30 March 2014

Don't panic

At this moment, one of the communities in which I have an investment is going through a wrenching conversation on the internet about some awful news. Long-unspoken troubles are being voiced, old wounds are being re-opened, and hard questions are being asked, and there's anger and pain all around.

Commenting on it, Crystal Blanton made a plea for patience and compassion that any community would do well to remember when the internet firestorm comes.

I have seen people acting out their pain, and their past, all over the internet after this news came out. We see this all the time in other ways, I was just really hoping not to see it in the […] community. I know that we are a microcosm of the macro society that we live in, but I was hoping we would be able to bypass some of the pain that we project outward when we are holding so much pain inside.

I find that when incidents like this happen in society it can be a catalyst to tear one another apart, or a bridge that we use in order to learn. The reality is that we need to to work through the pain and challenges so that we can build a future that works for us all. The […] community is no different than the struggles within the macro of society, and the work required takes just as much time and effort to effect change.

After coming home the other day, I wrote a facebook status about things I feel it is important for us to remember while we are going through this road from shock to healing, and then to action. I will re-post what I wrote, in hopes that it is something that will help us all in these moments.

“So…. while we are all dealing with this whole crazy stuff that we were alerted to today, I want to ask for a couple things from all my […] folk. At least to consider.

  • Let us be gentle with each other. We are not the enemy here….
  • When people are in a state of shock, we don’t always process things clearly in the moment.
  • When people feel betrayed, the response is often anger or sadness coupled with anger.
  • Those closest to said person […] are going through their own process to reconcile who they thought they knew and what they are being told. This is a hard process, and sometimes can sound like being an apologist…. but isn’t exactly.
  • Let’s be careful not to assume anyone is an apologist…. this shit is confusing.
  • Many, many, many people are triggered by this. When we are triggered, we often react instead of respond.
  • So many people are hurt when things like this happen. Varying degrees of hurt…. and all hurt is important.
  • Mudslinging covers up what is underneath. This isn’t the time to mud-sling… this is a time to be gentle with one another.
  • We all miscommunicate, speak before thinking, react before filtering sometimes. It is a chance to be understanding and to be understood.
  • Community counts when the shit hits the fan, not just when it is all roses.
  • We don’t all have to think the same…. it is not a reason to bring in the machete.
  • Did I mention to be gentle with each other?

Holding space for all the grieving, triggering, confusion, and chaos might make it workable for us to recover. We just have to learn to be present in the hardest of times, when we are all trying to make sense of things that do not make sense. We all deserve the chance to do that.

Donna Haraway on duality

One of my favorite paragraphs ever. From A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.

The evidence is building of a need for a theory of “difference” whose geometries, paradigms, and logics break out of binaries, dialectics, and nature/culture models of any kind. Otherwise, threes will always reduce to twos, which quickly become lonely ones in the vanguard. And no one learns to count to four. These things matter politically.

26 March 2014

Free speech

Ellen Willis on how free speech can be rough on the oppressed, but also liberating.

Symbolic expression, however forceful, leaves a space between communicator and recipient, a space for contesting, fighting back with one’s own words and images, organizing to oppose whatever action the abhorred speech may incite. Though speech may, and often does, support the structure of domination, whether by lending aid and comfort to the powerful or frightening and discouraging their targets, in leaving room for opposition it falls short of enforcing submission. For this reason the unrestrained clash of ideas, emotions, visions provides a relatively safe model — one workable even in a society marked by serious imbalances of power — of how to handle social conflict, with its attendant fear, anger, and urges to repress, through argument, persuasion, and negotiation (or at worst grim forbearance) rather than coercion. In the annals of human history, even this modest exercise in freedom is a revolutionary development; for the radical democrat it prefigures the extension of freedom to other areas of social life.

Hat tip to Corey Robin for the find.

25 March 2014

Noah

I have been joking that Darren Aronofsky's forthcoming film Noah is a film for which I may be the only audience. I'm ethnically Jewish, a former atheist, and a Modern Pagan, with a fascination with the whole range of religions and myth. I love the Torah stories, though I read them with an idiosyncratic cocktail of Jewish, Pagan, literary, and comparative-myth sensibilities. I'm also a cinephile with a taste for eccentric films about mythic stories and religious experience: The Last Temptation of Christ, Kundun, Baraka, Jesus of Montreal, and so forth; I'm the kind of guy who asks “why would you make the Illiad without the gods and Achilles and Patroclus as Just Good Friends? (a.k.a. Troy)” On top of that, I'm a bit of a fan of Darren Aronofsky: I've seen all of his films in the theaters during their original runs (including π!) and though I think one has to admit that his work is as interesting for its flaws as for the way it works, he and I seem to be cut from similar cloth and so I like his filmmaking sensibility.

