie Mack commented: "I don't care what scientists wear. But a shirt featuring women in lingerie isn't appropriate for a broadcast if you care about women in STEM." 

Just so we're clear - I think those two comments were correct. I think Astrophysicist Katie Mack has all of the credibility and standing she needs to criticize the treatment of women in STEM. And I'm willing to take the bet that Rose Eveleth knows exactly how women are "welcomed" in the community. Any community dominated by men, that is.

Here's just a small sample of articles you can read about how welcoming the community is to women:

Why Women Leave Academia - The Guardian

Nature vs. Nurture; Girls and STEM - on Nature blogs

Gender Biases and the Science of Facing Reality - Scientific American blogs

Or maybe you prefer peer reviewed science on the topic:

I will reiterate: the apology was in order.

"I'm sorry, I didn't think about that before I did it.  I should have realized that in the current climate of 'GamerGate', where women are literally driven out of their homes by physical threats of death, rape, and violence, that this wouldn't be taken well. I should have realized that in the climate of 'ElevatorGate' where women who come forward to report abuse at conventions (including STEM events) are further harassed and blamed for the events, I should have known that this message would not be taken in the light hearted manner it was intended."

And Mr. Dawkins, should have learned his lesson already, having apologized for the "Dear Muslima" incident.  (Apparently, he did not.)

I will happily provide more links for anyone who doesn't know what GamerGate, or ElevatorGate is, or for anyone who doubts the assertions of abuse at conventions - well, not happily, because it is sickening that there ARE so many links to so many different incidents - but I am asserting that this is true: the scientific community DOES have a problem with women. They are NOT welcomed, and they are constantly reminded of their second class status.

And I would have been able to safely assert that before the Shirtstorm.

Yes, this shirt was a minor thing.  It was commented on, the error was admitted, and it should be over.

But it isn't.

Because Men have been offended, now.  They need to explain to these silly women why they don't need to be making such a big deal - after all, it's not like anyone got HURT, right?  It's important to maintain balance; the men shouldn't be criticized - that's practically lynching! Because if women were really being assaulted, harassed, attacked, threatened, "doxxed", DOS'ed, cheated (not gypped), and discriminated against, we would all line up and defend them... wouldn't we?

For the sarcasm challenged, let me "mansplain" this back to my fellow men:

We treat women like shit.  We ignore women the fact that we treat women like shit. And sometimes we act more offended when they speak up and tell us to knock it off than they do when they are actually, physically attacked.

What do I mean by that?

I mean that I've been paying attention to the women around me. I'm listening to them at work, reading their blogs and tweets online; I'm asking them questions, and I'm finding out just how often they don't report assault, harassment, and outright rape simply because they don't want to add the additional ordeal of being accused of making it up, or of bringing it on themselves. Think about that. It's like saying you don't want to report having your car stolen because you're afraid the police will arrest you for not protecting it enough. Only... way worse.

I work in the federal government, where we've been getting sensitivity training for 20 years, and one of my female colleagues recently left the agency because a manager grabbed her breast in a stairwell when no one was around. Why would she leave her job rather than report him?

Because she saw what happened to the women who complained about the jokes, the pictures, the (admittedly quiet) cat-calls, and the email harassment.

My wife works in the federal government. She was propositioned by a superior her first year on the job. She has watched promotions handed out which, while "earned" in one sense, were not earned according to merit and job requirements. She reports what she feels safe reporting, which isn't a lot. After all, the agency spent more resources trying to track down an anonymous report of wrongdoing than they did punishing the wrong doers.

(And do I need to recount the stories about what happens to women in the military who are deployed on ships or remote bases? I hope not, because I'd rather not.)

Yes, sometimes women are awful, too. Sometimes, good men are cheated in a divorce. Sometimes it really, really isn't fair that because of feminism, a lousy mother gets custody of the kids sometimes.  And of course, #notallmen - you've always got that to console yourself with.

But the reality is that women get the short end of the stick, and what really kills me is that none of the actual attacks on them ever seem to be called outrageous by Richard Dawkins, or by Glenn Harlan Reynolds, or by any of the chortling bros spreading memes about models wearing shirts with "scientist pin-ups" on them.

