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Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Attempting to understand support for Trump

Here's my best attempt at explaining Trump's unflagging support.

Trump's flaws are a feature, not a bug. Liberals felt similarly about Bill Clinton -- Clinton was a relatable shmuck who needed us, and that need made us feel passionately defensive of him in the face of the fact that he committed a serious crime, perjury.

Trump shouldn't make it in Washington -- Washington thinks it's better than him, and sneers at Trump supporters. It's only because of the fierceness of their adulation that his career survives. His supporters aren't listing their values and finding that he aligns best with them; they're being unlikely heroes, and making an unlikely hero succeed. When Luke Skywalker is douchey, Star Wars lovers don't cringe and regret their support for him -- his doucheyness is why he needs our faith, and what makes his coming through glorious. That glory simply doesn't exist with, say, Marco Rubio or John Kasich.

To be clear, I think Donald Trump is probably the single worst human being in the United States, and it's a testament to the corruption of the justice system that he has never spent time in jail for his innumerable crimes. I think it's likely he literally committed a crime every day of his adult career.

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Sunday, December 20, 2020

Dry landscape, a poem

I miss this, getting into mischief in the hills
and figuring our way back
creeping down the ravine on our butts
like 2 year olds, holding
hands over the unsteady parts
and not letting go after.

It’s so hard to get lost these days,
adventure is just a Yelp category
and the broad strokes of human history,
persecution and misery and bombs
are something we have
opinions about
but aren’t real to us
the way thirst is real.

I never even go this long without water,
this out of balance.
Having small sips at my fingertips
makes me forget true thirst,
the thirst that leaves your tongue
and burrows into your bones.

Take me away from my comforts,
to the place where I politely
left my desire.
I thought I’d used up my fair share,
but now I’m tearing my bones open
to be poured into. Lose me
and let me be completely
unfound.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Supportive unanimity

In The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt proposes an explanation for some difference in the worldview of conservatives and liberals by showing experimental results that suggest conservatives are more considerate about sanctity and desecration than liberals. There is a fixation on purity, which connects to an affinity for tradition and an aversion to violations of tradition, real or imagined.

In recent years, I have wondered if his framework was missing a parallel aspect of the liberal mind: something you might call "supportive unanimity". On issue after issue, I find myself surprised that progressive friends take any deviation from a "protective" worldview as a sort of betrayal. What's interesting to me is that there is relatively little curiosity about the landscape of these "protective" views; the safe place seems to be in assuming everyone sees a long list of make issues the same way.

So you get, for example, surprisingly little interest in gender identities that don't fit the popular progressive view, such as Eddie Izzard's identity of frequently switching from man to woman and back again; and work by allies that isn't easy to categorize, like the wonderfully queer short story "I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter", gets pilloried and censored.

It's important to recognize the positive value of supportive unanimity. As with other core values that Haidt points to, there is nothing inherently good or bad about it; it performs a function, and that function can be good or bad, at different times and from different perspectives. I think the positive function it plays is protection of the weak; it is a sort of overreaction to potential bullying by the majority, that signals to bullies and the bullied alike that abuse won't be tolerated.

I think you can credit a form of supportive unanimity for the degree to which, say, it is unacceptable for leaders to entertain anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In a sense, bigotry and oppression beget a reaction of supportive unanimity, by making "to each their own" unacceptably destructive. If Palestinian citizenship and land ownership rights were respected by the laws of Israel, in one example of supportive unanimity, the Movement for Black Lives wouldn't be compelled to oppose Israel's policies in its official platform.

It's not perjorative to say that supportive unanimity is a form of "groupthink" -- all community standards are groupthink, and groupthink can be a tremendous force for good. The danger is that the same fierce urgency that fuels supportive unanimity in support of the powerless can become its own justification. That can make it hard to change course when supportive unanimity is being repurposed in ways that are destructive. Almost anything goes, if it is presented as a defense of supportive unanimity; lamenting the pogroms against Asian-Americans carried out in the 1992 L.A. riots, for example, runs afoul of supportive unanimity for desperate Black rioters.

