The Teacher and the Troll-King: James Baldwin and Milo Yiannopoulos in the Age of Social Media and Liberal Decline

James Baldwin (Postal Stamp)
Copyright: konstantin32 / 123RF Stock Photo

We’ve had a peculiar confluence of two names that have re-arisen in popular consciousness: Milo Yiannopoulos and James Baldwin. Yiannopoulos, the disgraced now-former Breitbart Editor, for his outlandish and self-aggrandizing remarks, and Baldwin, for his popular rediscovery in the Oscar-nominated documentary currently in Cinemas entitled I Am Not Your Negro.

Below is a video of a famous encounter between the late James Baldwin, known then as a famous author and essayist, and the late William F. Buckley, founder of the conservative National Review and one of the last in a long line of conservative intellectuals that appear to have, in the main, stayed quiet recently, or perhaps abandoned the Republican Party to its curious fate altogether, in the age of you-know-who.

To have read Baldwin is to have been captivated: his voice displays the unique, seething intelligence that often comes from people who have been forced to live outside multiple boundaries and spheres of protection, which he did as a gay black man in mid-20th century America. One suspects he must have been compelled, as he writes and speaks about frequently, to confront and digest the outlandish and contradictory hypocrisies that so obviously prove the fuel for much of his writing and speaking.

Curious too, that Yiannopolous also makes similar claims of his own race,  ethnicity, and orientation, that of a gay Jewish man (or half-Jewish, if these distinctions are critical.) And yet, in Baldwin’s case, this outsider’s perspective seemed to fuel his test of spirit, in which he has come out victorious, immortal, a voice for the ages.  In Yiannopoulos’ case, we see that the ingredients were insufficient, the product half-baked.  (Indeed, any comparison is indecent and unmerited, and so I will not tarry long, here.  Yiannopoulos is no Baldwin. He’s not even a Mailer.)

There is no more obvious trait of Baldwin’s, in his writing and speaking, than something that can only be called a spiritual maturity, a shockingly gentle yet strident reckoning with the past and implied future that so clearly preoccupies him. He appears wiser, more complete and self-reflective than any of his antagonists, serene but immovable, willing to reckon with their blind spots like a patient teacher. In Milo’s case it’s the reverse: despite his most deft turns of phrase, his cleverest slip of the cuffs, the one impression you aren’t left with is a sense of his sincerity. This goes beyond the uncanny feeling that he simply doesn’t believe what he says. We intuit, on some layer just beneath the veneer of insouciance and bad posture, that he dislikes who he is, has not yet earned comfort in his own skin.

The first time I saw it, the Baldwin/Buckley debate video exploded a new world for me: a vigorous sustained debate between intellectually matched (or perhaps outmatched) opponents.  Though Baldwin did not have what you might call a “home field advantage” at the Cambridge Union, he does claim clearly to some degree going in, and then finally and fully by the force of his arguments, the support and adulation of the crowd.  I’m not going to give it the play-by-play, I will simply ask you to watch it.  There is a remarkable feeling that descends on the proceedings around the 38:00 mark, where the entire crowd spontaneously rises to their feet and offers Baldwin sustained applause, the television announcer breathlessly relaying that “this is the first time this has been recorded in the history of the Cambridge Union,” and Baldwin, clearly surprised and very suddenly the only one still seated, breaks into an unscripted, victorious grin.  This moment is as invigorating as any in the history of cinema.

This was the force of his ideas.  This is the force of ideas.

So hearing that Yiannopoulos, seen by many as the new direction, if not the new face, of the Trumpist movement, has been invited onto Real Time with Bill Maher, an HBO weekly program with a weekly viewership in the millions (in which I include myself) I see a challenge and an opportunity.

A moment to reflect on what Yiannopoulos is: Though he self-styles as a kind of conservative gadfly who targets liberal cultural pieties like modern third-wave feminism, #BlackLivesMatter, gender identity, campus activists/so-called ‘social justice warriors (SJW’s)’ and other familiar cultural flashpoints and somewhat-easy targets, he is mainly famous for embodying a kind of grimy, take-no-prisoners approach to argumentation with his adversaries that encourages below-the-belt tactics such as ‘doxxing’ (publishing personal information about his enemies), tweetstorming, brigading and encouraging his legions of very loyal followers (so-called “trolls”) to personally harass and attack the targets he names online. This was most recently done to Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones for the crime of being what Milo found unattractive.  Jones reportedly has since withdrawn from Twitter, but his style of attacks certainly have not been limited to her.  The list of victims is long, and the list of tactics is shameful and absurd.

Another point I find it important to make: this person is an editor at Breitbart, a website with visitor numbers in the dozens-of-millions per month, and was kicked off of Twitter having had 300k followers, surely by now he would have more.  You can choose to ignore him, but his stature is, unfortunately real.  Our task is to help it remain brief.

Because Milo interweaves legitimate and hard-hitting criticism of fair-game topics, this provides him with enough cover to perform his shtick as a presentable and sincere opponent.  He volleys specific and cited claims in-between ad-hominem remarks and stabbing insults, so the switches in register and content can be difficult to follow, the fact-checking delayed.  Many close examinations of his claims simply don’t hold up under scrutiny.

Accordingly, the media hasn’t really known how to handle him, and this is where he has been at his most deft and manipulative.  He understands the way technology and new communications platforms work.  Social media doesn’t lase, it ricochets.  It’s functionally impossible to hold any kind of serious debate in 140 characters or less, you can only trade jabs and generate attention, ricochet from one platform to another, a 5-minute media appearance here, 140 more characters there, article here, YouTube video here, a Podcast appearance there, a college tour here, with riots, and a Hannity appearance there, this time with video of the riots in hand to make the point about his radical and uncontrolled opposition, the true antagonists to free speech. Repeat sequence.

Given the tools, the trained fracturing of attention, the inability to hold conversations – this is simply the best moment in history to generate attention through controversy.  I submit that Milo is one of a new kind of media creation, what I call a “Troll King,” supported by a pyramid of followers, covered by the wreckage of his guerrilla-style podcast and YouTube appearances and remarks, surprisingly bereft of substance and easily confronted and revealed head-on.  A reality TV star with no reality show.  A smoke monster.  Famous, but mostly just on the internet.

A word on classification: it also seems clear that Milo depends, to a great deal, on the response of his opponents as the engine of his fortunes, and having been (mistakenly, in my view) grouped in with the hard Alt-Right movement as a fascist has done more for his fortunes than anything he has personally said or written.  In a recent Chapo Trap House interview, writer and scholar of the Alt-Right Angela Nagle points out that although his entire shtick is about lashing out at SJWs, he depends on liberals, he loves liberals, and he would be nowhere without them. Like a Satanist without the Christian Church. He isn’t actually a Fascist or even a member of the so-called Alt-Right.  (“Those people have me on a hit list,” Milo has observed out loud.)  “They all love Trump,” says Nagle, “that’s one thing that unites them completely, but they are bitchy and sectarian… Spencer and Yiannopolous hate each other a lot.”    “He’s not Alt-Right, he’s [what some call] “Alt-Light.”  “Basically they don’t have a program that concentrates on race, whereas the hard Alt-Right includes segregationists and really stresses race.” Milo has no platform.  Richard Spencer and his group’s interests are by contrast political and long-term.  “The Alt-Right is identity politics for white people,” Yiannopoulos says, and I’m against any kind of identity politics, so you should drop them.”  Clearly, Milo is as confused as anyone that he is grouped as a member of an ideology that he claims to reject and whose members clearly reject him.  The Chapos point out that the Alt-Light: the Gavin McInnes-es, the Milo Yiannopouloses are basically a reaction to modern liberal sanctimony, a punk-Howard Stern reaction they call a “transgressive lifestyle brand.”  On Maher, Milo casually referred to himself as “just a pop star.”

So liberals do Milo favors by making him into a Fascist Lex Luthor figure that is fully unearned.  He has laid some addressable arguments at the feet of liberals and progressives, and a fact that we ignore at our peril is that for many, these punches have landed.  You don’t just gather up millions of followers by targeting feminists with doxxing attacks.  Some of what you say has to make recognizable sense, if the message is to take. The one thing I will credit Milo with, in fact, is that he is remarkably clear on his positions, disarmingly honest about what he perceives as what his weak points are. He does liberals the very good turn and on many an occasion, of explaining exactly what charges they would need to answer in order to prove him wrong. And millions apparently agree with him, beyond just finding him entertaining. This is something liberals need to contend with, beyond just de-platforming and protesting, which merely defers the same ideas to the next, more cleanly presented avatar of conservative rage:  diseases aren’t cured by quarantine, only delayed. This is where I return to Baldwin’s example of substantive intellectual demolition. Will there be another Milo, after Milo is gone? Yes. But notice no one is debating the question “Is the American Dream Presented at the Expense of the American Negro” anymore. That one’s been answered. It is indeed possible to close a conversation, it is possible to win.

