Sunday, February 17, 2019

It's OK to doubt

This opinion piece in the Washington Post has spurred me to (finally) write something that's been on my mind a long time.

You should read for yourself, but if you want to save time, Nana Efua Mumford of the Post is agonizing over the fact that she found certain details of Jussie Smollett's account of his alleged attack hard to swallow. Does doubting Smollett, she asks herself, mean doubting that racism and homophobia exist? Is Mumford bainwashed? Is she victim-blaming?

Let me state for the record that I have no idea what happened to Smollett the night of the alleged attack. Certain details seem curious, but then again curious and unlikely things do occasionally happen. (President Donald Trump, I am looking in your direction.) Police are investigating, and I am content to wait for the results of that investigation before I take a position. If Smollett were my friend, I'd believe him; since he's not, I'm reserving judgment until the facts are known.

And that's fine. We don't have to believe anything we find dubious, no matter how sympathetic the alleged victim, or how real the implicated social problem. Liberal dogma insists that we must believe women, but clearly some women lie. Some men do, too. Another leftist insistence is that we unquestioningly accept the way people self-identify, but, well. we know that doesn't always pan out, either. I think we liberals are poorly served by these articles of faith, because, well, everyone lies, sometimes. They lie for good reasons, for bad reasons, or for no reason at all. Recognition of this fact doesn't nullify #MeToo, and it doesn't mean we should assume that all accusations of anything are phony. It means we should maintain a healthy skepticism of things that don't sound credible, and remain open to the possibility that our initial inclinations or deeply felt instincts are wrong.

To come back to Mumford, I don't think she's denying bigotry, I don't think she's brainwashed, and I don't think she's victim-blaming--particularly because there's good reason to think there is no victim here. She's navigating a difficult issue, keeping her eyes open and her biases before her, which is the best any of us can do. Mumford is allowed to feel heartbroken for doubting--no one has to apologize for feelings--but she's also allowed to doubt. As are we all.

Sunday, April 09, 2017


I'm thinking about Miep Gies today. For those who don't know, Gies was one of several Dutch citizens who sheltered Anne Frank and her family (and others) for two years above an Amsterdam office. When asked if she was a hero, Gies replied:

"Imagine young people would grow up with the feeling that you have to be a hero to do your human duty. I am afraid nobody would ever help other people, because who is a hero? I was not. I was just an ordinary housewife and secretary."

These days we throw around the term "hero" quite a bit. Police officers are considered heroes, every one, as are soldiers; in fact, we seem inclined to grant that title to any who carry arms and face danger in the service of the state, regardless of what they actually accomplish. Miep Gies risked terrible danger, yet she carried no weapons and she *opposed* the state. She did not even succeed in saving the people she harbored, but in my view she accomplished as much as anyone who ever wore a badge or took an oath.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Ruling Mask

Dan and I are delighted to announce the release of The Ruling Mask, the third book in The Grey City series.

I have to apologize for how long it's taken to get this book done. Of the entire series this was the hardest book to write, for several reasons. First, we were so burned out from releasing two novels in two years that we just needed a break, and that break seemed to go on and on. Second, 2016 was an incredibly busy year for us; in addition to finishing Mask, we launched a weekly podcast and wrote a paper that was published as part of Sense Publisher’s Challenging Genres series. (This in addition to jobs, family obligations, and taking care of a house seemingly determined to fall apart.) Third, we have a process by which we write together, and for this book we for some reason decided to abandon that process—and we paid the price in a wearying succession of revisions. Lastly, Mask turned out to be a much more complex story than we ever envisioned, something we discovered only in the middle of writing it.

That said, The Ruling Mask is the longest book we've ever written—almost twice as long as The Duchess of the Shallows—and in many ways I think it's the best. You can decide for yourself if I am right; a sample chapter is available on our web site, as well as links to purchase the book for Kindle, Nook, or in paper.

Once again, we were lucky enough to work with the inimitable Amy Houser, whose illustrations are so in line with our work that it is difficult to envision a Grey City book without them. Jim Genzano was a tremendous resource, as he picked through more than 140,000 words to find all of the mistakes we’d made. (No small task!) We are also honored to have the services of our test readers, particularly Mark Fabrizi and Suzanne Onesti, who kept us from getting lost in the fog of writing.

Finally, we are eternally grateful to everyone who has ever bought a book, written a review, tweeted a tweet, or in some other way taken a chance on a couple of indie authors. You are superheroes, every one!


