19 February 2021

The livelihoods of far right cranks

TLDR

Gods help us all, I have almost 8000 words here. After saying something dumb and irresponsible, I had an obligation to write it.

The only people I would tell to read it are folks who want to take the step of sharing or acting on the preposterous claim that I am a “fascism apologist”. I am not. Here is the proof. Every word I say here is consistent with the mess of my comments on Twitter.

For everyone else, here is the gist:

  • I said something on Twitter which it was irresponsible to try to say in 280 characters.
  • The implied defense of Curtis Yarvin as a person or a commentator was a clumsy, irresponsible misstatement on my part. I have thought from the jump that he is despicable and dangerous and merits no defense.
  • Fascism and the far right are poisonous and dangerous, and we must make a range of vigorous efforts to counter them …
  • … and bigotry in the workplace is poisonous and harmful, and we must make a range of vigorous efforts to counter that …
  • … but recruiting conference organizers and corporate HR in that project by having them judge people’s public political writings, then attack the livelihood of those who expressed far right ideas, should not be in the toolkit …
  • … if only because free speech principles make us hesitate to have democratically-accountable governments inspecting people’s public writings and delivering consequences for them, so we should hesitate even more over less-accountable agents doing so.
  • There are a lot of reasons to think I am wrong on this point, and while I respectfully disagree, I emphasize “respectfully”, as I grant a lot of merit to those disagreements.

And.

After thinking this hard, and talking to a range of people about this subject, I have an ethical vertigo that leaves me stumped. Considering both the magnitude of the threat of the far right and the magnitude of the effort which that threat calls for, plus the magnitude of the damage bigotry at the workplace does, deciding whether far right propagandists do or do not give technical talks at conferences shrivels into an absurdly trivial question. In the course of laying out my opinion on the question, I became giddy with confusion about whether it mattered.

Consider this a capture of what I believed and advocated for, in the moment I made the original comment and engaged in the conversations which followed, rather than a picture of where I stand at the time of this posting.

I don’t know where I stand now.

And with that, the long version:

What I said, and meant

The other day, in the course of succumbing to getting into a long, messy argument on Twitter, I foolishly made a comment trying to make a point about a very particular antifascist tactic, a point just too subtle to try to get at in snippets of 280 characters, and I screwed it up.

I was prepared to hold my nose and defend Yarvin on the basis that he was not appearing at λ as Moldbug so his repugnant politics were irrelevant — and then he kindly nullified my hesitancy by defending UR in his public comment on λ

If you cringe reading that, I respect it. “Foolish” is, in fact, too kind a word for what I did there. Though I stand by the principle behind it — this essay is about what that principle is, and why I consider it important — first I have to register that the tweet was irresponsible.

It also got more attention than I had reason to expect, and soon I was facing a wall of smart criticisms of what I said, dumb criticisms of things I did not say and do not think, and a lot of stuff in a space in between. The resulting discussion sadly went as these things do. I bear significant responsibility for that. As I say, the original tweet was clumsy and wrong in a vital way. I said graceless things to some people. That internet shitstorm dynamics got the better of me explains but does not excuse my sharper and clumsier comments; I should have done better. Some folks in that conversation say I owe them an apology. Well, I was careless, and I am sorry.

In service of doing better, I hope that this is a more appropriate medium in which to say properly what I had to say. I’m afraid that I see no way to do this right without getting long-winded. I want to be held responsible for what I actually think, rather than for what one may glean from messy conversations held 280 characters at a time.

Reasonable people may think I am wrong. I want people holding me responsible for being wrong about what I actually think.

Also in service of doing better, this essay ends with a catalogue of several key counters to my stance which I have heard or considered. I include this both to lay out why I am not convinced and because many of these points haunt me with the possibility that they are right. If you read that far, you deserve to chew on those objections, because I still do.

So, with apologies for using so many words ....

Yarvin? λ? Moldbug? UR? WTF?

If one is unfamiliar with the story I alluded to in that tweet, I offer this thumbnail sketch from memory. I properly should check all the particulars and provide links — and I might try later — but as I write this I am snowed in with limited internet access.

Several years back, a guy named Curtis Yarvin was scheduled to do a talk at a technical conference called LambdaConf.

On one level, this was perfectly natural. I gather that Yarvin was and is an undisputedly significant figure in the technical domain of the conference, with relevant knowledge to share.

On the other hand, Yarvin is an extraordinarily terrible person. Not just extraordinary in the degree of his terribleness, but in the kind of his terribleness.

Under the name “Mencius Moldbug” he wrote the blog Unqualified Reservations, in which he made very very long and complicated arguments about culture & politics which made him one of the leading figures in a small, energetic, strange, nerdy, evil movement of political ideas known as the “Dark Enlightenment” or “Neo-Reaction” or “NRx”.

Moldbug said that if one reads enough dead white reactionaries, one realizes that democracy stinks and liberalism is at war with human nature, so we would be better off if we appointed someone smart like Steve Jobs to be dictator of America. Or maybe we should clone Charles II and crown the clone king. After all, Singapore is authoritarian but a nice place to live and very economically productive. This long, tortured argument was full of repulsive asides like, “Golly, reviving slavery is probably not the best move, but while it is not a big deal to me, I have to admit that dead white reactionaries made a lot of persuasive arguments that slavery is actually a good idea, and if you think about it, Black people really are best suited to slavery, aren’t they? Not that I’m a white nationalist, though. Those guys are not as smart as I am.”

If you don’t know Moldbug, I know that sounds like a parody. It is not. That is a succinct taste of stuff the blog really said. I read a fair bit of it years ago, fascinated by its bizarre style and repulsive ideas.

Moldbug is not exactly a Nazi or a fascist; he reflects an idiosyncratic far right sensibility significantly different but equally horrible. Yarvin was not attached to a political movement which did anything real, they just said a bunch of crazy, evil stuff on the internet, but that is still quite bad enough. And though really just a blowhard, he is a dangerous, damaging blowhard. He has radicalized a bunch of nerds. Yarvin evidently had some kind of contact with the Trump campaign though the racist, fascist advisor Steve Bannon. Fascist or not, I cannot overstate how evil his ideas and influence are.