So Yiannopolous’ willingness to appear on Real Time sounded to me like the basis for a debate, of at least a confrontation constrained by the norms of conversation, the opportunity for a takedown of his ideas.  Corner him, leave no room to fire a tweet and leave. Here’s that appearance:

Now: I know this sounds old-fashioned,  the equivalent of “I’ll-have-my-seconds-call-for-you-at-dawn” in the social media era, and perhaps even wishful thinking that the Troll King should play by the rules of conversation. Practically speaking, outside of PBS and YouTube, we don’t have long-form discussions that anyone on the left or right watch with any frequency. But Bill Maher’s is an hour long panel show (which I’ve made mention of in this column before) augmented with a YouTube-only segment called Overtime. With the right presentation, this could provide a stage for such a conversation, and it would inevitably be excerpted (and re-excerpted with the word ‘DESTROYS’ in the title) on YouTube. The salient bits would be available to be searched in perpetuity, in the same place and same way that made Milo famous in the first place, and allowed me to share the Baldwin/Buckley debate with anyone reading this.

Debates can be lost in real time and won over the longer term. The truth will always come out. Once the fact-checking is done, someone is right. People love a jab, a joke, a good set-up. But in the end, most (but certainly not all) follow who has the facts, over time. This may not be in time for an election, by the way.

At first, it appeared this confrontation wasn’t going to happen.   One of the scheduled panelists, leftist author and conflict reporter Jeremy Scahill retracted his attendance, offering a hangdog letter that explained why he could not share the stage with a person like Milo. While I agree that Scahill has every right to manage his career, brand and frankly, ethical commitments, the only way I’d see this as useful was if Scahill knew the person who would replace him was at the rhetorical level of a Baldwin or a Hitchens. In my humble opinion, the left isn’t producing a lot of these right now, for precisely these reasons: we have shied away from the intellectual battles that would have sharpened us. So as Bill pointed out in his response, this was Scahill’s loss. Ceding the territory doesn’t put you above the fray. We have a word for this, and the word is ‘forfeit.’

Maher responded to Scahill’s charges insisting that the truth would come out, and that there could be no better response than to have Milo ‘exposed.’  “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he would later say.

That said, almost everyone agrees that Bill went too light on Milo that night.  The Washington Post even called it a “Bromance.”  I’m going to give Bill a slight pass on this one: he needs to have guests on his show who are willing to come on without anticipating an ambush or unfair treatment. The smart move for Bill is to outsource the actual combat to his panel. To the extent that he can ringmaster it, he should have guests on that are going to challenge each other while he maintains his ability to keep the conversation moving.  But yes: Bill seemed unprepared, without specific arguments of Milo’s that he wanted to tackle or controversies he wanted an answer about.

If one were to take that appearance as the basis for criticism, you could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about: for the most part, Bill failed to illuminate Milo’s controversies, and Milo himself was, for the most part, on his very best behavior.  Bill pushed Milo on going after individuals (the aforementioned Ms. Jones, who Milo called “barely literate,” saying she “looks like a man”) and agreed that if it’s warranted to make a point, he’ll go there, but he gave Milo only small grief here.  Milo also deliberately pushed boundaries while talking about an unnamed transsexual woman he had publicly collided with as “a confused man,” and taking a conservative hard line on gendered bathrooms. The most abusive he became during the live broadcast was when he made an off-note pair of jokes that he hires neither women nor gays.  Certainly, anyone new to Milo might have been caught thinking, “He sounds like most Trump voters.  Was that all?”  Nothing to set fire to a university over.  Certainly not as bad as some of the things Buckley says during the course of the Baldwin debate, and Buckley was seen as respectable.  Milo, while popular, is not.

And this is where, I suspect, most TV critics failed to do their homework.  It was after the show stopped broadcasting, but the cameras continued rolling, in the “Overtime” segment posted to YouTube the following day, that the promised fireworks finally emerged.  Guests Larry Wilmore and Malcolm Nance were left to challenge Milo, as overseen by Maher.  In the Q&A format, Milo was able to really let loose, and become provoked into far more specific baiting and leading.  When the conversation once again veered towards where transsexuals should use the bathroom, Milo was only too happy to take it further, going after Caitlyn Jenner, calling trans people victims of a “psychosexual disorder,” and finally levelling the bizarre and unsubstantiated claim that they are disproportionately involved in sex crimes (true, but only if you mean as victims).  When Wilmore pointed out that these were the same unfounded charges generically made against homosexuals (like Yiannopoulos himself) years before, that they were perverts and that homosexuality was a disorder, Milo replied, “Maybe it is.”

This is where Maher did seem to lighten up on Milo, and perhaps give him too much of a break. However, it did seem that he was trying to pull him back from the precipice when he said, “You remind me of a young, gay, alive Christopher Hitchens, but you gotta lose that shit.”  “People are just beginning to hate you,” he continued.

Again, the defining, remaining image was not that Milo was particularly incisive, or hard-hitting, or really leveling anything like a real challenge to anything but the well-worn excesses of zeal on the left; beating on a tired strawman.  By virtue of the protests, the editorials and controversy, he had been made to seem bigger than he was.  Laid bare in conversation with B- and C-level celebrities, he seemed to reach no greater classification than “classic prick.”  If anything, it was so obvious, that one wonders how he got on the show on the first place.  And that’s the point.  It’s one thing to suspect that the dark emperor has no clothes, it’s another to lay it out.

And yet, consider all of the heat that Maher took, before and after, for having the temerity to have this person on the show. Liberals and progressives were winding themselves into knots to confess how they never liked Maher, have been suspicious of him and his lunatic crusades, that he was too easy on Milo, that in having Milo on, Maher “mainstreams hate,” he’s no longer liberal, that he’s failed to change with the times, and on, and on.

What happened?  We used to be the party of debate.  Maher scanned the crowd of liberals for a champion and unfortunately, came up short.  Our response, once again, was to respond to the invitation with calls for intellectual quarantine.

Liberals used to see an opportunity like this and glove up for the fight, not for the fight that prevents the fight from happening.  Am I the only one who sees an opportunity like this and doesn’t think “stop mainstreaming hate,” but rather “I can take that guy.”  Who from the liberal side should have, could have, would have been the knight on the progressive side to meet Yiannopolous, jab for jab, in the field of open discussion?  Jon Stewart?  Is there anyone we would have tolerated attending in the first place?  Or are we just above it now?  Why do we shy away from, de-platform, contest, protest and simply avoid that which we should run to assert: an opportunity to declare, finally, and forthrightly, what our values are, assertively, dominantly, conclusively?  Or are we just out of practice?

Watch the Baldwin debate. This is who we were. This is who we need to be, again.

We have ceded the territory.  There are no more Baldwins.  Only Yiannopouli.

 

 

 

 

The Way Forward 1: The Rust Belt

I. Context

For a period of time in the mid to late 80’s we lived in Northern Virginia, an area called Fairfax county, just south of Washington, D.C.

Coming from a five-college liberal stronghold in the northeast, Virginia appeared, to our eyes, to be inexplicably conservative and  WASPish, festering with poorly-concealed racism and class separation.  The Fairfax of today is of course, quite different.  By the standards of America at large, however, Fairfax county of the 80’s was politically centrist, essentially the suburban bedroom communities of the government apparatus, both Democratic and Republican.

Many years later, my brother returned from a visit there with a tale from this early-warning system.

“Obama’s going to win,” he claimed.  “The number of lawn signs, on the homes of people we thought were Republicans, shows it.”  Ten years ago we’d never have believed it, but the world had turned.  A black man could indeed be president.  Of course, Obama won, for the first time.

Likewise, I have my own early-detection systems.  I spent a few years traveling back and forth to Detroit, Michigan, where I became friendly with many people with a different political orientation than my own.  I’d listen to union radio shows in my rental car, and politely decline invitations from my Republican colleagues to go to the shooting range at lunch.  Michigan is officially purple, but was taken by Trump in ’16, so I called some up recently to get the read of the man on the street.  I was convinced that in my northeast echo chamber, the analyses I was hearing were incomplete, lacking in layers or nuance.  Some of the rationales I heard seemed overheated, more a case of shock and awe, wish-fulfillment and a statement of intent to factionalize.  “Whitelash.”  Another: “in a word: sexism.”  So I asked, literally, “What’s the word of the man on the street in the Detroit area?”

“Most people are either happy to have a job or are looking for one.  There isn’t so much ‘on the street talk’ as I think you guys get at your marches.

But I can tell you, I know a lot of people voted for Trump.  When he came here and he said to Ford, ‘If you move any factories to Mexico, I’m gonna tax your ass,’ well, that was exactly what people around here wanted to hear. Immigration is a big concern.”

I asked about the allegations of racism, sexism, what he said about immigrants.

“Let me tell you something.  When I was eighteen, I made $18/hour laying bricks.  A bricklayer makes half that now.  You can drive around and take a look at who’s manning the construction crews now and see the reason.  Sure, some people’s jobs went overseas, got automated, you name it.  But that’s not what people see.  Some guys I know have been out of work, literally, for years.

“So when you hear people chant ‘build a wall,’ are there racists in the crowd? Sure, I mean I think there have to be.  But when we hear you guys just say us wanting to build the wall is just racist, we think, ‘these guys aren’t listening to us at all.'”

And the sexism?  The ‘locker room’ remarks seemed to be a big line-drawer for some people.

“The things he was caught saying made me think less about him and more about how everything we say in public and private conversations is recorded now.   It was hard to take seriously– it just made me realize no one I know could ever be president, given all the raw shit we say.  I mean, I’ve been offensive to everybody.

