28 May 2014

Insiders and outsiders

Elizabeth Warren tells an instructive story about American politics in her book A Fighting Chance that is relevant to politics ... not only American national politics but politics anywhere.

She was running the Congressional committee to oversee the 2009 bailouts of the banks, and director of the President's National Economic Council Larry Summers took her out to dinner for a chat.

Late in the evening, Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice. I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don't listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access…. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don't criticize other insiders.

Via Digby.

24 May 2014

Perfect engineering solutions

I have love for a certain kind of engineering solution which presents a kind of charmed confluence of design, materials, and technical capacity, such that even when technology improves they remain beautiful and relevant. (Vinay Gupta suggests calling these “terminal designs”.)

The prime examples for me include


Talking about this on Facebook, friends had some other great suggestions.


Wired has a nice little piece about a collector of perfect little designs.

19 May 2014

Democracy (n.)

This keeps coming up. So a quick word about democracy.

“Democracy” does not mean elections. It does not mean “two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner” or Warren Ellis’ funny, unforgettable vulgar equivalent. It does not mean the tyranny of the majority.

The word “democracy" comes from the ancient Greek δῆμος κράτος — dêmos kratos — literally “people power”. It means not monarchy with a king who is in charge because he owns the place. Not aristocracy with a special leader-class of people who are born to it. Not theocracy by priests who derive their power from the favor of the gods. Not any special governing class, but rather a government reflecting all of the people.

Democracy means that government derives its legitimacy from the people it governs, has no separation from that populace, and acts in their service: Lincoln’s “of the people, by the people, for the people”.

It is a principle, not a particular method like voting. There are many different structural, institutional solutions to how a state may enact the principle of democracy. People who make a smug claim to political sophistication by saying “the United States is a constitutional republic, not a democracy” actually betray their lack of sophistication. A constitutional republic is one institutional form for democracy. Town hall meetings, referenda, juries chosen by lottery, elected representatives: all of these and more are democratic mechanisms, grounding governance in the citizenry.

Liberal democracy is a particular conception of democracy. The “liberal” in this case refers not to the 21st century sense of the liberal-conservative political axis but the 17th century sense described by political philosophers like John Locke. It understands democracy to require not simply giving the majority power to enact their will; liberal democracy also provides minorities with protections and all citizens with support for universal rights: Jefferson’s “all men are created equal … with certain unalienable rights … to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. Liberal democracy sees government’s purpose as being the guarantor of people’s rights which are understood to be logically prior to the government.

Liberal democracy recognizes government both as necessary for the protection of citizens’ rights and as a threat to those rights, and seeks to emphasize the former and avoid the latter by cleverly structuring government institutions. James Madison in The Federalist describes this:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Those “auxiliary precautions” include the rule of law, elections making governing representatives accountable, structural rivalries limiting government institutions through checks and balances, and so forth. Again, these institutional safeguards could take a range of different forms: the US has a bicameral legislature of geographically-defined seats plus a nationally-elected presidency, Denmark has a unicameral parliament of proportionally-represented parties plus a prime minister chosen by the legislature, and so forth.


Alas, real-world liberal democratic states are, of course, imperfect. They sometimes violate citizens’ rights, enact policies contrary to the interests of the citizenry, and so forth. As Madison described, liberal democracy is an imperfect solution for an imperfect world.

So I recognize why some people, frustrated by the failings of real-world liberal democracies, long for anarchist freedom or a good king or any of a number of other utopian dreams. But history teaches me that the principles of liberal democracy — despite its imperfections — delivers a better civilization than any real alternative. The way to better governance is reform — even revolutionary change — which deepens our investment in the principles of liberal democracy, not tearing it down in favor of utopian alternatives.


This post has been republished on the Isocracy blog and in Persian (!) on CivilSocietyHowTo.


What is democracy? is a related meditation of mine that introduces another writer's essay on the democratic spirit.

Democracy is not elections. Democracy is about all of us being in this together.

15 May 2014

Dice designs

A project to create custom dice for tabletop roleplaying. I'll be expanding this post progressively.

11 May 2014

Game Of Thrones

A friend just asked about the violence, particularly the sexual violence, in Game Of Thrones.

Thrones is definitely not for everybody. It can be hard viewing. There is violence and sexual exploitation all through it. This portrayal has, I believe, a serious and worthy purpose, which I'll get to. But there's no doubt that it is hard to watch, even for a jaded viewer like me. There is no dishonor if one cannot watch that.

But if one can watch it, I believe that it rewards the attention and heartache. Thrones, like The Wire, is at once entertaining, harsh, and smart enough to be important. I'll be the first to admit that Thrones isn't so sophisticated as The Wire, but considering how sophisticated The Wire is, that Thrones gets itself into close enough range to merit the comparison is very high praise.

Thrones is especially rewarding and important for people like me who have a weakness for “genre fantasy”, the strain of literature which has emerged from generations of writers inspired by Tolkien. Part of the way Thrones works, part of why it is entertaining, is that it offers strong examples of the seductive allure of the feudal romance: heroism and honor and glory in battle and all that jazz.

