Friday, August 18, 2017

Poem of clarity

At a crossroads, a limited place,
under the squeeze of shame in the past,
feeling hopeless and under a curse, feeling a need to burn bright but with nowhere and nothing to burn but to consume myself and lie in ash,
I need not steel myself, with a false and cumbersome armor
I need not lie
I need not.

Now is not the moment of need, nor panic.
Now is not now.
The true time is a matter of choice.
It is not tonight, it is all nights; it is the first time; it is the last time.
It is a year from now, five, twenty.

A feast of life from ten thousand days, give or take.
The review of the feast goes unread. Its judgment by the sages does not echo even once.
The feast itself is all there is.
The bites with broken glass,
the miserable courses,
the embarrassing failures of experiment, mixing up the plum sauce and the peanut butter,
are all a part of it.

Nobody cares. Or—somebody cares, but nobody cares.

The stupidity, the presumption are not to be pretended away
with a rictus grin. Not to pompously summon the waiter
and scold the kitchen.

But the doors are shut to me! The truth must be known! I must explain myself!
Yes, but no one reads your Yelp review. That unjustly blocked path,
that misunderstanding, that knock to your reputation:
these are pebbles on the road to the gallows.
The path along the way is more open than I care to notice,
the kitchen and dining room filled with those who muscled in,
the crowd insatiable, the executioner unconvinceable.
This is not a world of justice, where merits are measured and rewards given proportionally.
Greed and kindness both go uncounted. No one is keeping score.
No one is keeping score. No one is keeping score.

And your heroes—make no mistake—muscled in, and that's how you know them.
Their classmate was smarter, their teammate was wiser, their spouse was more deserving
and if you wish, you can be that classmate, that teammate, that forgotten husband.
No one is stopping you. There is no award at the end for being one or the other,
except one day's reality, followed by the next.

They muscled in. Didn't they? Philip Dick, Walt Whitman, Harriet Tubman, full of doubt, penniless, raped, rejected, blocked, divorced, stuck, estranged, forced to buy horsemeat from the vet,
exhausted, unfulfilled, broken with desire and yet not broken,
not stopped, not over, not whining, not pissing away every ounce of passion.
Showing up, from time to time or every day or inconsistently or spectacularly,
none living up to their true potential.
Not showing up from guilt, not stuck in their own heads, at least not every day.
Driven, at least once in a while, by passion.

The truth is our natures don't change. My battles today are my battles on my deathbed, wracked with regret.
I'm prisoner to them and always will be.
The camera shows me behind bars, rattling them with my weakened arms and pathetic psychic fire.
But look--the camera is slowly moving through the bars. Look. I've been outside the cell all the time.
The audience is screaming at me to notice. Just walk away! Just walk away and be free!

If part of you must be imprisoned—leave behind a token, a talisman.
Safely put away, safely in an impossible cage, a part of me can remain.

Think of Mother Teresa. A sterling reputation.
Venerated. And yet: pathetic; disgraceful; a repulsive hypocrite.
And yet a comfort to some, while complicit in their death.
Shall we sit in judgment? Perhaps, but only for the sake of each other. Never for our own smugness.
Nowhere are my sins are being weighed against hers; nowhere does my credibility or hers amount to the smallest moment’s smile on a child's face.
If I fear the balance will come due, the use of my days judged,
know that the appointment takes place at an address that doesn't exist, on leap day in a year that's not a leap year.
It’s a government form nobody follows.
I can be the only one who clutches that form to my chest if I wish, the one who writes a righteous letter to the editor. Or I can turn my glance to love and fire,
and never give the rules another thought.