“My daughter– she’s in college, after that, she just kind of tuned him out, just said to me ‘Dad, please, let’s just not talk about him anymore.’  My wife said ‘I don’t want to hear about that disgusting man in this house.'”  But neither of them marched, I don’t think they even voted for Clinton.  I think they just didn’t vote at all.”

II. Strategy

Graffiti. Detroit, Michigan
Graffiti. Detroit, Michigan. (c) 2013 Maceo Marquez.  Distributable with attribution.

Candidate Clinton lost for specific tactical reasons that I believe can be repaired in the fewest moves by concentrating on the so-called ‘Rust Belt’ states: Michigan, with 16 electoral votes, Ohio (18), Indiana (11), Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20).  She won Illinois, which brought 20 electoral votes, for a total of 75 additional electoral votes, well more than were needed to augment her final count of 232.  (Please note that in this analysis I’m omitting traditional rust belt regions such as Baltimore (Maryland) and Buffalo (NY) as both are geographically disparate or attached to solid-blue states that would have gone Democrat in most contests.)

So sure, had she only won another five states, she would have won. An easy thing to say, of course– if only if she had won, she would have won.  But I concentrate on these states because this is a very specific corridor of America with easily-identified and broadly shared economic concerns, not culturally southern, many are historically Democrat in presidential elections, most have vital union presences, and most are very possibly inclined to vote more on economic lines than cultural ones.  Hillary didn’t fail to win them.  She lost them.

This means in that region Democrats can address economic concerns without moving from their key positions, especially given that there are no cultural concessions open to Democrats, no going back on hard-won victories.  Although it would unlock desirable southern states, we can’t offer up gay marriage or women’s choice, and no one is saying or would say anything like that– but that would be the only way to win those states, to suddenly become another party.  By contrast, the rust belt could have been won with messaging we were already using and positions democrats already held.  It probably goes without saying that yes, it is my belief that Bernie Sanders would have won here.

Let’s take a look at how Hilary/Trump polled in the Rust Belt prior to the election and how they performed thereafter. (Source: RealClearPolitics.com)

State Electoral Votes Pre-Election Polling (%-pt lead) Final Election Results (%-pt lead) Johnson, final Stein, final
IL 20 +11.5, C +16.0 C 3.8 1.4
IN 11 +10.7 T +19.0 T 4.9 N/A
MI 16 +3.6, C +0.3 T 3.1 1.1
OH 18 +3.5 T +8.1 T 3.2 0.8
PA 20 +2.1 C +0.7 T 2.4 0.8
WI 10 +6.5 C +0.7 T 3.1 1.0

Please note, that’s a total of 95 electoral votes on the table.  At the close of the election, Clinton had only accumulated 232 of the required 270, meaning she needed at least another 38 to win.

What is the fastest way to accumulate an additional 38 electoral votes in the fewest possible moves?

March 2016, Dominant Industries In Rust Belt Cities In 1950.
March 2016, Dominant Industries In Rust Belt Cities In 1950. Corey J. Shupp: http://via.library.depaul.edu/mom/29/

The most efficient combination is done in two moves: take PA + OH for 38 votes exactly.  In OH, however, Trump held a 3.5 point advantage going in and an 8.1 point advantage coming out. That situation does not improve if we swap OH for IN, where, with Trump having a 10.7 point lead in November which later converted to 19 points on election day, Clinton had no shot whatsoever.

The most achievable combination is PA + MI + WI.  All three showed Clinton winning handily, according to polls. And all three went for Trump, albeit none with more than a 1 percentage point lead.  I find this achievable in that 1% may have been reclaimed with a single well-placed media buy, had anyone known in time.  This literally came down to hours.

A few other points about the data leap out immediately:

  1. She didn’t lose by a lot in this region.  In fact, in most cases in these states, she lost by vanishingly small margins.
  2. That said, we are talking about states that used to be blue in almost every case. Wisconsin last voted red for Reagan.
  3. Assuming Stein votes would have otherwise been absorbed by Clinton, (which seems plausible as Stein is considered left of Clinton, so they wouldn’t have gone to Trump, though they may have stayed home) Stein was indeed a spoiler in WI, MI, PA, and those combined 46 electoral votes would have ensured a decisive Clinton win nationally. Note that Gary Johnson’s votes would have been absorbed by both Clinton and Trump and are thus harder to predict; the key takeaway is that the Democratic party can afford (and should encourage) a Gary Johnson but could not, in this contest, afford a Jill Stein.
  4. Something happened between the polling date and the election date in which all of these states (besides Indiana) switched sides.  I’m partial to Michael Durkheimer’s analysis in Forbes that yes, the non-announcement by the FBI over the weekend played a small part (and these are very small lead numbers), but he also claims that there were also simply more Trump voters than were accounted for. Durkheimer’s thesis is that they just stayed quiet, having seen the social penalty for self-identifying as a Trump voter.  Naturally, this blind spot did not help Democrats.
  5. There is no Democrat winning combination without Pennsylvania’s 20 votes.  Pennsylvania must be won.  I would prioritize this right after Florida (which could be won, as pointed out by Van Jones, by Democrats gaining a legislative win that allows felons to vote.)
  6. Likewise, Michigan’s 16 votes are critical, and usually reliable with less effort than Ohio’s 18.
  7. Illinois is approximately as solid blue as Indiana is solid red.  That means IL can probably be relied on with the current script, likewise essentially no energy or resources need to be spent on Indiana until more of a Democratic beachhead is established.  We just can’t win there, at the moment.
  8. I feel like the case for sexism as the sole driving rationale for Clinton’s loss is undermined by the scores immediately pre-election: many of the pre-election scores showed Clinton winning from data collected as late as Friday.  Something happened over the weekend to dent her polling, and it wasn’t everyone suddenly realizing the candidate was female.  To the contrary, there really is a strong argument to be made that the FBI’s disclosure tipped the scales.
Sugarman, Detroit.
Sugarman, Detroit. (c) 2013 Maceo Marquez. Distributable with attribution.

III. Forward

So what now for Democrats in these states?

Focus on the unions.  Here’s something that needs to be one of the top-three talking points for all go-forward Democratic communications: this is our plan for the blue-collar worker.  In Democrat terms, this has always been done by partnering with the unions.  This plan needs to be put forward as an economic issue, a jobs issue, and a cultural issue.  Meaning: strategic communications and creative briefs all must have imagery and iconography that speak to how the blue collar worker can expect to see a transformation and a vision for the next two decades.

UAW leadership endorsed Clinton.  UAW members went off script, and an internal poll showed 28% planned to back Trump.  That kind of defection was expected at other unions as well. Given the narrow margins of victory shown, that was more than enough to get us a 1% creep.

Now, here’s a fact.  I’ve worked in technology for twenty years.  I’ve never been in a union.  I’ve never needed one, no one I know in the industry has ever wanted one.  We work at the edge of the future, and the startup world’s tech and culture (offshoring, onshoring, automation, telecommuting) is usually followed by other industries, in their own time.

So it may be that the role of the unions themselves and their value proposition itself needs to change.  I’ll write about those specific prescriptions later, for now, the core message is simply that this is a conversation that Democrats and Progressives need to be involved in, need to guide.

We need to have everyone who has heard the message be able to answer this question for themselves: “What will you do to get me a job, and to protect it?”

Trump addressed this.  His solution wasn’t the right solution, but it answered the question: “I’m going to take your job back from the Mexicans that took it, and I’m going to tax your bosses who try to send it anywhere else.”  Take issue with the answer if you like (and I have an issue, here and there), but it’s an answer.

Sanders also had an answer to this question. “I’m going to take the investment from the rich people who are robbing you blind and pour it back into this country to create jobs for people like you.”  Also an answer.  Also has its own issues and presuppositions.

What was Clinton’s answer, again?

Right.

 

History is Blind

Michelangelo
Michelangelo Buonarroti, #50

I used to have a book that I kept in the bathroom called “The 100”, which made the case for the 100 most influential people in history.

When people heard I had this book, they’d inevitably guess that position #1 was held by Jesus of Nazareth. Not so.  Position #1 was actually Mohammed. As the author explained, Mohammed merits making the list in two completely separate areas of human endeavor, yes, as a spiritual leader but also as a military one who campaigned hard and took an astonishing amount of territory for his time, the equal of any of the great empires. Jesus himself would not appear until position #3, right after Isaac Newton.

Conspicuously, however, many artists were simply overlooked. Authors, painters, performers– none except for the truly immortal made the cut. Shakespeare is given the #31 spot and named “Edward de Vere” to tackle two controversies at once. Michelangelo slides in at #50, Bach at #72, and Da Vinci merits a mere honorable mention alongside Abraham Lincoln, Ben Franklin and others.

My instinct is to suggest that this lightness in the arts demonstrated a bias on the author’s part. His bio shows a man with three advanced degrees in Law, Physics, and a Ph.D in astronomy. Clearly, a lot of his very limited time has not been spent on art appreciation. However, the author is quite clear about his reasons. In short, he doesn’t think the arts have done as much to change human history as, say, discovering how to leverage radiowaves (Guglielmo Marconi, #38). I suppose I agree: of what historical import is the song, alongside the ability to share it widely?