One of the challenges in thinking about the stories of the Bible is how the stories are woven so deeply into our culture that we have a hard time seeing them with fresh eyes. But we have many different versions of these stories living in our collective imagination. When I spent some time hanging around with Evangelical Christians in college, back when I was an atheist, I was struck by the Bible storybooks they gave to their kids, which were so radically different from austere Jewish Bible storybooks I had grown up with. And even if you're not a religious person, there's a kind of pop Bible of our shared culture, with cartoon versions of Adam & Eve with the apple, Noah in his big boat with giraffe heads sticking out a window, and so forth.

When I read the stories of the Torah, there's an aspect they present of being the stories of Iron Age desert people retelling the stories of their Bronze Age ancestors, set in a world of shepherds and rivalrous tribes and weary travelers stopping at wells and terrifying angels and so forth. But to see it, you have to look past the parts of the stories we are prone to retell and focus more on the forgotten weird details. There's not just the Tree Of Knowledge in Eden, there's the Tree Of Life. There's not just Lot's wife, there's his daughters. There's not just Noah's dove, there's also his raven. I love that stuff. And Aronofsky has talked a lot about including as much of it as he can in Noah.

That Biblical world — grubby and strange and rich in mystery, but still alive with recognizable human passion — is fascinating to me, and most Biblical movies are too reverential and tidy to show it to us. I'm excited to see Aronofsky's attempt to depict it, and what themes it can convey.

19 March 2014

Jedi

They are a democratically unaccountable sect of warrior monks who use mind control ... kidnap children to be trained as janissaries ... support a galactic hegemonic order which includes slavery ... and lie to their students.

When one of them stands before their best friend who is dismembered and on fire — by their own hand! — they do not have the compassion to deliver the mercy blow.

They even use their telekinetic powers to cheat at dice.


Not “good guys”.



And as for Yoda's alleged “wisdom”, has he ever been known to say anything that wasn't a lie, or bad judgment, or both?



Update: Cracked agrees in both text and video, I find a description of “The Radicalization of Luke Skywalker: A Jedi's Path To Jihad”, and “The Case Against The Jedi Order” reads the Jedi as exemplifying a toxic masculinity of emotional detachment.

10 March 2014

Anti-vax

For future reference: that comic strip explaining the spurious origins of the “research” supposedly demonstrating that the measles vaccine causes autism.

08 March 2014

The Secret Of Comedy

Tweets from @dys_morphia last night:

Saw “Talkies” at the basement of Lost Weekend Video tonight, a mix of stand up and sketch comedy, really fucking good.
Some of the pieces were better than others, as is always the case.
At their best the sketch pieces were transcendent. I mean they took their concept, explored it, pushed it to it's edge, and went past it.
Commitment was the word of the day. Commitment to the comedic concept, to the awkward moment, to social critique, to being fully present.
This is what I was talking yesterday about with what The Pizza Underground lacked.
The Pizza Underground
a Brief Review

1st you may have heard that the PU sing Velvet Underground songs but about pizza.

Not really true.
The Pizza Underground sing song medlies of Velvet Underground songs but about pizza.
So if you go in, like me, hoping to hear a full version of one of the songs they tantalizingly use in their online promos, you won't.
Perhaps pizza is not a rich enough thematic element to sustain through the length of an entire VU song.
Which is fair enough. I don't really want to hear a true to length 17 minute pizza based Parody of Sister Ray. But why not Venus in Furs?
The Pizza Underground didn't try to go beyond verisimilitude, humor, and fan service. It is just a technically able parody band.
I know I sound a bit like a hater, but any art done all the way, pushed to its edges, can transcend its form. Even a VU pizza themed band.
This Velvet Underground pizza themed novelty band does not transcend its form. I wasn't really expecting it to, but I always have hope.
This is what I was talking yesterday about with what The Pizza Underground lacked.
My favorite pieces were Scott Vermeer's “Sensuous Jazz” and the Imaginary Radio's brother reconciliation piece.
Both pieces dealt with authority, masculine vulnerability, uncomfortable sexual interactions, and heteronormative expectations.
Obviously without those actual words, but that's what was happening. I laughed so hard my cheeks hurt and my stomach hurt.
This is how comedy can be when it's good. This is why I have little patience for comedy that relies on bigoted tropes to be funny.
Comedy can tear apart reality and spill its strange guts then paint jokes on the wall with its rainbow blood.