In five years, how will my actions now affect my family? My friends? The world?
Scarcely at all.
Still the vise closes in. Didn't Eddie Vedder write the first three songs in his head
during a single surfing session?
Is that the kind of day I'm denying myself?
Yes. Certainly!
And in his every day since then, he joins you in that failure.
Both of you have had the same nine thousand days since then, and he has only one more day like that then you have.
And he surely doesn't feel like he has it still.
Each day you are a new person, the continuity only an illusion.
You are born from the transporter, the Starfleet officer with your name having been murdered by Chief O'Brien. A murder no one notices, including you, because it's treated by all as routine.
Are you to spend your days building shrines to every dead copy of you, accosting passers by, rending your clothes?
You have no obligation to him, no connection except on paper.
Crinkle up the paper and show me your Larry Bird. His brother Mike lived below Kwaku in Cambridge. Now Kwaku is dead
and soon so will be Larry, and Mike, and you, and everyone you love.
The days can be spent fiddling or fussing or free.
There is no pressure because there is no such thing as pressure.
The part of you that resists, that can't be free— don't grit your teeth and push her out; just ask politely if she can take a break.

We all need a break.

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Black Lives Matter is not analogous to white supremacy

A person on Facebook wrote:
They are both identity politics. And both have had extremists that have killed innocents.
I strongly disagree.

Black Lives Matter is not identity politics, it is a demand for policy changes so that, first of all, the legal system works as well to support justice when government agents kill black people as it does when people kill each other in general.

The legal system does not currently seem to do that, but it should. Black Lives Matter has not "had" extremists that have killed innocents, because killing innocent people makes absolutely no sense in the context of the goals and rhetoric of Black Lives Matter.

That is, killing innocent people would not only be strategically inadvisable, it is contrary to the core values and goals of the movement. (This is ridiculously obvious, but I'm stating it for clarity.)

Whereas overt white supremacy, as exhibited with crystal clarity in Charlottesville, has the goal of using fear and the threat of violence to enforce the singular power of white people over people of color; Fields's actions are not just permissible given those aims, they are instrumental.

There are plenty of white supremacists who see particular incidents of violence as strategically inadvisable, but only for their inconvenient tactical side effects.

Another way of looking at this: if police stopped killing black people without appropriate consequence, and America became a place where being black did not mean the denial of justice and opportunity, Black Lives Matter activists would declare victory, move on and write memoirs.

But if police stopped killing black people without appropriate consequence, and America became a place where being black did not mean the denial of justice and opportunity, white supremacists would freak out and declare a state of emergency.

There can be no equivalency drawn between neo-Nazis/white supremacists and the Black Lives Matter movement. Full stop.

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When lying gets you ahead

I still feel very burned by learning that Kiva, the international microloan lender, was misleading donors for years by implying that we were picking individual recipients to loan to, when in reality our money was not going to those recipients but to others, and being repaid, or not repaid, for reasons that had nothing to do with the individual recipients we thought we were choosing.

Even after this was revealed, and presumably apologized for and changed, someone I spoke to who worked high up for Kiva did not seem to be aware of the issue. I think honesty is paramount when soliciting other people's money on behalf of poor people, especially given the history of misuse, fraud and theft in international aid.

I still assume they do far more good than harm, but I worry that when there are no consequences for this sort of fraud, we effectively incentivize those willing to engage in fraud and deception, and punish those who are not.

23AndMe is another company that has fraudulently charged customers, by billing them for subscriptions they never signed up for and which the company omitted from its confirmation emails.

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Feeling scared when a despicable person is attacked

I have many intense reactions to the events of the last week. One of them, not very high on the list but something I don't feel like I can let pass without comment, is the fear I felt watching that racist "Unite the Right" leader being chased, punched and knocked over and requiring police help to get away.

I feel scared, for myself and others, seeing this--not because I identify with this white supremacist or his cause, but because sudden and unpredictable violence, made possible by the overwhelming and anonymizing crowd, is frightening.

I know this guy is empowered, protected, privileged and emboldened by white supremacy, and is working to expand that power. And, I think it's still wrong to physically attack him. I also know that the protest he led was violent in multiple ways: with the murderous driver, with the parading of guns, and with the beating of protesters with sticks. When the people you claim to be a leader of are not just vocally threatening but actively and immediately violent, and are continuing to be, you are complicit in that violence and your actions are not nonviolent.