I propose an alternate hypothesis: while these so-called Great scientists and generals changed human history through victories and inventions, these are dramatic, world-changing moments. The arts are no less influential, but the degree to which they inflict change is expressed in microunits, hundreds of times a day. This doesn’t mean that the ability of the arts to effect change is weaker so much as the change they do create is more gradual, designed, like any good story mechanic, to evade perception and impossible to identify in hindsight.

There is an interesting meme going around at the moment where the participant lists the favorite albums that influenced them during their teen years. I’ve seen a lot of versions of this. Many people can tell you where they were when they heard a specific song, say, “Champagne Supernova.” Very little of that thrill transferred to the joy of getting the MP3 player itself, which is, on balance, probably more historically influential than Oasis.

Still. We live our lives as subject to the peaks and valleys our emotional lives, and the arts are the only inventions that exist on a scale that can inject into and redirect that flow.

I love hearing the stories of how people discovered Fugazi in art class and that it opened up a new world of possibility for them, or kissed on a Ferris wheel to the Rolling Stones, or decided to get their shit together with the pitiless encouragement of Gang Starr.

Here’s mine. I remember very clearly laying in the bed of a female classmate. We had spent the night together (sleeping) and everything felt right. We were still circling each other, trying to decide if we would take this further and farther than either of us had been.

“Blind” by the Sundays was playing. We lay there, listening to the whole album, from ‘I Feel’ to ‘Wild Horses.’ (Later, we also listened to Oasis.)

The Sundays, Blind.
The Sundays, Blind. Released October 19, 1992.

“This is nice,” I thought. Something in Harriet Wheeler’s voice said, “this is a place you can stay.” Something in it created the space to get to know one another. The CD remained in our house, on a dusty shelf, for thirteen years.

Was this Great Art? I kind of doubt it. But it was timely, specific and helped to set the trajectory of the life that followed as readily as any invention I can think of. Had we not heard that record, would the world have come to meet my daughter? Who can say?

Furthermore, I’m a music lover. What other details might have sent me in motion had the art been something different? Perhaps if I found a book I found meaningful on her shelf?  More prosaically: how else might I have spent this morning, had I not seen these facebook posts about people’s favorite bands? (For the purposes of this post, I’m qualifying FB posts as art.)

Jane's Addiction - Ritual De Lo Habitual
Jane’s Addiction, Ritual De Lo Habitual. Uncontested winner of many late night college bull sessions as the record most likely to endure. You be the judge.

History is made by people, yes. And those people are animated by words, books, films articles, music. Wouldn’t you like to know what music Genghis Khan (#29) would have had in his iPod? How Marx would have read Kundera? If Walter Mosely’s Easy Rawlins had not been Bill Clinton’s favorite author, our first “black president?” If Barack Obama was unsympathetic to Hip Hop? If Paul Ryan was? (No, I mean really was.) Something about the fact that most Tank commanders in Desert Storm agreed that Megadeth was the most commonly played band in tanks seems significant.  History writ large may not feel it, but certainly, in the life of an individual, the right art at the right time is what creates the trajectories of your life. Whether you’re seeing it, or not.

Eating the Elephant – BJJ Year One

Blue belt earned.

A number of years ago I watched an event called the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). By now there have been dozens if not hundreds of UFC matches. The brand is a global juggernaut. But in 1993, this was the very first outing of what would come to be elevated to the sport known as Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA. While I had originally set out to write this essay on the topic of ‘what I’ve learned’ in this phase of my martial arts journey, let the record show that the first thing I’ve learned is that I’m actually old enough to refer casually to a martial arts tournament that is now twenty-three years old and that I watched on a VHS tape. Wow.

The rules were hazy: there was something about no biting or eye-gouging, everything else, it appeared, was on the table. There were no restrictions on styles, the event appeared designed to throw as many styles into collision as possible. Dumbfoundingly, there were no weight classes. The whole thing felt very hastily-rigged and danger prone. Unbridled injuries seemed inevitable.

Victory in the ring could be achieved in one of two ways: a knockout or submission. Submissions were typically achieved through a painful joint lock maneuver or oxygen deprivation. Yielding would be performed by “tapping out” or verbally giving up to the opponent. A referee would be in the octagonal cage, patented as “The Octagon”, to enforce these rules and ostensibly protect the fighters. Critically, the matches would occur in succession, meaning a winner would continue on to the next match, would very likely still be bearing the fatigue and injuries that the previous match had cost him.

It was chaos. I’m talking about Sumo wrestlers tossing Karate guys in a locked cage. Western Boxers trading blows with Kickboxers. Greco-Roman wrestlers versus Kung Fu. Street brawlers versus everyone. Total anarchy. And there was drama, upsets. For example, the 650-lb Sumo lost to some biker-looking Karate guy because the biker beat him into submission with his own visibly broken arm. These must have been the kind of hand-to-hand battles not seen since the Roman Coliseum. There were bloody faces, competitors spitting out teeth. Bedlam.

It’s important to note, this was amazing not least for the spectacle it provided, but because there was an academic, martial-science aspect to the proceedings that answered some of the oldest questions known to man: who would win in a fight? The boxer? The wrestler? (Probably the wrestler.) Does karate even work? (Yes!) Is Muay Thai everything they say? (Yes!) Is a black belt enough? (No!) Does the Title “Grand Master” necessarily mean you are any good? (No!) Many of these matches or combinations had just never been broadcast. Now, here it was.

And finally, the biggest question of all: given that we’ve found contenders from varied martial arts all over the world, what is the answer? Which is the most effective martial art?

The shock of shocks turned out to be not that one scraped its way to the winning spot but rather, the surprise was in how clear and unambiguously this question was answered. For its time, this question was resoundingly answered: the answer was, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it wasn’t close.

In 1993, few of us in the USA had heard of the Gracie family, now a globally recognized Brazilian martial arts dynasty. When they entered the arena, several brothers and cousins in white hoods walking hands-to-the-shoulders of the brother before them like a clan of warrior monks, the effect was one of intrigue. Who were these guys? They seemed to pass in order of size, biggest-to-smallest, so that the smallest one in the lead to which all hands pointed, Royce (pronounced ‘Hoyce’) was being presented to the Octagon like an offering. They seemed to know something that we didn’t know. Indeed, entering Royce, not even their heaviest or most accomplished guy, seemed to be a defiant gesture of its own. “You don’t need our best guys,” it said. Any one of us can win this thing.”

Their style was, to the eyes of the broader world, new and self-invented, though this wasn’t really true. It was an offshoot of one of the oldest Japanese Martial traditions, Jiu-Jitsu, which came from feudal Japan. The Gracie family professed to have mastered a reinterpretation of the style local to their country, so-called “Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu,” or BJJ. In practice, it seemed to bear very little relation to the original Jiu-Jitsu, combining stand-up Judo with a kind of martial wrestling that focused on grappling from the ground to achieve arm- and leg-locks, holds, and painful submission techniques. One of BJJ’s signature positions, the Guard position, inverted the principle that the man on the bottom was losing, as BJJ practitioners seemed to dominate from the bottom, occasionally even submitting their opponents from had been considered, until then, a submissive position. The keys to this style appeared to be the BJJ practitioner’s ability to a) take their opponent to the ground, b) establish their dominance when on the ground, and c) their patience in achieving this goal. Once an opponent was taken down, however, the match looked a lot like a guy in a karate uniform struggling with a man-sized Anaconda. Valiant, sure, but the outcome isn’t in doubt. The only question is how long it’s going to go on.

Over several matches, Gracie dominated his category. While there were matchups for the history books up and down the card, Royce cooly drilled through his opposition, making his way to the finals with an icy determination that made his ascendancy inevitable. Early on the question became, not ‘could he win’, but almost immediately, ‘who will be fighting Royce?’ Clearly, if he intended to stand and exchange punches and kicks, he would be destroyed, but this wasn’t his plan. Many times he took punches and kicks– some that would have KO’d any other fighter– but he was able to still establish the lock and take his opponent to the ground, where he could take all the time he needed, play his game. No one seemed to have the tactics available that would stall his assault.

This was a signal moment in the history of the martial arts. For historical and geographical reasons, most styles had been constrained to fighting other people from the same style or nearby styles for hundreds of years. While there were inter-style tournaments, these were few and far between, and the early-90’s was still in many ways a pre-Internet era. There is also an uncanny effect when one trains with partners of the same style, in which they start to move and operate alike. Having different styles in direct contest is both invigorating and can be psychologically quite dispiriting for the loser. One of these people really has learned a skill that works. And the other is at least made to feel as if they have wasted what is probably a considerable amount of time perfecting something that is demonstrably inefficient to its purpose.

It became apparent almost immediately that certain arts had flourished perhaps because they had never been challenged. Equally, that others (BJJ and Thai Kickboxing come to mind) have been through the crucible and within the rules of their practice, “just work.” One of the first outcomes of the Gracie dominance over the next few UFC contents was the merging of these winning styles into a composite: Greco-Roman wrestling, BJJ and Sambo for the ground, Dirty Boxing, Muay Thai and Western Boxing for stand-up striking. This became sanded down and optimized into what is known as modern Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA, to which BJJ contributes a significant amount of DNA. (MMA isn’t a fixed category, and continues to incorporate material from all catalogs.) Accordingly, in this cross-pollination, the past 25 years have been as vibrant as any in the history of the martial arts.