But Thrones is ultimately a critique of why we should not trust the appeal of that feudal world. The villain in Game Of Thrones is not any of the rival houses of Westeros or any of the nasty characters or even the White Walkers of the North — the villain, instead, is the feudal social order itself. A while back I wrote that Django Unchained is laudable for making us unable to watch Gone With the Wind uncritically; I believe that Thrones is working similarly to make us unable to watch The Lord of the Rings uncritically.

As a proponent of liberal democracy and other Enlightenment values, I think this is important cultural work.

To achieve this, the show portrays the violence and sexual exploitation that are integral to the feudal world, and portrays it forcefully. Were it my show to make, I'd have been less explicit. A friend reminds me of the scenes between Theon and Ramsey, and I also think of Jamie and Cersi in the sept, some of the goings-on at Petyr Baelish's brothel, and so forth. There are moments when critics of the show who see it as exploitive rather than critical of exploitation are persuasive. What is wrong with us that we would watch these things as entertainment?

Well, it works hard at being entertaining, and succeeds handsomely.

And I suspect that in choosing what to portray and how to portray it, the makers of Thrones often have better judgment than I do. I've been noticing a number of fans online complaining that the show has taken the Westeros they daydreamed about traveling to when reading the books and curdled it into the unpleasant Westeros of the show. Perhaps the show needs to beat the drum that hard to ensure that, for all the charms of the feudal world, people register that it is not romantic but a nightmare. Were it less brutal we might miss its meaning, but were it less entertaining we might never watch it. To hold entertainment so close to brutality threatens to devolve into exploitation, but there may not be another way.


Update — answering a friend on Facebook who worries that the show allows for an audience who sees the show as normalizing the subjugation of women:

The strategy of both the show and the novels is unmistakable. It offers you the pleasures of classic genre narratives ... and then makes them increasingly uncomfortable. When we first encounter Petyr Baelish's brothel, we think we have been there before: giggling girls and palace intrigues and all the cheap thrills we have come to expect from a hundred genre fantasy novels. Then each time we go back, there's another, stronger reminder of what it really entails. The story asks us, “Does this still seem fun to you? How about now? How about now? How about NOW?”

Maybe I caught on to what the story was doing a little early, because I came in already thinking about genre fantasy in these critical terms. But the novels and the show are evidently fearless about escalating however far is necessary. (If anything, the show is more direct about its implicit criticisms of the genre.) I have a hard time imagining a reasonable viewer who will make it through without getting the point.


Another update — I'm reminded by another discussion that one of the key examples of the rape-y-ness of the show is Drogo's rape of Daenerys early in the series, which evolves into a close bond between the characters. This is one of the places where my defense of the show is at its weakest. The Drogo-Daenerys relationship plays more plausibly than the bare description makes it sound, but that doesn't make it okay. Repeating the love-born-from-rape trope is a problem for all the obvious reasons, doubly since it plays into the orientalism of the portrayal of the Dothraki with pale Daenerys acting as a “civilizing” influence on swarthy Drogo. Ugh.

I've let my viewing of the show get ahead of my reading of the books; at the moment, Daenyrs' story is awash in White Savior narrative tropes. I'm okay with that, since my reading that Thrones is an attack on genre fantasy tropes which works by showing us those tropes' seductiveness makes me very confident that a critique of white-savior-ism is just around the corner.

But that will come too late to serve as a critique of the racist way the show has already portrayed the Dothraki, who are almost completely offstage at this point.


Another update (May 2015) — I need to write a long reëxamination of this question, taking back my comment “the makers of Thrones often have better judgment than I do”. Later developments in the show have shown me that while I remain certain that some folks at Team HBO are working toward the purposes I describe here, there are others who are too incompetent, naïve, sexist, or deliberately exploitive to consistently deliver on them cleanly.


More resources:

Alyssa Rosenberg says similar things in Game of Thrones Has Always Been A Show About Rape. And Brad DeLong tells us People: Game of Thrones Is Horror!

Meanwhile Daniel José Older has an interestingly ambivalent comparison of Game of Thrones to Penny Dreadful, Chuck Wendig's We Are Not Things: Mad Max versus Game of Thrones looks at developments after I originally wrote this piece and takes a dim view, and offers some good additional links, and Rhube's We Are Not Your Shield pointedly observes that the existence of female fans of the series does not excuse its problems.

10 May 2014

Working on the real problems

Helen Keller:

So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly, calling me ‘arch priestess of the sightless,’ ‘wonder woman,’ and a ‘modern miracle.’ But when it comes to a discussion of poverty, and I maintain that it is the result of wrong economics—that the industrial system under which we live is at the root of much of the physical deafness and blindness in the world—that is a different matter! It is laudable to give aid to the handicapped. Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.

Hélder Câmara:

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.

Vinay Gupta

This is why the funded organizations have so little purchase on the real problems: if you're hitting the real problems they kill your budget
Refuse to really name the problem, and The Cash Will Flow: New Orleans flood cleanup.

