27 January 2021

He could have been our greatest President

A couple of years ago I did some politics-adjacent field research. I talked to a lot of different kinds of people. I saw something about a certain strain of racism which I did not understand at first.

I am skilled at conducting interviews with a measured neutrality which brings out surprising honesty very quickly — check out Liam Neeson’s subtle performance in Kinsey for a taste of how it works — but there are limits to what I can do. I can tone it down, but I will always read as a weird nerd. My research partner was Asian. We were not going to convince any white people in 90 minutes that we were “cool” enough that they would slip into using The N Word.

Those people still give it away with their characteristic coyness. “I don’t hate anybody.” “I’m just saying.” When they talked about Obama, I could see their plain disgust.

I mention those folks because I want to point to a different flavor of white racism.

There were white people who had conservative political and social sensibilities but claimed to have voted for Obama, or if not, to have greeted his election in 2008 with some enthusiasm anyway. I say claimed because we know that people claim to have voted when they did not, people claim to have voted for winners when they did not, people misrepresent themselves to nerds who interview them, people lie to themselves.

How they really voted, and how they really felt in 2008, matters less here than the story they told about it, to me and to themselves. They did not have the disgust of the Obama haters. They had, instead, a deep, bitter disappointment. They talked about him and racism and politics in different ways, but I heard this haunting refrain repeatedly.

“He could have been our greatest President.”

They said this as they talked about the excitement and patriotic pride they claim he inspired early on. They spoke directly about feeling a thrill at seeing a Black man as President. They said they were happy to have seen the day. They said it was good for the country. They called it a victory for American values. Again, I don’t take this at face value, as the complete truth, or even a truth at all. These people repeated any number of ideas I recognized as conservative propaganda, spoke racist sentiments different from the kind I heard from culturally and politically liberal people. They clearly did not feel the disappointments which a lefty like me would name, looking at Obama.

Nonetheless, I feel dead certain that this was not some deflection they were feeding me. Truthful or no, it had the sincerity of a story they were telling to themselves.

“He could have been our greatest President.”

But he was not. I asked how and why. What should he have done which he did not?

They gave maddeningly vague answers. He “did not bring the country together”. He “did not accomplish anything”. He was “divisive”. He was “uncompromising”. He made “wrong choices”. He was a “failure”. They were not angry with him as some of their friends were, they were sad.

I might have been able to get past that blurriness of this, but I had to resist the temptation to dig because I was mostly there to talk about something else.

“He could have been our greatest President.”

It itched at me. What? What did they mean? What had they hoped for? What had they expected? What had they wanted?

But of course it makes sense. It settled in my head and bounced off of other conversations and I wondered how I had not seen it at first.

They wanted him to declare racism over. Finished. Defeated. To tell them that they did not have to think about it now, they did not have to deal with it now, his election had proved that racism no longer played a part in our politics or our society. To be the Great President who finally put our legacy of racism to bed.

They imagined the absolution he should have given them. So they thought that he failed them.

17 January 2021

Black Lives Matter demonstrations

For convenient reference later:

Princeton's US Crisis Monitor provides a detailed survey of Demonstrations & Political Violence as of summer 2020 which includes this summary:

An Overwhelmingly Peaceful Movement
The vast majority of demonstration events associated with the BLM movement are non-violent. In more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity. Peaceful protests are reported in over 2,400 distinct locations around the country. Violent demonstrations, meanwhile, have been limited to fewer than 220 locations — under 10% of the areas that experienced peaceful protests. In many urban areas like Portland, Oregon, for example, which has seen sustained unrest since Floyd’s killing, violent demonstrations are largely confined to specific blocks, rather than dispersed throughout the city.

Yet, despite data indicating that demonstrations associated with the BLM movement are overwhelmingly peaceful, one recent poll suggested that 42% of respondents believe “most protesters [associated with the BLM movement] are trying to incite violence or destroy property”
[...]
Research from the University of Washington indicates that this disparity stems from political orientation and biased media framing, such as disproportionate coverage of violent demonstrations. Groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have documented organized disinformation campaigns aimed at spreading a “deliberate mischaracterization of groups or movements [involved in the protests], such as portraying activists who support Black Lives Matter as violent extremists or claiming that antifa is a terrorist organization coordinated or manipulated by nebulous external forces”

Antifa (n.)