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Calling out the call-out

There are many things I appreciate about The Future (Netflix! Podcasts!!), but one we could do without is call-out culture.
I'm not objecting to voicing concerns or even throwing down about the ways in which minority groups (women, people of color, gays and lesbians, trans people) are marginalized. As a member of one of those groups, I'm glad that gone are the days of assuming that the world is for straight white dudes and everyone else is just living there. That sucked. What bothers me is the notion that being angry about that marginalization gives one license to be an asshole.
Let's be clear about what it means to be an asshole. Having and expressing an opinion is not being an asshole, nor is disagreeing with such an opinion. Being an asshole is expressing an opinion in a way deliberately calculated to annoy, insult, or intimidate. Example:

"I don't think the agenda you support is sensitive to, or respectful of, the needs of the poor." – Good!

"You are an elitist dirtbag and a shill for the corporate scum who rule this nation." – Asshole.

As you have probably already guessed, this example is inspired by the news of Matt Bruenig, recently fired from Demos. I don't much care for the way Bruenig conducts himself online; he's provocative only in that he seems interested in provoking anger and not thought. Unfortunately, he's not alone in his seeming  belief that righteousness justifies any and all reactions to real or perceived injustice. Don't like what Joan Walsh said about Bernie Sanders? Call her old. Upset about the way Neera Tanden speaks about welfare reform in the 90s? Accuse her of trying to starve people.
That's being an asshole.
Don't imagine this is limited to the sphere of political dialogue, or that it never goes beyond scorching tweets. Anita Sarkeesian has suffered all manner of intimidation , including credible death threats, because she dares to critique video games. (Disclaimer: I am a fan of Feminist Frequency.) Lindsey Stone lost her job over a silly picture that wound up on Facebook. Adria Richards inspired a sanctimob over a questionable comment at Pycon, only to find that mob howling at her own door.
The folks who sent threats or demanding firings were acting like assholes, but they believed they were doing what was right. After all, how dare Sarkeesian criticize their beloved video games? Does Stone think she can show disrespect to veterans and get away with it? Richards got a guy fired, so doesn't she deserve what she gets?
The problem with self-righteousness is that it can make actions that are clearly indefensible seem morally justified. In my view, more harm is done by those who are sure they are right than by those who know they are wrong.
I'm not making a call for civility, either. Sometimes debates get heated and people are less than polite, and sometimes that's what needs to happen. This isn't tone-policing; it's objecting to what is actually being said. If the tone of a comment is making the speaker sound like an asshole, that tone should be questioned. And if the tone of a comment is leading people to believe they will be hurt or killed, then that tone most definitely should be policed. We're all aware that we have freedom of speech, but I don't think anyone should be proud of speaking like an asshole.
That's what we should be calling out.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Nitpicking: The Next Generation

I am totally excited to announce the debut of "Nitpicking: The Next Generation." In this weekly podcast, Dan and I will examine each episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation", praise the good, poke at the bad, and really have at the ugly. The first episode "Encounter at Farpoint, Parts 1 and 2" is now available on our Web site and on iTunes.

The podcast is free, but if you want to donate to support "Nitpicking" we won't complain. More important, though, is that if you like what you hear, please do recommend the podcast to other fans (or detractors) of "Star Trek."

So please do join us every Monday morning as we go where everyone has gone before!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Calling it out

I wrote this letter to the Office of the District Attorney today, and I copied various people on it. I'm having trouble letting this go, I realize, so I'm hoping that I can write it out.


To Whom It May Concern:

I'm writing in response to the decision of the district attorney's office to allow Kevin Harrigan and Philip Williams what can only be described as a sweetheart deal to escape punishment for their September, 2014 attack on Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught.

I don't expect Seth Williams, Mike Barry, or any heterosexual man to understand how it feels to live in a world in which, at any time, you can be in danger of life and limb simply for walking too close to the person you're spending your life with. I don't expect them to understand just how frightening the term "faggot" is to gay men, because when we hear that, we know that violence is not far behind. I don't expect them to understand how it is to grow up believing that the only way you'll be permitted to survive is by lurking in the shadows and alleys of life, leaving the main streets to the straight folks.

I do, however, expect the Office of the District Attorney to understand that when it allows confessed gay bashers to walk away without so much as seeing a day in prison, it sends a definite message to those who like to harm gay people. That message is that breaking the face of a gay man is, at least in Philadelphia, no big deal. The city would prefer that not happen, but if it does, well, a small fine, some probation, and a promise to sin no more will make it all go away. It's a message all gay people understand, I assure you, as we've heard it most of our lives.

I'm sure that Hesse and Haught approved this deal, but in my view that is not sufficient excuse. Crimes are committed not only against individuals but against communities, which is why we have a district attorney in the first place. The gay community of Philadelphia is not well served by this deal, particularly since part of the deal will bring into the safe spaces we've created the very men we're trying to avoid. I cringe at the thought of entering the William Way Community Center to find Kevin Harrigan or Philip Williams staffing the front desk, destroying the community's sense of safety for their own personal growth.