Do you want to know why feminists get outraged so easily? That's why. Because two tweets is a "lynch mob" but actual assault is just fodder for mocking feminism.

Fuck that shit.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

New Project: Mightier Acorns

In case you missed this on Twitter or Facebook, I've started a new blog project based on my family history hobby called:

Mightier Acorns

My plan is to share research and photos about my ancestors in a way that I don't find boring - your mileage may vary, of course. I've already adapted some posts from the archives at Tad's Happy Funtime (added some details and photos; trimmed some of the philosophizing) and from an earlier, private version of the Mighty Acorns. There will also be some regular features popping up between stories:

  • requests for help identifying old photos (tentatively titled "Who the Hell is THAT?")
  • reviews of history and genealogy related books
  • meta-essays about doing research and writing history
  • another photo feature: "Great Beards of History"

I've got stuff planned out on a roughly weekly schedule at least through December, so I can promise you a few weeks of diversion. Give it a try, and spread the word - especially to family.

I hope to make this Acorn grow.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Platform Diving

Not all of my internet interactions (or face to face contacts!) end with bitter fights and acrimony. Sometimes, people actually like what I have to say, and some will even go so far as to tell me I should be in office.

That's not possible right now, because of the Hatch Act of 1939 - and I doubt I would really want to put my family through the ordeal that even a local elected official has to face. (My aunt sat a city council term a few years ago, and I saw what SHE had to put up with!)

But people don't say encouraging things to be mean, and whenever someone says that I should be "running the place", I do stop and think about what I would do if I were magically airlifted over the election process and sat in a position of power. And that kind of informs what I look for - so far, fruitlessly - in my candidates.

So here, off the cuff and with minimal deep thought, is my own, personal platform. If you find someone running who hits even 60% of these issues the way I do, let me know so I can make THEM take over!

Campaign Finance

I'm with Professor Lessig on this one - regardless of your party affiliation, you have to recognize that money - not speech - has corrupted our system. Clearly, there is a lot at stake in every election, and the ridiculous amounts poured into campaign spending - $7 billion in 2012 - could directly fund solutions for many of the issues being debated - which makes you wonder why, if the donors care about those issues, they're spending that money to make horrible candidates look more appealing.

Like the Professor, I don't think it's too late to do something about it; things are not as stark or as bleak as you might be led to believe. I wouldn't even push for new laws or rules on this one - I'd just use this as my campaign slogan: "I won't take your money."

No donations.  No apparatus. Want to help me? Get involved spreading the word - here's a JPG of my poster and a link to my YouTube channel. Want to sponsor me? Go vote.

If enough of you insisted on this as a standard requirement from every candidate, and refused to vote for anyone taking money to run for office, the amount they could fundraise would cease to matter. That won't make PACs go away, but I can't solve everything!

Free Market Solutions

The phrase "free market solution" implies a "free market problem." There are problems where the appropriate solution for a governmental body is to step back and let people vote with their money; and there are problems where the solution is to step in and create an incentive for them to make a better choice.

Healthcare? That's already not a free market. If it was, people would choose doctors the way they choose mechanics. Green energy? The energy market is already skewed and rigged, thanks to the practice of selling futures on unextracted (and often unlocated) oil and coal. Education? At every level, we see the corrosive effects of allowing "competition" for arbitrary test scores (which equate to money) to trump the real competition of acquiring skills, knowledge, and work in the desired field.

The point is not "I don't believe in the free market" - the point is that most of the people who scream for so-called free market solutions don't actually believe in the free market. That whole "government shouldn't pick winners and losers" idea is a great, flashing sign that they don't believe in the ability of informed adults to make the best decisions for themselves. What they really believe in is convincing you to give them free reign to continue picking the winners and losers their donors are paying them to pick.

Don't feel bad - this country has been trying to get this right since the founding.  (I'll spare you the lengthy history lecture about Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, monetary policy, and the evolution from tariff-based protectionism to subsidy-based protectionism.)

Shorter version: if you have a simple, common sense answer to a complex problem, it should by definition be easy to demonstrate it. And if it works, I'd support it.