Name the problem: Systemic Racism. Now unfundable.

Doug Muder:

When you’re expecting a compassionate response and don’t get it, it’s tempting to write people off as selfish or hard-hearted. But many of them aren’t. Some people who look at the world this way are quite generous. They give money away. They put themselves out for others. They volunteer. But the model they put on this behavior isn’t justice, it’s charity. Justice, to them, would mean keeping what is theirs.

06 May 2014

American immigrant myth

Tal Fortgang's article for Time Why I'll Never Apologize For My White Male Privilege has been getting a lot of internet attention this week. It's as cringeworthy as one might imagine.

I do not accuse those who “check” me and my perspective of overt racism, although the phrase, which assumes that simply because I belong to a certain ethnic group I should be judged collectively with it, toes that line. But I do condemn them for diminishing everything I have personally accomplished, all the hard work I have done in my life, and for ascribing all the fruit I reap not to the seeds I sow but to some invisible patron saint of white maleness who places it out for me before I even arrive.

Fortgang is young. I expect that he will be learning at Princeton that he does not understand what people mean by “privilege”. (And I imagine that this incident may also teach him that one should be careful about what one vows never to do.)

But I have an itch about a certain line of critique of folks like Fortgang which one hears in social justice circles, exemplified by an article I saw forwarded this morning, ‘Privileged’ Princeton Student’s Tale of Jewish Woe, from Michael Kaplan at the Jewish Daily Forward.

Fortgang’s thoughts are a common trope among descendants of European immigrants, as NYU Jewish history professor Hasia Diner told me. What he forgets, however, is that there’s one reason European Jews were able to come to the U.S. under the Displaced Persons Act: because they were white.

That's a very strange statement to come from someone informed by a professor of Jewish history. To simply say that Fortgang's and Kaplan's (and my own) grandparents enjoyed the advantages of White privilege badly misunderstands how White identity has emerged for American Jews, and how Whiteness works in general.

Critiques like Kaplan's miss the mark because even a numbskull like Fortgang knows on some level that no, he is not ignoring how his immigrant grandparents were White. He is remembering a time when Jews (and immigrant groups like the Irish and Italians and so forth) were discriminated against on racialized terms, were not simply White. When White Americans tell family legends about their immigrant ancestors overcoming discrimination and adversity through virtue and hard work, they are displaying a partial understanding of this important truth that Kaplan dismisses.

But that understanding is only partial; it doesn't make Fortgang and other Whites who offer this American immigrant myth correct in dismissing racist injustice. Their story is a lie because Fortgang's not-yet-White immigrant ancestors did not become White automatically and inexorably, or simply as a result of hard work and virtue. The process involved complex, painful, and destructive negotiations with the system of American racism, a bargain which that system offered to American Jews and other immigrant groups who have become White, but has not offered to other groups, for historically contingent reasons.

One of those concessions which bought immigrants Whiteness was turning the true story about adversity in the face of discrimination into a lie about how their family fortunes changed, making the discrimination irrelevant, and passing that lie on to children at the kitchen table so that it becomes part of how they define themselves. Believing the lies of racism is part of the price of Whiteness.

Telling that story supports racist injustice by implying that contemporary racist oppression is the just consequence of people of color's failings, an implication which should disgust us. People of color know that expecting virtue and hard work to be rewarded is itself an expression of privilege.

03 May 2014

The word “gay”

A lively telling of some of the history of the word that never did just mean “happy”.

The word “gay” to mean “a male-designated person boning a male-designated person” or “a female-designated person boning a female-designated person” emerges in the late 19th century. It's hard to tell exactly when, for a variety of very interesting reasons; prime among them is that the word “gay” has a bunch of related meanings that smear all over each other. Rockin through the Oxford English Dictionary, we find that “gay” in the 19th century, while it meant a lot of things, meant “prostitute” half the time. So a “gay girl” was a prostitute, and a “gay house” was a brothel. Over time, the word's meaning starts to soften, so as the word evolves it goes from meaning “being a whore” to “being sexually forward” to “being silly and a bit impertinent,” though it never quite loses the sexually-immoral connotation that it has originally. And it's not like words or language evolve linearly, the same way and at the same rate in all places: all these meanings come to overlap and interact.

So, as an example, in the early 20th century, some meanings for “gay” included: dissipated, forward, whorish, impertinent, frivolous, cheerful, immoral, and homosexual (that's not even all of them). People have a mistaken idea that “gay” used to mean “happy,” but that leaves out the over-the-top connotations of immoral, sexual, or irresponsible happiness that the word carried, even when used to mean “cheerful” or “happy.” When you read a sentence in an old book that's like “we had quite a gay time at the picnic,” they do mean that they had a cheerful happy time, but there are other connotations to it — that they were carefree, childish, irresponsible, irreverent, inappropriate, silly, etc.

Do you start to see how the word becomes a marker for that thing we do, that thing where designated-X-at-birth and designated-X-at-birth have makeouts? It doesn't become a marker of sexual deviance; it is already a marker of sexual deviance.