I know that I'm shouting into the wind here; the plea deal is done and the DA's office doesn't care how I feel about it. However, I believe that democracy functions best when elected officials are called out for their mistakes, even when they don't think they've made one. So I'm calling this out, because even though I'll never feel quite as safe in Philadelphia as I used, I still believe that things can change if we all work hard enough. I'm sorry that, on this day, hard enough just wasn't good enough.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Dirty fucking faggot

That’s what Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught heard from the group of heterosexuals who accosted them in Center City Philadelphia a little more than a year ago. What they heard yesterday in court from two of those same heterosexuals was that the beating they received that night wasn’t about sexual orientation. What I heard was a flashback to the very first time the word “faggot” was used against me.

I was seventeen years old, fresh out of high school and working as a courier for a Center City law office. I’d hand deliver letters, pleadings and other documents to other lawyers, to court offices, etc., and sometimes during those runs I’d take care of personal business. One day I was in a mall (the Gallery, for Philadelphia residents) and approaching a Waldenbooks when I heard, “Are you gay?” I turned and saw, gathered to one side, three or four boys about my age, looking at me the way you look at a cockroach you’re about to squash. I knew better than to reply--back then every gay person knew that “are you gay?” from a group of straight men was the rattle before the snake bite. Instead, I hurried inside the store, hoping they wouldn’t pursue, and as I moved off I heard one of them mutter, “Faggot.”

Inside, I pretended to browse, but a block of ice had formed in my belly. This was 1987, and back then there was no assurance that, if something started to happen, that anyone would interfere. I could have asked the store staff for a phone to call the police, but I was far from certain they’d allow it, or that the police would even care. It was just as possible that I’d end up in trouble myself; after all, hadn’t I looked at them a little too long? Maybe I’d made a pass and caused gay panic. Remember that this was less than 10 years after a San Francisco jury had let Dan White off easy for killing their own mayor, all because he also happened to knock off a homosexual while he was at it. A furtive glance outside revealed that those boys were still camped near the only entrance to the store, watching--for me, I feared. No one was going to protect me. No one was going to save me.

It didn’t take long for these truths to register with my still-developing, seventeen-year-old brain, so I did the only thing I could think to do. I walked casually towards the back of the store, went through the back office hoping no one would stop me, and slipped into the service corridor that runs behind all the stores. As I hurried along that white-tiled expanse of hallway, I felt not joy at the cleverness of my escape but shame that I was slinking away down an alley after having been kicked off the main street. In that moment I felt like a dirty fucking faggot.

Twenty-seven years later, when Zachary Hesse and Andrew Haught had their “are you gay?” moment, they did not slink away like stray cats. They had grown up in a more enlightened time, and they believed that they didn’t need to stand for such things. Philip Williams, Kevin Harrigan and Kathryn Knott thought otherwise, and they drove home that point by shattering the face of one of those men. When I heard the news I flashed back to my back-hallway escape, but I told myself that society had changed since that day. The response from police, media, and the public all seemed to confirm that there were new rules for a new millennium.

Unfortunately, we learned yesterday that the district attorney’s office was partying like it was 1987. Two of the accused--Williams and Harrigan--negotiated a sweet deal that gets them some probation, some community service, and a ban on entering Center City, a ban that everyone admits is almost impossible to enforce.

I understand that Hesse and Haught were on board with this deal, and let me be 100% clear that I harbor them no ill will. They’re doing the best they can to deal with a situation that should never, ever have happened, and that was far worse for them than mine was for me. They are tending to themselves, just as they should. However, by allowing Williams and Harrigan to wriggle away from real punishment, the City of Philadelphia sends a message that, no matter how many gay couples get legally married, it’s still pretty much OK to beat up one. Which is pretty much the way it was back in 1987.

There’s not much I can do about this terrible deal. The district attorney’s office is certainly not going to change course, and there’s nothing the mayor, my councilman, or my state representative can do either. And, yes, I know that the fact that outrage has registered at all is a sign that I live in a much more enlightened society than I did when I fled down a back hallway to avoid being beaten and/or killed. I’m sure that in a few days I’ll regain the confidence in the ultimate success of the gay rights movement. Right now, however, I just feel like a dirty fucking faggot.

Neil McGarry lives in Philadelphia and, with Emmy Award-winner Daniel Ravipinto, authors The Grey City novels, which Kirkus Reviews calls "a fresh, compelling twist on fantasy."