Little Christs

October 2, 2015

An incredibly deep, Christian account of the recent Umpqua shooting.

Sulfur-Free Jesus

[Texts: Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-6]

So far in 2015, in fewer than 280 days, we’ve had 294 mass shootings.

Two hundred and ninety-four. 

No, not 294 victims of shootings. 294 shootings—294 discrete events in which at least four victims died apiece, according to the FBI’s definition of a “mass shooting”. (So, for example, three shootings in one day doesn’t mean that three people died; it means no fewer thantwelve people died.)

After this most recent tragedy—the shooting on Thursday that claimed ten lives at a community college in Oregon—my best friend tweeted that she felt “undone” by the violence and pain in the world. 

I’d say that describes how most of us probably feel, yeah?

With the exception of the writing I’ve done about Heather Cook’s situation, I have never written a blog post while choking on my own tears. Well, until today. Bear with…

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Compassion Fatigue and Charleston

June 24, 2015

The shootings in Charleston have captured a nation’s attention.

There have been some pretty laudable discussions emerging from this tragedy. I have seen three narratives emerge: A discussion about mental health, a discussion about guns, and a discussion about race.

Let’s be clear: This issue is first and foremost about race. Dylann Storm Roof does not seem to be a lunatic, or a spree killer motivated by a psychological break. His manifesto clearly paints him as an intentional white supremacist, motivated by hatred against people of color. As Paul Street has pointed out, any other social problem that we view as being connected to this tragedy is secondary.

But, that having been said, it does make sense that, if guns were better regulated, perhaps skinheads wouldn’t get them as often. And it does make sense that, if we had better mental health treatment, some very angry people might be able to talk about the real source of their problems and anger.

I, of course, look at Dylann Storm Roof and see a very consistent pattern, which is common in violence. He’s male. He’s white. He’s 21 years old, young and angry and full of spittle. He’s a skinhead, responding to what he views (correctly enough) as a huge ethnic change in Charleston. We can see how angry people, who feel like they or the people like them were once in charge and had power but have had that power taken away from them,

Just today, I read an article about fanatic violence in America, and this is what came up: “The primary character structure of who’s involved in fanatic violence are shown here to be people who were raised in authoritarian-oriented backgrounds, who find themselves marginal, and “unnecessary” persons in postmodern American society.”

That seems to be a terrifyingly accurate picture of Dylann Storm Roof.

But here’s where I find myself very much alienated from the present cultural proceedings.

In fact, ironically, I found myself agreeing most with the Economist’s analysis. Their cynical tone is grotesque, and they are utterly wrong to think that it is impossible for Americans to civilize their society, but I too saw this shooting as just part of a pattern: A pattern of compassion fatigue, of highly localized atrocities causing all of us to pour out wonderfully human responses like anger at injustice, compassion for the victims, and tears at the violence in the world. But so many of us will spend those emotions, outpouring our heart to these tragedies, and then be too exhausted to make sure that residential segregation isn’t a problem in our own neighborhoods, or that the banks in our communities are not systematically screwing over people of color. The cycle of outrage exhausts our mental and emotional resources, leading us to focus on problems we can’t do anything about. I am sure so many of you have heard people talk about how afraid they are about a world full of terror attacks and shootings, which they can’t stop or protect their family from. I have a friend who reacted to the shooting with fear that it’d spark renewed racial conflict and anger. In the social media era, we participate in a myopic, short-term cycle of bursts of outrage. It’s not just the big media institutions doing this to us anymore: We are participating in the flagellation.

The reforms that we are hearing discussed include removing the Confederate flag, having better mental health infrastructure, regulating firearms… A lot of them make sense. In particular, if we would improve our social infrastructure, from foster care to mental health screenings, millions of people would be better off.

The problem with the entire discussion is that Dylann Storm Roof, with his name that evokes the idea of quaint Southern hillbillies to many of us outside of the South, is that you can’t take very much from what he did as indicative of broader culture and broader social problems.

White liberals, and even many progressives and leftists who really should know better, have a big problem: We always like to think about the problem of racism as the KKK, as skinheads, as racist rants by comedians.

We get on our high horse and become incensed by the “N-word”, while we say little about the lack of a full employment policy that keeps quite a lot of people, people of color especially, perpetually out of work.

The compassion fatigue cycle that our media, social and traditional, lock all of us into is not conducive to changing these things.

No one can do anything about Dylann’s actions. They are now another part of our tragic racial history.

Perhaps someone can do something about Mr. Storm Roof himself. Perhaps outreach from the right people could lead him to abandon hate. (Given where he is likely to be going in the near future, this is a long shot).

But the vast majority of us getting up in arms can do very little. People in the South can have another iteration of the symbolic debate to eliminate the Confederate flag. And those of us in the North can… try to push through gun legislation, I guess?

People ride wave after wave of crises like these and iteratively lose hope. And all of us, left and right, allow it to keep happening.

How many white liberals posted something to their Facebook walls about this tragedy but have said nothing for years while the segregated schools in their communities are named Martin Luther King Jr. High?

How many of us have remained quiet while our coworkers said racist jokes, because “They’re just kidding around”?

How many of us have turned a blind eye to a homeless person, or to a person emitting that telltale aura of deep depression, instead of trying to do something about it?

Most of us are not Dylann Storm Roof. Most of us are not members of Stormfront. But every one of us has grown up in a society that has had racial and class divisions.

The average American is not as angry as Dylann Storm Roof, but they will have subconscious biases. For example: When you inform the average white American of the huge disproportions in terms of incarceration in the criminal justice system, many actually react positively, increasing their support for more brutal policies! See, they assume, logically enough without some kind of narrative that explains why the assumption is ignorant and racist, that the disproportionate incarceration must mean that black people are disproportionately dangerous. Then we have the fact that, “Between 1976 and 2011, the percentage of young whites who said they never worried about race relations nearly tripled”. Given how ignorant so many white people, even very well-educated young whites, are about privilege, can we really be so surprised that people like Roof might well think that blacks are not disenfranchised but actually an incredible danger to them?

The average mentally ill person in the United States will not shoot up a church or a movie theater. They will quietly suffer, trying to keep the chasm of their depression or their anxiety from engulfing the people close to them. They will keep coworkers and friends at bay from their pain.

And people like Dylann come from a real place. They have real anger. They see crime in their neighborhood. The statistics may be distorted, the presentation of the crime may be racialized, and the media may be overhyping the bad and underplaying the good, but there are real threats in some communities. They see that it is harder and harder for people like them to get a job. They are afraid of threats from terrorists, afraid of not being able to provide for their family. And too many people will lecture them for being racists instead of asking, “Why are you so angry?”