Rather than get fussy about which evil far-right nuts are According To Hoyle “fascists”, antifascists use the word “fash” as a term of art for the whole range of evil far right nuts. Moldbug is definitely fash, and I will refer to him as such here.

(If you are cursed with a desire to know more about Moldbug and this bananas movement, I recommend Elizabeth Sandifer’s witty and suitably vicious book Neoreaction: A Basilisk; I am proud to have backed the Kickstarter which funded its publication.)

Yarvin maintained a soft split between his professional work as Yarvin and his political writing as Moldbug. One could easily look up Yarvin and not discover Moldbug, but he made no secret of being the person behind both names. It was easy to find out who “Moldbug” really was, and to discover Moldbug while looking in to Yarvin.

So when people saw Yarvin on the conference schedule, many of them offered the conference their Strongly Worded Concerns about a fash presenter.

Then Yarvin published an essay on the internet — under his name, not as Moldbug, not on the Unqualified Reservations blog — saying, “Hey there, LambdaConf community! My politics are not as bad as you’ve heard! Sure I think Black people make good slaves, but that is really no big deal if you think about it!”

Really. I am deliberately not linking any of his stuff, but you can look it up for yourself if you have the stomach. That is what he said.

All this left me with an itch, which led me to talk about it now, years later.

Am I some kind of fascism apologist?

So what the heck? Why would I hold my nose to be in any alliance with this asshole?

It is because of a serious, principled objection to a very particular political tactic. I mention Yarvin at all because he presents an acid test of my dedication to the principle. The main purpose of this essay is to describe the line I draw, as clearly as I can. But I need to lay a little track about where I am coming from.

First, I have to confess that an important part of what I screwed up is that I was foolish — no, worse, irresponsible — to frame my position as though it were a defense of Yarvin. I retract the heck out of that. I don’t have a defense of Yarvin, I have a specific principle which makes me reject a particular attack on him.

My phrasing was dumbass and wrong, so people reading me wrong has been in significant part my own fault.

Thus I have a big correction to that tweet. I offer no defense of Yarvin. No defense of his evil, racist, reactionary, anti-democratic philosophy. No defense of the far right in general or of fascism in particular. I want to attack him however will work best. Everything I say here is motivated by me thinking about how best to combat the Yarvins of the world.

Indeed, I have been excitable about my opposition to fascism and the far right for a good long time. I first threw a little money at David Neiwert, my favorite journalist covering the far right beat, over a decade ago. This is part of why I had already taken a hard look at Unqualified Reservations when all this LambdaConf stuff happened.

With the turn American society has taken in the last few years, my opposition to fascism has grown more pointed.

I support militant antifascist work, both in principle and (very modestly) materially. Go git ’em. I have some tactical quibbles with the people who do that stuff (and this essay is about a big one) but they are doing the work in a way that I am not, so I misgive my own misgivings. Doxx the fash to their friends and family. Disrupt their organizing. Step up against them when they show up in the streets; don’t start a fight, but be ready to face one down. Shame and embarrass and belittle fash at every turn; videos of them getting punched in the face are known to work. Et cetera.

Ideally I want well-resourced, serious law enforcement efforts to disrupt fash organizing and crimes ... but this is a fantasy, requiring law enforcement institutions which are not structurally kinda fash as they are now, and a law enforcement corps which is not riddled with officers who are super duper fash, as they are now. So after we abolish the police — which we ought to do, in large part because they are so fashy — let us replace them with institutions which combat the far right rather than support it.

Fash are always grave threats, and especially so now. We must smash the hell out of them. I have sworn an oath to a terrifying elder god to fight fascism in my nation. Over on the same Twitter where I put my foot in my mouth, I also do exactly that, as I do on this blog, and in other places. I am not a militant antifascist, but I support those who are, and I do my small part.

So, again: what would make someone like me potentially supportive of a monster like Yarvin in any way, under any circumstance?

The answer lies in a principle which I hold dear because it lies at the intersection of what action against fash is effective, what action is wise, and the principle of free speech.

Free speech

When I summon the question of free speech, one has good reason to expect that I am about to offer the arguments of “free speech absolutists” who reliably get suckered by fash. There are free speech boneheads naïve about the Paradox Of Tolerance who fall for bad faith actors like fascists claiming that they deserve to lie, plot, and threaten people without consequence. And fash are among the free speech charlatans feigning a commitment to free speech in bad faith to their own advantage.

I am neither.

Limits to free speech

A few years back, I blogged a short essay about what the principle of free speech means, in part because I had been through the conversation many times and figured I needed to just set out my thinking and have it handy. I also wanted to have it as a companion to another essay about how it was right for protestors to No Platform Milo Yiannopoulos.

I will recapitulate the important arguments from both.

Both bonehead and charlatan free speech absolutists would say Yiannopoulos had a right to be heard. But he did not, on two counts. First, while he has a right to say what he will on platforms willing to have him, that does not give him a right to speak in every forum, on every platform, or even on any platform. The people who own the microphones, and the communities around those microphones, have not just a right but a duty to examine whether his voice should be heard in the space that microphone reaches. Second, it would be enough that the community rejected his message for any reason, but they had especially good reasons with Yiannopoulos. He was not just offering odious ideas, though his ideas are odious. Worse, he had demonstrated that he would use the microphone to harass members of the community and thereby target them for further harassment. That is not just unworthy of protection and support, it is criminal.

Yiannopoulos is a free speech charlatan, abusing of the principle of free speech in defense of harassment, deliberately doing this, as fash do, in order to discredit the principle of free speech itself. We must actively work to deprive such people of platforms.

No Platform’ing such figures is a defense of free speech principle, not some exception to them. We have no conflict with the First Amendment. It does not protect harassment, lies, threats, criminal conspiracies, and the like. The principle of free speech protects people who offer ideas — even bad ones — but not threats and other crimes.

Since my response to Yarvin hinges on the need to defend free speech principles, even when it puts us momentarily on the side of bad people, this also makes a good moment for me to talk about a mistaken moment when principle put another free speech defender momentarily on the side of some fash: the ACLU’s support for Nazis’ Skokie march.

