Monday, July 06, 2020

Mapping left

As has been wisely said, the map is not the territory. I believed this the first time I heard it, and I believe it now. Myopic adherence to principle is, in my view, one of the most pernicious human failings; it's how religion manages to convince people to do terrible things for what seem like the best reasons.

That said, when you make a journey, it's best to bring along a map.

I'm going to jump sideways to what seems an unrelated issue: the recall of Judge Aaron Persky. This will eventually make sense.

As you will recall, Persky was the California Superior Court judge who in 2016 sentenced Brock Turner to three months in prison for sexual assault, and who was later recalled because the sentence he handed down was deemed too light. It's not my intention to revisit the sentence, and while I sympathize with the objections to the sentence, I also recognize that recalling judges who are deemed lenient is going to serve as an incentive to other judges to sentence more harshly. These are competing liberal priorities: the desire to protect victims of sexual assault on one hand, and the reluctance to make sentences over-punitive on the other.

I can totally understand if a liberal prioritizes the former over the latter, and vice versa, but what I cannot grok is a liberal dismissing either one as irrelevant. At the time Persky was recalled, the leftist response I heard to concerns about the effects of harsher sentencing on marginalized groups was: "Rapists get the book thrown at them—end of discussion."

Now, I'm not going to seriously entertain discussion on, say, repealing the 13th Amendment, because the rights and wrongs are pretty easy to discern, and anyone who disagrees is probably just trolling. Most issues are more complex, however, and require an attitude of curiosity and a respect for nuance that "woke" culture often makes impossible. Instead of taking your time sorting through the complexities, you are expected to take a black-or-white position, and fast, lest you appear to lack empathy.

Furthermore, "Lock 'em up!" is a quintessentially conservative attitude—that the only real remedy to crime is handing out prison time like candy. A more liberal approach is to treat this situation as a balancing act between leftist priorities, because, in general, when sentences become harsher, it ain't the Brock Turners of the world who will receive them.

Sussing all this out requires an awareness of just what you value. I am a liberal because I value the principles of open inquiry, empiricism, diversity, and a respect for due process. That is the map I carry with me. I think some others are liberal primarily not due to their values, but because of where their sympathies happen to lie. I don't know what map, if any, they follow. Admittedly, those approaches can often take you to the same place, but I think it matters how you get there.

You can ask, with some justification, why I'm spending time taking liberals to task when conservatives do far, far more damage. Answer: Conservatives are usually troglodytes, and troglodytes are gonna trog. Liberals, however, are supposed to be the good guys, right, and, in my view, if you claim to be one of the good guys, you have to act like it. Drawing your map is a great way to start navigating that particular territory.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

It's not always good to be nice

I've been thinking a lot lately about being good.

There's a lot of debate over what it means to do good. Is doing good creating as much happiness as possible, for as many people? Adhering to rules of ethical conduct, against lying or cheating? Embodying virtues like charity, humility, honesty, etc? Although these are interesting questions, they are not what has been occupying my thoughts. Instead, what I have been considering is the difference between being good and being nice.

We've all known nice people. They say please and thank you, ask after your well-being, are generous (when it doesn't cost them much), and engage in all of the other daily pleasantries with which we are so familiar. When you meet one of them, at a party or wherever, you say to yourself "That person seems nice", without thinking much about it, and that's not surprising, because it's easy to be nice.

Good people, on the other hand, are more elusive. They are people who may not always ask after your well-being, but when they do they actually listen to the answer, and remember it later. They may or may not be courteous, but they are considerate, and they don't ask more from you than they expect of themselves. Their generosity is not the careless flourish of the well-provided, but an act of thoughtful concern. When you encounter a good person, you remember that for a long time, because being good takes work—and the payoff, if any, often sucks.

It's easy to mistake nice for good, but, boy, are they different.

I used to think most people were good, but now I think they are merely gregarious. Humans are social beings, and it's our nature to cooperate, but cooperation can take many shapes. One of those shapes is strangers joining together to help shove a stuck car out of a snowbank; another is neighbors forming a lynch mob to murder a marginalized person for some perceived offense. Nice people push the car; good people push away the lynch mob.

These days, that distinction has become ever clearer, as I see people around me, people I might otherwise have liked, cheer the caging of children while blaming parents for the cruelty, carry guns through city streets on the pretext of defending their rights, and march to force other Americans to risk serious illness so that they themselves can enjoy a cut and color. These people are courteous, often charming, and will be the first to invite you to a barbecue, but they aren't good. They're just nice.

The more I think about it, the less concerned with being nice I become. I'll do my best to say my courtesies and chat pleasingly with people at social events, but I'm no longer feeling guilty about, say, treating Trump voters like they are terrible people, and with telling Trump voters they are terrible people. That's not very nice of me, but I have decided I am not good at being nice. I'll settle for just trying to be good.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Problem with Pete

The New Republic axed this piece, but like all things Internetty, it's been saved for posterity. I have a Mayor Pete problem, too, but it has little to do with Mr. Buttigieg

I feel as though people really don't know how to treat his candidacy. Some have detached Buttigieg's homosexuality from the rest of his identity, so they can dismiss him as "another white guy." That's true only in the sense the Barack Obama was just another cis dude and Hillary Clinton was just another white person. It's easy to brush someone off if you deduct the parts you find situationally inconvenient, and it's something I've witnessed far too often. It's near-sighted, absurdly reductionist, and wrong.

If we treat intersectionality as a system that enables us to rank people according to their experience with oppression, then I think we doing ourselves, and others, a disservice. In my view, intersectionality is not about sorting people but understanding them, and when you are ignoring parts of people, you are not understanding them.

Back to The New Republic. I read Dale Peck's piece, and I'm not much impressed. This is the standard assilimilationist-vs.-radical tussle that's been happening for decades, and will rage on long after I am gone. I have very little interest in this debate, by the way, because I think we need not make a choice. Like any minority, LGBT people have advanced their cause through both evolution and revolution, through bricks thrown at Stonewall** and through United States vs. Windsor. Just as we shouldn't detach part of an identity, neither should we dismiss the value of both assimilation and radical action in the march towards equality.

So, no, Mayor Pete is not exactly breaking every barrier, but...does he have to? Wasn't Barack Obama the first black president even though he didn't do everything imaginable to push forward the cause of equality? Can't we still remember Hillary Clinton as the first female Democratic nominee even though we know that she was hardly a feminist fantasy? I say yes and yes, and I also say that even if the campaign of Pete Buttigieg isn't taken directly from the guide book of ACT UP, it's something to celebrate.

**Nothing I have read indicates that any brick was ever thrown at the Stonewall Riot, not by Marsha P. Johnson or by anyone else. I'm making an easily understood but almost certainly apocryphal reference.

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.