Because, in fact, the threats that Dylann and people like him really face aren’t from people of color by and large.  The poverty and the lack of opportunity that we all face, especially the millennial generation, are a result of policies pushed forward by a very small elite, who are mostly white straight males. But the corporate media will not discuss that to any real degree, being owned by mostly white straight males. And even with parallel communication networks and parallel media being possible as a result of the Internet and modern technology, we on the left side of the spectrum have not been able to give people a coherent alternative worldview that might let them let go of their anger and put it toward something better than just lashing out and hurting.

That’s something we can actually do something about.

Those of us outside Charleston are not likely to be able to do much to help that community heal. But we can all make sure our own communities’ wounds are better salved. Every single one of us can learn more about the cultures that we live with. We can listen when we are told about segregation and discrimination. We can make sure local businesses are hiring fairly, local banks are lending fairly, local apartment complexes are renting fairly. We can raise consciousness about the anger and hopelessness so many of us feel.

Michael Levi’s “The Power Surge” and Why Everything We Think is Wrong

December 5, 2014

Ever since I began to ideologically identify myself as an anarchist thirteen years ago, I have always felt a distance from almost every political discussion. I find myself in almost every political debate having to go back to the very basic principles, because in fact our whole discussion of almost every political debate we have is basically wrong. From abortion to LGBTQ rights to military and security policy, we always have the wrong arguments. I intend to write an entire book about this topic at some point, but for now let me offer an example.

Michael Levi in The Power Surge examines very carefully many competing factors in energy policy, mostly as regards the United States but also considering the way that corporations dominating the energy sector (both in sustainable energy and in petrochemicals) certainly has implications for inequality and for power consolidation in the hands of economic elites. Ultimately, Levi tries to take a position that’s fundamentally centrist. He criticizes both “purists” of green energy and of traditional energy, as well as purists in many other domains.

Don’t get me wrong: This is actually a really fascinating book. He really goes into depth about both green and traditional technology. As a scholar for the Council on Foreign Relations, it’d be ludicrous to reject Levi’s position outright.

However, as I read the book, it becomes clear to me Levi assumes certain metrics that actually makes it so that many of his conclusions are too easy to defend. In fact, when considering energy, we must go beyond traditional measures of economic efficiency and prosperity, precisely because it is so hard to measure long-term and chaotic effects.

I know this is a complicated idea, so it bears repeating: Every statistic you usually hear about the economy is basically useless. GDP, GNP, corporate profits… they only ever capture the idea of “efficiency” in an extremely limited way. The United States could double GDP by building trillions of dollars’ worth of bombs or by building trillions of dollars’ worth of supercomputers. Sure, you do want to have some kind of measures that are basically “value-free”. But if the only way you measure the economy and the “growth” of that economy is by a metric that says that pollution is good while a family saving money for their child’s college is bad, you have a massive problem.

Market systems have a gigantic failing. If a cost is external to a buyer and a seller, then the buyer and the seller reap benefits that other people have to pay for. If there’s one principle of microeconomics everyone should know, it’s the idea of the externality.

With that in mind, we have to read Levi’s book very critically.

Consider, for example, Levi quoting without critical comment Chevron CEO John Watson’s opinion that “on a per-unit basis, stripped of subsidies, [green energies] are not cost-competitive with fossil fuels”. Watson’s argument may seem to make sense by a very strict market analysis, but it is actually the height of idiocy. It is exactly the “per-unit” and “cost-competitive” metrics that are the problems with really creating a balanced energy policy. It’s cheap at the pump to buy gasoline, for example, but why is that the case? It’s “efficient” for energy producers to extract petrochemicals, for gas stations and other stores to sell them to the consumer, and for the consumer to pump it into their cars. But the pollution that makes people have asthma, the cost of individualized transportation instead of mass transportation in terms of road maintenance and congestion, the destruction of habitats… those aren’t efficient. Those have immense and real costs.

It may not really be Watson’s fault on this front, of course. It’s difficult to measure something like the impact that a species going extinct may have. Any one individual species going extinct may not be a keystone species that impacts the whole ecosystem, but enough species go extinct and there can come a disastrous tipping point. And it’s actually impossible to really measure the impact to quality of life that can emerge from certain kinds of pollution. Can someone reasonably put a price tag on a child suffering from asthma, or the loss of natural beauty from pollution and roadways being created?

Levi doesn’t touch on these issues sufficiently, which makes it easy to criticize those who advocate green energy and consider a “balanced” approach. The very reason why we are now seeing a “balanced” approach in the market economy is precisely because the way that we count productivity, whether it be corporate profits or the GDP, makes it so that sustainable energy is now starting to make some money. But the efficiency of petrochemicals, given that they are a non-renewable resource, may never have actually really been higher than any renewable energy. Every single petrochemical that is used will never be recreated.

In all of the analysis of biofuels, for example, Levi barely discusses the fact that biofuels are renewable (pages 22, and 120-138). Levi notes that the challenge for biofuels has been “expense” (page 120). But the expense is not really important when compared to the fact that oil will go away while corn can be grown year-in and year-out. Market systems by their very nature don’t ration: Future generations, or even present people a day from now, don’t have any say in a market system because they don’t have any dollars. And governments have proven loathe to actually properly ration and control non-renewable resources. Maybe non-renewable resources should be allowed to be extracted at an unlimited rate, or a very high rate. But the fact that Levi doesn’t even note that there is an issue of rights of future peoples to be debated is a big issue.

Hell, why does one person get to pump oil from the ground at all? Or, even more pointedly: Why do immortal persons with more rights than people – yes, corporations have more rights, even if just by dint of the fact that they’re people that don’t die – get to pump oil out of the ground at all? One could easily argue that everyone has a common right to the benefits of a non-renewable resource. The United States has had a huge energy supply, for example, which has brought it prosperity. But the fact that there is one United States now, instead of, say, a Lakota nation-state and an Iroquois nation-state, is because our ancestors took the land by violence. Why should corporations in the United States now have the right to that oil? Why should the government?

Yes, the right to “private property”, you might say, justifies all that. But you can see how you actually have to have the discussion about exactly how far the right to private property should ever extend to really make the discussion meaningful. Do you think that people like John Locke envisioned hundreds of years ago that the private ownership of resources could lead to that entire category of resources not existing for anyone else ever again, across all of time and space?

Similarly, in the entire book, Levi mentions Native Americans once. Yes, I’m doing this based off of Google Books which isn’t a perfect search engine, but the search terms “indigenous” and “aboriginal” don’t even appear. Nor does “First Nation”.

Anyone who knows about oil politics in any real capacity knows that you can’t talk about oil without talking about the indigenous peoples who often live on the land where oil is being extracted. Ecuadoran native peoples and their conflicts with Texaco are just one example.

Okay, so Levi can’t review every part of oil politics, even in a book that’s about two hundred pages worth of content. But it’s always illustrative what people talk about and what they leave out.