I don't know who the people among the left protesters were who were physically attacking others, or what their motivations were. In past protests in this country, undercover cops and FBI agents have sometimes initiated violence in order to discredit and deflate the left. Angry crowds misidentify people, take an attack itself as a sign to attack further, and add an uncertainty about everyone's safety that is itself a form of attack and punishment, one that has long-term effects.

There may be an element of Jewish history and identity that goes into this for me. Dehumanizing punishment by the crowd feels terrifying to me for its historical echoes. And the defense that the attacked has dehumanized us, and therefore brought the attack on himself, rings in my ears in the voice of someone who wants wants to harm me and those I love.

But even without these considerations of how this attack feels like it indirectly harms me and those I love, I think it's wrong. Not as wrong and as what he does every day, but still wrong. Does he bear responsibility for creating creating the conditions that made others attack him? Yes, and not just some responsibility, but nearly all of it. Still, the crowd attacking him is wrong.

Do I think fascists should be scared of a violent response if they go out and threaten Jews and black people, in general? That's certainly a tough question. I do, and I don't.

I do think the threat, and reality, of violence is an unpredictable force that doesn't stick to the contours of righteous justice in the way those who wield it intend.

I also think if you are threatening people, and trying to terrify them, you are forfeiting a lot of the default civility others normally give you. And I agree that gleefully promising more deaths is the sort of thing that makes violence against those who make these threats more just.

I also think that the manner and form of the violence matters; pushing someone offstage, say, vs. punching and knocking down someone while they are walking away. There are many ripples from our actions, and it's not just pie in the sky hyperbole to think that political violence against this sort of scum puts many more of us in more danger.

Friends are asking me, but should this hateful person expect in response to his hate--and not just to his feelings, but to his outspoken organizing of white supremacy? Doesn't white supremacy have an ongoing body count?

These are good points. I can't help, however, remembering the other contexts in which I've heard the same arguments. Would I stand idly by as an anti-gay Islamist cleric is chased and hit by a crowd? Should I join in? My answers are no, and no.

It's important to note that he his official-seeming dress and demeanor to do not excuse him from from his complicity with violence. But being a part of a system that enables violence is not the same as doing violence. Violence against the publisher of a hateful book, or against the author of a hateful book, is wrong.

It's also important to distinguish the question of right and wrong wrong question of legal and illegal. Our laws make compromises that recognize the difficulty of mapping rules onto right and wrong; for instance, it is illegal to attack someone, who has credibly announced that they are going to cause violence later, in order to stop their violence. That's because there would be so many difficult to parse claims that someone's actions and words made later violence certain. But that doesn't mean that attacking them to stop their likely violence is wrong.

Some friends of mine have felt that on this issue and others, I am offensively evenhanded and intellectually aloof. Maybe I am! I certainly feel my blood boil when I watch footage of these evil people marching, waving their clubs, shields and flags, and celebrating past and future killing and destruction. Violence against them is certainly natural, and on that level understandable. It's even partially right.

But it's also partially wrong, and I think the assumption that that violence is valid for its naturalness, or precise in its effect, are dangerous allusions.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Tearing down Confederate statues is about the present, not the past

The issue of whether or not to tear down Confederate statues is all about context.

Sometimes the context is crystal clear. For instance, I would have no shred of doubt in opposing a wealthy donor's renaming my college as the "John Birch, George Wallace and Andrew Jackson Memorial School" and erecting colossal statues of them.

On the other extreme, while I do fault the many Democrats like Obama for being late to accepting gay rights, I wouldn't refuse to shake their hand or tear down a statue of them over this.

In between these poles, there's a ton of gray area and context at play. How bad were the people, given their time? Is the status quo that their statue exists, or is it something new that's being proposed? Is the monument to them itself historically meaningful or aesthetically special? What role is the monument playing today, and what framing, if any, is it given? After all, I'm assuming none of us would visit the Smithsonian Museum of African-American history and destroy their exit exhibit that depict past racism, because the framing changes its current role.