The events I describe above are now part of the historical record, written about in a few books, told and retold in dojos the world over, available to see on youtube and in documentaries. The field has changed. Most arts have by now incorporated techniques to defend against the tactics used by Gracie; certainly, no serious contenders stand to be surprised by them anymore.

I should say that the UFC has long since instituted a series of sweeping changes intended to protect the fighters and their careers, such as weight classes, rounds, and banning a significant number of dangerous or unsporting moves. I’m not interested in competing in the UFC. I’m too old, I’ve got too much else going on. Still, the results seemed inarguable. Whatever it was the Brazilians were doing would now need to be studied by any serious martial artist. I and many others would need to get up to speed.


If you are interested in learning about what BJJ looks like when practiced, view this video.

All this to say, it was then that I knew I would come to train in this style, but I wouldn’t return to it for another 22 years.

***

I love to train, it’s how I go to the gym. For the last ten years I’ve been training near-continually if I wasn’t going to the gym instead, and like other athletes and martial artists, when I don’t, my life starts to fall apart at the edges. I’ve trained now in Kenpo Karate, Hapkido and Arnis, Western Boxing, Greco-Roman Wrestling, and Russian Systema for 5 years. I’ve sampled Sambo and (Japanese) Jiu-Jitsu. Ever since I saw Royce Gracie’s maneuvers in UFC 1, I knew I’d end up at least trying BJJ when the opportunity presented itself, but I had a lot of other arts that I wanted to investigate in the meantime; basics to be covered. What it meant to punch, kick, how to protect your head and body, gain loose hips and strong legs, what it meant to manage one’s breathing, take a hit. How to stand. Where to stand. How to move.

When I divorced, I spent the first year getting up early in the morning to visit my daughter and get her ready for preschool. By the time I arrived at her house at 7:30, I was coming from a 5am boxing class. I was running on fumes, reorganizing my life, bouncing from apartment to apartment and survived on credit. There were a lot of times I could have fallen down; in many ways, that boxing class was the only thing that held my life together when everything else was cracking. Yes, because of training I’ve saved myself from injury by falling or flipping the right way, yes, because of training I was able to fight off physical opponents, yes because of training I’ve been able to protect women from being assaulted on the subway. But that year, boxing saved my life. You must train as if your life depends on it, because sometimes it does, but probably not in the ways you think.

Over a year ago I joined a BJJ Club in Brooklyn. I was freelancing from a home office for the summer, and it looked like I’d be continuing that arrangement for the near future so I was able to attend a dojo that is not only in Brooklyn, but also, critically, close to my apartment. While this is a very trivial point and shouldn’t be the basis of how to choose a school, you want to make it as easy for yourself as possible, because you will start to get tired, comfortable, you’ll start to plateau, and you just want attending to be easy (class itself should not be easy, but getting in the door should be). Half of winning is in the architecture. Also, most of the arts I quit were due to changes in my life circumstances or geographic changes that made attending the school impractical, such as traveling overseas, moving or switching jobs.

When I joined, I resolved to follow the practice I learned when training martial arts that didn’t offer belts. That is, commit for a year, don’t question the course but just keep going, then take stock, review a year later and then check-in at intervals thereafter. Part of this is because without belts there was no way to know when you were leveling up, but also because belts are artificial, time is not, and finally because there is a built-in insecurity behind training in the martial arts. You’re never really sure this stuff ‘works’, and if you aren’t careful you can spook yourself into thinking that what you are doing is valueless and leave before you are actually qualified to assess what you’re doing.

Some suspension of disbelief is necessary. A lot of material that comes to us from previous generations is simply untested, a lot of it is suspect (e.g. knife defense) and some of it is, from a modern self-defense standpoint, kind of superfluous (e.g., forms, ancient weapons, etc). When I moved on to train in Systema, I conferred with previous instructors. While none had much opinion on Systema, citing mixed reviews, I was explicitly told, “Go to Renzo Gracie’s BJJ academy in NYC. While I can’t tell you about the other stuff, his is a system that works.”

Five years later I left Systema not least because I had reached a plateau, but also because given the amount of time I had put in, I simply should have been a better fighter. I wasn’t sure that what I was learning worked, and I became increasingly concerned that I was wasting my time. Having left that practice, I’m able to assess that 40-50%% of what I was learning there was very useful indeed, and another 50-60% was at best partially effective. To tighten up that 60% I would need instruction that wasn’t locally available, which meant I had hit a plateau. I started looking for other schools, that was when I tried boxing and came to BJJ a few years later.

In the case of BJJ, I needn’t have worried. The curriculum clearly works and is tested in stress situations every class.

One of the biggest changes I’ve seen in my own martial arts since starting BJJ was a reduction in the amount of force, but a corresponding increase in the output or effect. Efficiency has improved.

Another element I was looking to change was to be able to rely on more technique and less strength in training. I never wanted to use strength in my martial arts, this is because, on the one hand, strength is momentary or illusory. You age, you get injured, you gain and lose weight. Part of the purpose of training in the art is knowing that you’ll grow old with it and that strength won’t always be there for you. But the other side is that mere strength and force are a reliable indicator that you are doing it wrong; you are inefficiently positioned, you should move to a position where less effort is demanded. You’re fooling yourself. Timing, precision, relaxation, are better goals. BJJ is great for developing these characteristics, and I’ve seen an improvement over the past fourteen months.

Correspondingly, strength’s little cousin, aggression, is also something that I thought I had mostly pushed out of my martial arts practice, which I was surprised to discover had returned when I started to practice BJJ. The working hypothesis is that this is because of BJJ’s proximity to wrestling, which trained a lot of aggression and explosive speed into my muscle memory, you just need this intensity to be able to step into the ring, let alone to win in a competition. This just had to be unlearned to allow a lot of the softer sensitivity-training to sink in. This is a tough one: once you start to get moving with somebody it becomes hard to not go for open moves that become apparent, and one must learn to suppress the competitive instinct in favor of opportunities for better movement, but it’s worth the effort because it allows your body to memorize the movements without the background noise of trying to ‘win’, and so significantly accelerates the learning process.

I haven’t escaped this, but I see it, I look for it, I try to work around it. Sometimes it creeps in as simply as feeling my own mortality, knowing I’m in an exercise class, and just wanting to really get the most out of this body, see what it can do and use the aggression as a way to push myself, and that’s great, but my long-term goals are softer. (So to anyone who I messed up while getting there, sorry.)

The times I’ve lost sight of this even for a moment– those are the moments in which I’ve injured myself, and this is mostly-but-not-just a coincidence. Tension, reliably, leads to injury. Twice this has happened, and both times put me out for multiple classes. Not a lesson my ankle, elbow, or knee need to relearn.

My confidence on the ground has gone up a good deal, and as a former wrestler, that’s a big thing to say. I feel like I know something about the shape of my partners’ bodies the way your feet know the stairs to your apartment, this hip will tend to be here, that joint should be there. I don’t need to search for these things as hard as I used to anymore, I can feel them by touch and see them with peripheral vision. This is clearly the product of practice, and I wasn’t able to do it when I walked in the door (unless I was standing up).

Earned.
Earned.

Most of all, the single facet of the practice most taken to heart is the way the dedication that BJJ demands translates. The school tracks white belts’ attendance with stripes in a way that is not canonical to most BJJ schools but to remind the student of their commitment and their progress. I can look at my white belt (now tinted dark gray from the mat) with nine red stripes and a few black stripes and know that this means there were ninety-odd occasions that I thought I had something else to do and still walked into the dojo and got my thing done. I didn’t see improvements as they happened, no single time was the one that got me over. But It’s proven that I can point myself at a goal that is well out of view and just keep coming at it. I can, as the saying goes, eat the elephant, bit by bit. This is the discipline that one needs to finish a novel, learn an instrument or to get that promotion. And this is a kind of discipline that is impossible to fake or come to unearned– you know you can do it because you know you can do it.

See you in a year.

The Lisa Simpson Problem

nelson
Clinton and Trump get to know each other after the debate.

The New York Times seems to have caught on to what I have been saying all along: that candidate Hillary Clinton has a Lisa Simpson problem.

For those of us who watch The Simpsons, this rings true almost instantaneously.  Lisa is brilliant, she’s insightful, she is tireless, she is optimistic.  She can be relied on to come up with the most sensible plan.  She’s always done the reading, she’s always hunting for the extra credit.  She transcends the term kiss-ass because her interests coincide with the teacher’s, and she couldn’t give a damn what the teacher thinks because she doesn’t have to.  She knows she’s right. Lisa seeks progress, not out of a need for self-aggrandizement, but out of love. She is, truly, surrounded by idiots.

This is also what makes her irritating.

Lisa courts controversy on the Simpsons not because what she wants is wrong.  The problem is that she makes everyone else feel worse about themselves.  She swims through their malaise unaware, their desire to pull her down to earth, to knock her down a peg, buoyed only by her optimism and goodwill.  Everyone usually knows she’s right, and it isn’t the point.  Her idealism isn’t just inappropriate, it’s irrelevant.