I love the ACLU, their rigor, and their commitment to taking difficult and unpopular stands, and forgive them this error, but they got this one wrong. The march was not an offering of ideas to the American public. A swastika is a way of saying, “I am advocating for killing people. I am planning on killing people.” There is no swastika which does not say that. It is a threat. Carrying a swastika or its equivalents, marching for Naziism, and such are crimes.

But though I believe in a lot more limitations on free speech than “absolutists” do, in an important way I have a commitment to a more muscular version of free speech than many of them do.

Beyond the First Amendment

I hold that the principle of free speech extends well beyond First Amendment protections against government censorship.

The state is not the only force of coercion. If one cannot express ideas without facing violence from private citizens, one does not have free speech. If one cannot express ideas without risk of losing one’s housing, one does not have free speech. If one cannot express ideas without risk of losing one’s livelihood, one does not have free speech.

So I oppose — or at least withhold my support for — a lot of Get ’Em Fired pressure campaigns when the reason for the campaign is that the person they want to see fired said something very bad, even when I share the desire to see that person face consequences. My reasoning is both principled and practical.

On principle, as a civil libertarian, I do not think any of us have the wisdom to choose unerringly which ideas should be punished. I would not punish people for expressing ideas at all ... and I surely do not want that power in the hands of corporate HR, bosses, and social media mobs.

On principle, as a leftist, I do not think anyone should be driven from being allowed to work so long as we live in a society in which dignity and survival depend on working for a wage. If we embrace a tactic whose logical endgame is to leave people who say sufficiently bad things houseless beggars, how is that meaningfully different from just saying we should round up people who express sufficiently bad ideas and throw them in prison?

I am vexed that so many leftists have this libertarian-ish blindspot which only fears government power over speech. One of the injustices of the world we have is how landlords and corporations and bosses are permitted to exercise this power without even the inadequate democratic accountability of our government. They are not censors we should court, they are censors we must oppose even more than the government.

In practice, I also think that such campaigns make a grave strategic error.

I am vexed that so many social justice advocates do not just legitimize but actively court the exercise of this unaccountable power over people, shaming employers of bigots and other villains. I respect their frustration at having so few means to deter antagonists against social justice, but history teaches us who suffers most when employers fire employees because of their political views ... or other things they have said ... or fear public pressures over their employees. This knife cuts reactionary white male professionals the least.

Advocates for these campaigns say that it will teach employers not to hire fash, but I do not imagine that the bosses will learn that lesson. They will learn “don’t hire people with controversial political opinions”. They will inspect workers’ social media. They will ask “do you have any political opinions we should know about?” in job interviews. That is bad on the merits and will most hurt the most vulnerable.

In practice, if we support Get ’Em Fired campaigns, then we legitimize those campaigns as tools for anyone to use, and we encourage employers to make their own guesses about how to preëmpt them. Yes, it will hurt the fash, but I expect that it will most hurt the most vulnerable.

With all that, I do not want depriving fash of their livelihoods in our Fash Smashing toolbox. There are plenty of other ways to respond to them.

Principles for the workplace

Having said that we should reject moves to fire people for their politics, even if they are fash, it would be nice if it were simple. But there are complexities.

My rule is more specifically don’t fire people for ideas they share outside the workplace, if the ideas are irrelevant to their job.

In this I do not want to legitimize the most visible critics of “Cancel Culture”, who are profoundly wrong. I am pushing back against a part of what we talk about when we talk about Cancel Culture, but not their part.

I call shenanigans on culture industry professionals decrying other culture industry people losing jobs — or most often, just having to change jobs and move to another platform — for the ideas they publish. If one’s day job is offering ideas, then of course one may lose their job over the ideas they share to the world.

More generally, one’s employer has a legitimate interest in what one says outside the job about the kind of stuff one does on the job. On Twitter I talk about design, because I work as a designer; if I say something stupid or smart about design on Twitter, then of course it will affect my livelihood.

Similarly, for a manager or executive with significant power and authority, especially over other people, a wide range of ideas that person expresses reflect on the fitness of the leadership judgment which they exercise. If an airline executive advocates for the Flat Earth theory, then that suggests they might not be right for, ah, global responsibility. If a manager expresses racist bigotry, then that indicates that they are unfit to manage people, who may be people of color ... or who may not be, because the bigoted manager drove them away.

And of course an employer has an unmistakable interest in the ideas which a worker voices at the workplace. A bigoted machinist working a lathe alone who keeps their mouth shut about their bigotry well enough that their colleagues do not know what they think is one thing; if that bigoted machinist wears a swastika T-shirt and spews offensive epithets in the lunchroom, their colleagues are harmed and the employer has not just a right to kick them out, but a responsibility.

That does not draw a perfectly bright line but it gives some principles, which underlie my teeth-gritting defense of LambdaConf offering a speaking platform to a fascist. Yarvin is the opposite of the reason for the principle I describe here; he is the hard counter example which tests how deeply I believe in it.

The case of LambdaConf

All this undergirds why I might have defended Yarvin being allowed to present at LamdaConf ... and why I felt perverse relief when he ran his mouth.

As I understand it, there was no reason to imagine that he would bring his politics into the forum. Since his politics is published under another name, legitimizing Yarvin as a technical expert did no legitimizing of Moldbug as an expert in culture & politics.

When confronted by the community with the link between Yarvin The Expert and Moldbug The Fash, I imagine a possible response in terms of the principles I have committed to here.

LambdaConf could have said something like:

We are hosting a technical conference, and have invited Mr Yarvin to speak on the subjects of his technical expertise. We are aware that he comments on culture & politics under another name, and we do not condone or support any of what he says on those topics. We have told him that his professional obligations as a conference presenter forbid him speaking to topics outside the technical subjects we invited him to discuss. We ask that conference participants not prompt him on other subjects, as we want him not to have any occasion to air his opinions on them.

Yarvin could have said something like:

While I do write on other topics under another name, it would be irresponsible of me to use the platform I have for talking about technology in this forum to promote that other work. I discourage anyone intrigued by my presentation about the Urbit technology from taking that as a reason to seek out my commentaries on culture & politics; the one does not inform the other in any way.

