30 December 2013


The popular imagination has it that in Genesis, Ha’Shem judges and destroys Sodom because of the practice of homosexuality there.

I’ve long grumbled that the story doesn’t really say that. Here’s the passage, Genesis 19:1-5, in which we see life in Sodom.

And the two angels came to Sodom at even; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom; and Lot saw them, and rose up to meet them; and he fell down on his face to the earth; and he said: “Behold now, my lords, turn aside, I pray you, into your servant's house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your way.”

And they said: “Nay; but we will abide in the broad place all night.”

And he urged them greatly; and they turned in unto him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and did bake unleavened bread, and they did eat.

But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both young and old, all the people from every quarter.

And they called unto Lot, and said unto him: “Where are the men that came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.”

Ha’Shem sends some messengers to nuke Sodom because of unspecified “sin”. When they get there, Lot meets them and offers them a place to stay, then a mob shows up to rape them. Many other stories in the Tanakh show a preöccupation with hospitality, so I have long read that as an indictment of Sodom horrifically failing to welcome strangers properly.

But Doug Muder offers a bit of lore I didn’t know.

The only place where the Bible explicitly states the sin of Sodom is in Ezekiel

How interesting.

So I have a few translations for you of Ezekiel 16:49.

I like the clarity of the New American Standard translation:

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.

That said, I usually reach for the New Jewish Publication Society of America Tanakh when possible (as I did with the first passage from Genesis) since Christian translators have a tendency to project from the “New Testament” an interpretive frame on the text of the “Old Testament” which I find fishy. But yeah, that's essentially the same:

Behold, this was the iniquity of thy sister Sodom: pride, fulness of bread, and careless ease was in her and in her daughters; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.

Young's Literal Translation, which tries to represent the idioms and other verbiage of the original language as directly as possible has it as:


this hath been the iniquity of Sodom thy sister,

Arrogancy, fulness of bread, and quiet ease, Have been to her and to her daughters,

And the hand of the afflicted and needy She hath not strengthened.

Well then.

Update: In lively discussion on Twitter, Mike Dwyer points me to Jude 1:7. The New International Version, translated by evangelicals, renders that verse in a way that suggests that sex was the cause of the destruction of Sodom.

In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.

What’s up with that? I have two hairs to split looking at Jude.

First, “sexual immorality and perversion” is unhelpfully vague; does it mean homosexuality, or raping angelic houseguests, or what? Second, though the translation makes a strong implication that the destruction of Sodom was a result of “sexual immorality”, it doesn't make the connection as explicitly as Ezekiel does.

Second, a lot hinges on the translation here. Let’s pull up Young’s Literal Translation again. (I’ve inserted some breaks, to make the Greek grammar easier to parse.)

as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities around them, in like manner to these,

having given themselves to whoredom, and gone after other flesh,

have been set before — an example, of fire age-during, justice suffering.

There are interesting things in there.

One is that we have reached the limits of what we can discern without real expertise into the koine Greek of the Epistle of Jude. We could see this as a description of causes: “having had nasty sex, Sodom has been destroyed”. Or we could read this as a parallel construction: “having given …” and “have been set …” could be taken as two comparable aspects of Sodom, with an implied relationship but not an explicit line of causation from one to the other.

How are we to reconcile Jude with Ezekiel telling us “the failing of Sodom was that it was rich but did not give to its poor”? I read Ezekiel as making a stronger connection, but I wonder.

If we do take Jude as telling us that nasty sex in Sodom was a cause of the city's destruction, can we get more specific about it? “Whoredom” and “gone after other flesh” are oblique. Was it homosexuality? Houseguest rape? Angel sex? What?

Let’s take a close look at the Greek. I’m not a real scholar of Koine Greek, but a little nosing around on the web reveals a great deal.

“Gave themselves up to sexual immorality” and “having given themselves to whoredom” are both translations of the Greek word ἐκπορνεύσασαι, which appears nowhere else in the Bible. The root word here is πορνοε (pornos!), meaning prostitution. Okay, that’s a classic. The Tanakh and the Epistles counsel against visiting prostitutes. (Though I must note that in the Gospels Jesus can be easily read as speaking in prostitutes' defense.)

And what of “perversion” or “other flesh” (or “strange flesh” as in the King James Version)? The Greek is σαρκὸς ἑτέρας — sarkōs heteras. Yes, heteras is the same root as heterosexual! So it is impossible to resist asking why if the Bible wanted to condemn homosexuality would this not read sarkōs homos, “same flesh”, instead?

This reading of the Greek is certainly consistent with my reading of the story in Genesis as a story about hospitality — “going after other flesh” meaning attempting to rape strangers or visitors. It could be an allusion to ἑταῖραι, the courtesans of Hellenic society. Or Jude might even be talking about sex between humans and angels — angels being of a different kind of flesh than humans. This is not so fanciful as it sounds, since we have not only the episode in Genesis 19 but a description of sex between angels and humans in Genesis 6:2, as well as other references in apocrypha not included in the Bible today but which likely were known to Jude. It's even plausibly a condemnation of bestiality, though there's no other Biblical reason to suspect that in reference to Sodom.

But I find it impossible to read either ἐκπορνεύσασαι or σαρκὸς ἑτέρας as describing homosexuality.


A look at the midrash from Chasids includes this:

It was announced in Sodom, “Whoever will give bread to a poor person will be burnt at the stake.”

Plotit, the daughter of Lot, who was married to a prominent Sodomite, once saw a poor man who was so hungry that he was unable to stand. She felt sorry for him. From then on, she made sure to pass him every day on her way to the well, and she would feed him some food that she had stashed in her water jug.

People wondered how the man managed to live. Upon investigation, they discovered her act and prepared to burn her. Before she died, she turned to G‑d and cried, “Master of the world, carry out justice on my behalf!” Her cries pierced the heavens, and at that moment G‑d said, “I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached Me.”