The thing about commitment reminds me of a story.

I took my mother to see Teatro Zinzani, which is a terrific circus arts dinner theatre thing we have in San Francisco.

There was a bit where the “chef” came out and did a clown act with food. He's throwing eggs and knives around, et cetera, dressed like a chef. He takes whole loaves of Wonder bread and squishes them into balls and juggles them. He juggles raw cornish game hens, their wings wiggling comically.

For the end of the act, he asks if anyone in the audience can juggle. Of course some poor guy gets volunteered by the other folks at his table. So the chef teaches him how to juggle raw chickens. This is going to lead to an understanding of the Secret Of Comedy, he promises. To make it extra funny, you bounce the chicken off your forehead. Wiggle wiggle wiggle go the wings and legs. Everybody is laughing. Then the chef teaches the volunteer how to make a Wonder bread ball. Then he breaks out some tubs of butter and they scoop out big balls of butter and juggle those. Then they're juggling all three: chicken, butter, bread.

The chef gets them bouncing the chicken off their foreheads when the chicken is in the air. He says that they are now ready to reveal the Secret Of Comedy. He throws the bread, whoosh. He throws the butter, glop. He throws the chicken, wiggle-bounce-wiggle. Whoosh, glop, wiggle-bounce-wiggle, whoosh, glop, wiggle-bounce-wiggle, whoosh, glop, wiggle-bounce-wiggle, whoosh ...

glop “Are you” wiggle-bounce-wiggle “ready to” whoosh “learn the” glop “secret of” wiggle-bounce-wiggle “comedy?” whoosh “Yes!” glop-splat!

The chef “accidentally” bounces the ball of butter off of his forehead. It doesn't bounce, it just sticks there.

“Commitment,” says the chef. The audience is whooping and laughing.

The volunteer doesn't do it. The audience boos. The chef gives the volunteer a look. The audience laughs. The volunteer still doesn't do it. The audience boos. The chef shrugs in disappointment. The audience laughs. The voluteer puts down the bread, butter, and chicken. The audience boos. The chef says, again, “Commitment.” The audience laughs.


Lesson learned.

05 March 2014

Litany for a consultant

Written for a colleague sweating work left undone.

The scope of the project is never more than what you can do in the time available.

If you deliver a perfect document free of typos, you have prioritized the use of your time incorrectly.

The scope of a project is equal to what you can do in the time the client paid for. You offered them a more comprehensive project; the client chose not to buy that project.

Part of the profession is knowing which problems aren't worth taking the time it would take to fix them.

The scope of the project is not what the client needs, it's what the client bought. You already pitched them what they need.

Things will go wrong whatever you do. Skill is choosing which problems are best to risk.

The client counts on your sense of professionalism to get you to do more work than they paid for. Don't fall in love with the john.

Always tell the client the truth. When they don't want you to tell them the truth, remind them that telling them the truth they don't want to hear is what they pay you to do.

That includes telling the truth about what they chose to buy from you.

The scope of the project is equal to the best you can do in the time you agreed to.

02 March 2014

Media representation, racism, and competence

Arthur Chu, the guy who got flak on the internet for being too good at the TV game show Jeopardy!, has some astute words about the logic of racist media representation:

That said, stereotypes aren’t so much about people totally projecting things that completely aren’t there but about people having a framework with which they interpret things that actually are there. It’s not that racism causes people to see (for example) belligerent teenage boys where there are none, but that a white belligerent teenage boy is just seen as himself while a black belligerent teenage boy is part of a pattern, a script, and when people blindly follow the scripts in their head that leads to discrimination and prejudice.

So yeah, it is a fact, I think, that I was a bit off-putting in my Jeopardy! appearance — hyper-focused on the game, had an intense stare, clicked madly on the buzzer, spat out answers super-fast, wasn’t too charming in the interviews, etc.

But this may have taken root in people’s heads because I’m an Asian and the “Asian mastermind” is a meme in people’s heads that it wouldn’t have otherwise. Look, we all know that there’s a trope in the movies where someone of a minority race is flattened out into just being “good at X” and that the white protagonist is the one we root for because unlike the guy who’s just “good at X” the protagonist has human depth, human relationships, a human point of view — and this somehow makes him more worthy of success than the antagonist who seems to exist just to be good at X.