As with so many forms of suppression, supportive unanimity often ends up contributing to the oppression of the least powerful. It shouldn't be discarded -- but progressives should work to keep it grounded in other values, and to be open to violations of that unanimity if there are other progressive values that are being cited.

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Saturday, December 05, 2020

Candle: a short story

When he learned his dad died, Peter immediately realized two things: he had to move to Buffalo to help sort out his dad’s stuff; and somehow, somehow, his brother and sister were going to be dicks about it. And his mom wouldn’t back him up. And no one would appreciate what hard work it was. And they wouldn’t help. So, not two things.

The whole bus ride, it didn’t seem to Peter like he was mourning. He spent the snowy hours imagining going through the shelves and boxes in the garage, excavating and cataloguing. He couldn’t wait to start. Why hadn’t he ever thought to do this while his dad was alive? It felt so right, thinking ahead to opening each mysterious bin, touching each thing that his dad had cared about enough to sort and keep. Peter’s toes were soggy and distractingly cold in his sneakers, but imagining his explorations in the garage kept him warm.

To keep a thing — what a curious idea that seemed, in a way. Why is an album on a shelf, an album that you haven’t played in probably twenty-five years, any more yours than if it weren’t there? He knew the album he’d reach for, absolutely confident that his dad had kept it, even as he’d given up the storage space in a concession to family budgeting, and whittled his LPs and CDs down to a single shelf.

He remembered the first time his dad had played it for him, waiting for a time when it was just the two of them, knowing that his mom, Kristen and Jeff wouldn’t respect the delicate and sacred risk of sharing a piece of music that really means something to you. He remembered the cover, a single candle, a photograph, blurry in a way that made him realize he’d entirely overvalued camera focus. The opening guitar, both impossibly lush and dangerously aimless. Kim Gordon playfully coming in, barely audible, barely singing. He didn’t know a woman could sound like that, not entertaining him, not entertaining anyone.

He’d broken up with his eighth grade girlfriend days later, and he knew, consciously at the time, that Kim Gordon on that track was the reason. That album freed him, in a way, opened his eyes to how much more was possible, and how much around him was fake. But in that room, hearing it for the first time, he also knew that his father was sad, and incomplete. Some part of his father was still in that room, stuck. And Peter was heading there too, on the fastest ticket he could afford.

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Body literacy

I recently read a nonpublished account of recovery from surgery, written by a longtime professional dancer and performance artist, and I was struck by the piece's breadth of physical observations.

Certainly, any account of surgery and its effects will involve the physical. But it will not necessarily explore the full space of the physical.

I've read that non-literate people generally have trouble following complex explanations and discussions; you need to have years of reading and writing to develop many aspects of thinking, because literacy gives you tools for interacting deeply and frequently with others' thinking, and with your own. Similarly, I think there is something you might call "body literacy" -- tools for noticing and interacting with body processes, which open up deeper levels of physical understanding.

There are people who have so little connection with their body that they don't notice disease for years; there are even accounts of people giving birth, who didn't realize they were pregnant. (I've never quite believed those -- that just sounds too impossibly alien.)

I struggle with this in terms of my body's reaction, and my mind's reaction, to drugs and medicines: it's often hard for me to tell if I'm experiencing an effect, whereas others immediately notice a difference, and doctors are often surprised that I can't say if a given drug "is working". I know people describe feeling "hangry", and I imagine that I probably shift emotionally when I'm hungry or tired as well; but I can't see it, maybe because I don't have enough experience, enough tools, for mapping out the aspects of body and mind along the way.

For many of us, there is an undiscovered country of body literacy: an unmapped landscape of physical experience. My old friend Ben Spatz works, in part, on the related project of getting physical expression and embodiment to have a place in academic institutional work.

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