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg brings in more sources:

But there’s a parallel scene in Judges 19 — one with language and narrative cues that are so parallel to the Sodom narrative that clearly one of these stories intentionally echoes the other. There, too, there are strangers who arrive in the evening, who go to the city square, there are locals who ignore basic tenets of hospitality, a mob of men demanding the male guest, so that they may have sex with him, and the offering up of women instead.

In the Sodom story, there is a miracle that saves Lot and his family, and the people of Sodom are condemned to death; in Judges, a woman is handed over, raped and murdered—and the perpetrators condemned, with God sanctioning the waging of war against them as vengeance. The people who raped this woman were horrific violators, same as the people of Sodom attempted to be, and God is not on their side. Whatever is going on here, the problem isn't loving, consensual sex between men.

Interestingly, the Jewish tradition -- including Biblical sources — doesn’t believe that the sin of Sodom is homosexuality, sexual assault, or even poor hospitality.

Rabbi Michael Harvey says many of the same things ... and before getting to Sodom he points to something I had somehow never seen before about Leviticus 20:13.

וְאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשְׁכַּ֤ב אֶת־זָכָר֙ מִשְׁכְּבֵ֣י אִשָּׁ֔ה תּוֹעֵבָ֥ה עָשׂ֖וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֑ם מ֥וֹת יוּמָ֖תוּ דְּמֵיהֶ֥ם בָּֽם׃

“If a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death—their bloodguilt is upon them.”


The verse in Hebrew in Leviticus 20:13 shows something that the English does not, namely that there are two words for “male” here. The first is “Ish” and the second is “Zachar.” The verse is a commandment to the men, the “anashim” (plural of ish), telling them that they must not “bed” with a “zachar” as they would with an “isha” (a woman). The verse could have used the word “ish” (man) here, but it does not. At the very least, even a Christian should notice the fact that the author (whether priestly or divine) chose a specific word, and the idea that the two words mean the same thing is absurd. Two kinds of male words means two different kinds of men, thus the verse is prohibiting a specific type of sex, most likely “the kind of sex between men that is designed to effect the power and mastery of the penetrator. Sex for the conquest, for shoring up the ego, for self-aggrandizement, or worse, for the perverse pleasure of demeaning another man is prohibited.”

23 December 2013

22 December 2013


Antoun Nabham, inspired by ‘And I Cannot Lie’: The Oral History of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back’ Video, observes:

It's striking how the creation stories of great pieces of commercial art tend to share features:
  1. Have a principled mission
  2. Have a small team of committed people who have enough experience to at least know what excellence feels like when it's in the process of creation
  3. Have a strong leader with final authority over the artistic vision, and at least one highly trusted advisor who can change that person's mind when necessary.
Serendipity is an emergent property of certain starting conditions.

You'd think that folks in the culture industries would structure things this way as a matter of course, but actually creating these conditions turns out to require a visionary with will and clout.

21 December 2013

Silicon Valley buses

With Google's buses becoming a symbol of the friction between Old San Francisco and Tech Boom Silicon Valley — a tension which I literally embody — I'm finding I need to have handy Rebecca Solnit's brilliant original diary about the buses and what they signify.

Most of them are gleaming white, with dark-tinted windows, like limousines, and some days I think of them as the spaceships on which our alien overlords have landed to rule over us.

Other days I think of them as the company buses by which the coal miners get deposited at the minehead, and the work schedule involved would make a pit owner feel at home.
The Google Bus means so many things. It means that the minions of the non-petroleum company most bent on world domination can live in San Francisco but work in Silicon Valley without going through a hair-raising commute by car — I overheard someone note recently that the buses shortened her daily commute to 3.5 hours from 4.5. It means that unlike gigantic employers in other times and places, the corporations of Silicon Valley aren’t much interested in improving public transport, and in fact the many corporations providing private transport are undermining the financial basis for the commuter train. It means that San Francisco, capital of the west from the Gold Rush to some point in the 20th century when Los Angeles overshadowed it, is now a bedroom community for the tech capital of the world at the other end of the peninsula.

What went wrong

Ian Welsh's short essay Living In A Rich Society is a masterpiece of succinct description of how economics, society, and politics went badly wrong in America, telling the tale as well as could be told in under a fifteen hundred words.

Americans voted for suburbia and against black people (and don’t tell me otherwise, I remember Reagan’s campaign, and it was based on racism). The people who made those votes, the Reagan Democrats, mostly won their bet: their house prices went up, they didn’t have to live near people with melanin, and they retired wealthy and went to live in the south, where brown people wiped their butts.

But the price of this was the end of the rich society. The end of a society where you could tell your boss to go screw himself. And it was the end of a society in which big projects were regularly undertaken.

20 December 2013


Movies and TV shows often feature NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command, which has its headquarters dug deep into Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado to protect it against nuclear attack. Though apparently the Big Board isn't as cool as the one in WarGames, it is a real place.

In December 1955, when it was actually called CONAD, Colonel Harry Shoup was ranking officer when the phone rang. The phone — the red phone that you really don't want to ring, on your watch or any other time. He answers the phone, and has a very confusing conversation. The voice on the other end of the phone is asking a vexing question.

“Can I talk to Santa Claus?”

It turns out that the local Sears has placed an ad in the paper with a phone number so kids can call and talk to Santa. There's a misprint in the ad, and so NORAD has kids calling in every day. One can imagine that first call. Col. Shoup may have let slip who he was and what his job was. The kid wants to know about Santa, and NORAD tracks anything that enters US airspace ...

In 1955, the big board was a sheet of glass with a map, marked up with grease pencils. To help answer the incoming calls, the CONAD team marked the position of a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer. The following year, the folks at CONAD preëmpted any confusion by changing the number of the Red Phone and running their own ad with the number of the Santa Phone.

Mind you, these folks are government employees. Their job is to look for Russian planes. So they're doing this unpaid, on their time off. And every year they got more callers.

Needless to say, as aerospace technology advances, so does NORAD's Santa operation. And of course there's a website. A few years back there was a great video of the Santa tracking systems test done as they tracked Santa leaving the North Pole to attend the Hollywood Christmas Parade which is evidently lost to the ages, but they've recorded quite a few clips featuring deadpan military personnel describing their Santa tracking efforts.