So Levi’s basic conclusion, that (as according to the summary) “Both unfolding revolutions in American energy [traditionalist efforts to get more gas from fracking and similar efforts on the one hand and green energy on the other] offer big opportunities for the country to strengthen its economy, bolster its security, and protect the environment… [and Americans should] seize those with a new strategy that blends the best of old and new energy while avoiding the real dangers that each poses” can’t be supported. The values of many people who want green energy just aren’t Levi’s values. I don’t have the same values as John Watson. I don’t care about what he cares about. We’re not likely to ever be in the same room.

Until we can consider that tens of thousands of children more having asthma as a result of smog can’t just be measured as an impact by the cost of doctor’s bills, we can’t talk about green energy in any way that makes sense.

Until we can find some way to measure the heartache that comes from someone seeing their favorite forest being destroyed to make way for a new bypass, words like “efficiency” are just propaganda.

Banishing Cynicism

December 5, 2014

Cynicism needs to be banished from humanity’s collective thought process.

I don’t mean the classical Greek concept of the Cynic with a capital C. Diogenes  had many great traits and his philosophy had wonderful components to it. The legend of him telling Alexander the Great to “Stand out of my sunlight” is a fantastic example of a man speaking truth to power with courage. Diogenes rejected property, challenged    Plato’s interpretation of Socrates, and violated social rules. Though often unpleasant, his personality and his philosophy battled social hypocrisy.

No, I mean modern cynicism, with a little “c”.

You know the kind of cynicism I’m talking about. The reaction to an atrocity that states, “That’s just what human beings do”. The idea that “those people”, whoever they are, just can’t possibly change. We see it everywhere: On Facebook walls, from the mouths of pundits, from our elected officials.

It’s the reaction that expected that the Egyptian revolution would end with them returning to a dictatorship, and that that therefore meant that the whole enterprise was worthless.

It’s the reaction to police brutality that states that people with power just tend to beat others.

I’ve had people insist to me that they shouldn’t bother telling others how they feel because every person, without exception, would react by telling them to shove it. I’ve had people insist to me that there’s no point in talking to anyone in the Middle East about trying to improve their gender relations or work with them to develop a better way of living because they’re just like that. If I suggest anything, from the idea that we could improve the foster care system to the idea that we might be able to have better economic and political institutions, one of the major reactions is, “It’s all fucked, there’s no point in trying”.

Okay, I’m picking some of the most extreme examples. But I invite everyone reading this to consider: Was there something that they’ve heard from others or even said themselves in the last week that simply assumed that something couldn’t be accomplished, with no real research or evidence to back it up? Did they hear someone just assume that another person was irredeemably stupid or angry or flawed?

We can all recognize, as individuals, that we can’t do anything to advance ourselves unless we believe in ourselves. Though it is a cliché, Henry Ford’s statement, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right”, still points to powerful wisdom. No matter how hard people believe in themselves, they can never flap their wings and fly into the sky. But if humanity had therefore given up on the dream of flight, we wouldn’t have helicopters and airplanes.

In educational theory, it’s often said that students rise to the level of our expectations. If a teacher thinks that a student is stupid, that student will absorb that concept, that self-image. Meanwhile, if a teacher insists that a student has potential, that student will be able to find it. Sure, not every student will be a budding Mozart in music. They may not be a young Picasso. But those students will surely do better if they are given the tools to succeed.

Cynics are like bad and hopeless teachers, but for the whole human race.

Every single time someone says, “People are just like that”, without having exhausted every way of perhaps making it so people aren’t like that, a ceiling is being built on all of our aspirations.

Think about it. The cynic saying, “People just suck, they just commit violence, rob, steal and rape” has just lowered their hurdle to a simple step. As long as the cynic doesn’t do any of those things, they’re fine.

Whenever people I know discuss ethics, I almost always hear about what ethicists call “negative duties”: What we shouldn’t do. We shouldn’t kill, we shouldn’t steal, we shouldn’t lie.

What should we do?

How many people have honestly looked inside and asked, “What do I owe this world? What should I do to improve my community? What are my values, not in the sense of what I think is wrong but what I know is right?”

We need the answer to that question to be, “Everyone”.

Every time we make some snarky comment on Twitter that racists will always be racists, we let those racists off the hook for losing the battle against their own ignorance and hatred.

Every time we respond to some problem that someone is expressing by noting that there’s a lot of other problems, we’re impeding the ability to solve every single one of the problems we mention. No one says, “There’s no point in doing the dishes because we also have to take out the trash”.

I’ve been guilty of this cynicism too. Cynicism is so warm and safe. It justifies our cocoon of inaction. It leaves us free from having to be hurt if we try to fix things and fail. It lets us distantly comment from a place of safety instead of having to admit that we care about something and then having to defend that passion from those who disagree.

I’m not saying that every person should become an inveterate optimist. I’m not even suggesting that every person must adopt the maxim of “Optimism of the spirit, pessimism of the intellect”.

Nor am I saying that every solution that someone suggests should be adopted. Some solutions are just harebrained. Others are plausible on their face but are unworkable or not possible to achieve within a reasonable timeframe.

I would never accept anyone telling me, my friends, or anyone I love, “You can’t achieve your dreams”. No good parent would ever sit by while an authority figure told their child, “You’re just not good enough to do what you believe you should”.

We should stop accepting that for everyone’s children.

Police Psychology and Popular Culture: The Aftermath of Ferguson

December 3, 2014

As the Ferguson protests die down, I return to a question that I have been preoccupied with. How can we explain the emergence of a police culture that seems responsible for violence? Moreover, given that we’ve known about the problems of police brutality for decades, what keeps making good men choose to go into the force? I think the interesting question isn’t so much why people in an organization go bad, but rather, why they would want to choose to go into an organization in the first place.

My background both in sociology and in left politics has caused me to try to look at society institutionally. When we see a pattern, even within a single organization let alone across a nation, we know that there has been to a problem that goes beyond any individual.

For example: Defenders of police officers will often suggest that there are only a few bad apples in most departments. In fact, it does seem likely that a lot of the brutality that we hear about is probably committed by a minority of cops. These officers likely keep on moving up the line from minor acts of abuse to major ones. Darren Wilson, the officer in the Ferguson case, is illustrative: He was on what the Washington Post called a “troubled police force” in Jennings. Studies of police in the field find that the norms that are instilled in them in the academy tend to go away fairly quickly. That’s because people in any professional arena tend to learn the norms about what define a good worker from their fellow workers. A cop, then, learns what defines a good cop and a bad cop from other cops: Their partners, members of police fraternities, and so forth.

I have known many police officers. A dear friend of mine became a police officer, and I would be absolutely confident of his compassion, his sensitivity, and his awareness of issues like race, gender and class. He was and is an informed, intelligent person. And of my interactions with police officers, the majority have been positive, even at leftist rallies. In the interest of full disclosure: I’m a white, straight male of a middle-class background, so I’m definitely not in the sociological risk categories for police abuse.