Had they done that, much as I would want to see Yarvin suffer embarrassment, dishonor, and loss for being fash, I would have gritted my teeth and stood by LambdaConf, because they had excluded his political ideas from the professional space.

This would have been desirable as a bulwark against placing both impossible duty and unmerited power in conference organizers’ hands. We should not want conferences vetting everything a presenter has ever said in public.

But Yarvin, instead, responded to his critics by publishing to the conference community some of his very worst political / cultural opinions, to offer his justification of why people should not find them troubling. He brought his politics into the forum. Once introduced into the space of the conference, the organizers had responsibility for it, and this made it right and necessary to exclude him. Alas, they did not.

Years ago, when I learned of this, I breathed an unwholesome sigh of relief. I did not have to occupy the position of conflicting principles leaving me supporting the platforming of fash, even in the privacy of my own heart. I could cheer Yarvin’s exclusion with a clear conscience. Yet I must also register the cost which makes my own response unwholesome; it meant people throughout the community had been exposed to his evil justifications of slavery and racism.

In sum

I oppose the far right and support a range of vigorous tactics in combatting them. I oppose bigotry in the workplace and support a range of vigorous tactics in combatting that. But I reject the specific tactic of attacking their livelihoods of people who express far right ideas in public, both on principle and because I believe that it in the long run it does more harm than good, including that it puts vulnerable people at risk.

I read Yarvin as having been subject to one such attack, so while I favor a number of measures to disrupt the spread of his fashy ideas, those principles took precedence. Potentially standing with him on this particular point is a high price for what I take to be a necessary, very particular, virtue.

It was foolish and irresponsible of me to open this subtle question on Twitter. This longer treatment was necessary.

Criticisms

Thanks to the magic of Twitter, I have faced a number of criticisms of this stance over the past few days. I am frankly frustrated by how many criticisms I received took me as advocating things different from — sometimes even diametrically opposed to — the things I said both there and here.

But there are many legitimate criticisms of what I advocate here. I disagree, but respect many of those deeply. And some of them give me strong enough doubts that I will sit with them and revisit my thoughts over time.

Harms from fash

In one sense, Yarvin’s mere presence at the conference is as unthreatening as a person could be, just another nerd talking about software. But it is obviously painful for someone who knows what his views are to see him at the front of the room in a position of honor. I am too white to understand what it is for someone Black to know that Yarvin looks at them as a potential slave, but what I can imagine is nauseating and enraging enough. Perhaps some might find a bit of comfort in the thought of Yarvin chafing at having to hold his poisonous tongue in front of people alert to find any hint of his politics, but that is not enough. Again, as a white guy I know better than to try to gauge how deep that cuts.

Indeed, one of my Twitter challengers told me that it is simply not my place to evaluate harms, period, I should simply accept when people assert that a person’s presence is harmful to them. It should be obvious why I deeply respect the impulse which gives rise to that sentiment. But that proposed principle chills me. Almost everything I say here comes of trying to out-think bad actors who might twist the principles we apply. Radical credulity about harms practically invites abuse.

The principle I am calling for does have a deep cost for the people who already suffer the most. I would not do so if I did not think the alternatives are worse, for the reasons I describe.

If we do count being in the presence of a quiet bigot intolerable, I am at a loss for a proper remedy. I wish Yarvin’s measure of bigotry were so very exceptional that we could find the entire poisoned handful and tell them that the only work available to them is done in solitude. But they are numerous. Shall we find and fire them all? How will that work out?

Is the presence of my hypothetical tight-lipped machinist in the workplace intolerable? If we left them alone but were as quick to punish visible bigotry in the workplace as I hold we should, I count that as coming out well ahead of the status quo. And this does not grant a pass to the Klansman who has the good sense to leave his robes at home; I simply hold that we should deter, catch, and correct that Klansman outside the workplace rather than within it. I see plenty of headroom to do better at that without resorting to coming at their livelihood.

And all of this underlines that my principle — that we should refuse to make workplaces better by responding to the bigotry we find in things workers expressing outside of work — only has moral credibility paired with an assertion that we must do a lot more to make workplaces more just, safe, and supportive for people who face bigotry. In one sense, my stance is prioritization of where we put our energies: not in ferreting out secret bigotry but addressing the unjust circumstances we know we have inside organizations. There is so much to do. That it is so common for people to suffer harms large and small from bigotry at the workplace that we should have the impulse to catch bigots there by looking at what they do outside only underlines the urgency of doing all of the other things we need to do to improve those spaces.

Free speech

There are a few arguments against the fundamental importance of free speech.

The most fundamental says that free speech is integral to a Western liberal democratic tradition which gave us colonialism, slavery, genocide, exploitation, environmental crisis, racism, war, and other evils. I am deeply committed to free speech liberal democracy. But, uh, yeah, this critique is undeniably right on an important level and keeps me up at night. Free speech comes to us from guys like John “Slavery” Locke and Thomas “Slave Rapist” Jefferson. I believe in the potential for a deeper, more profound liberal democracy — societies which are categorically more dedicated to equality, equity, rights, democratic accountability, and all the promised fruits of the libdem tradition through new institutions with better formulations of rule of law and public engagement and rights protections. But my hope may well be wrong. It is all too possible that the worm lives in the seed of the apple, and any radically new liberal democracy would only reproduce the failings of the old. Thus free speech would simply not merit valuing. Again, I disagree, but respect the heck out of the position, and would love for someone to offer me a better alternative to liberal democracy.

There is also the horror and bafflement with which people like the Germans look at the way we conceive free speech in the US. They know firsthand its vulnerabilities to movements like fascism. We are certainly in a moment in which the threat of toxic bullshittification of our entire public discourse already has a genocidal body count and is only getting started. Maybe free speech is itself specifically poisonous. Again, I don’t think so, but the people who do have very good reasons.

And there are the people who say free speech is good, sure, but just not as important as I take it to be. Other things are just more important. Some of these folks frankly make me uneasy; I suspect that they do not value free speech at all, and I wonder what their social and political philosophy really is. But many of them are weighing values against each other, as we must. As I say above about harms from fash, there is every reason to respect weighting them above free speech.