What they need from her isn’t a plan, what they need is for her just be one of them, to stop acting so high-and-mighty.  This is Springfield,for God’s sake.  There’s no room for greatness.  What you must do, to survive here, is accommodate yourself to mediocrity.

Is this starting to sound familiar?

Here’s a favorite quote (heavily paraphrased):

Principal Skinner: “Finally, Lisa falls from her high horse!”

Lisa Simpson: “But, if I change the plan this way, we can still do what I proposed!”
Skinner: “Aaaaand up she climbs.”

Feels reminiscent of Clinton being bombarded by a non-scandal, doesn’t it?

This is what Trump understands.  So long as he can keep her boxed-in to the role of the class nerd, he has half a leg to stand on, or at least, some ready roles that the audience understands.  As Krugman puts it at the top,

“I still don’t fully understand this hostility, which wasn’t ideological. Instead, it had the feel of the cool kids in high school jeering at the class nerd. Sexism was surely involved but may not have been central, since the same thing happened to Mr. Gore.”

I tend to agree.  The sexism that turned against Hilary Clinton was absolutely unmistakeable.  But the core of the problem that she was made to bear wasn’t that she was a woman, it was that she was a nerd: out of touch, clueless, trying too hard, uncool.  (She was also,  variously, an evil genius, corrupt, a shrew, a harpy, a neoliberal hawk,  and so on, given the variety and wide scope of the insults, probably all too much to cram into this metaphor.)

Trump, meanwhile, is the classic bully.  Seeing him play the role of Nelson Muntz was obvious, without too much embellishment.

The question really is, which Simpsons  character was Bernie Sanders?

The Hero We Deserve

Recently this piece in The Guardian caught my attention. In it, Alan Moore, notable author of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and all-around high priest of counterculture and geekdom, is attributed the following incendiary quote on the state of the comic-movie supercomplex:

“To my mind, this embracing of what were unambiguously children’s characters at their mid-20th century inception seems to indicate a retreat from the admittedly overwhelming complexities of modern existence,” he wrote to Ó Méalóid. “It looks to me very much like a significant section of the public, having given up on attempting to understand the reality they are actually living in, have instead reasoned that they might at least be able to comprehend the sprawling, meaningless, but at-least-still-finite ‘universes’ presented by DC or Marvel Comics. I would also observe that it is, potentially, culturally catastrophic to have the ephemera of a previous century squatting possessively on the cultural stage and refusing to allow this surely unprecedented era to develop a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times.”

While I find Moore’s premise to border on melodramatic, there’s no denying he’s on to something.  To any faithful observers of the genre, we need to know that we are approaching Peak Superhero, and fatigue should set in, perhaps sometime before this summer.

As of this writing, we have the following movies currently playing or approaching this summer:

  • Deadpool (Marvel)
  • Batman Vs. Superman (DC)
  • Captain America: Civil War (Marvel)
  • X-Men Apocalypse (Marvel)
  • Suicide Squad (DC)

While audiences will continue to fill seats, odds are some of these are just going to fail.  Audiences loved Deadpool.  It had fresh elements: it broke the fourth wall, showed irreverence to the studio properties, with loads of sly winks, Easter eggs, sex, violence and SFX and relentless action.  It was notably given an R rating for this reason, and the director of Guardians of the Galaxy quickly followed up with a plea that the studio not try to copy its success, for predictable reasons:

“Over the next few months, if you pay attention to the trades, you’ll see Hollywood misunderstanding the lesson they should be learning with Deadpool,” Gunn wrote. “They’ll be green lighting films ‘like Deadpool’ — but, by that, they won’t mean ‘good and original’ but ‘a raunchy superhero film’ or ‘it breaks the fourth wall.’ They’ll treat you like you’re stupid, which is the one thing Deadpool didn’t do.”

Deadpool.
Deadpool.

Great.  That said, let’s not pretend that Deadpool presented us with a anything resembling an answer to Moore’s challenge.  Deadpool was light, it was fun.  It was witty.  No, it didn’t tell us anything about the Way We Live Now, like Watchmen or V For Vendetta, Moore’s best-known properties, did.  Moore’s accusation stands. (UPDATE: All  of these movies have now arrrived, with Suicide Squad opening this weekend.  Its reviews are in, and surprise, it sucks.)

I loved comics well into my teens, and lapsed sometime around college.  I rediscovered what was happening in the Marvel Universe on my iPad, and spend hundreds of dollars amassing collections to back-fill the gap.  I’m what Marvel’s marketing plan calls a ‘lapsed reader,’ which is to say an adult, gainfully employed, who can be hooked via the Tablet experience with some preview titles, and pushed via clever marketing to re-enter the brick-and-mortar comic stores and make the purchases that keep the delicate symbiosis of the industry moving.

While many comics fulfill Moore’s label of being ‘adolescent entertainment,’ at least as many do aspire beyond.  Image comics’ The Walking Dead was the last great comic series I’ve seen, mainly because it isn’t a comic series in the traditional sense, and fastidiously broke every rule those genres have to offer, killing each of its darlings in turn, and presenting us with the bleakest possible view of the present alongside the most hopeful possible backdrop.  What could be worse than seeing your family killed by being eaten alive on one hand, or beaten to death on the other? What could be more hopeful than the task of rebuilding civilization?

The Walking Dead.
The Walking Dead.

This kind of recklessness-in-service of a message is what audiences reward in these peaceful times, and I submit that it is no coincidence that the other great success of this book-to-TV era is Game of Thrones, a series that follows, and breaks, the same rulebook.  Credibility is gained in these pieces by a willingness to be so honest with the audience that anyone can die at any time.  This is simultaneously exhilarating and contrived.

In the big-comics world,  multi-issue storylines that cross titles are called ‘story arcs.’  The last great stroy arc I read to come out of Marvel was Civil War, a story arc that seemed to be a direct response to 9-11.  It’s absolutely worth mentioning that Civil War went completely differently in the comics than in the films.  In the comics, a detonation by a super-villain causes a mega-death event in Stamford, Connecticut,  provoking a Superhuman Registration Act that uncannily follows the Patriot Act of the early 2000’s.

Civil War is now about 10 years old.  They’ve done a lot of okay work since then, but that was one that seemed to really take a hard look inward, most especially on Thunderbolts, which took a dark turn unlike anything seen in the superhero comics since Watchmen, and likewise making a statement of intent by killing or maiming old heroes like Jack Flag.  The Thunderbolts’ job is to enforce the Superhuman Registration Act, and they are all villains turned government agents, essentially Marvel’s answer to Suicide Squad.  The hook  is, of course, that they hunt heroes, some of whom they kill.  It was a high watermark of invention and storytelling at Marvel, but I’m sorry to say I haven’t  seen its like since it was written.

Marvel's Thunderbolts
Ellis & Deodato’s Thunderbolts.

The point I’m making here is the cultural elitist in me wants to agree with Moore’s prediction, and I feel the palpable sense of exhaustion that the genre is starting to bleed  from it’s pores.  Can we really watch Batman’s parents be killed one more time, in one more way, the way we were treated to at the beginning of Batman vs. Superman?  Is Avengers; Infinity War going to have something really new to show us?  Spoiler Alert: No.

And yet, the genre has proven incredibly resilient.  Part of this, in my estimation, is that they let the comics lead.  Comics are published monthly, they are cheap, and the decisions made in them are remarkably impermanent.  Superman has been killed, only to return as all heroes do, with new costumes and new powers.  Batman has been maimed.  There are something like six different Spider-Men running around.  The comics can take extraordinary risks that, if they don’t pay off,  have lower commercial consequences than a failed summer movie.  Moore himself once observed that he had never learned to write rough drafts,  the punishing pace of the industry simply didn’t leave time for it.

The comics have  a barometer for the risks the studios are willing to take,  and are now written with that expressly in mind: the costs to get on the board publishing a comic are well worth it, when you can tell a studio acquisitions head that you have an audience of 50,000 loyal subscribers who have already validated “Squirrel Girl” in the marketplace.  A Squirrel Girl movie is under discussion, by the way.  Squirrel Girl.

The newest Invincible Iron Man.
The newest Invincible Iron Man.

These gambles pay off, and,  alongside the fact that comic writers are some of the most liberal-minded people in America,  they have been notably present at the forefront of society’s hard conversations, tackling issues that are right on time.  It was Green Lantern and Green Arrow that were first in the industry to talk about the shame of heroin addiction, X-Men tackled Civil Rights head-on, presenting us with the Martin figure  in Professor X and the Malcolm X, in Magneto.  Alpha Flight had the first out Gay character, the X-Men had the first gay wedding.  And now they are dead-center in the culture wars again.  Lady Ghostbusters?  Nonsense, here’s Lady Thor.  The role of Ms. Marvel is  now held by a Muslim teenager, Kemala Khan.  Iron Man is passing the reins to a female, black MIT student.  These changes are obvious, they are appropriate,  and they reflect the changes of Marvel’s diversifying audience.  But let’s not kid ourselves that they aren’t risky.  Every one of these moves easily deserved its own tense editorial staff meeting, and every one has generated its own tweetstorm of recrimination from the not-so-remote corners of the internet.   And every one of them could be course-corrected in a month, if they didn’t work out.  The risk is simply lessened.  Yes, the comics are the creative engine, but they are also now an incubator for film, TV, and toys.  The business has reshaped itself completely to be cinema’s farm team, the NCAA to 3-D Digital  Surround IMAX’s NBA.  Some would say that’s where the most vital games are, have always been, played.