I keep reminding people who I feel get vitriolic about police officers: These are our neighbors. They are friends and family. Cops are workers in blue suits. Any meaningful left politics should be building solidarity with police officers and soldiers along labor lines.

So how can our neighbors, our friends, our family, get so misled when they join the force that they graduate to what appears to be an unfortunately all-too-routine pattern of misconduct and violence?

We as leftists often fail to really consider the way that popular culture and the trends in our society impact the way that people think. It’s easy when we’re talking about officers to talk about individual bad apples or to talk about racism writ large. But real people aren’t defined totally by their individual characteristics, nor are they defined exclusively by huge forces like “racism”. They’re always defined by the interactions in their real environment, with their real social network and with their real lived experiences.

There’s two data points that I think are very important in this discussion. The first is one of the most interesting statistics Cop Block reports. In 2010, the majority of police misconduct claims that involved excessive force were about firearms, not about tasers, police dogs, or even any kind of excessive unarmed blows. The other is the idea of the “thin blue line” and the way many officers have stood in what they view as solidarity with Wilson.

In the United States, we’ve had generations of culture that has emphasized the danger of society, of both the city and the country. From Death Wish to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, we’ve seen the idea that there are dangerous people everywhere become a staple of films, books and television shows. Some of our most popular characters are vigilantes. Batman has eclipsed Superman in the eyes of many (especially whites) as the most iconic superhero. Superman’s idealism was born from a New Deal idea of solidarity: A true superman would devote himself to protecting his neighbors and advancing the dreams of mankind. Batman’s ambitions are markedly less optimistic. Especially in his incarnations as imagined by Frank Miller and those who followed in Miller’s footsteps, Batman is a nuclear option against criminals, an ultimate deterrent who tries to keep the filth of Gotham under control. Most Americans don’t psychologically live in Superman’s Metropolis anymore: They live in Batman’s Gotham.

So, let’s say you’re a child like me or Darren Wilson, children of the 1980s. (Me and Wilson were both born in the same year, 1986). We watch films like Death Wish or Dirty Harry. We tune into Law and Order and hear about how the “city” (yes, New York, but New York and Los Angeles become stand-ins for the entirety of America outside of our safe spaces) is becoming a cesspool. We read Batman, play with the Batman toys.

Nor is it just the idea of vigilantism against domestic foes that infiltrates popular culture. In shows like 24 and films where terrorists are the villain, we as a culture are taught to root for the American hero against the foreign threat. I love Commando. It’s a fantastic piece of cheesy popcorn cinema, and a film I share in common with the cop friend I mentioned earlier. Commando has an American (okay, Schwarzenegger, so an “East German” immigrant) dealing with the threat to his family of a Latin American dictator.

Then Cops comes on, and even as we laugh at both some of the officers and suspects, we are seeing a narrative being reinforced: Cops have to deal with dangerous, stupid, intoxicated people in the ghetto and in trailer parks.

I can go on with these examples. Boondock Saints, for example, features Irish vigilantes dealing with Russian and Italian mob scum. Even though the specter of race isn’t involved

The Commando, Death Wish, Batman and Dirty Harry style of masculinity combine with the cultural messages that we as Americans routinely get that there are dangers everywhere to form a toxic cultural combination.

Now, what if we are compassionate people being bombarded with this idea of being a masculine hero cleaning up the streets?

We can be cops , or we can be soldiers.

I have to admit that, if my background were slightly different, I might very well have become a police officer or a soldier. The idea of going out and solving problems appeals to my sense of knighthood and of heroism.

So a cop joins the force, filled with ideas in his head of cleaning up the streets, of stopping rapists and child molesters like those featured in Law and Order: SVU and True Detective, maybe getting a handle on the problems of society.

And that’s when the bad training by other officers takes over. That’s when the subconscious bias that we all deal with as people in a society with racial caste structures begins to come into play. That’s when toxic elements of police culture and the eroding effect of seeing inhumanity day in and day out cause officers to begin to compromise and lose their innocence.

What does that all mean for leftists?

It means we need to start with a different cultural narrative.

We need to keep reminding our fellow countrymen that some of our biggest threats are not from the inner city, or from trailer parks, or from creepy rednecks, but from men in corporate boardrooms who may never even conceive of committing violence directly and yet whose prosperity depends on that violence. We need to keep reminding our neighbors that, as Tim Wise has so often put it, the trillions that disappeared as a result of malfeasance and idiocy in 2008 weren’t vanished by black retail criminals but by overwhelmingly white executives and financial managers.

We need to give our officers perspective. It isn’t the 1970s and 1980s anymore. Violent crime declined in the 1990s. The crack epidemic has run its course. Of course there are problems with all sorts of crime in the United States. But, as Noam Chomsky has repeatedly pointed out, this is the only country where crime is a political issue. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this is also the country that produces the world’s action movies.

We need to be helping our fellow voters to stop rushing to the ballot with ever more “tough on crime” solutions. As one of my Professors, Sasha Abramsky, put it regarding the Polly Klaas case that ultimately led to three strikes becoming the national albatross that it has become, very few people remember the tragic case of Polly Klaas anymore. The 24-hour news cycle leads people to want their kneejerk reaction of fear to be transmuted into a policy to make them feel safe temporarily, and all too often policymakers listen.

We need to be training officers and teaching those people interested in being officers and soldiers to be more compassionate, more aware of the humanity of people who they may interact with in a capacity as criminals, and more interested in the process of transforming society to be more positive and loving than just picking up messes.

We of course must be undermining the narrative of racism that still pervades our culture. Officers need to look at a young black kid in a nice car and not think, “Drug dealer”. We need to be training people to overcome stereotypes. That may include going beyond a narrative of “sensitivity” to include the fact that using stereotypes in any capacity, whether as police or as private citizens, is just a terrible security policy. We need to be reminding people that the vigilance that we expend on the racial Other has a direct cost in reducing the vigilance that we have for the threats in our immediate social network and geographic space, the threats we are actually likely to have to deal with.

We have to be helping young boys find a better model of masculinity. We should be teaching them to embrace role models like Dr. King. I love the idea of being a knight. But because of my particular history, my idea of knighthood as an aesthetic to live toward includes the usage of violence only as a last resort, the belief in redeeming others through word and deed, patience, forbearance, and love.

Of course, we do have to be making reforms to police departments: Better oversight, body cameras, empowering officers to be able to come forward when they see their fellow officers engaging in violence (as, unfortunately, the majority report according to a Department of Justice study), making sure that officers who commit violence take their share of the legal and financial burden so that the problem isn’t shifted to taxpayers, and so forth.

Finally, we need to be taking our politicians, our policy advocates, and leaders in the police department to task for constantly suggesting that a punitive legalistic approach is the best way of solving our problems. There’s certainly a lot to fix in the United States. There’s a lot we could do to make our society more free of rape, of sexual abuse, of theft and violence. I’ve spent ten years of my life trying to repair the damage in people who have endured the failure of our society to protect them from sexual predators.