Yes, Virginia

Santa Claus is real.

I'm serious.

Okay, okay: I'm being flippant, too. But when I assert the reality of Santa Claus I'm not merely kidding around, engaging in some Francis P. Church fancy, or participating in the conspiracy of deceit toward small children. I have a point I want to make.

Santa Claus is as real as I am.

Santa is, in truth, more real than I am. He has a bigger effect on the world.

After all, how many people know Santa Claus? If I walk down Market Street in San Francisco, there's a good chance that a few people will recognize me; I happen to be a distinctive-looking guy. There's a chance that one or two of those people will even know my name and a few things about me, but the odds are greatly against it. But if Santa takes the same walk, everybody (or nearly everybody) will recognize him, know his name, know a number of things about him, even have personal stories about him. So who is more real?

You may roll your eyes and say, “Being recognized is a sort of effect on the world, sure, but it is a weightless, immaterial effect. That does not compare to my ability to do long division, or to chop carrots.”

Or … say … deliver gifts? Each year I deliver and sign my name to one or two dozen gifts under Yule trees. Santa? Uncounted millions.

You may protest that other people bought those gifts, wrapped them, signed Santa's name, and put them under the tree, but I ask you: without Santa, would they have done all that stuff?

Santa Claus was a motive force which made those presents happen, much as I was the motive force who made my presents happen. I may have Santa beat in the chopping carrots department, but what he does well he does vastly better than I could possibly do it.

Santa has an effect on the world, one far bigger than I have. He's been at it since well before I was born and I presume he'll still be doing it long after I'm gone. Santa has a narrower range of things he does than I do, it's true, but in his area of specialty, Santa outdoes me by an enormous margin.

Again you may roll your eyes, and say, “That's all true but Santa Claus is not an ordinary flesh-and-blood human being like you and me. When you said that Santa was real, I inferred that you were claiming that he was a human being.”

Yet I made no such silly implication. Of course Santa isn't a person like you and me. A child knows that. He can jump down chimneys and deliver presents to children all over the world in one night. No ordinary human being could do that. He's a magical creature, a non-human entity.


Once more you may roll your eyes. “Non-human ‘entities’ are not real.”

What, only human beings are real? What kind of ontology is that?

Mount Everest is not real? The Great Red Spot on Jupiter is not real? The Second Law of Thermodynamics is not real? The International Date Line? The Declaration of Independence? Walt Disney Pictures? My memory of my grandfather? The waves crashing on the beach in Waikiki?

There are various kinds of things that are real. How does Santa Claus not qualify among them? He is recognizable, distinct, has observable effects on the world.

Santa Claus is real.

It should be evident at this point that I am using Santa Claus to make a point about how we think about reality, about the limits of simplistically materialist ontology, about what I call the pagan sensibility which recognizes a range of different kinds of forces in the world and honors them. I'm using Santa as a familiar example of the pagan conception of what the gods are like.

I still love the special kind of understanding of the world which only the natural sciences provide. But the question of human experience does not respond to those tools. My own subjective experience is one long un-reproducible result. And what I see when I look at human experience is that we have strange encounters with subtle, non-human forces in the world: The Job Market, The Artistic Process, Morale At The Office, Murphy's Law. The ancients called these bodiless forces spirits, angels, gods, and so forth; they are names for the ways in which humans experience and process these encounters with the forces in the world. And just as the New York Stock Exchange is real — a non-human entity, a pattern in the world, with a certain character, with things we perceive as preferences, intentions, and even moods which a person can interact with — so too the gods of the ancients like Hermes, Thor, or Jesus are real. So too even “made up” entities like Santa Claus or Chtulhu are, in an important sense, real.

We can get clever about how, in our human experience, we interact with these entities: how we think and act to get the response from the world that we want. That process, after spooky old Aleister Crowley's usage, is convenient to call “magick,” because its methods are the things we associate with the word: rituals, symbols, and meditation. If that seems silly — and frankly, there are times when it still seems silly to me — I consider that in college I learned to predict the movements of cannonballs and invisible electrons by meditating on occult symbols drawn on a blackboard. That's magick.

Westerners who take seriously magick and engagement with a range of gods and other entities have a funny name: Pagan. And okay, that's me. I'm now at a point in my life where that funny name doesn't seem too awkward to apply to myself: sure, it's easily misunderstood, and puts me in a category together with some pretty embarrassing folks ... but doesn't any language in talking about spiritual experiences have that problem? Heck, most Christians feel that way, and they have a much bigger propaganda machine than Pagans do.

Santa is a thing that happens when the human frame encounters its own impulse to give gifts: it grows images and stories and names, it takes on a life of its own greater than any person can command.

Santa Claus is real.

Hail Santa! Bringer of gifts! Indulger of children! Herald of the Yule! Spirit of generosity! Elf of good cheer!

Hail and welcome!

Update: In The Santa Template for Pagan Worship, Aaron Leitch looks closely at Christmas ritual and makes the case in even more explicit detail than I have.

It will surely amaze you to find out that Santa Claus is a modern deity who fits each and every requirement of ancient Pagan deity worship. What follows is not about the well-known Pagan origins of the Santa Claus image (aka, Father Christmas — who has close ties to Germanic images of Odin). Instead, this is about the modern incarnation of Santa himself as a Western deity.

The manner in which we moderns deal with Santa Claus, and Christmas in general, is exactly how rites to Gods were performed in ancient times. Knowing this, it can provide an awesome sounding board against which to test our methods of dealing with any God we choose. At the very least, it offers us a glaring contrast to our normal Neo-Pagan methods.

I've been quoted on The Wild Hunt, where there is more commentary on Santa by other Pagan bloggers. And I have a later story about a a Pagan Christmas miracle from LaSara Firefox Allen. And Visions of Sugarplums, a story about a Pagan getting a surprise visit from Santa.