Sometimes people argue that we cannot hold figures from the past to the moral standards of today. For instance, all the others who owned slaves. But while the rhetoric and norms of racial equality at the time were certainly very different than today, there were thousands of white people at the time who felt slavery was abhorrent. (There's a fascinating profile the New York Times ran the other day of one forgotten activist.)

As I like to mentioned, George Washington went so far as to pay to have advertisements placed describing a runaway teenage slave, to attempt to catch her and forcibly bring her back to finish her life of violence-induced servitude, permanent separation from friends and family at a moment's notice, and absence of any recourse from rape. This not genteel, gentlemanly acceptance of the conditions of the day--it was direct and brutal.

But even supposedly genteel slaveholding should be seen for what it is. When smart, reflective people people avert their mental powers from considering the implications of some of the things they do, they are just as morally responsible as if they had focused their mental powers on those things and endorsed them.

The intellectual and social circles around the founding fathers had constant debate about slavery; Massachusetts, one of the most politically powerful and influential states, adopted a constitution in 1780 (in my hometown, Cambridge, what what!) whose language about the equality of all men (though not women) created the immediate logical conclusion that slavery was unconstitutional. That is, while there were many people who were not abolitionists, the debate at the time involved them realizing the implication of their language and deciding that abolition was the natural consequence of their own moral views.

Later, there was a large faction pushing for the same language in the United States Constitution, but many of the founding fathers stopped them.

Am I really so much more moral than they were, given my time? Would I be so haughty about this if my family's wealth, and that of my friends, largely consisted of slaves? Maybe not, and in some ways I'm very "morally lucky" (lucky in a way that makes me seem moral) not to have been born into such a position. And maybe the founding fathers who opposed slavery explicitly or in practice (there were many) were just morally lucky too. But there were plenty of slave owners who freed their slaves, and plenty of children of slaveowners who chose a different walk of life, perhaps not directly confronting their own aversion to owning and managing slaves, but opt out of the system some degree all the same.

(It makes me think of Marlene Dietrich, asked in an interview once why she took such a clear political stand against the Nazis, contra her more jingoistic theater and film colleagues, and contra Hitler, who wanted her to be some kind of great Aryan star; she replied that though she didn't know much about politics at the time, it was never a complicated question for her--the Nazis were beating children. Elsewhere in the war, even ostensibly pro-Nazi German soldiers frequently infuriated their commanders by failing to fire upon innocent people when commanded to. History is full of huge amounts of opting out of immoral conduct, in the face of huge pressure to comply, although we're not very good at telling the history of ordinary people who did the right thing.)

It's a useful mental exercise to speculate about which of our current norms future generations will see as abhorrent. Eating animals? Circumcision? Would I still have a cow butchered for my pleasure if everyone around me thought I was a monster for it?

That said, I tend to think it's more valuable to add context to our memorials and monuments than to destroy them. every German schoolchild, I'm told, must visit concentration camps and come face-to-face with their country's brutal history. the presence of a concentration camp surely causes pain to many who see it or even just know it's there, but we do not oppose that kind of pain -- we see it as crucial.

Part of what makes Confederate monuments so much more tricky is that there are still so many people that celebrate them or at least treat them with respect, rather than just seeing them as disgraceful or sobering. if the country as a whole treated Confederate sites and monuments like concentration camps, I don't think you would see people clamoring to have them torn down.

The clamor is more about the present day that the past; is an attempt to force a choice from people who like to have it both ways. so many white Americans are free to be tacit, casual supporters and beneficiaries of white supremacy. I see the current clamor as a demand that the country make good on its surface position that white supremacy is wrong and must be destroyed. it's a shame that we still need to voice that demand, but the current state of injustice is the construction of generations of the same people who led the Confederacy and who have celebrated it ever since. In a sense it is they who are truly tearing down these monuments-- their poisonous betrayal of their fellows, their collusion and violence and theft, is a rot they are forcing others to deal with instead of them.

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Monday, August 07, 2017

Recommended foods

I've read lightly but widely in nutritional literature over the years, both boring consensus and more hokey hucksters like Steven Gundry. Part of this is general interest, part concern for my chronic pain, which seems inflammation-related.