But better policing is only part of the solution. We need to solve the root evils of poverty, militarism, patriarchal violence and values that lead us to believe that the best way to solve a threat is to beat it into submission, and psychological pain. We need to embrace better social welfare policies, mental health infrastructure, educational policies, policies that will provide for the professional development and employment of every person ready to work so that no one has to resort to an underground parallel economy. And, as leftists, we need to be encouraging others to hope that a better world with better institutions is possible.

It’s As Easy As 1-2-3! Aspirations and Finding Them

September 2, 2014

I usually hate when people boil something down to banal trivialities. I find myself despising it when people take a complex process and try to pretend that it can be reduced to something “As simple as 1-2-3”.


So, here’s an analysis of my own 1-2-3 approach to complex problems!


Specifically, my approach whenever I help anyone deal with any personal and psychological issues (and in fact it’s a good general approach to many problems) is the following:


#1: Identify where you’re at.


#2: Make a list of aspirations.


#3: Construct an action plan.


This sounds simple, and in matter of fact you can do each part relatively easily in many different contexts. But there’s two things that need to be analyzed before you can use this approach.


First of all, we as human beings tend to want to focus on step #3. But in actuality, step #3 is nearly automatic when #1 and #2 are done correctly. Truly identifying a problem, especially when it’s an emotional problem that requires admitting weakness and fault and real hurt, is difficult. We often want to leap to the point where we find a solution, but we have to actually live in the moment of the problem. And really figuring out what we want and why is actually an immensely challenging process.


Once we’ve figured out where we actually are, with no self-serving illusions, and once we’ve figured out what we actually want, the mind has an incredible ability to begin subconsciously working on implementing the action plan.


More importantly, and today’s main topic, is the complexity of #2.


When I work with people on bridging the gap between #2 and #3, I have to do what seems like two contradictory things. I write this post now because last night I was in the process of doing so for myself. (Everything I suggest when working with people is techniques that I have personally used, including every chapter of Skillful Means).

First, I have to tell someone to not censor their aspirations at all.


Do you want to kiss George Clooney? Great, write that down.


Want a billion dollars? Add that to the list.


We have a natural instinct to try to keep our aspirations down. We want them to be realistic. We don’t want to admit aspirations that seem selfish. In particular, we often struggle to admit aspirations that society doesn’t want us to have.


For example: I want a partner who is willing to explore D/s and ravishment fantasy play. (If you don’t know what that is: Google is your friend… if you’re careful).


I admit this in public because my work requires me to be metaphorically naked. But it’s also a good example of the kind of thing that many people would struggle to admit. It’d be too problematic to their self-image. Hopefully, the work that was done at step #1 would force the honesty here, but it will still be hard at step #2 to admit it as something that could be desired.


For this process to work, it has to be complete. Someone has to list everything they want.


The reason why is that the list of aspirations is not really to actually achieve.


It’s diagnostic.


When we see written out all the things that we want, we can then start putting priorities to them. I suggest people use Very Low, Low, Medium, High and Very High, effectively a simple Likert scale.


Someone might realize that their desire to kiss George Clooney or actually be in a Hollywood movie or anything like that is Very Low. Yes, the idea’s cool, but they come to realize as they think about implementing it that they don’t really want it.


Meanwhile, their desire to actually become a good chef may be Very High. They might realize that they love cooking so much that they want to pursue that dream.


When we fully understand the networks of our desires and where they come from, we can move onto the second, seemingly contradictory step.


Because now that we’ve listed everything, we have to start tapering. Brutally.


This process can seem difficult. It can mean sometimes compromising on dreams. It means selecting how we will spend our time and how we will be defined.


But this tapering process is actually liberating.


Throughout history, most human beings had staggeringly few options. Paleolithic people were going to be hunter-gatherers. Maybe you were also a storyteller, or a drum-maker, or a weapon maker, but you were certainly going to be a hunter-gatherer. In feudal societies, most people were going to be farmers and serfs, the bulk of society providing food so a small elite could do anything else and have relative material security, expecting full well that they and their children and their children’s children would forever be in this state of agonizing lifelong work.


But options can be paralyzing. When we stand in the middle of a massive field and see every possible direction we can go, sometimes we find ourselves choosing none.


Tapering down options and making selections is difficult at first, but it becomes a relief. It frees our minds. It allows us to eliminate expectations. It lets us realize that the reason why we haven’t achieved many of our dreams is that they were phantasms rather than true aspirations of the soul.


Because it can be psychically jarring to go from opening the heart to every possibility to shutting the mind’s doors against idle thoughts, we may have to do these two steps separately. But they need to be done.


Perhaps the most important thing that we can discover by doing this is realizing not just what our aspirations are, but why.


One of the most important things to realize about human psychology is this: Two people can have the same goal for very different reasons.


I want to make more money. I find myself not only wanting to be more free from monetary concerns but also wanting to be able to aid friends and family, give to causes I care about, and have the latitude to pursue options and projects.


Yet I don’t really want consumer goods. Aside from a penchant for Steam games (which I’ve managed to mercifully shut down) and other occasional stupid purchases, I find myself generally being quite satisfied with what I have, materially.


This isn’t to brag or say that I’m some kind of saint. I have desires, they just generally are not fulfilled by material possessions. (I must admit, an Iron Chef pilgrimage would be expensive and yet a goal I do have).


But other people might quite justifiably want to make more money so they can enjoy creature comforts. They may want to have a powerful car, or a lavish home, or be able to pursue expensive projects and hobbies such as constructing model train sets.


The guy who wants the model train set, we’ll call him Rod, and I share a goal: Increasing how much money we make. But our action plans to get there have to be totally different.


If someone like me were to try to choose to make good money because they wanted to provide for their friends and family, if they found consistently that that was the reason for that aspiration, then they would want to avoid doing jobs that might require compromises that might lead them away from that aspiration. Someone who wanted money  for private consumption like Rod does, on the other hand, would be able to pursue virtually any career that paid well.


A person who wants children to satisfy their parents’ desire for grandchildren may need to recognize that that is not a particularly healthy reason to pursue children. A person who wants to get more friends because they feel lonely may need to recognize that they may feel lonely even surrounded by people. We can begin to get a diagnosis of our internal ailments by examining our external desires.


I have found consistently that the biggest predictor of the way people endure trauma and the costs of living and move through difficulty is their feeling of purpose. When you have something to live for, events that would cripple others can wash over you. Moving through #2 and getting to #3 can give us a desire to fulfill our dreams and an awareness of what specifically we want. So many people struggle to get by in life not because of the challenges of life but because they haven’t found something that burns hotter than the darkness outside. When we know what we want, we can recognize that the costs that we often endure are part and parcel of what we’re pursuing. And simply recognizing that the challenges in our life are so often of our own choosing can be tremendously liberating.