19 December 2013

Fascism has no programme

I occasionally find myself having to explain that fascism is not quite an ideology as we ordinarily understand it. It doesn't have a defining governing policy, or economic policy, or foreign policy. It has, indeed, a hostility to specific programmatic commitments, being defined instead in its attitude of nationalism, belligerence, and naked will-to-power. Mussolini demonstrated this succinctly when he was asked if he would answer the questions of journalists from Il Mondo.

The democrats of Il Mondo want to know our programme?

It is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo.

As a fascist commentator I know once said:

I am enlightened enough to reject all forms of self-delusion. And when ideology is transcended, only will remains.

18 December 2013

Calling in

Ngọc Loan Trần writing at Black Girl Dangerous notices a familiar challenge.

What happens when thousands of people who all “get it” come together and everyone knows something about “the work”? We lose all compassion for each other. All of it.

I witnessed all types of fucked up behavior and the culture that we have created to respond to said fucked up behavior.

They propose adding “calling in” as an alternative to “calling out”.

I don’t propose practicing “calling in” in opposition to calling out. I don’t think that our work has room for binary thinking and action. However, I do think that it’s possible to have multiple tools, strategies, and methods existing simultaneously. It’s about being strategic, weighing the stakes and figuring out what we’re trying to build and how we are going do it together.

We need to work on this.

Holy Guardian Superman

image courtesy of a lovely post about the Last Son of Krypton
at Theory of Everything Comics

Max Landis is terrible person, but he understands Superman:

a person who could do anything, and chooses to do the right thing out of kindness, not obligation

A Buddhist would call that बोधिसत्त्व.

Superman’s moral judgment is perfected, he feels no fear, his compassion is limitless, and he is empowered with siddhis of every real or imagined human capacity to a divine, superhuman degree. He draws his powers from the golden light of the Sun.

Those who know the chakra system might call this anāhata, the heart.

But Superman is a Western god, transmitted to us originally by a couple of Jewish kids from the holy city of Cleveland, so his symbolism is perhaps best understood in terms of the Hermetic qabalah. In that system tifareth, which means “beauty” (whose number is six and planet is the Sun, color is yellow, metal is gold) closely mirrors anāhata. Superman is traditionally depicted wearing the blue of chesed (“mercy”, the protective and sustaining sphere, corresponding to four, Jupiter, and tin) trimmed in the red of gevurah (“strength”, the fierce and active counterpart to chesed, corresponding to five, Mars, and iron). Over his heart there is an emblem which shows his sigil over a field of the yellow of tifrareth, bound within a five-sided shield in the red of gevurah.

He bears the Hebrew angelic name Kal-El, “The Voice of God”. His father bears the name Jor-El, “(There Will Be The) Light of God”; his mother bears the name Lara, “Of The Initiation”; his cousin Supergirl bears the name Kara Zor-El, “Call To God’s Stranger”.

The aspirant may benefit from meditation on the significance of these colors, sigils, and names.

More resources

More pop Buddhas from io9.

Alan Moore says:

Superman is the Sun that all others revolve around. The story is a representation of an alien being who comes to Earth and just so happens to blend in among humans while using his unique abilities, not to rise above us but to help us. He cannot be a god because gods are dictators who set rules for others to follow. Superman sets rules for himself and uses these rules for our benefit. The myth was perfected from the 1950’s through roughly the 1970’s under the pencil of a severe talent, Curt Swan. If America has a legend comparable to the ageless myths of antiquity, theirs is Superman.

Marvel Studios understands Superman, and he isn’t even their guy:

Consider this dialogue:

Okay, if you and Batman fought, who would win?

The Joker.

I’m serious, for real, who would win?


For real?!

For real.

Aren’t you stronger and faster and you have laser eyes and he doesn’t?


So you would win?

No, he would win.

Do you even know what you’re saying?

I do.

How would he win?

I’d let him.

What?! Why?!

If you knew Batman, you’d know. It’d mean a lot to him.


He’s gone through a lot. He deserves some happiness.

Don’t you deserve happiness?

Winning fights doesn’t make me happy.

What does?

My family, my work, my dog, this.


You, Alice. Talking to you, seeing that you’re good, that makes me happy.

More than beating Batman?

Yes. A lot more.

Superman and Batman fighting, with the captions quoted above

In the course of a smart Twitter thread about actors who have played Superman, Sean Kelly says:

The other day, James Gunn was saying that he’s looking for a Superman you want to hug, and I think that’s right on the money: Yes, Superman should convincingly be able to pick up an ocean liner but also fill in for Santa Claus if Santa gets the flu.
Clark Kent is not an act. Clark Kent was discovered, as a baby, by kindly farmers. They named him, loved him, raised him with their values. He grew up a good kid, in a loving home, not knowing where he came from until he was older, not knowing what name his biological parents gave him.

James P. “But A Jape” Sandoval tells us that “‘Superman is unrelatable’ is Luthorian propaganda and I will die on that hill”:

A four panel comic. In the first two panels, the caption reads “Why People Don‘t Relate To Superman” and we see Lex Luthor looking out a window at Superman flying by, saying, “‘Superman’. What a stupid idea for a character. As if anybody with THAT much power could be so good.” In the latter two panels, the caption reads “Why People Relate To Superman”. We see Superman flying as people say “Yeah, Superman!” and “Go Superman!”; Superman thinks “Oh God, they are starting to call me ‘Superman’ now ...”. Then we see Superman breaking a sweat and looking embarrassed as someone says, “You’re the best!”, and Superman thinks, “I really hope I don’t disappoint them.”

Four beautiful pages with just thirteen words, from Superman: Red & Blue, tell the same story:

Superman Meets Shazam is the only Angry Superman story I love. His anger comes from his compassion, and the conflict is resolved with more compassion. Joshua Middleton’s art exemplifies how good comics art is often a matter of good acting.

Why Superman Is My Hero is a meditation on a perfect one-page Superman story from All-Star Superman in which Superman says “you’re much stronger than you think you are”:

[content warning: suicide]

I have struggled with depression ever since I was ten years old. It had crippled me emotionally. I was 27 years old, no college degree, no job, and no will to live. I decided to kill myself after Christmas.