The vulnerable lack this protection

I hold that we need to protect fash from attacks on their livelihoods for things they say outside the workplace because, in part, we need a hardline principle to protect more vulnerable people who already face injustices from suffering similar attacks.

One may object that I am being naïve in thinking that I am protecting those folks. We can point to examples of how they already suffer loss of livelihood for things they say and do outside of work. Am I not, in practice, proposing a protection which only the privileged fash will actually enjoy?

My calculation is different. I believe that existing injustices show where the energy will go if we step up attacks on the livelihoods of people who express disagreeable ideas in public. Yes, the vulnerable suffer now. If we make this move, I submit that this will not simply stay the same, it will get worse. We would win victories against the Yarvins of the world at a price of even greater pressures on the folks we were trying to protect.

Are corporations and conference organizers wise, ready to learn to ferret out the fash in their organizations? Or are they stupid, likely to learn from attacks on the livelihoods of fash that one must guard against employing people with “controversial political opinions”? Will employers learn to lock out bad actors, or become overreactive in ways which bad actors will learn to exploit? History teaches me to bet on stupidity.

But this is also a place where I am least confident of my prediction. My own privileges make me less qualified to judge than those who experience the risk. If those folks have a strong consensus that they are prepared to roll the dice, that matters more than what I think.

Political expression is not a protected class

One may say that we have already litigated who we protect from the caprices of employers. We protect immutable characteristics like race and sexual orientation and gender (increasingly, but not yet universally, including protections for transgender people). Chosen characteristics like political beliefs and public expression, we do not protect.

But in many cases we also protect religion, as we should. Religion is “chosen” but deeply held. We protect it because we recognize the dangers of discrimination. And even where we do not legally protect it, we have norms which understand that firing someone for being Muslim or Jewish or Catholic or Atheist or Buddhist or whatever is wrong.

I am arguing for a norm even though we do not have the law. And yes, I very much advocate legislation. Workers’ political creeds and expressions outside of work absolutely should be protected by labor law. If they were, that would, again, most help the most vulnerable.

(I should add that one Twitter critic of mine said that what I really should favor is universal basic income: if one’s livelihood is just not dependent on employers, then employers lose the coercive power which make them a threat to free speech. This is, indeed, one of the countless reasons why I am a UBI crank, who holds that we should implement a generous UBI and other policies sufficient for a dignified life without work.)

Fash require ruthlessness

I know from militant antifascists that doxxing fash to their employers and getting them fired works. It often breaks those individuals away from their politics, and often does the same for the other fash they know; imagining that one is persecuted is fun but being persecuted turns out to suck. Even if they stay with it, the disruption makes them less effective.

As I say, there are plenty of other tools for fighting fash, but I want to recognize that I am advocating that we discard one of the best.

This is partly because I believe that how we win matters as much as that we win. But it does matter that we win. And we have a fash problem right now. There is a school of thought which says that vigorous militant antifascism is a bit like running a fever: it’s bad for the host, but worse for the disease. So I respect folks who think that this particular move I resist is necessary for the duration of the crisis. But I also worry about how temporary crisis measures have a tendency to stick around.

The fascism gets in everything

One can make a case that Yarvin’s technological projects are themselves inherently fashy, with reactionary politics baked into the structure. That may sound silly, but to me it does ring true; I know that Bitcoin has libertarian goldbug ideas implicit in its structure.

Further, there is a good case to be made that this is not specific to Yarvin but characteristic of all fash: their worldview is so consuming that it gets into everything they do. My imagined tight-lipped fash machinist may not find a way to make a fash cog, but they still will do some harmful fash stuff all the time.

If you don’t know much about the far right, or fascism in particular, this sounds paranoid. I have read enough studies of fascism, authoritarianism, and related political and cultural tendencies to be a little paranoid.

Not quite an attack on livelihood

One could say that I am right to want to avoid attacking fash for the ideas they expressed in their day job, but that preventing Yarvin’s presentation at a conference does not quite meet the threshold of qualifying as a sufficiently coercive attack on his livelihood. Missing a speaking opportunity is a different order of thing than outright unemployment.

This is another fair point. The point of the hard principle is to be strict, but I have already talked about many fuzzy edges. One could draw a bright line which says one’s actual day job merits protection but more para-professional stuff like conferences does not.

(Note that this is in friction with a parallel criticism one may offer of my position, that Yarvin’s presence at the conference damages the livelihoods of diverse people who are deterred from participating in career-advancing conferences by the presence of him and other monsters. Surely if his attendance impacts their livelihoods, barring him impacts his. And again, if I thought this were the entire choice, it would be easy for me to decide against Yarvin and figures like him.)

In this I fall to the principle of erring on the side of caution and expansive rights protections in general. I know very well how professional opportunities include much beyond the workplace itself.

Presenting is power

Per my point about managers and executives facing a more stringent standard, admitting more of their outside-of-work behavior as relevant to their jobs, one might argue that presenting at a conference likewise calls in more of a presenter’s whole self than merely attending.

But I find this criticism much less impressive than many of the others. Yes, presenting is power, but far less pervasive power than a manager or executive’s. What misbehavior a bad actor can do as a presenter is in plain view, literally presented to the community, such that what matters can be judged without needing reference to outside the professional domain.

We will only use this power for Good

One may argue that one is not advocating for allowing attacks against the livelihoods of everyone for the things they say outside of work, only people who say really bad things. That’s not to be flippant about Yarvin. His politics are, again, evil, a word I generally hesitate to use.

This is in important ways both the best and the worst argument against my point.

I am sure that a lot of people read me as just doing some stubborn white guy nose-pinching here, letting abstract principle get in the way of just doing the obvious right thing. Fergawdsake, just let other questions be other questions and answer this question. Fergawdsake, we know who it hurts and who it helps to have him present versus to kick him out, so just be on the right side of that.

I certainly respect people who see me as overthinking things, getting in my own way, prioritizing distant theoretical worries over a very present very real very serious threat to real people.