Post-scriptum: I am considering doing a video on this topic. Please comment if there would be any interest; I also have a video planned on sacrificing to the altar of our beliefs!

True Blood Series Finale

August 26, 2014

The True Blood series finale was the most disappointing, grossly inappropriate series finale since Dexter.

This will take a little bit of explanation, and some spoilers will follow.

I’m a fan of a good, happy ending ending. But there are many deeply bittersweet stories that are some of my most cherished. Seven Samurai ends on a hollow note, with the samurai facing defeat even as the peasants will emerge victorious. (It becomes even darker if you realize how bad the lives of the peasants are likely to be, even without bandits). Terminator 2 sees a young child lose the one father figure he ever truly had. The fantastic Super Nintendo game Terranigma is as bleak as one can get. Final Fantasy VI ends with the world still in ruins, even if the madman responsible for a global holocaust has been defeated. Even Prison Break, far from stellar television, had an ending with a fairly heady mix of emotion. I can go down the line like this.

It seems that in the post-Breaking Bad era, networks are confusing “memorable” with “good”.

Breaking Bad itself deserves commentary. The final season is dark. Jesse is in a dungeon, eventually freed by the man who has repeatedly ruined his life. Walt faces death or prison.

But the entire show had been logically building to this conclusion. It couldn’t end any other way. Walt’s obsessions were going to catch up to him. He couldn’t walk away, not really.

Breaking Bad‘s ending is bleak and tragic, but it is the conclusion that the show deserved. Moreover, given the show’s arc, it actually ended roughly as well as one could expect. Walt managed to finally be honest to Skyler, releasing her from the doubts she likely would have felt. He provided for his family. Jesse was free, hopefully to pick up the pieces of his life. And even Walt conjured up a last bit of peace as he stared at a meth lab that had become a final place where he could do the chemistry he loved.

True Blood had some great seasons. It had some not-so-great seasons. It had a soap opera plot with endless romantic false leads and changes. But the show in total was about love and acceptance even in darkness. Sookie Stackhouse, aside from having an absurd name, was often a maddeningly simplistic and inconsistent character, but she still faced life with tremendous courage. She retained faith in God that allowed her to say to an ancient vampire that forgiveness would come to him. As a series, it should have ended on a note that had tones of darkness but was ultimately hopeful.

“Hep V”, the fictional virus that weakened and eventually killed vampires, was a modestly interesting plot point. While the name is laughable, it played to the show’s mythology (which effectively placed vampires as effectively a metaphor for homosexuality) by serving as an analog for AIDS.

Yet every part of the finale failed to pay off. Hoyt and Jessica’s wedding, as pleasant as it was for fans of the show, took seemingly-innumerable precious minutes off of a narrative that needed to be wrapped up. While Eric and Pam are possibly my favorite characters in the show, their last-minute decision to finally kill the Yakuza immediately begged the question, “Why in God’s name didn’t they do that sooner?” The writers set up a meaningless threat to Bill and Sookie and immediately resolved it. And Sookie’s mercy killing of Bill failed to have the pathos that such a moment truly deserved. While Stephen Moyer’s presentation of a man facing his fate with nobility and self-sacrifice was golden, it was wasted on an ultimately meaningless and trite conclusion.

What was perhaps most sickening, however, was the fate of Sarah Newlin. She was effectively a sex slave, condemned to madness. True Blood as a series has its dark components, and Sarah was a thoroughly horrible character, but making light of a woman trapped in a dungeon forced to wear revealing clothing so men could take blood from her is grotesque. Moreover, it makes Eric and Pam seem like hideously vile monsters, undoing seasons worth of character development on their part.

I struggled afterwards to think of a series that had a more disappointing season finale (aside from ones that were simply canceled too soon, such as Firefly or Jericho). Lost, for example, left many threads resolved, but it at least left us with a reasonable understanding of what the Island was and an unambiguous understanding of many of the characters’ fates. The only analogy that came to mind for a comparably bad series finale was Dexter.

But True Blood’s finale is actually much worse, even though I personally hated it much less.

Dexter’s finale was needlessly bleak. It threw away the seasons of development the character had gone through, and left Dexter’s son in the hands of a killer with serious psychological issues. It was a cop-out. Deb’s death wasn’t just tragic and needless; it also didn’t match the arc of the show. Yet it was at least arguably a conclusion to the character.

True Blood simply ignores the most important parts of the show. It gives a few crumbs of fanservice, namely the unspeakably horrific fate of Sarah and Jessica and Hoyt’s wedding, to compensate for the fact that the protagonist of the show, Sookie, ends up pregnant with someone we don’t know. Bill did manage to free Sookie… or did he? That’s the implication, but we as an audience don’t know. We don’t get to see the main character actually find what she’s seeking. The entire point of the show, its genesis, was Sookie and her relationships.

The amount of plot threads that this finale effectively makes meaningless is immense. Sookie’s final attack against a vampire, her light, is not used against Bill, making that entire concept a colossal red herring. Sam leaving Bon Temps has no payoff. Alcide’s death simply served to allow the Bill thread to be resolved. Jason gets forced into a last-minute relationship (which at least resolved the problem that his character had of relationships defined by sex and not love).

While seeing Eric and Pam smarmily lie about the genesis of New Blood was tremendously amusing (putting aside the dark implications of Sarah’s true fate), the finale was grossly disappointing by and large. It was a finale so bad that it retroactively reduced my opinion of the entire series. True Blood had high enough highs and low enough lows that I was waiting for the series finale to justify the show’s existence, to explain what everything had been building to. The answer was apparently fan service, sex slavery and a dead end.

Television thus far in 2014 has felt rather like being told one would get a steak dinner then arriving to a cheesesteak sandwich. While very few shows have actually been bad per se, there is nothing I am looking forward to the way I was waiting with bated breath for the resolution of Breaking Bad. I hope that we start seeing some really engaging shows soon. As good as television has gotten, we still don’t have enough True Detectives: Stories with a closed, clear arc that leaves one thinking. I am excited for the Constantine adaptation in October, but that is as roughly it as far as that elusive “hype”. Rush, Satisfaction… I’ve consumed many shows recently that I enjoyed and yet never felt compelled to watch again.

I suspect that the writers for True Blood faced the challenge of trying to take a traditional soap opera narrative with vampires and finding a way of giving it the Breaking Bad treatment. It seems that we are now condemned to endings for the social media age, the kinds of endings that will get bloggers aflutter and arguments brewing instead of simply being effective ends to the series. I bet this finale will sell DVDs precisely because it is what will be called “controversial”. And that sucks the proverbial horse’s ass.