As a consequence we have seen spacemen, raccoons, squirrels, talking trees, diverse representation, an embrace of digital, a globalist perspective and an ongoing grapple with ascendant militarism, paranoia, and post-911 anxiety.

Is this not “a culture of its own, relevant and sufficient to its times?”

Who Speaks for Us?

It occurred to me some years ago that I didn’t know what neither Saddam Hussein nor Kim Kardashian’s voice sounded like.

This led me to conclude that if you don’t know what someone sounds like when they speak for themselves, then all you know is what someone else is telling you about them.

It was especially interesting because in one case their mouthpiece wanted me to love them, whereas in the other, the objective was to help me find a plausible pretext to have them killed.

One of them has millions of Twitter followers and makes their living solely on camouflaged endorsements. The other one is dead.

This is the world we are making, and it has its moments, but I can’t escape the feeling that we could somehow be much more productive with these tools.

And Now A Brief Aside on Predicting The Future.

I wrote a blogging application sometime around 2004 or 2005. Prior to launching it on our Social Media site, my boss at the time asked me, what should we call this? A lot of people are calling these ‘Weblogs’ or ‘Blogs.’

Now, this term was perfectly well-known at the time, if not in fully common usage. There were popular blogs that were clearly ‘weblogs’. I was a dedicated reader of Suck.com. The term, however, was still somewhat ill-defined– if enthusiastically received by early-adopting-marketing types who were all too eager to be on the ground floor of finally making ‘fetch’ happen.

“That’s ridiculous. I call these Journals. Get it? Because they are like a Journal.”

“I don’t think so. Journals sounds dull. Blogs is gaining steam. I think you might be wrong about this.”

“It sounds like desperate internet marketing. Journals is what they are. Not diaries, not Blogs. Journals.”

(To his credit, we went with Blogs.)

So: another example of my being on the wrong side of history, yet again.

I still don’t know what to call what I’m doing.

Am I Racist: Trump Edition

trump-2Given the recent Trump phenomenon, the political-correctness backlash, and the counter-charge that liberals routinely and unfairly deploy the accusation that conservatives are racist, I wanted to take minute to grapple with this one, and make a few prescriptions from a rhetorical perspective.

Short answer: no, conservatives are not intrinsically racist. And less and less. There is a new generation of ‘lite’ conservatives that will have a significant market position if they can successfully inhabit an racially/ethnically/LGBT* inclusive platform, while keeping other traditional republican positions. If successful, this group will also pull center-right democrats from the herd. This will be a space to watch.

But there’s still a divergence here that’s easy to spot. Let’s start with, “what do liberals and conservatives mean when they talk about someone being racist?” Because there appears to be a nontrivial difference.

Many liberals, and most anyone who attained a liberal arts degree after 1995, have a pretty good vocabulary to talk about the particular permutations of American racism. They might know about Jim Crow laws, the history leading to the 60’s, they may have some background about the Civil Rights movement, Brown v. Board of Education, know the forms of housing discrimination, banking discrimination, redlining, predatory mortgages, and can talk with some base fluency about structural racism, or know what is meant by ‘white privilege.‘ There is exhaustive scholarship on this, and to deny it in this day and age is to row against history. The classic, magazine-compact summary of a perfect storm of these factors is still Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article about Chicago housing: The Case for Reparations .

So liberals educated in the discipline have a vocabulary they can deploy to describe racial events in a scholarly way, much like philosopher can point to something and say, oh, that’s empirical, that’s phenomenological, we can say, oh, that’s redlining. Or, that’s discriminatory. We can identify these events in-the-world. There is a discipline that describes them. While there are some conservatives really up-to-date on this stuff, these ideas are so left-centric that knowing them or having them is almost enough to make you a liberal, though I wish this weren’t true.

The conservative vocabulary for forms of racism isn’t as nuanced. Conservatives rarely acknowledge the structural elements at play in what is called Institutional Racism. It’s quite possible to benefit from a racist society, and have no idea that it is working to your benefit, indeed, and critically, if it’s working properly you aren’t supposed to. Many liberals believe this to be the case, and many conservatives do not, and this is a main point of divergence. Either you believe white privilege (for example) is something that happens, or you don’t.

By contrast, the conservative storyline takes hard work, grit and most importantly, personal responsibility as the elements that carry the day. Outside factors, like those listed above, are disadvantages (if you acknowledge they exist, many conservatives don’t), but hey, everyone has disadvantages, even if they aren’t applied equally. It is the process of your story to apply discipline and perseverance to surmounting these obstacles. Then you’ll be, oh, paid what you’re worth, a Self Made Man, a Maker Not a Taker, and so on.

So if, according to the conservative storyline, the only events that befall us are those that arise from our choices, the only real way to be a racist is to be a cognitively committed racist, which you might even state openly, whereas to the liberal mind, it’s possible to be acting in a racist way simply by being insufficiently self-aware of one’s role in a racist system at any given moment.

This means for liberals, you might not think of yourself as a Klansman, but can take a racist step, and be acting in a racist way that– to your own misfortune– you did not even intend.
To the conservative, that doesn’t happen. If you are racist, it took a certain level of cognitive intention to get there. Somebody telling you that you have done a racist thing is typically a case of someone just being too sensitive, too ‘politically correct.’ I am not committed to the idea of inequality of the races. I am not a Klansman, ergo, I am not racist. Indeed, I believe in justice and fairness. I judge people individually.

(Now is a good moment to say not all liberals or conservatives think this way. I’m not painting with too broad a brush, but this is definitely a fat magic-marker. There are some, albeit few, conservatives who are deeply concerned and up-to-date with racial justice discussions, and plenty of otherwise liberal racists, to say nothing of liberal overcompensators who see the actions of structural racism at play in their cup of coffee. Not the point I’m making.)

The good news for the liberal method is that one is not cornered, and can usually revise their behavior if they so choose. This may involve momentary humility, but otherwise not too much ego-driven dissonance. Phrases like “check your privilege,” while deeply irritating, are a nod to the kind of quick reassessment that is possible in the liberal view. Liberals rarely think of themselves as racists, but feel attuned to its latency, and when they are, they feel pleased to think that they are at least capable of changing. Racism isn’t a terminal point, it’s a process that we need to be alert to, an ongoing negotiation with our psyche. We were all fed the same bad programming, and we have the tools to evaluate it. Indeed, sometimes no change will be necessary. The bad news for liberals is that this also means they toss around a word with an academic meaning in a way that devalues its social meaning, which is akin to an insult. Sometimes, confrontation is needed. Politics, however, is a science of persuasion.

The conservative method breaks but does not bend. Because racism is perceived as a commitment to an idea that they don’t feel they hold– you can’t accidentally wander into it. Accordingly, as a logical matter, it’s quite difficult for a conservative to ‘be’ racist, they can only be ‘a’ racist. That is, if I say I’m not, that would have to be the end of the discussion. My intentions, my responsibilities, aren’t accidental.

No wonder that the liberal accusations of republican racism don’t land, because they make conservatives feel cornered and unfairly tarred, and thus call the whole observation into question. It pushes too hard, if only because liberals don’t know how hard they are pushing. That flexibility is part of the worldview liberals think is shared.  It’s not.

The Trump phenomenon also draws from this well. People can only feel cornered so many times before they are compelled to back to the corner and hold the position. To have the target of the critique come to identify with the critique out of exhaustion or confusion is exactly the last outcome anyone should want.

Conservatives now take the idea that they may be engaging in racist demagoguery, for example, unseriously and wear the criticism as a badge of pride. They call this ‘not being politically correct.’ It’s a clean way for them to defang the critique without having to change, and it does the job. The message is extremely successful. You don’t need to change to meet the world, it promises. This was done to you. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you? (No!) Well, OK then.

Liberals will have a part to play, here, not because we’re wrong, but because we want to be effective and get the message through, and the message isn’t about Trump the man or the next demagogue to come along. The message is what qualifies as acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and reaffirming what our values are. Standing for something is what gets people activated, not knocking down a target (although that’s hand-in-hand).

We are trying to persuade, not accuse. So our strategy has to be to use language that is procedural, process-oriented, changeable, and focused on our ability to identify him by his deeds, not our ability to read his heart. Being critical of deeds triggers less ego defense, besides which, being a racist isn’t a permanent condition and should have as many exits as possible. This flexibility is the enduring advantage of a liberal mentality. If you’re not right, get right.

The final point here is that confronting the man-as-message instead of the content of the message leaves the field open for the next person to come along with the same message, repackaged and calling the last instance an unexpected aberration. Neither Ted Cruz’s stance on immigration nor Marco Rubio’s are an improvement, in case you haven’t been paying attention.

Trump the man isn’t the problem. American animus, and the way he plays it, is the problem.

So: Trump isn’t “an” Islamophobe. Trump “takes an Islamophobic step” by suggesting policy proposals that assume all Muslims share the same intentions toward the United States based on the actions of a few and collectively punishing them all.