So we root for Rocky against black guys who, by all appearances, really are better boxers than he is, because unlike them Rocky isn’t JUST a boxer, he has a girlfriend, he has hopes, he has dreams, etc. This comes up over and over again in movies where the athletic black competitor is set up as the “heel” — look at the black chick in Million Dollar Baby and how much we’re pushed to hate her. Look at all this “Great White Hope” stuff, historically, with Joe Louis.

So is it any surprise that this trope comes into play with Asians? That the Asian character in the movie is the robotic, heartless, genius mastermind who is only pure intellect and whom we’re crying out to be defeated by some white guy who may not be as brainy but has more pluck, more heart, more humanity? It’s not just Flash Gordon vs. Ming the Merciless, it’s stuff like how in the pilot episode of Girls Hannah gets fired in favor of an overachieving Asian girl who’s genuinely better at her job than she is (the Asian girl knows Photoshop and she doesn’t) and we’re supposed to sympathize with Hannah.

Okay, here’s one more comment from the Internet that kind of encapsulates it. The kind of un-self-awareness of what someone is saying when they say they’d prefer I not win because I try too hard at the game, work too hard at it, care too much about it, and that they’d prefer that a “likable average Joe” win.

This is disturbing because it amounts to basically an attack on competence, a desire to bust people who work very hard and have very strong natural gifts down in favor of “likable average Joes” — and it’s disturbing because the subtext is frequently that to be “likable” and “average” you have to have other traits that are comforting and appealing to an “average Joe” audience, like white skin and an American accent.

01 March 2014

A vocabulary of the political spectrum

caveat: just a few years after I originally posted this essay, dramatic shifts in the structure of the political right in the US left many of its references to some particulars outdated; fixing those probably has to wait for some dust to settle

As someone with a weakness for political discussion, I am often frustrated by people who have a very confused vocabulary for talking about the range of political views from left to right. Conservatives who referred to Barack Obama as a “radical leftist” inspired me to write up this essay, but such sloppy rhetoric is nearly as common coming from liberals, and perhaps even more common among eccentrics who like to style themselves as off the conventional spectrum altogether.

Language for describing the political spectrum is necessarily a bit mushy. The spectrum itself is a blunt tool for organizing categories of political thought: one dimension is of course insufficient to describe the universe of possible political stances. But the left-right axis has its uses — I consider it the best simple model available — and turns up in discussions all of the time, so if we are to use it we need as much clarity in it as we can muster.

When I want to talk about one whole side of the spectrum I will usually say “the broad left” or “broad right”. But that is not enough.

So I have tried to cultivate as much rigor and consistency as I can in the language I use in talking about where in the range one might place the philosophy which an individual or a movement expresses. What marks the difference between moderates and radicals? Between the hard right and the far right? Between liberals and leftists? These distinctions have an inherent slipperiness, of course. But reading people from a range of viewpoints whom I regard as sophisticated, I find good enough consensus that I can identify a taxonomy which is clear enough to use.

Though this essay references specific examples from American politics, I think this language can serve in other contexts as well.

Left vs right?

Fully addressing the defining distinction of the spectrum is itself a subtle and contentious subject which many people have examined at length. It admits no simple resolution into a clear right answer. I find the diagram’s one-word (over) simplifications that the broad left advocates equality while the broad right advocates heirarchy clarifying, but reasonable people may differ.

I keep a collection of links to my favorite pieces on this hard question, including one of my own. I will not attempt to recapitulate all of that here ... though if you believe the canard that the key distinction is How Much Government one favors, I recommend following those links and doing some homework.

For the purposes of this essay, I intend to frame the vocabulary of positions along the axis such that they will still be useful if one rejects my Equality vs Heirarchy thesis entirely. It suffices that we know the left and right when we see them.

Points on the spectrum

Moderate

“the other side has a few good ideas”

Moderates are committed to one side or the other, but not perfectly consistently, such that they support some policies from the other side. In principle, politicians tend to be moderates (though at the moment in Congress, the Republican Party has driven out a lot of its moderates, and moderates look a little thin in the Democratic Party ranks too). A liberal who opposes gun control or a conservative who opposes the war on drugs may be described as a moderate. These days, conservatives further to the right like to describe moderate conservatives as RINOs (“Republicans in name only”), while Democrats call moderate liberals “Blue Dog Democrats”. Occasionally one may also hear “liberal Republican” and “conservative Democrat”, to refer to people’s place on the mini-spectrum within the party.