And then my sister’s boyfriend loaned me these comics. Superman is dying of radiation poisoning and is trying to complete all of his tasks before he dies, but he still takes the time to save a young girl who is about to jump off a building.

I cried for hours after reading this. I identified with that girl so much, ans I could almost hear Superman telling me that I’m stronger than I think.

Now, every time my depression starts to rear its ugly head, I just repeat his words and imagine him hugging me when I'm standing on the edge. It works better than any medication or therapy I’ve ever had.

Now I’m in college and at the top of my class. I have friends. I have a life. And I don’t care that he’s a fictional comic book character. He still saved me.

Another commentator says of that story, “a pitch-perfect example of pikuach nefesh, the Jewish principle that ‘saving a life’ is the greatest thing a person can do”.

Cheryl Lynn Eaton tells us:

Superman (and kind characters of great power) are interesting because morals force them to depend on strategy over brute force.

Superman keeps getting hit with the trolley problem over and over and over — and his response is always, “No, I’m saving everyone.” And then he does it. He finds a way. And that’s amazing.

And on the rare times he doesn't find a way, he is absolutely devastated. And we are too. We grieve with him. No one is collateral damage to Superman. Ever.

Last thing. The difference between Superman and nearly every other hero — even his teammates — is that Superman doesn’t have an outgroup. You are Superman’s friend, a member of his community, until your behavior towards the community proves otherwise. And that is both admirable and dangerous. When you’re invulnerable it is easy to live life that way. Doesn’t go so smoothly for the rest of us delicate meatbags.

To that point, I have to give the last word to the pitch-perfect Superman & Lois TV series. He works to save everyone. Everyone. Even the villains. Especially the villains.

Two components of the liberal project

In Is The Safety Net Just Masking Tape? at the New York Times, Thomas B. Edsall makes a number of observations

Two years ago, Mike Konczal, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, opened a productive line of inquiry in a blog post called “Are We at the Completion of the Liberal Project?”

Konczal described two approaches to the liberal state. In the first, “you would have the government maintaining full employment, empowering workers and giving them more bargaining power.” In the second, “you would have a safety net for those who fell through the cracks.”

These two approaches, according to Konczal, should not be looked at as an either-or proposition, but as mutually reinforcing and interdependent:

I don’t believe those two can exist without each other. Without a strong middle and working class you don’t have natural constituencies ready to fight and defend the implementation and maintenance of a safety net and public goods. The welfare state is one part, complementing full employment, of empowering people and balancing power in a financial capitalist society.” In practice, Konczal writes, the political left has abandoned its quest for deep structural reform — full employment and worker empowerment — and instead has “doubled-down” on the safety net strategy. The result, in his view, is “a kind of pity-charity liberal capitalism.

Konczal’s poignant description of the problem goes a long way toward explaining the current struggles of the left. The question is whether there is an effective worker empowerment strategy at a time of globalization, offshoring and robotization.

Edsall proposes a set of policies going forward that progressives like me would love to see … but then argues that it's hard to see how they could succeed politically in our current environment.

And in the longer term, I cannot see how his full-employment policies are a solution. With robots doing more and more and the limits of material resources pressing, “full employment” seems neither possible nor desirable.

16 December 2013

Devil's Advocate

Advice, and a warning:

You want to play devil’s advocate? Then the purpose in your words, actions, and fucking HEART had better be to help that person become Stronger, by having presented them with the angles of attack and rebuttal that will be leveled against them, and not some attempt to score points for your morally and intellectually bankrupt little worldview.

This is consistent with my understanding of הַשָּׂטָן. I take seriously the legends which teach that you do not want to invoke him sloppily.

14 December 2013


Since there's a bit of a tendency to use the word sloppily, Karen Healy describes nicely what “mansplaining” does and does not include.

Mansplaining isn't just the act of explaining while male, of course; many men manage to explain things every day without in the least insulting their listeners.

Mansplaining is when a dude tells you, a woman, how to do something you already know how to do, or how you are wrong about something you are actually right about, or miscellaneous and inaccurate “facts” about something you know a hell of a lot more about than he does.

Bonus points if he is explaining how you are wrong about something being sexist!

Think about the men you know. Do any of them display that delightful mixture of privilege and ignorance that leads to condescending, inaccurate explanations, delivered with the rock-solid conviction of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation?

That dude is a mansplainer.

To my knowledge, the ur-article on the subject is the wonderful Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things To Me.

.... the out-and-out confrontational confidence of the totally ignorant is, in my experience, gendered. Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men.


I began to speak only of the most recent [of my books] on that summer day in 2003, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, my book on the annihilation of time and space and the industrialization of everyday life.

He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. “And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?”

So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingénue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book—with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.

Here, let me just say that my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me, with my infinitely generous younger brother, with splendid friends of whom it could be said–like the Clerk in The Canterbury Tales I still remember from Mr. Pelen’s class on Chaucer—”gladly would he learn and gladly teach.” Still, there are these other men, too. So, Mr. Very Important was going on smugly about this book I should have known when Sallie interrupted him to say, “That’s her book.” Or tried to interrupt him anyway.

But he just continued on his way. She had to say, “That’s her book” three or four times before he finally took it in. And then, as if in a nineteenth-century novel, he went ashen. That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless–for a moment, before he began holding forth again.


Usage of ’splain has grown more expansive in both good and bad ways. It's become a more general social justice term of art:

Splaining or ’Splaining is a form of condescension in which a member of a privileged group explains something to a member of a marginalised group — most particularly, explains about their marginalization — as if the privileged person knows more about it. Examples include (but are not limited to) a man explaining sexism to a woman, or a white person explaining racism to a black person.

I can think of countless examples of a White guy being egregiously racist, then telling Black critics that obviously they don't understand racism, oh no, but he does, and there is nothing racist at all about what he has done. It's not hard to recognize the problem there, value having a name for it, and insist on rejecting ’splaining as an illegitimate move that we should reject outright.