The Role of Government

Not to oversimplify, but the point of having government is to give us all a controlled, non-violent mechanism for dealing with each other. We have a great founding document that lays out that mechanism; it has flaws, but it's designed to let us fix it, which is why women are voting now, and African-Americans count as 5/5 of a person, each. We still have work to do, as some of the compromises made to get the Constitution ratified still cause us problems, but we've made a good start.

I have no patience for anarchists who try to convince me that the government we have is "too Big" - if your goal is to live a lifetime in which you always get your way, your problem isn't government. That said, I live in Maryland, where they pass laws the way I pass gas* - frequently, and with obnoxious, invisible side effects.

Legislators should take a gander at The Death of Common Sense before they start drafting new laws, and representatives at every level of government should think hard about the rules they put into place... and even harder about removing those that are in our way.

(Of course, that will be easier for them if they follow my Campaign Finance platform, and aren't beholden to any powerful, wealthy donors.)

Social Issues

Most people I talk to agree on one thing when it comes to "social policy" - the government shouldn't meddle with personal affairs. Most of those same people also agree that the government should be protecting us from each other. One favorite quote I frequently hear is, "Your right to throw a punch ends at the tip of my nose."

That's pithy, but Social Issues are so thorny precisely because it's rarely easy to tell where the "tip of the nose" is.

Gay marriage seems like an easy one to me, since other people getting married has no effect either way on my marriage. But because marriage is tied to so many other rules (see "The Death of Common Sense") many argue that it has an effect on theirs. I would err on the side of freedom and equality - let people do what they need to do, and if the rules get in the way, remove or rethink them.

What about public health policies, such as mandatory vaccinations? I don't want your infected children spreading disease to my family - so I should be able to make you get vaccinated, right?  Except... what about finding the balance between allowing patients to refuse treatment (including vaccinations) on religious grounds on one hand and preventing child endangerment due to that refusal on the other hand? What about abortion policy - balancing on those same grounds? What about "end of life" decisions? Where is the line between the fist and the nose in each of those situations?

I've never believed that the role of government extended to teaching morality. Government is necessarily limited to what facts and evidence can prove, and when the question is a moral one, government has to give way to the individual. Will your child die without that transfusion or chemo - that your god tells you they can't have? Will you decide to continue or terminate your pregnancy? Will you endure six more months (or years) of deterioration and agony with an unforgiving and expensive disease or go out on your own terms? I can't even tell you what I would personally do in each of those situations - if it were me, my wife, my parents, my children at stake - how could I possibly presume to make a law telling you what to do?

The best I can tell you is that given a choice of what to do with my vote, I'll do what anyone else should do: ask a lot of questions, make a lot of suggestions, and if it's still a no-win situation, I will lose.

The Common Sense Fallacy

The really tough challenge facing anyone trying to represent any group of you has little or nothing to do with common sense, or moral character, or family values - none of these popular and populist catch phrases that are designed to put you at ease and win your vote should actually put you at ease. If you're ever 100% confident in a candidate and you feel safe trusting them to make decisions on your behalf, that's probably when you should begin asking harder questions.

I've left a lot unsaid here, because this was supposed to be superficial. Since I'm not actually running for anything, you can argue with me or ignore me as you see fit. But you shouldn't be satisfied with any of your candidates if they aren't willing to talk about any of this stuff. Or worse, if they claim to have neat, tidy, uncomplicated answers. You need to challenge them, and their platform. And you need to do it all the time.

Because at the end of the day, I don't really believe that the blame for all our problems lie on the Government. There are certainly poor representatives and appointees, but every two to four years, you get a say in whether they keep their jobs. If you're compromising yourself when you vote for them, you have only yourself to blame.  That's the only Common Sense solution - paying attention, and holding yourself accountable.

Did you vote for a mainstream candidate because you thought your third party choice would lose, and you didn't want to "waste your vote"? Guess what - you wasted your vote.

Did you vote for a known criminal who will rip off your state's retirement fund because his opponent seemed "too young"? Guess what - you wasted your vote.

Did you not vote at all because "they're all criminals and liars, and I won't waste my time"? Guess what - you wasted your vote... and your time.

So, what do you think? Still want to put me in charge?

*Oh, yeah - did I mention that I'm unelectable because I'm a biological organism? And I make sick jokes, listen to obnoxious music, use bad words, laugh at everything, and annoy most of my friends. Just so you know.