Here are my consolidated takeaways for what to eat. (I prefer to focus on what to eat, not what not to eat.)

This list is roughly ordered in terms of what's most valuable -- both from top to bottom, and from left to right. Foods on the right are still mostly recommended, but the most often-recommended ones are at the left.

  • Top overall advice: Michael Pollan's "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."
  • Top foods: Avocado, Blueberries, leafy green vegetables, raw vegetables, fish, nuts
  • Leafy vegetables: Spinach, kale, brussels sprouts, bok choy, romaine lettuce, red lettuce, green lettuce (not iceberg), kohlrabi, baby greens
  • Green vegetables: Avocado (yeah i know it’s a fruit, shut up), broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, asparagus, artichokes
  • Fresh fish (all as wild as you can plausibly get): Salmon, sardines, oysters, mussels, rainbow trout, arctic char, barramundi, cod, mackerel
  • Canned fish: Sardines, anchovies (you can cook them in a puttanesca sauce), clams, tuna
  • Nuts: Pistachios, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, almonds
  • Bioactive: Pickles, kimchee, miso, yoghurt, kefir
  • Oil: Olive oil, avocado oil, canola, soybean, sesame, coconut
  • Grain: sorghum, millet, quinoa
  • Fruit: Blueberries, (tropical fruit: plantains, bananas, papaya, mango--some say underripe is best), kiwi
  • Vitamin-rich protein: Eggs, the less industrial the better; tofu, pate, edamame
  • Breakfaste: Bran cereal, meusli cereal, oatmeal (without much syrup/sugar added)

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Friday, August 04, 2017

A golden age of criticism?

Most of humanity's writing is taking place on phones, but only rarely is this writing given critical focus or appreciation.

What could the patterns and institutions look like that appreciate a great Insta convo? Great FB groups mgmt?

For older ephemeral writing, eg newspaper columns and letters, it took centuries to develop institutions and attitudes to collect and criticize. What is our @nyrb? What is our ? What is our Cahiers du Cinema? Do these analogies exist? Will they?

And, what has to expand and evolve in step with these media so that we can recognize, and not dismiss, the forms that are emerging?

The notions of "selected letters and essays of _____" was born of scarcity of printed pages. How does this translate in the age of scarcity of attention?

The dichotomy of literary/artistic creators vs. critics was born of a scarcity of publishing and performance space and time. If it's difficult and costly to sample, say, a play or a volume of poetry, we need critics to indicate which are broadly worth attention.

Since internet media are fundamentally easier and cheaper to sample and switch in and out of, do we still need critics? In what role?

Is a social media filter like Upworthy an analogue to a curator: applying an opinionated lens, and collecting a live and historical archive?

Do we still need boundaries between what is and isn't included in some collection? Are they only a vestige, or do they help focus?

is there something fundamentally patient and accessible about letters which makes them able to be appreciated by strangers? is a wonderful letter something we want to reread, whereas a wonderful SMS, even if it deeply thrilled the writer at the time, isn't?

Letters and prose as a form are inherently recursive: a novel can have characters write letters to each other and print those in full. But books, film and television are still struggling with how to work smartphone based communication into their narratives.

The most successful attempts at this seem to me to come from the bleeding edge of social media creation, like Vine and Yung Jake's Unfollow.

is it fundamentally a problem for storytelling using current forms of writing that the technology itself changes so fast? A novel from 100 years ago that includes letters is perfectly understandable today. What about a video from 2003 about Myspace? Can teenagers today even understand what's going on in the scene in Scorsese's The Departed where Matt Damon texts from his pocket?

More importantly, does a creator like Scorsese avoid using true current forms of writing in their stories because of rapid obsolescence?

In the past, critics have often come from ranks of former creators. Are forms of writing evolving too rapidly for a community of critics to emerge?

Do critics perform a significant enough role in reality for their declining presence to matter? Or are critics actually doing quite well, because the lowering of barriers to writing means that many more people can fluidly participate in criticism?

Is this, in fact, a golden age of criticism?

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