But this is slippery. If a man disagrees with a woman about something, and then she calls it out as sexist, and he expresses his skepticism about the sexism involved, then he is “explaining sexism to a woman” and thus ’splaining, yes? Familiar, odious examples of this leap to mind ... but this same turn makes it possible for a woman to frame any disagreement as sexism and then lock out any disagreement as further sexism.

I think we can recognize that dodgy accusations of sexism are a long, long way from being a pressing social problem but also recognize how people in activist culture have been known to shut down discussion with facile versions of this move, which is not the healthiest thing for our ability to discuss and dig into how sexism and racism and other injustices work.

Beyond that, Katy Waldman observes how ’splaining has leaked out of social justice rhetoric into the world at large.

Meanwhile, -splain has ’sploded in its own right. The writer Annabel Crabb coined the term ladysplain to characterize how some women couch their comments in self-deprecation and apology. The site Femsplain appears to want to reclaim -splain. Specific people can -splain—GQ crowned one Republican candidate “The Mittsplainer” in 2012—and so can publications (Voxsplain) and entire industries (techsplain). Bras outfitted with sensors can bras plain your feelings to you. Forbes recruited the feline Mr. Higgs to catsplain the finer points of computer-generated text.

She offers a crisp description of a usage beyond the social justice context that focuses on the spirit of its original meaning.

At its heart, -splain should be about the marriage of two concepts: irony and information asymmetry. In economics, information asymmetry describes transactions “where one party has more or better information than the other”—an imbalance that can lead to market failure. When I Waldsplain to my co-worker, I believe I am correcting an information asymmetry that, in fact, runs in the opposite direction. That’s the irony: My misapprehension of the situation only worsens the skew. Cue conversation failure.

But we no longer just use -splain to highlight ironic information asymmetries in conversation.

I like her proposal. (It even speaks to the one and only usage of “womansplaining” in a social justice context that I think might be defensible.)

But I worry that Waldman is right that the word's usefulness is slipping away.

13 December 2013

Key concepts

On Facebook, a friend asks:

What are some concepts you wish were more widely understood?

He offered an example:

Another person offered:

Which inspired me to produce a whole list, which I'm now adding to progressively:

Over time I'm going to make more of these into links, but if you don't recognize some of these, I recommend looking them up.

11 December 2013

Karl Marx

At the moment there's a piece by David “The Wire” Simon floating around the web which I don't think reflects him at his best, but which does include a good statement of something I agree with:

I'm not a Marxist in the sense that I don't think Marxism has a very specific clinical answer to what ails us economically. I think Marx was a much better diagnostician than he was a clinician. He was good at figuring out what was wrong or what could be wrong with capitalism if it wasn't attended to and much less credible when it comes to how you might solve that.

You know if you've read Capital or if you've got the Cliff Notes, you know that his imaginings of how classical Marxism — of how his logic would work when applied — kind of devolve into such nonsense as the withering away of the state and platitudes like that. But he was really sharp about what goes wrong when capital wins unequivocally, when it gets everything it asks for.

10 December 2013

My relationship with the political left

A friend recently commented that he has divorced himself from the political left; another friend waggishly suggested that he is still married to it but could use some relationship counseling.

Speaking for myself, I wouldn't quite claim that I'm happily married to the left, but I am committed to the marriage.

Truth to tell, I've been stepping out on the left a bit, in online forums, for some time. It's fun, and some of those other political philosophies are sexy and fun. But while the left can be annoying at times, it isn't batshit crazy like so many of those “alternative” political philosophies you meet on the internet.

So a little flirting with other philosophies has only strengthened my marriage to progressivism. It may not quite be like when I was young, but when you get older you develop more realistic expectations.

09 December 2013

Conservatives and racism

Jonathan Chait at New York offers us Why Conservatives Got Segregation Wrong a Second Time in South Africa, which reminds us that their specific arguments vary but their conclusion about racism is perennial.

Over the last century, the conservative line on racial questions has undergone a constant flux in its particulars. The distinguishing element of conservative thinking on race is the belief that, at any given moment, the balance of actual or threatened power is arrayed against whites. The conservative line often concedes that whites may have sinned against blacks in the past, and may even continue to do so, but that at the present moment the risk lies in taking things too far in the opposite direction.

These arguments are not always entirely wrong. They often contain important elements of truth: Mandela did have some dangerous communist allies; some affirmative-action programs can have terrible side effects; and so on. For that reason, whenever it’s plausible to do so, the specifics of conservative racial thinking need to be analyzed and debated on their merits, not stigmatized as racist. And even if conservative racial arguments had been completely wrong, it wouldn’t prove they would continue to be completely wrong forever. Still, understanding the history of conservative racial arguments is vital to understanding what conservative racial thinking is.

08 December 2013

Dogs in the Vineyard play aids

Dissatisfied with the available handouts for players in D. Vincent Baker's brilliant, groundbreaking tabletop role-playing game Dogs in the Vineyard, I created these.

You can find more resources from John H. Kim, Carl Rigney, and Jason Morningstar.

One more thing: in the game I GM, I use Sacred Harp's track “Whither the Wind” as title music at the start of the game: wistful and a little bit spooky.

07 December 2013

Close reading

Two blogs at Patheos, the religion site, offer close readings of texts held as sacred and inspired by millions of Americans. I'm speaking, of course, of Atlas Shrugged and Left Behind.

These are critical readings. Very critical. Slacktivist, who writes the Left Behind blog, tells us:

I'm not a pastor, so I won't be pastoral here. These books are evil, anti-Christian crap.

Worth your time.

Update: Fifty Shades of Grey!

06 December 2013

Lady Blackbird

Pound-for-pound, Lady Blackbird may be the best tabletop roleplaying game ever made. It weighs in at only sixteen pages (including the blank character sheet and two half-page illustrations!) but you could run a ten-session campaign grounded in its single page of setting. Or you can finish the game with a satisfying climax in one sitting. It delivers character relationships, a vivid and interesting setting, a simple game engine with a novel dice pool mechanic that plays swiftly and encourages good roleplaying, and an adventure setup that is open-ended but has a strong narrative drive. You can run it with experienced roleplayers or story game virgins or a mix of both. I have never heard of it going wrong for a player group; I can't even imagine how you could screw it up.