So, in retrospect: If you intend to get into True Blood, go as far as the arc with Marianne and then stop if you are disappointed. The ending was a piss-poor capstone to years of often pointless drama. I hope to God that other shows concluding their runs soon, like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, try for a satisfactory conclusion to a narrative instead of a social media stunt.

Suicide and Other Retreats: Taking an Honest Inventory

July 4, 2014

Recently, I posted something about suicide and had some fascinating interactions. Not all were particularly pleasant, but it was all useful feedback, and it got me thinking. (I am writing a larger version of these thoughts for publication soon, but the concept has been evolving).

Of course, suicide makes many of us recoil. We may have seen the damage it does to families directly or indirectly. Many of us have struggled with pains and either rejected the alternative out of hand or went through a period of temptation and got over it. I’ve heard dozens of times now, “I’m glad I stuck with it”.

Me too. I have myself faced periods, albeit rare and very brief, where I despaired of things ever getting better in my life. I told myself intellectually that things would of course improve, and others told me this as well, and it of course helped, but that feeling would fade near instantly. The cognitions reverted back to fear and sadness. I despaired of ever finding someone special to share my life with, I despaired of ever being able to achieve my dreams. Even now, I grapple every day with the despair of being unable to improve this world, whether due to the magnitude of the problems it faces or my own inadequacies. Fighting that despair every day is exhausting, but by God it is rewarding.

These periods are what I call “periods of Cartesian uncertainty” or “a time of hyperbolic doubt”. You question everything. You examine everything. You find yourself being forced to discard illusions. You’re afraid that nothing might hold.

And through this absolute umbra of despair, on the other side, can come a light beyond anything perceived before. Because those things that hold even in those times are proven to us as being true. Just like Descartes found the cogito, I found my duty.

Even at my most hopeless, I never even considered suicide, because I knew I had to survive for others. I knew I had a duty to act. I faced a lifetime of despair that would never improve and I made a decision somewhere deep within, below even the level of conscious thought, to stick it out.

And it’s this duty that makes me realize that it is not just suicide that is a retreat.

In fact, we all retreat. We all face fear and we all sometimes falter.

In my novel, Adelbert Vo: Soul Surgeon, the female lead (Marianne) finds herself facing immense spiritual and psychological damage, and chooses to be repaired just enough to stay around for her family but not to truly find happiness. Marianne was based on many wonderful women I have met who would swallow their pain and turn around to be incredible at their jobs, incredible mothers, incredible daughters. While I may empathize more with Adelbert, I have come to see that I also have been in a parallel position to Marianne and made the same choice.

Now, I have been blessed with the opportunity to have worked with special and very hurt people. I have been blessed with educational resources and love that have given me affective, cognitive, philosophical, and intellectual resources.

Maybe I would not have been so gung ho about making that choice to battle hopelessly if I didn’t have armor, shield and sword to do so.

I often find myself having to articulate my own experiences, not out of fatuous self-aggrandizement (though it is something I grapple with) but because I know I can be authentic to my own experiences and because many of the experiences of others have been given to me in confidence.

Nonetheless, I can recognize that, while suicide was never my mode of retreat, I had others.

The one I’ll talk about today is the retreat of the blase gifted person.

I have been told since I was very young that I was gifted. A genius. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me that I was the most intelligent person they knew.

Yes, it’s great, but this isn’t about my gifts. In fact, while being told all that boosted my confidence, and while I have worked very hard to learn so that I am able to offer informed opinions on a variety of topics, the fact is that having this intelligence gave me a temptation that I often failed against.

See, when you come to class after class, from elementary school to college, and never find it getting harder, find it always being easy…

You can begin to get used to that. You can even begin to get used to taking it easy.

I left myself a little bit of untapped potential, just so I could always smile and say, “Well, I’m not even giving 100%”. To put it into a memetic form: That wasn’t even my final form.

What a crappy attitude. What a waste.

But when I finally vowed not only to fight, which I had always done, but also to fight with every ounce of who I was, and made that a habit, I found myself coming up against this flawed cognition.

Now I am struggling every day against my limits. And it is hard, facing that challenge every day.

But not retreating is worth it ten times over.

So, I strongly suggest you take a solid inventory of how you may have been retreating from challenges. The above wasn’t even my only form of retreat. And I strongly recommend making a vow to turn around and stop running.

Because I have found there’s nothing worse than a life dictated by fear.

“Check Your Privilege”: You’re Not Using It Right

June 21, 2014

“Check your privilege” is an interesting new meme.

I’ve spent years in anti-racist activism and discussions, talking to others, yelling at neo-Nazis and libertarians. I’ve spent years in general as an anarchist, and I’ve self-identified as a feminist since long before I was politically conscious. Hell, I’ve been a feminist since before I got into Pokemon. (And stayed that way after I got bored of Pokemon; please don’t hang me up to dry, Pokefanatics). I have very much always tried to engage with people as to what privilege means.

But I think this concept is being grossly misused.

When you tell someone, “You’re being [or acting] privileged”, you are playing with fire. If you’re wrong, you are being fantastically dismissive and pretty arrogant. And even if you’re right, why in God’s name would they believe you? Peggy McIntosh called it the invisible knapsack for a reason: You don’t see it. To paraphrase my favorite webcomic, Basic Instructions: Privilege is like a big, out-of-style moustache. Those who have it don’t notice it, and those who don’t can barely see anything else.

And on the Internet, it’s particularly risky because we can never be sure that our interlocutor is what they say they are. Even on Facebook, we can’t be sure about their life story or background. The only way this becomes even in theory a good tactic is if they’ve self-identified as any category that bestows privilege.

Making someone see that the way they are approaching an issue may have to do with their privilege takes tact. It takes specificity. It takes identifying exactly what the privilege they may be ignoring is, and being able to express that in a way that actually will engage rather than turn off.

You can argue on the Internet and get mad at each other all you want, but don’t confuse that for activism. It’s not going to accomplish anything, and it makes you come off like an arrogant jerk.

So I’m proposing a new way people can use “Check your privilege”, and a way that people who hear it can engage with it.

Look at the phrase carefully. “Check your privilege”.

It’s like, “Check your lights” or “Check your oil”.

Examine your position again. Do a little bit of soul-searching. Doesn’t have to be much every time.

Ask yourself questions like:

“Am I thinking this because my racial background has predisposed me to have certain cultural assumptions that might not be true of everyone’s life”?

“Am I thinking this because I grew up either well-off or at least modestly okay, such that I have an understanding of what is available to people that may not be accurate?”

“Am I thinking this because I don’t have the kind of experience with this sort of discrimination to understand the barriers it may put into someone’s path?”

“Am I thinking this because my gender or sexual orientation has predisposed me to think certain ways about life?”

There are arguments that people can make that are fine and do not necessarily bespeak privilege.

Let me give you an example.