Trump isn’t “a” racist for suggesting that most of the Latinos coming across the border are murderers and rapists. He “makes a racist argument” by doing this. None of us know what Trump thinks, indeed some of us suspect him to be a cynical manipulator who could care less about Latinos one way or the other. But we sure as hell know what he’s saying, and we aren’t having it.

Were I younger, a hardliner, I’d find this an insufficiently muscular approach to confronting a reckless proponent of dangerous ideas. I’ve come to see this as an error of perspective. This isn’t a military engagement and victories are not won in an instant. This is democratic persuasion, which almost never happens in real-time, but gradually. We need the tent to be big and our ideas clear, so we can draw some of his supporters back to the light, or, at least, out of the abyss. We don’t need to be the best at insulting our opponents, or shoving them out. We need Trump to lose, yes. More to the point: what we need, is to win.

Gun Control, Part II

Aaron Burr kills Alexander Hamilton.

Another week, another shooting, another month, another mass shooting, another quarter, another particularly startling mass shooting.  I’m actually writing this at the end of a week where we managed TWO mass shootings. [Edit: actually, there was another one the day I published this.

So, let’s take an updated look at some spurious claims:

Gun-Free Zones Endanger Civilians
Gun free zones aren’t intended to provide a force-field against rage shooters. Where they are most effective is when they protect the rest of us from legal gun owners that lack common sense, safety precautions, and decency, like open-carry groups at Target.  There are simply enough examples to show that loaded guns in public are unsafe, whether you are shooting yourself in gun safety class, shooting yourself in the movies, or the gun accidentally goes off.  It’s just a boneheaded thing to be doing.

Gun-Free Zones also mean the public doesn’t need to be qualified to do on-the-spot security assessments if we or professional Law-Enforcement Officers (LEOs)  see someone open carrying in the mall.  We can all safely know to run away and call the cops.

Other famous no-weapon zones: Dodge City, Tombstone, Deadwood, Ancient Athens, ancient Rome. In Athens, the belief was that it was disrespectful to the democratic project to open carry in the city area, and that the intimidation created by open-carrying “inherently undermined civic equality.”  Frankly, this seems both obviously true and obviously why most people open-carry: to confer an unearned advantage in any conflict.  Imperial Rome allowed citizens to own weaponry in the suburbs and rural areas, but they were forbidden inside of the urban center.  It’s also worth pointing out that these weapons had very little chance of being mishandled in a way that injured someone nearby.  A gladius doesn’t just ‘go off’, stabbing bystanders accidentally.  Further, a stabbing rampage is both a) identified and moved away from and b) dispatched quickly by any equally- or partially-armed group of larger size.  We see again and again that stabbers have limited body count because people run away.  In the most deadly cases the victims are confined or children.  A mass-stabbing is actually pretty difficult to pull off, unless you’re in an elevator.

Regulations Don’t Deter Criminals (e.g. Chicago)
Chicago has that many shootings despite stern gun regulations because as we now know, most of the guns are purchased outside of Chicago. The regulations are working and pushing that illegal commerce to the margins.

The unfortunate truism here is that the security fence is as strong as its weakest link.  Given this context, if you absolutely must purchase your gun in Chicago, this will have nontrivial cost implications on the black market (if you can find it, which may be more difficult for a maladjusted 16-year old wannabe-school shooter to do).

I don’t think this makes Chicago’s laws useless, but it does imply that they would work best if everyone else had them.   This brings us to an important bias we need to correct for in this discussion: we don’t need everyone to do it to see an improvement.

A common tactic on the pro-gun side is to point out weaknesses in any gun law in order to demonstrate them as totally ineffective, needlessly restricting legal gun owners’ rights.  But they don’t need to be totally effective: we aren’t trying to cheat death or stop all crime, any more than vehicle safety regulations ended all vehicle accidents.  Nonetheless, thousands of lives were saved by these regulations.

This brings me to my last point on this issue.  We need to stop underestimating the effect of small, incremental and meaningful changes.  If you believe in broken windows policing, lean startup methodology, or ‘Moneyball,’ you already know that small meaningful improvements aren’t part of the game– they’re the whole thing.  We now have research to back this up, as far as crime is concerned.  So sayeth The New Yorker:

“the central insight of the modern study of criminal violence is that all crime—even the horrific violent crimes of assault and rape—is at some level opportunistic. Building a low annoying wall against them is almost as effective as building a high impenetrable one.”

Committed actors will always find a way.  But the spur-of-the-moment shooting can become (almost) a thing of the past.

Gun Controls Are Spurious Over-Regulation (or, the cars-and-pools-are-more-dangerous and spoons-make-you-fat-so-why-bother Defense)
If a poorly handled spoon could explode, making someone else fat, you better believe society would and should make you eat your soup with a straw. I’m beginning to feel debased by having to respond to such nonsensical fallacies, but someone always wants to make them. Let’s please not talk about cars or swimming pools after this, but one last time:

Cars
Most gun control activists would be delighted with an outcome on firearms comparable to that of cars.  Imagine what fantastic data we would have on our firearms if, like cars:
1. We had to register each weapon and re-register it annually, whether we intended to fire it or not.
2. We had to subject any weapon to yearly inspection to verify its suitability for use, and it was a misdemeanor to otherwise operate it.
3. We needed liability insurance for each weapon.
4. We needed to take a course and be licensed by a specialist instructor before firing a weapon.
5. We had a state registry of every extant weapon, and each carried three to five distinct ID marks, with two known only to manufacturers and law enforcement, and a set of easy procedures for interstate identification
6. Improper storage or display could get you a ticket.
7. Sale or transfer of a weapon involved an exchange of title.
8. We kept our weapons stored and locked.
9. There were additional taxes on bullets.

While many firearm libertarians will no doubt see any regulation as an unjustifiable intrusion,  I actually see this as a missed opportunity for the gun industry, even though many of these apply in certain states already.  If the car market is any indicator, there are tremendous business possibilities baked into the system here, in the regulations, the market and aftermarket, and more opportunities for customer touch-points. You can only lead a horse to water, I guess.

So, yeah– the car comparison is apt– and my side would be happy if it applied. It doesn’t.

Pools
First off: pools are indeed more statistically dangerous to their owners than guns.  That is very clearly true.

What seems less obvious  is that pools are statistically only dangerous to their owners and their families.  If you could bring a pool to the mall, or sneak it into the movies in your jacket, we’d be having a very different conversation about externalizing risk.  A pool also can be secured many simple ways that dramatically reduce the exposure to danger. It IS dangerous. But it’s statistically dangerous to you, the owner.

Finally, as Adam Gopnik points out, at this moment in history the proverbial pool of gun violence is overflowing with the bodies of neighborhood kids. Sometimes having a pool is nice, but with this many dead kids floating in it, we’d have to be monstrous not to have it filled.

Spoons Make You Fat
The pro-gun movement often advances the argument that guns, as inanimate objects, don’t cause mayhem any more than spoons make you fat.  This appears to be an attempt to create a reducto ad absurdiam, I hope.

It’s just a stupid thing to say, and you are stupid for saying it.

Guns Don’t Kill, People Do (and Mental Illness is the Culprit)
Actually, people mainly just injure, unless there’s a gun in the picture. It’s really hard to reliably kill someone without a gun in the same amount of time as you can do with a gun.  They’ll always find a way to do it, it’s just that guns remain the BEST way.  Or as David Frum put it: “Every mass shooter has his own hateful motive. They all use the same tool.”

Mental illness is indeed a culprit.  Also, sometimes carelessness, temporary depression, poor judgment due to alcohol and drugs and just generally being the kind of dipshit that points a loaded weapon at someone is the culprit.  Crazy happens. Stupid also happens– ask how many people in prison are there for something they did while drunk or high (spoiler: most).

There is no reason that a solution that addresses mental illness can’t work alongside a solution that reduces access to weapons in the first place, and that kind of cross-disciplinary solution is the only approach that is going to work with an issue of this complexity. That said, too often in this debate, mental illness is brought out as a tactic to distract from the core issue.

Here’s a statistic we never talk about because we can’t talk about it: the amount of killing/suicide that was averted because the household didn’t own guns.  This seems impossible to reliably prove, and yet our intuitions can readily extrapolate that given how many guns deaths we already have given x gun supply in y houses, how much of a spike are we looking at, given a gun in all houses? Certain countries (e.g. Switzerland) endure this already, and have extremely strong controls around the legal usage and transport of the gun.  The ammunition supply is audited.  The gun is kept locked in storage.  The weapon is envisioned for use in defense of the nation, not to protect the household.  This is a non-trivial distinction and constrains the likelihood of accidents.

Growing up, I knew kids whose parents had guns. Every one of them thought of themselves as responsible gun owners (one who I will not name was an executive in the NRA). And every time, EVERY TIME, that gun eventually came out, and about half the time, was fired, usually behind the parents’ back. So, I’m not surprised we see this kind of shooting. I’m surprised we see it so little. (Incidentally, the NRA kid actually defended his house from a home invasion. That ended with him cutting the robber, who was probably looking for a TV but would have found the mother lode of guns, quite badly with a samurai sword. The man of course, was trying desperately to escape when he was cut, so my friend didn’t need the gun in two different ways).

Sadly, this conversation continues.