Talking about “Antifa” makes one Not Even Wrong. Antifa-with-a-capital-A does not exist. Saying “member of Antifa” reads like “member of Conservatism”. Clueless.

Yes, a large, loose antifascist movement exists. As do many antifascist organizations. As do militant antifascists. As do everyday antifascists. They may refer to themselves as “antifa”. I do. But no “Antifa” organization exists.

Militant antifascists oppose the far right through direct action. They may doxx far right actors, or counter far right groups’ street actions. This reflects not opposition to far right ideas, but defense from threats from far right action. No threat, no militancy.

Militant antifascists sometimes use a tactic called “black bloc”. On the street one refers to “the black bloc” as one says “the medics”. Saying “The Black Bloc” reveals the same cluelessness as saying “The Medics”.

Militant action reflects only a small part of the antifascist movement. It does far more research, commentary, and advocacy than direct action. Antifascist action includes publishing this blog post.

The antifascist movement studies fascism and the broader far right, distinguishing those from ordinary conservatism. We oppose all violent far right movements & actors, and say “fash” as term of art including all of them, not only avowed fascists.

Yes, many anarchists participate in the antifascist movement. As do socialists. As do social justice advocates. As do vegans. Overlapping but not equivalent. Antifascism means opposition to the far right. No more, no less.

No Antifa political agenda exists because no Antifa organization exists. No antifascist political agenda exists beyond opposition to the far right. Not anarchism. Nor socialism. Nor communism. Nor social justice. Nor the Democratic Party.

05 January 2021

The malls of the future, today

I read Joel Garreau's Wired article Edgier Cities when it was new, twenty-five years ago, and it has stuck with me. I have long thought that he is a bit too optimistic about the prospects for the forms of suburban development he calls “edge cities”, but some of his guesses about the future are looking surprisingly prophetic.

Just so, in the near future, somebody realizes what a great space an old Kmart is - 80,000 square feet with 16-foot ceilings and killer HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Then he or she realizes you can get them for nothing from the Resolution Trust Corporation - and the first edge-city bohemian district is born.

First the artists break the space into lavish 5,000-square-foot sculptors studios. Then they punch skylights into the roof to let natural light into the interior. Then they do the sensible thing and start living there illegally.

They place sculptures and anything else they can think of on the roof, although the windmills quickly become cliché. When all the really great space in the Kmart is full, other people start filling the former drugstores and dry cleaners of the abandoned shopping center with funky bars, savory restaurants, computer-arts master printers, and the shady dens of CD-ROM pressers. The exteriors of the buildings are painted in intriguing ways.

Smells more than a little like Meow Wolf.

Thinking of this because of news about a computer game company buying a ghost mall rather than renting or buying or building an office building for their new corporate headquarters ....

03 January 2021

Executives

Via Christian Alden Jacobs on Twitter, I learn of the crisp and helpful reflection What Do Executives Do, Anyway?

To paraphrase the book, the job of an executive is: to define and enforce culture and values for their whole organization, and to ratify good decisions.

That's all.

Not to decide. Not to break ties. Not to set strategy. Not to be the expert on every, or any topic. Just to sit in the room while the right people make good decisions in alignment with their values. And if they do, to endorse it. And if they don't, to send them back to try again.

As I focus on my profession of user experience design and its place in an ecosystem of roles for people doing product & service development, I tend to talk about how executives often think that coming up with new products and services — or at least making decisions about them — is their job, when in fact from the standpoint of the development team their job is to identify what constitutes “success” for a new product or service in the eyes of the organization, a question which is less obvious than it appears; there are a range of possible objectives, and if executives do not make the target clear, the development organization will suffer destructive internal friction over what it should be.

But this constitutes just a narrow consequence of the more profound principle that executives bake culture and values into the organization. Where this works properly, everyone in the organization can ladder their day-to-day work to broader and broader context, up to fundamental values, culture, and purpose: “today I am doing A (in the B way) because it accomplishes C for my current project D, which serves the greater project E with F, supporting the organization’s G initiative which serves our mission X, and I am doing this in the B way because it reflects our Y culture and Z values.”

Only executives can make this real in the organization. Everything else constitutes a distraction from this main job.