I do come from a middle-class family. But when I was growing up, my parents were not rich. I never was hungry and my clothes were always nice, but the first place I remember living in was a house that was not terribly well-maintained and was quite old. We rented one of the floors. In the foothills of Nevada City, that meant that I was going to be cold at night, because the insulation sucked in this old house.

My parents helped me with college, but I had to work to pay for high school debate that would allow me to get into college, to pay for some of my share.

And I had to make my own business, without much help from anyone in my social network, none of whom had the expertise I did in it.

This isn’t even to mention that I’m a first-generation immigrant (my mother being Quebecois and retaining her Canadian citizenship), which means I have first-hand experience with having people make fun of me and my family for the way we talk or think.

All of this is to say that I get how rough it can be to work at a Subway, to stay up at night worrying that you can’t make rent. I’m a freelance writer; trust me, I get it.

Society doesn’t provide good education and training. It’s difficult to get a job. Economic immobility and inequality is such that people who are stuck in a dead-end situation have to work with herculean effort to get out.

But I know so many people who are homeless or who are not doing well who are just not doing the work. They’re not making Craigslist ads (or checking Craigslist ads and e-mailing every single one they see), they’re not applying to every single place in walking distance, they’re not going to thrift stores to try to find cheap clothes that would be suitable for a job interview, they’re not applying for the kind of government aid that might let them barter for rides or pay back people who have lent them money, they don’t ask a friend to update or take a look at their resume, they’re not building a skill in their free time, they’re not going back to the places they’ve applied and asking to see a manager, they’re not asking their friends for places where they might be able to get a job. They just hang out at the park, or play video games.

These people often act with a sense of great privilege and entitlement. They think their parents just should let them stay with them indefinitely. They clearly implicitly think that they owe society nothing, or else they’d be doing work.

It can be very privileged to say, “I worked for this”, because other people in our society have also worked 60 hour weeks and taken care of a family and gone to school and they don’t have some of our advantages. There are working class and homeless superstars who just put tremendous effort out there, and it’s a Red Queen’s race where they run as hard as they can just to stay in the same place. Those people need help. And I have had privileges as the white heterosexual male child of two college graduates that many do not have. I have had educational enrichment at home that has given me not just job skills but also the confidence and assertiveness to engage with people.

Society shouldn’t be letting people starve. It shouldn’t be letting people go by without economic opportunities.

But that doesn’t change the fact that many people who are doing badly are simply not trying at all to improve their situation. And as much as we may give someone a break for hopelessness, I deal with hopelessness all the time too and it doesn’t stop me.

Now, as I am writing this, I think you can see that I’m checking my privilege. I’m making sure I’m not ignoring some aspect of what it’s like to be poor or homeless. And if someone did offer such a corrective, I’d engage with them. I’m trying to be empathic and see the issue from multiple perspectives.

That’s what checking privilege should be. It should be a brief plausibility check, a stress test for our ideas.

Who we are isn’t something to be ashamed of. I should not be ashamed of being white or heterosexual or male. That’s not what “Check your privilege” should mean. We all have different perspectives and different life paths that make us view issues differently. Adopting and defending our own position with empathy and care is just as crucial as being able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

And what is more privileged than thinking that other people should just adopt your political opinion because you typed three words at them?

Two Birds, One Stone Activism

June 19, 2014

I have been being questioned a lot recently about what I think could be a better way of promoting atheism, or a better way of promoting a positive vision of the future. To me, the answer is the same: Star Trek.

Star Trek has been very important to my family.

My father found Spock to be a role model. My Mom had a crush on Kirk (what young lady in the 60s wouldn’t have?)

And even to this day, the opening theme of Next Generation and Patrick Stewart’s stentorian opening narration (which was gender neutral in the late 1980s) fills me with hope. If I am feeling sad or despairing at the world, I watch an episode of Next Generation and feel a sense of hope.

Star Trek has always had its issues. Characters are often fairly shallow, and have a limited range. They never were able to write Firefly-type outlaws (as the episode “The Outrageous Okona” proved), and the show could be heavy-handed. DS9 was in my opinion a weaker Babylon 5, and I have never once warmed up to Voyager. The classic Star Trek episodes look cheesy in retrospect, even as much as the themes and vision still hold up.

But Star Trek was such an unimaginably different show, and it’s because people involved in it, Roddenberry and others, had a vision.

When I was in college, I took a class on racism with Bruce Haynes, one of my favorite Professors throughout my entire scholastic career. We were discussing the way that the portrayals of people of color on television and film are routinely stereotypical, offensive, or limited.

I raised my hand and mentioned Star Trek.

Bruce practically cut me off. He said something to the effect of, “Okay, Star Trek’s different. We could do a whole class on Star Trek and race”.

Many of you have heard some of this before. But there’s another aspect that deserves discussion.

Roddenberry’s vision is atheistic. Gods are just space entities or frauds, often malevolent. Religion should be respected as part of culture, and the faith of Worf is challenged, but much of the idea was to reject religion as a belief system.

I’m not an atheist. I’m a Buddhist and, separately, I have had experienced that make me believe in a non-interventionist intelligence of the universe.

But I love Star Trek. I could live in that world. I have taken ideas from that show to enrich me.

In an episode where Wesley Crusher faces a court of inquiry, Picard expresses disappointment in young Wesley.

Picard tells Wesley, “The first duty of every Starfleet officer is to the truth, whether it’s scientific truth or historical truth or personal truth! It is the guiding principle on which Starfleet is based!”

That’s a way of living life. That is a belief system. It’s atheistic, but that’s practically a coincidence.

It is such a good way of living life that non-atheists, people who may resonate with the Jedi’s vision of a living world, can still embrace so much of it and be changed by it.

Star Trek shows us a future where people calmly discuss issues, where they grapple with ethical and scientific challenges with heart, where people cooperate. It shows us a world human beings would want to live in.

Star Trek taught me to ponder ethical issues. It taught me to look beyond what I idly hoped and consider what was actually going on. It taught me that people can cooperate, and that organizations of people can work together. It taught me that a good workplace should be like a family. It taught me to be skeptical of gods, angels and spirits. It taught me the importance of our whales and our planet. It taught me to stand up against bullies no matter how cloaked in righteousness they were, and to speak truth for the little guy with courage.

I do have some problems with the future in which Starfleet’s characters reside. I would prefer non-hierarchical organizations. I think a future will see our organizations look more like Valve than Starfleet. But the concepts of duty, respect (flowing both ways), and responsibility in Star Trek are still inspirational, even to me as an anarchist.

Anyone who wants to change the world or touch people should use Roddenberry as an inspiration. Anarchists must create a vision that makes people want to wake up in that world. Pareconists, libertarian municipalists, syndicalists and Marxists have to find a way of expressing their dream such that people can touch it. Atheists have to find a way of expressing a way of living that doesn’t require God. Conservatives, liberals, progressives… if we spent more time figuring out our hopes and less time yelling, maybe we’d have a better world already.