I love it so much that I made special dice for using the system.

And it's free!

05 December 2013

On the Non-Aggression Principle

I would very much like the elimination of coercive violence as a factor in human society.

I would also like a pony.

Until all people abjure violence, I will regard those who fight against publicly-accountable government coercion as de facto allies of the forces of private coercion.

'The Problem We All Live With' by Norman Rockwell

If you're wondering what the “Non-Aggression Principle” is:

If you're wondering what the illustration is, it is Norman Rockwell's painting “The Problem We All Live With”, depicting young Ruby Bridges attending public school, defended against the violent objections of bigots in her community by U. S. Marshalls.

(And another comment from Bleeding Heart Libertarians describes how the Principle isn't the strong argument that many libertarians imagine it is.)

On smarm

A brilliant analysis for our times from Tom Scocca at Gawker. I'm serious.

But why are nastiness and snideness taken to be features of our age? One general point of agreement, in denunciations of snark, is that snark is reactive. It is a kind of response. Yet to what is it responding? Of what is it contemptuous?


If you listen to the crusaders against negativity—in literature, in journalism, in politics, in commerce—you begin to hear a recurring set of themes and attitudes, amounting to an omnipresent, unnamed cultural force. The words flung outward start to define a sort of unarticulated philosophy, one that has largely avoided being recognized and defined.

Without identifying and comprehending what they have in common, we have a dangerously incomplete understanding of the conditions we are living under.

Over the past year or two, on the way to writing this essay, I've accumulated dozens of emails and IM conversations from friends and colleagues. They send links to articles, essays, Tumblr posts, online comments, tweets—the shared attitude transcending any platform or format or subject matter.

What is this defining feature of our times? What is snark reacting to?

It is reacting to smarm.

What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

Malcolm Gladwell's riposte is, well, what it should be.

I am shocked! Shocked!

This should be handy to have around.

Freedom archipelago

From the Associated Press:

The case marks the first time that Europe’s role in the CIA’s controversial rendition program, which was in operation at the height of then-President George W. Bush’s war on terrorism, has reached the European Court of Human Rights.

All the prisons were closed by May 2006. Interrogations at sea have replaced CIA “black sites” as the U.S. government’s preferred method for holding terrorism suspects and questioning them without access to lawyers.

Thank goodness we have ended the shameful American practice of secret torture prisons on land. Oh, except that one, though I guess it doesn't count because it isn't secret.

04 December 2013

Choose two

  • Good
  • Cheap
  • Fast

  • Omniscient
  • Omnipotent
  • Omnibenevolent

  • On spec
  • On budget
  • On time

  • good grades
  • social life
  • sleep

  • having the time
  • having the skills
  • having the resources

  • easy to use
  • non-proprietary
  • secure

  • power
  • understanding
  • control
(Kelly's First Law)

One demand

A Message From Occupied Wall Street (Day Five) still moves me profoundly.

This is the fifth communiqué from the 99 percent. We are occupying Wall Street.

On September 21st, 2011, Troy Davis, an innocent man, was murdered by the state of Georgia. Troy Davis was one of the 99 percent.

Ending capital punishment is our one demand.

On September 21st, 2011, the richest 400 Americans owned more wealth than half of the country's population.

Ending wealth inequality is our one demand.

On September 21st, 2011, four of our members were arrested on baseless charges.

Ending police intimidation is our one demand.

On September 21st, 2011, we determined that Yahoo lied about occupywallst.org being in spam filters.

Ending corporate censorship is our one demand.

On September 21st, 2011, roughly eighty percent of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track.

Ending the modern gilded age is our one demand.

On September 21st, 2011, roughly 15% of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing.

Ending political corruption is our one demand.

On September 21st, 2011, roughly one sixth of Americans did not have work.

Ending joblessness is our one demand.

On September 21st, 2011, roughly one sixth of America lived in poverty.

Ending poverty is our one demand.

On September 21st, 2011, roughly fifty million Americans were without health insurance.

Ending health-profiteering is our one demand.

On September 21st, 2011, America had military bases in around one hundred and thirty out of one hundred and sixty-five countries.

Ending American imperialism is our one demand.

On September 21st, 2011, America was at war with the world.

Ending war is our one demand.

On September 21st, 2011, we stood in solidarity with Madrid, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Madison, Toronto, London, Athens, Sydney, Stuttgart, Tokyo, Milan, Amsterdam, Algiers, Tel Aviv, Portland and Chicago. Soon we will stand with Phoenix, Montreal, Cleveland and Atlanta. We're still here. We are growing. We intend to stay until we see movements toward real change in our country and the world.

You have fought all the wars. You have worked for all the bosses. You have wandered over all the countries. Have you harvested the fruits of your labors, the price of your victories? Does the past comfort you? Does the present smile on you? Does the future promise you anything? Have you found a piece of land where you can live like a human being and die like a human being? On these questions, on this argument, and on this theme, the struggle for existence, the people will speak. Join us.

We speak as one. All of our decisions, from our choice to march on Wall Street to our decision to continue occupying Liberty Square, were decided through a consensus based process by the group, for the group.

A just society is my one demand.


For future reference, a long report from In The Public Interest talking about breakdowns from privatization in the US:The Coast-to-Coast Failures of Outsourcing Public Services to For-Profit Corporations.