And also, this is “the ends justifies the means” territory, setting aside principle or thinking ahead to unintended consequences or possible error is in judgment. History teaches what happens when people convinced of their goodness and rightness decide that they don’t need rules or systems of oversight. Yes, we can agree that Yarvin is really bad, but what will we do when we disagree?

I think we need to care about principles, which is why I have written so very many words about mine, to clarify for you and for me what mine are, and hopefully to help clarify for you what yours are.

In sum: respect

It should be apparent that I take the disagreements many have with my stance seriously. There are good reasons to reject my position that the principle of free speech must protect even a figure like Yarvin from attacks on their livelihoods for ideas they express outside work.

Indeed, I assume that most people do not share my worry about this particular move, and are unworried to see someone like him take a blow this way.

I hope it is clear that I recognize that I could be plain wrong on this. I hope that people will register that I am not merely dismissing their concerns. I invite people who disagree to continue to try to convince me. And I pray that if they are indeed right, that they will convince me.

Ethical vertigo

After sweating out this long essay, and engaging in both friendly and hostile discussions about these questions on Twitter, I have spent enough time steeped in the fundamentals of these questions that I have become unmoored.

We face far right ideas and movements which are a cancer on democracy and a deadly threat to countless people now, and are on the march to do the worst things imaginable. We face injustices and cruelties in the workplace which reinforce grinding, horrible, pervasive social inequities … and even make those workplaces less effective along the way.

There is so much we must do. The addition or subtraction of a few tech conference speakers does not rate. I feel dirty having written the necessary words above.

In the face of such things, my hesitation to back an ouster of Yarvin before he brought his politics into the forum is, in one sense, a check on my own impulse to ruthlessness. Because whatever misfortunes he suffers for being fash, when I hear of it I will start by carving myself a thick, guilty, delicious slice of schadenfreude pie. Costing him a speaking gig is not even a tiny pebble at the foot of the mountain of things I am prepared to do to keep his ideas from taking hold, which is good because I remember the time it took lakes of blood to stop the Nazis from filling the oceans of blood they wanted.

I asked people about their endgame for stopping the far right at the workplace, and some reassured me that there was no way we would have a world where everyone who expresses far right ideas is so universally reviled that they end up homeless and destitute out of inability to find work, which I suppose means that the hope is to have a world which screws up the livelihoods of fash just enough that it deters them just enough, which … does not sound right.

If spending an hour listening to Yarvin talk about data structures is intolerable harm to people who know themselves to be threatened, physically threatened, by his ideas then should a guy like that have any job, any place? If we were prepared to send GIs across Europe with tanks to blow fascists to bits, which was both justified and necessary, then keeping far right advocates out of the workplace is small potatoes, right?

Are unaccountable conference organizers a better instrument for this than the government because they can do so much less? That too is several kinds of wrong. If, as I argued at grinding length in this essay, it is worrisome to have conference organizers and corporate HR and advocacy campaigns to pressure such organizations acting as censors, then does that principle create an obligation for me to attend a tech talk by a Yarvin, lest I pressure the conference? That too is thoroughly perverse.

So the disrupting the livelihoods of far right cranks is justified, which makes depending on a constellation of jumpy corporate authorities too chaotic and unaccountable. But that implies doing something systematically, exercising authority, with, uh, due process of law? If we are prepared to impoverish these folks because they are dangerous, should we not put them somewhere where they cannot hurt anyone? Uh, did I just now propose that we scour the websites for folks like Yarvin, put them on trial, and put them into prison? Camps for political prisoners? But not, y’know, too much of that? Is that what I am saying?

Seriously, what do we do with these folks? We have many thousands of outright fascists. We have millions of QAnon cranks in the US who seriously want to murder most journalists and Democratic Party leaders.

Keeping their visible proponents from speaking at tech conferences? I cannot care any more about that. What will we actually do?

I am giddy with horror. I have stalemated myself. I cannot think about this any more, right now.

07 February 2021

Desk stuff

At the time I write this, I keep a nice home office which I currently cannot use because I am camping out away from home as part of my bubble's pandemic protocol. I just finished setting up a smaller but still fairly elaborate desk at the place where I will be for the next month or two (or, heaven forbid, longer) and snapped a picture of it to share with Facebook friends. Folks were so interested that I have been writing up what all my Desk Stuff is, so I thought it would be fun to transcribe that here. At the time I post this it is still a work in progress.

1

I suffer the constant temptation to clutter already-cluttered desk with items which are strictly decorative. In this reduced arragnement, I have sweated it down to two items.

I have never met a Hindu programmer who did not keep a representation of Ganesh at their desk. I am not qualified to give puja, but I find that he is patient with western pagans with modest offerings, so I give him a little “jai Ganesh!” or a bit of candy from time to time, and credit him with the smooth running of my computer. If things get really dire fixing something, I light the candle.

The Dymaxion icosahedron globe is a relatively new acquisition. I am a bit of a Buckminster Fuller enthusiast and the map is my favorite of his designs. I’m starting to think I should have gone for the blue/orange version, thoough, because when unfolded the dark blue oceans of the satellite image version I have are hard to distinguish from the magnets which hold the globe together.

2

The important thing at the end of the desk is an old iPhone, now repurposed just to run the BeFocused app, which is a smart pomodoro timer. I do not really practice the Pomodoro Technique rigorously — though I am working on it — but it does help keep me self-aware about my time and working rhythms. Keeping that in reach and visible and able to make its own independent sounds really helps.

A little organizer holds my favorite fancy bullet journal marking supplies: colored washi tape, sticky tabs, color coding dots, a correction ribbon, and a Postit glue stick. I have been stepping up my BuJo game this year. I do not keep an elaborate journal as many folks do — the simplicity is part of what makes it work for me — part of what makes the BuJo work for me is how it engages my attention through getting to fuss with paper products.

Then I have a little wooden playing card holder. My stationary obsessions extend to a love for index cards, so it is nice to be able to set up a tiny kanban board with them at my desk.

3

On the left side of the desk, I have my iPad on a stand, a little storage box with some alternate cables and other supplies, and a new acquisition: the big Contour ShuttlePro.

