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


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


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


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

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. The classic error is conservatives who refer to President Obama as a “radical leftist”. But such sloppy rhetoric is nearly as common from liberals, and perhaps even more common among eccentrics who like to style themselves as off the conventional spectrum altogether.

I will grant that language for describing the political spectrum is necessarily a bit mushy, in large part because 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 and turns up in discussions all of the time, so if we are going to use it we should get as much clarity in it as we can.

In this post I don't want dig into defining the the difference between left and right. That is a big subject which many people have examined thoughtfully and at length. I have a collection of links to my favorite pieces doing that (including one of my own).

Instead, I want to look at the language for talking about where in the range one might place a person's philosophy. What makes the difference between moderates and radicals? Between the hard right and the far right? Between liberals and leftists? These distinctions have an inherent slipperiness, but people I regard as sophisticated use them in a pretty consistent way, and I'd like to explain it so I can refer to it in other discussions. I'll reference specific examples from American politics, but I think this language is applicable enough in other contexts as well.

Moderates are people 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.

The wing, as in “the ‘left wing’ of the Democratic Party”, are people who are fully committed to the philosophy of their axis and believe that our existing institutions are the right place to focus their political energies. They want to win elections so that government can implement their policies without needing to compromise significantly with the other side. On the right, these folks are often referred to as “movement conservatives”, on the left, these folks are generally just called “liberals”.

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 includes the “Tea Party”, “religious right”, some “libertarians” (I'll come back to libertarians), and some “movement conservatives”. On the left, these folks are generally called “progressives”.

Radicals believe that it is almost pointless to engage within conventional political institutions, that the only meaningful political action is revolutionary change to the institutions themselves. This reflects the of the word “radical”, which literally means “striking at the root”. Someone on the radical left may want 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 be “Christian Dominionists”, some “libertarians”, “Patriots” or “Three Percenters”, and so forth.

The extremists of the far left and right are radicals whose philosophies are eccentric enough that the hard left and right completely reject them. A progressive may be sympathetic to a radical leftist who thinks that we should put an end to the legal fiction of limited liability corporations, allowing only worker-owned collectives ... but will be horrified by the far left Maoist who says that we should murder the plutocrats in their beds and declare a dictatorship of the proletariat. A person in the Christian Right may be sympathetic to the radical Dominionist who says that only Christians should be permitted to hold public office ... but will be horrified by the Klansman who says that we should put Jews, Muslims, and atheists to death. This departure from the ordinary discourses of liberalism and conservatism means that it can be hard to place these folks on the left/right axis.

More on libertarians, since it always come up.

Libertarians commonly argue that they don't belong on the left-right axis at all. Many of them hold that libertarianism is a peer to liberalism and conservatism, and others protest the common presumption that libertarianism is a species of conservatism by pointing to the left-libertarian tradition. These folks have a point, though I think that generally libertarians protest too much ... a question which is more complex than I want to get into in this post. But I think my mentions of libertarians above are fair in that many folks who call themselves “libertarians” can be identified unmistakably as a species of conservatives if you look at their positions closely.

Update: I have Mad magazine covering this question back in 1970. I'd say “just for fun” but it's surprisingly timely.