Gawker has a list of highlights:

  • Los Angeles County continually renewed its $3 million year contract with a firm called Wings of Refuge to place foster children, despite numerous reports of kids going to abusive homes where they were beaten and locked away for days on end.
  • Indiana hired IBM to run its food stamp and Medicaid programs, then bungled it and dumped thousands of residents from the rolls—including an elderly nun who was denied food stamps because she missed a recertification interview while hospitalized for cancer.
  • School-cafeteria workers in New Jersey saw their hourly wages cut by $4 to $6 an hour after their jobs were privatized. “[W]e use our personal sick days just to get paid so we can pay rent for the next month,” one told investigators.
  • Also, there was the whole Chicago parking meters thing.
  • Denver contracted with a Portuguese company to run a toll-road for 99 years. That firm successfully prevented the construction of a free road nearby, citing its contract. The city is stuck unable to build new roads nearby for a century unless it richly compensates the toll-road operator.
  • During the 2008 flood emergency in Indiana, tolls on turnpikes were suspended for travelers. The company running the toll roads, citing its contract, billed state taxpayers $447,000 for the lost revenue… and got it.
  • A company contracted in New Mexico to tape city commission meetings refused to make those tapes available to the public because they were "private property."
  • A California public transit district hired for-profit companies to run bus routes—companies that didn't do complete drug-and-alcohol tests on drivers and stranded handicapped riders at their stops.
  • Two-thirds of Florida's privatized prisons failed to meet the legal requirement to run at least 7 percent more cheaply than state-run jails. Half of the private jails were actually more expensive to run. But the state never set up a mechanism for punishing them.
  • 65 percent of private prisons require the states and cities they work with to meet inmate quotas, forcing governments to find inmates to keep the jails up to a profitable capacity.
  • Northwest Missouri State University forked over tons of taxpayer cash to contract out most of its food, vending, and bookstore services. Rather than open up the contract to bidders, it took contractors at higher rates who were willing to donate to the university's athletic stadium fund.

01 December 2013

The origin of corporations

In an online discussion an anti-corporate anarchist who held that the regulatory state is just a tool of corporations' project of extracting wealth from society linked the article Our Hidden History of Corporations in the United States, and said:

It's hard to discern why [progressives] ... are so ingrained in seeing government as their sole savior in fighting against corporate Frankensteins — but they are clearly incorrect, as a legal and historical matter.

I wanted to keep this lovely reply by another participant in the discussion:

I have never denied the moral hazard in tax breaks and limited liability. I have never denied the corruption ensuing from thence in how corporations can achieve protected status from government.

I, like Theodore Roosevelt, and some of our early practitioners of government, would never have been cozy with this idea. Nevertheless, the reality is that corporations file for incorporation, pay on a periodic basis for their limited liability, but are not created by government.

More particularly, you can thank the Supreme Court for its ruling in Dartmouth College v Woodward, February 2, 1819, for first overturning the attempt by government to limit and control business charters.

How can you read these paragraphs and not see that government put up a good fight against corporations:

But the men running corporations pressed on. Contests over charter were battles to control labor, resources, community rights, and political sovereignty. More and more frequently, corporations were abusing their charters to become conglomerates and trusts. They converted the nation’s resources and treasures into private fortunes, creating factory systems and company towns. Political power began flowing to absentee owners, rather than community-rooted enterprises.

The industrial age forced a nation of farmers to become wage earners, and they became fearful of unemployment—a new fear that corporations quickly learned to exploit. Company towns arose. and blacklists of labor organizers and workers who spoke up for their rights became common. When workers began to organize, industrialists and bankers hired private armies to keep them in line. They bought newspapers to paint businessmen as heroes and shape public opinion. Corporations bought state legislators, then announced legislators were corrupt and said that they used too much of the public’s resources to scrutinize every charter application and corporate operation.

Government spending during the Civil War brought these corporations fantastic wealth. Corporate executives paid “borers” to infest Congress and state capitals, bribing elected and appointed officials alike. They pried loose an avalanche of government financial largesse. During this time, legislators were persuaded to give corporations limited liability, decreased citizen authority over them, and extended durations of charters.

Attempts were made to keep strong charter laws in place, but with the courts applying legal doctrines that made protection of corporations and corporate property the center of constitutional law, citizen sovereignty was undermined. As corporations grew stronger, government and the courts became easier prey. They freely reinterpreted the U.S. Constitution and transformed common law doctrines.

Corporate personhood was a court reporter's mistake in Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Ralroad. And forever after it has become a stare decisis nightmare.

Corporations were never intended nor are now creations of government.

Having said that, I still believe with you we need to fix corporate status.

Informed radicalism and Korman's Law

I end up spending a fair bit of time talking to radicals of various stripes, both online and in real life. It's something I enjoy, and I think it's important for an intellectually curious person to do.

Understand, I don't mean “radical” as a dismissive insult, as most Americans seem to misuse the term. I mean it in the proper sense of striking at the root. These are times that call for radicalism. Our institutions are failing us.

But we mostly have a poor crop of radicals, and one thing I find particularly vexing is radicals who only know their own radical school of thought.

An anarchist who doesn't know who Hobbes was, or an Austrian who doesn't understand what Keynesian economics actually says, or an anti-globalist who doesn't know what comparative advantage is has not done their homework. Conventional thinking is often wrong, but even when wrong it's rarely just stupid; it usually emerged from smart people thinking hard and coming to their conclusions for compelling reasons. If one has not devoted enough attention to understand the best arguments for conventional solutions at least well enough to recognize and describe them, one does not have an informed opinion worthy of attention.

A friend suggests this could be coined as Korman's Law:

if you don't understand the conventional thinking, there's no point in offering radical thinking

Though of course John Lennon said it better:

You say you want a revolution?
Well, you know
We'd all like to see the plan.

And another friend reminds me that this is a variant of Ideological Turing Test.

Further reflection inspires me to offer a kind of corollary, Korman's Second Law:

if you don't understand any radical thinking, there's no point in offering conventional thinking

Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station has more on this: Why I Talk To Loons.

Yeah, but why do this at all?

Aside from the fact that these silly buggers should be ridiculed publically, you mean? Because, I was trained as a intelligence officer. Because I was trained as a military leader. Nothing drives you to disaster quicker than assumption. You must know the battlespace, the failures of intelligence and assumption should be glaringly obvious to every single American in these post-911, post-Iraq days. You must know the adversary, how he thinks, how he sees the world, what matters to him. There is no substitute for boots on the ground, i.e. direct observation. Comments like those I used in yesterday’s post convey layers of information beyond the obvious opinion expressed by the commenter. Taken as a whole they show trends, memes, the spread of viral concepts though the public mind.