The Shuttle is programmable keypad with a jogwheel, primarily designed for audio and video editing. The driver software is smart enough to recognize which application is selected and to deliver shortcuts appropriate to it to the device, so I can work with one hand on the trackpad and one on the Shuttle. I'm just getting set up with it because for many years I relied on a different (and better) solution the Razer Nostromo, a gamers' programmable left-hand keypad with the same application awareness. Alas, they ended Mac support for the Nostromo and its successors a while back, and the new Mac OS Big Sur killed the controller software, so I had to change platforms.

4

The inexpensive flat-pack desk I got has open side shelves, so I have a few desktop organizers tucked onto the shelves on the left. I have spare notebooks, extra pens, index cards, sticky notes, a pair of scissors, index cards, stamps, and the like here.

5

My MacBook Pro recently bricked itself and my decade-old iMac was wheezy, so when Apple announced the new Apple silicon Mac Mini, I upgraded to it ... and thus needed to get a new monitor. Dell has a retina-resolution monitor which is Good Enough and a big step up from the monitor I used to have, and it has one of those Dell stands which makes it easy to switch to portrait format. If I am flush later this year, as I hope, I will spring for an awesome main display and rotate this one to use as a tall adjunct display dedicated to reading, writing, and note-taking. It also acts as a USB hub, which helps with the Mini's port limitations.

This also meant I needed to get a USB webcam, especially in this work-from-home quarantine year, and to my pleasant surprise I could find a camera better than what I can reliably transmit over the internet was inexpensive.

6

Together with the webcam, upgrading my machine and doing more remote meetings, I also recently needed to break down and get a proper USB mic rather than rely on my headphone mic, so I got a mic that was not too expensive, well-reviewed ... and old-timey-looking. Interlocutors tell me that I do not quite sound Broadcast Awesome, but much better than before.

On the monitor stand I also keep my (now collectors' item) Silicon Valley Tarot deck (which is witty and surprisingly useful for work), eyeglasses, and a fidget cube.

8

That wacky Keyboardio keyboard arouses the most curiousity, so I have a whole separate post about it.

10

So the big thing here is a vertical file organizer with a mini-whiteboard which I got dirt cheap from of of my favorite catalogues, American Science & Surplus. It is a glamourless plastic thing, unlike the beautiful glass desk WB from Quartet which I lust after but do not really have a proper use for. The organizer has a slightly depressed tray on top for a couple of WB markers, which is a nice touch, keeping those big WB markers away from my other pens. But the cool part — the thing which makes it an essential part of my arsenal — is how in back there are four thick slots for folders, ascending a bit in back stadium-style. These are my Hot Files for stuff I am working on.

I use a set of durable plastic folders with translucent bodies so I can tell what is inside. I have marked each folder with a letter for indexing elsewhere if I need it, though I am not getting so much mileage out of that as I expected. But it is really useful to me that the tabs of the folders are colored, so I color code yellow/orange/red for ascending urgency of things I need to do, plus green for On My Desk But Currently Cool, and blue for Pending Action From Elsewhere. I keep the folder supply upside-down in the back slot, with matching colored sticky dots on each one so it is easy to pull a new folder of the appropriate color for a new project. The limited space in the slots keeps me from holding too much stuff on my desk.

To the left of the organizer thing I have chargers for my watch and phone, wired phone headphones for when I need them, a book of videoconference signs which I made, and three key desk tools: a good retractable pen, a good eraser, and a cheap little desk knife which comes in very handy.

Keyboardio

I have some unsolicited product endorsements for the magnificent keyboards made by by Keyboardio.

I have long been an enthusiast for exotic ergonomic computer keyboards. For years, at work I used a SafeType vertical keyboard, one of the weirdest keyboards money can buy ... and a nice security feature which keeps anyone else from using my computer. It eventually got a little flaky after more than a decade of hard use and several moves ... and the one I had was so old that I needed an adapter to connect it to USB. So I switched to the Matias Ergo Pro, a more conventional split keyboard, which is terrific, and the keyboard I recommend most to people. But six months ago the USB connector got flaky, which would have been easy to fix, but it gave me an excuse to commit to a keyboard I had tucked away because I had backed the Kickstarter for it a few years back: the Keyboardio Model 001. Look at this wacky, magnificent thing:

It is one of the nicest things I own, and a marvelously designed tool.

The designers really went back to square one in thinking about what a keyboard should be. They talk about looking at the research into keyboard ergonomics and discovering that even most “ergonomic” keyboards ignore what we now know about what makes a keyboard good. They committed to making an uncompromising keyboard that did things as right as they could.

A few things are obvious. The split design lets one set one's hands a distance apart which spares the wrists and shoulders. I do not want carpal tunnel syndrome. The backlighting on the keys is programmable; I like a warm red glow but there are built-in alternatives (including a spiffy rainbow animation), and one can program others if one has the patience. If you are anywhere near me working with it, the loud clickiness of the mechanical keys is unmistakable; as someone old enough to remember early computer keyboards which were built like tanks, I find both the feel and the sound very satisfying.

The other obvious difference is the little curved set of thumb keys on each hand. It took me a while to understand the thinking behind them, but they are ingenious. Each thumb has a shift and ctrl key, then there are thumb keys for the modifiers alt and cmd, plus the vital space and backspace keys. Once one gets used to them, it is much easier to locate and hold down the modifier keys when typing characters on the keyboard; the keyboard has no capslock becuase if one really wants to type in all caps, it is comfortable to just hold down the shift key with one thumb and type. They even considered the key combinations shift-alt-ctrl and shift-cmd-ctrl, placing the keys such that it is easy to hold down ctrl with one thumb and both of the other modifiers with the other.

The biggest subtle difference from a common keyboard is that it has an ortholinear arrangement. You can see that the keys are in vertical columns, which differs from the staggered arrangement of standard keyboards. This takes a significant retraining of muscle memory if one is, like me, a touch-typist. It was a couple of weeks before I was typing competently, and a couple more before I was typing at anything like my normal speed. But having made the adjustment, the ortholinear arrangement is much better. And I can happily report that learning this has not impaired my ability to use a normal keyboard.