Wing

“we need big policy victories”

The Wing, as in “the left wing of the Democratic Party”, are fully committed to the philosophy of their axis and believe in focusing their political energies entirely within existing institutions. They want to win a decisive advantage in mainstream politics so that government can implement their policies without needing to compromise significantly with the other side. On the right from the 1980s through the mid-2010s, these folks were generally movement conservatives; on the left, these folks are generally just called “liberals”.

Hard

“we need both policy change and institutional change”

The Hard left and right believe in participating in conventional political institutions (like elections, government, and the two major parties) but also believe in the importance of working to change the institutions themselves if their philosophy is to be fully enacted. Someone on the hard right may want a dramatic re-interpretation of the First Amendment, or even a new Constitutional Amendment, to recognize that the United States is a Christian nation. Someone on the hard left may want a Constitutional Amendment to counter the Citizens United decision on free speech and corporate campaign donations, or to dismantle most of the military-industrial complex. On the right, this included most of the “Tea Party”, “religious right”, some “libertarians” (I’ll come back to them), and some “movement conservatives”. [Since DJT and MAGA, it has gotten much harder to pin down who qualifies.] On the left, these folks are generally called “progressives”.

Radical

“only institutional change matters”

Radicals believe that it is almost pointless to engage within conventional political institutions, that the only meaningful political action is change to the institutions themselves. This reflects the of the word “radical”, which literally means “striking at the root”. Someone on the radical left typically wants to dismantle capitalism. Someone on the radical right may want to dismantle the Federal government's power over the States and dramatically strengthen the independence of county government. On the left, these folks are generally called “leftists” or “The Left”, as distinguished from “liberals”. On the right, these folks may call themselves “the Right” (from which we get the “Alt Right”), or may be Christian Dominionists, “Patriots”, “Three Percenters”, and so forth.

Extreme / Far

“only revolutionary change matters”

Extremists have eccentric philosophies, directed not just to radical political change but to revolutionary change throughout society. This tends to include an enthusiastic embrace of political violence, though not always. Though “horseshoe theory” claiming that the extreme left and right ultimately converge is more misleading than helpful, departure from the ordinary discourses of liberalism and conservatism can make it hard to place these folks on the left/right axis at first glance.

Libertarians

We need a quick word on libertarians, as they often claim that libertarianism is a third, distinct peer to liberalism and conservatism, or hold that a Liberty vs Authority axis is a peer to Left vs Right, or protest the common presumption that libertarianism is a species of conservatism by pointing to the left-libertarian tradition.

These folks have a bit of a point. The smartest and most principled libertarians end up with policy preferences which resist facile placement on the spectrum. But I submit that one can place even the most eccentrically thoughtful libertarians on the spectrum if one has a real understanding of what the broad left and right represent.

And frankly, in the US, the term “libertarian” emerges from rationalizations of conservatism, and one can see it in how most folks who call themselves “libertarians” prove to be firmly on the right if one examines their positions and their implications closely.

Liberals vs leftists

Even people on the broad left often get confused about the distinction between liberals and The Left. Locating liberals in the Wing and leftists as Radicals does not capture enough subtlety about the relationship between the two schools; liberals are not simply leftists but less so. They have profound differences which one must understand to have any sophistication about politics. Unhappily commentators in both camps, not to mention on the broad right, tend to muddy the waters.

As the spectrum suggests, liberals hold that existing institutions are the correct instruments to create a good, more equal society. There are two key fundamental institutions in play: liberal democracy and capitalism. Both of those are fraught terms.

The liberal of liberal democracy shares historical & conceptual roots with the liberal of not-Left / not-conservative, but these two liberalisms are two profoundly different things with the same name. Liberalism as in not-conservatism / not-leftism is a policy ideology, a program of particular things it wants government to do: projects to undertake, rules to enforce, an approach to the economy, and so forth. Liberal democracy is not a policy ideology but rather governance ideology, a vision of norms & institutions: how government (and to a degree society) should operate, how we set policies. (I will abbreviate liberal democracy as “libdem”, for brevity and clarity.) The liberal-ness of libdem is the stuff which distinguishes most real-world democratic societies from simple tyranny-of-the-majority direct democracy: universal rights, rule of law, structural limitations on government power, and so forth. So the conservatives of the right wing oppose the liberals of the left wing on policy but join them in commitment to libdem institutions.

To understand capitalism it helps to contrast it with socialism. These too are something deeper than policy ideology; they are institutional frameworks for the structure of the economy.

  • Capitalism is when capital (the factories, land, patents, and so forth which make it possible to create the goods & services which people want & need) is privately held. The means of production are owned by particular people, either directly or through indirect institutions like a stock market.
  • Socialism is when capital is publicly controlled. There are a wide range of possible arrangements for public control: it can mean government control, but could also mean any number of alternatives, like corporations where each worker owns an equal share and the workers choose their own corporate leadership in elections.

Looking at examples in the world, one cannot draw a bright line separating capitalist from socialist societies. A “socialist” country may have small privately-owned cottage industries like corner stores. A “capitalist” country may have utilities like electric power plants owned by the state. Though socialism rejects markets in capital — people cannot buy or sell factories — it may or may not embrace markets for goods & services in general, or for specific things in particular. A socialist might advocate corner store shopkeepers choosing their own stock and setting their own prices in a market ... while opposing a market for housing, calling for the state to act as landlord for everyone without charging rents.

With that vocabulary of libdem & capitalism, we can talk clearly about the distinction between liberalism versus leftism.

Liberals accept both libdem and capitalism as givens. They advocate policy enacted under libdem & capitalism which they believe will deliver greater equity. They frame these policy objectives in libdem terms: protecting rights, electing representatives who will pass legislation enforced by the state, building democratically-accountable institutions which tax & regulate privately-held corporations, and so forth. They often support policies of universal social insurance like retirement pensions or healthcare provision funded through taxation. Some of these social insurance policies may give government socialistic ownership of particular elements of the economy (like schools and hospitals) but they do not pursue a general disruption of capitalism.

Leftists reject capitalism. They hold that it is unjust for people to own capital because it gives those people more wealth and power than people who do not. They hold that the structure of capitalism inevitably creates inequities which no liberal policy under capitalism could adquately correct. They advocate replacing capitalism with socialist economic institutions which they believe will enable greater equity than capitalism will allow. But it is important to understand that different leftists can vary enormously in the particular institutional forms they advocate.

Leftists have a broader range of relationships to libdem than they do with capitalism. They may support libdem norms & institutions as worth retaining while criticizing the limitations in the equity libdem delivers — “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread” — arguing that society must also enact other social & political governance institutions beyond only libdem. For example, leftists commonly say that libdem universalism which forbids overt discrimination based on race or sex or other characteristics is insufficient to correct inequities which linger from past discrimination, so society must make a positive effort toward cultural, institutional, and material supports for the populations who inherit those legacies, extending beyond the universalism of libdem mechanisms to incorporate unequal treatment of different groups which can correct the inequities between those groups. Other leftists reject libdem entirely, again on a range of different terms. Marxist-informed leftists may say that because libdem and capitalism spring from the same historical and political processes, we cannot disentangle them; a different form of state governance must displace libdem in order to overcome capitalism. Leftist anarchists reject the state itself as exercising power which inevitably produces inequities, and see libdem principle as inseperable from the logics of the state.

For more on this, including a bunch more vocabulary, I like Nathan Allebach’s essay The Difference Between Liberals And Leftists. (He also has an index of The Most Influential Political Identities From Left To Right which does a good job of recognizing some distinctions which get lost when one only thinks in terms of the one-dimensional left-right spectrum.)

Neighbors

One reason why I like my taxonomy and its breakpoints is how it reveals a pattern in people’s views of other positions.

Across the spectrum, people read their immediate and one-step-away neighbors in strikingly similar ways. They take the folks directly next to them as allies whom they can work with because they they have their hearts (mostly) in the right place, while considering those allies compromised by confused priorities and misunderstandings of how the world works. But people have an especially passionate disgust at the positions two notches away from them, seeing those people as rivals whose agenda presents special dangers greater than those presented by people at positions further away.


hard | wing | MODERATE | moderate | wing

Moderates think their Wing has good ideas but consider their Wing naïve about how one gets governance done because of the Wing’s refusal to reach across the aisle to the Moderates on the other side. Moderates look at their Moderate counterparts on the other side as wrongheaded about their policy preferences but respect them as reasonable people one can work with ... unlike the Wing one step further to the other side, whom they hate for making things harder for those reasonable Moderate counterparts. And they consider their own Hards narrowminded ideologues who must be kept away from any power, lest they break every effective institution.