Keyboardio also make a marvelously compact ergo keyboard, the Atreus. I have one of these, too, and it is equally a piece of amazing craftsmanship. I only like the keyboard layout 90% as much as the Model 001; I would have loved a third key in the centermost column on either side, and maybe even a center key, but that is a small quibble. I used their pretty-good key reprogramming software to change the Atreus key arrangement to better match the pattern of the Model 001.

The Model 001 is sold out, but at the time I write this they have an update, the Model 100, coming. You can get on a mailing list to find out as soon as it comes out ....

Black history

I need to spend more time with Charles A. Preston’s voluminous Black History Library.

03 February 2021

An invitation to WandaVision

WandaVision is turning out to be very interesting on several levels. It is marshaling astonishing cinematic storytelling craft in service of something that is effectively “just” a very entertaining trifle. If you have any interest in the craft of television, the cultural politics of pop entertainments, old sitcoms, or contemporary surrealism, it is worth checking out. (On that last, astute genre entertainment commentator “Moviebob” Chipman calls WandaVision “Baby’s First David Lynch”.)

There is a lot of Marvel movie and comics lore threaded into the show, 90% of which is not necessary to enjoy it, but it helps to know a few key things. So this is a backgrounder with a few movie spoilers for folks who are curious about WV who have not seen many or any of the Marvel movies. Brace for some comic bookly goofiness.

Wanda

Main character Wanda is Wanda Maximoff, aka Scarlet Witch, a very powerful superheroine who has served with the movies’ super-team the Avengers together with Iron Man, Captain America, and others. She has vaguely-defined psychic and “reality manipulation” superpowers. Significantly, she has exhibited a form of telepathy in which she can deeply read people’s minds and send them into a reverie of real-feeling hallucinations which draw on people’s deepest fears.

Wanda, and her twin brother Pietro, grew up in the fictional eastern European country of Sokovia. In their childhood, Sokovia suffered in a nasty civil war. She and Pietro nearly died in a harrowing bombing which killed their parents; they came to hold Tony “Iron Man” Stark to blame as the face of the US military industrial complex which fed the war with weapons. This made them ripe for recruitment by Hydra, a secret evil organization intent on world conquest with roots in Nazi Germany. Hydra had stolen a super-technology scepter used by the supervillain Loki; the scepter was powered by a powerful cosmic artifact called the Mind Stone. The Hydra mad scientists used the power of the scepter to give Wanda & Pietro superpowers, intending to use them to combat the Avengers, the good-guy superhero team at the center of the story told by the movies.

The Avengers defeated Hydra and reclaimed Loki’s scepter. Tony Stark (with the aid of fellow mad scientist Bruce “The Hulk” Banner) used the scepter for his own super-technology project: a powerful, intelligent android called Ultron. Alas, Ultron hated Tony, as Frankenstein monsters are wont to do, and escaped. Ultron recruited the Maximoffs to help him fight Stark and the Avengers, stole the scepter, extracted the Mind Stone from it, and used it to power an ideal, super-powered “syntheziod” android body for itself. Wanda & Pietro discovered that Ultron was evil and crazy, plotting to exterminate the human race, so they turned against him and joined forces with the Avengers.

In the ensuing battle with the Avengers, Ultron killed Wanda’s brother Pietro and destroyed most of their home country of Sokovia.

Nerdy sidebar:

When Marvel Studios started making these movies, they did not hold the movie rights to many of their most popular characters. Sony had Spider-Man, 20th Century Fox had the Fantastic Four and the X-Men and thus all the mutants. The Marvel Cinematic Universe Pietro is the only comics character portrayed in the Fox’s X-Men movies whom Marvel have been able to also use in thier own movies. The legal wrangling between the studios meant the two versions of him have similar superpowers but are played by different actors, in incompatible stories. I cannot resist encouraging you to check out two truly delicious short scenes with 20th Century Fox’s X-Men movie version.

Marvel Studios have worked out a sharing arrangement with Sony for Spider-Man, and Disney now owns both Marvel and Fox, so fans hope that future Marvel movies will take advantage of finally having legal access to all of the comics characters. Wanda has not appeared in the Fox X-Men movies but in the comics she is a mutant and has been a member of the X-Men, so she might play a role in a story which brings the mutants into the ongoing Marvel Studios storyline.

During the course of things, the Avengers stole the synthezoid body Ultron had made for himself before Ultron could decant his consciousness into it. Stark & Banner took a second bite at the apple of making a Super Android For Good, and this time it worked; the resulting extremely powerful and almost saintly superhero joined them in the fight against Ultron, and took the name …

Vision

The other main character of WandaVision, Vision is also a superhero, as “synthezoid” robot essentially with the powers of Superman, plus the ability to “phase” through walls like a ghost. He is reflective, soulful, even saintly. Over the course of several movies, he and Wanda fell in love.

Because Vision is powered by the amber Mind Stone which rests on his forehead, the mad and immensely powerful cosmic supervillain Thanos sought to kill him to get the stone, as part of his plan to collect the six Infinity Stones and use their primordial energies to create his weapon the Infinity Gauntlet, which he wanted to use to murder half the living beings in the entire universe. Thanos’ plan succeeded. He killed Vision and gruesomely tore the stone from Vision’s forehead; Wanda barely survived standing between Vision and Thanos in her failed attempt to save her lover.

Vision’s Mind Stone was in fact the last element of the gauntlet which Thanos needed to enact his plan. With a snap of his fingers in the Gauntlet, he dissolved half of the living beings in the world into black dust; this horrifying event came to be known as The Snap. The Avengers spent years working to undo this calamity, and after a titanic effort, finally succeeded; they reconstructed the Gauntlet, used it to restore everyone who had been lost to the Snap — leaving them with a few years of lost time — and killed Thanos.

Alas, since Vision did not die in the Snap but rather in battle against Thanos, Vision remained dead in the wake of this happy ending. Other characters were reunited with their fallen friends, lovers, and comrades, but Wanda remained in mourning.


Oh, and if this show inspires you to want to get into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, I have a guide to help you watch them all, or skip through just the best of them, for the first time.