radical | hard | WING | moderate | moderate

The Wing returns the friendly frustration of their neighboring Moderates, whom they see as allies who have fallen for the okeydoke of feigned “reasonableness” by the supposed Moderates on the opposite side. At least the other people among the opposition are honest enemies; the opposing Moderates compound their evil position with disingenuousness! The Wing admire their Hards’ ideas and idealism, but see themselves as smarter than those Hards who waste too much energy on impossible dreams. And heaven forbid the Radicals on their side get their hands on power; they claim to stand for the same things but their dangerous plans would destroy the necessary foundations of society.

extreme | radical | HARD | wing | moderate

Hards share most of their Radicals’ long-term goals, but they do not want to abandon the fights within existing institutions to people who do not share those ideals, so they see their role as a bridge between the Radicals’ aims and their allies in the Wing. The Hards hope to ignite the ideals of their side’s Wing as a way to drive the Wing to wring as much as they can out of existing institutions. Hards hate their side’s Extremists as scary lunatics almost indistinguishable from the Extremists of the other side, discrediting their entire side and threatening to seduce the Radicals they admire. And they suspect that their side’s Moderates do not really believe in anything because of how often they prioritize appeasing the Moderates on the other side over supporting their Wing.

extreme | extreme | RADICAL | hard | wing

Radicals have a loving pity for both of their neighbors, whom they see as sharing their dreams. They expect the Hards to eventually end up heartbroken after wasting their energies on hopeless institutions, while they read most Extremists on their side as tragic products of heartbreak, their legitimate moral urgency boiling over into an understandable but counterproductive zealotry. Radicals have contempt for the Wing on their side; to Radicals, their Wing paradoxically supports the very institutions which create the problems which they claim to want to fix. And with Radicals we see how for this purpose, the spectrum does horseshoe around: because they sympathize with and think they understand the passion of the Extremists on their side, they look at the Extremists on the other side and are terrified to see that same passion in them dedicated to morally perverse ideals, far more frightening than the ordinary proponents of the other side.

radical | extreme | EXTREME | radical | hard

Extremists return the feelings of their neighboring Radicals on their side: they see folks who want the right things, so come the Revolution they expect their Radicals to step up belatedly, after having wasted their time for so long with refusal to Do What’s Necessary. Extremists also return their Hards’ hatred: to them their Hards sap the energy of people who see The Problem, softening the way people talk about it, making people complacent with the world which must be overthrown. And wrapping to the other side, Extremists have ambivalence about the opposing Extremists, who share their understanding of profundity of change the world needs, half-right and half-wrong in their reading of The Problem. To an Extremist the opposing Extremists have terrible ideas about the world they want to build after The Revolution — but they will fight for The Revolution and thus can serve as allies, either to be flipped to their side ... or at least employed as useful idiots on key issues until the current order has been overthrown, at which point they must be prevented from holding any power. Extremists see the Radicals on the other side as the worst monsters of all, determined to build the world of their nightmares; this looks to Extremists like a revealation of the horrifying impulses which animate the entire other side, suggesting that the Radicals on the other side must be the secret masters of the world they seek to fix through revolutionary change.

Mad magazine!

They covered this question back in 1970 with a set of satires of liberals, leftists, conservatives, reactionaries, right-wing militants, and new left extremists. I would say “just for fun” but it remains surprisingly familiar, and maps to many of the same waypoints I point to here, so I consider it a ratification of my taxonomy.

Ongoing revisions

I have made several clarifying changes and expansions from the original version of this essay over the years. Aside from many tweaks to phrasing and formatting, key changes include:

  • Softening the description of the Far/Extreme position from saying “only violent revolution matters” to saying “only revolutionary change matters”. Advocacy for, or acceptance of, political violence is common at the far edges, but it is not universal.
  • The exemplars of different positions on the right are now frustratingly dated, but hard to correct. DJT’s impact has scrambled the structure of the broad right in the US. For example, one can find the Trumpist slogan Make America Great Again used from the right wing to the far right. Clear examples in each position will have to wait for things to settle.
  • The original post only had a small hint about what the section about neighbors now describes in detail.
  • I added the explication of the relationship between liberals and The Left long after the original post.