Friday, June 28, 2013

Getting to good enough

Today is the fifth anniversary of the first post I ever wrote on this blog. I can't believe it's gone by so fast. It seems like yesterday. At the same time, my life is completely different than what it was.

*****

I'm not a fan of the Pixar movie The Incredibles. I recognize its craft, as I do of all the movies Pixar makes, but I find it aggravating in its on-the-nose messaging and heavy handedness. I'm not opposed to strong messages in movies. Not at all. But I don't agree with the message of The Incredibles, because I think it's critiquing a phenomenon that is not found within the lived experience of those who it supposedly affects. The movie argues that, if everyone is special, then no one is. It's a critique of the "Participation Trophy" phenomenon. The idea is that we've tried so hard to create equality and to teach every child that he or she is special and valuable that we've threatened to erase the ability to reward and value the truly exceptional, and in so doing removed the incentives to be special in the first place. The movie tells the story of someone who so resents the notion of special people that he is willing to cause incredible destruction to level the playing field, and of truly special people who work to stop him.

I reject that notion because, to put it simply, junior high school exists. And nobody in junior high school could mistake the world for one suffering under too much equality. The kids who get the Participation Trophies know how sad they are. I don't particularly blame those who worry about this. It's just a good example of a parent-child divide: the parent lives at an intellectual remove and can think themselves into these sort of abstract worries about social life; the child lives through gym and lunch. I just don't think children or adolescents live in a world where there's too little judgment or too little inequality or too little understanding that people are unequal. The people who make these observations, to my lights, have thought themselves into a corner and ended up with an intelligent critique of a danger very few actually face.

I'm talking about this because I think that this notion of differing abilities and the rank inegalitarian nature of talent is important for anyone who wants to be a writer to think about; because writing is for me, an amateur, both the only way to get outside of my head to avoid thinking myself into corners and a mechanism through which I do exactly that; and because it is only through writing that I know how to tell you why I think a certain symbolic reading of a nine-year-old animated movie is wrong.

*****
I don't know if this next part is a contradiction of the last bit, or a corollary. 

For me the process of growing up was the process of  coming to terms with the fact that life isn't fair and that you don't get what you want in life. And in the way of the young bookish dude, I turned this necessary bit of life wisdom and made it into a kind of personal chauvinism. I looked around at people who hadn't yet grasped that life wasn't fair and I just steeped in my own judgment. Nobody knows how to bend passion and conviction into sanctimony like someone in their early twenties. I did not want to be uncharitable. I only knew that I looked around and saw desperately unhappy people who could not forgive themselves for not having everything they wanted because they thought that their wanting was enough. I did not bother to indict myself the same way; I knew my failures were both out of my control and deserved.

Then I got a job at a middle school.

Every wall, festooned with posters: if you believe, you can achieve. Never give up on your dreams. The key to success is effort. Dozens of variations on the same theme: you can get what you want if you want it badly enough, if you don't quit. And I just thought, god, how cruel. What a wonderful mechanism for creating a culture of self-hating, unhappy people. And as has happened so many other times, I had to think about my personal judgments, and let them dissolve. I can't and don't blame anyone for holding on too long.

Sometimes people ask me if I'm anti dreams or anti trying, if I don't think that it's good for people to strive. Of course I think people should want things and of course I think they should work for them. But I think that they should frequently ask themselves if it's working, that they should ask themselves if holding on is doing more harm than good, that they should understand that in every
 avenue of human achievement success depends on factors other than dedication and work, and I think that they should forgive themselves if it hasn't happened.

*****

What to Do When Someone Hates You on The Internet

Step one: Close laptop.
Step two: Go outside.
Step three: Look at the people out on the street.
Step four: Realize that not one of them has ever heard of you, heard of the person who hates you, or could possibly care.
Step five: Imagine that person out on the street, with you. Imagine them free from the power of their blog or their magazine or whatever, away from sympathetic commenters and connected friends, free from the distorting power of text-based communication, in all of their limited flawed fleshy humanity, with beating human beating heart, and feel better about them and about you.

*****
On my birthday, a month or so back, I went into the city to visit my brother and see Before Midnight. I loved it, which is no surprise. We've seen all three of them in the theater together. I'm nine years younger than the characters, and the movies are released every nine years, so I've been trailing along behind them.

I thought it was easily the best movie I've seen this year. The craft is so impressive. The acting between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy is as natural as it is entertaining. Richard Linklater, a criminally underrated director, shoots it all beautifully, in the kind of understated style that rarely wins awards but makes for a lovely experience. The setting is the perfect next step for the series. And I loved the dinner scene, where new voices integrated with Celine and Jesse's so well. Getting conversation right is very hard in the movies, and that's always been the great strengths of these films.

More than anything, I loved the movie's take on love and relationships: harsh, but romantic, but realistic, but tender, but conflicted, but sentimental, but pessimistic, but hopeful. It's a beautiful portrayal of deep feelings and real love that never descends into either a false vision of happily-ever-after or a pinched one of cynicism and hopelessness.

The fight is hard to watch. It's also incredibly real, a really compelling and convincing portrayal of two people who know each other very well and know just how to wound each other. That knowledge stems from how deeply intimate they are, and how interested they have been in exploring each other in true depth. They argue like real people: they alternate between perfectly principled and fair points and self-serving bullshit... and don't know, themselves, which is which. They jockey to take the high road against one another. And they argue in a way that shows how the political and the personal can't ever be adequately separated to our liking. Celine has a lot of critiques that stem from her feminism. Some of them are entirely fair. Some of them are self-justifying nonsense. What makes the film brave is its refusal to make her either a long-suffering feminist saint or someone cynically using feminism to advance her personal causes. Instead, she someone with righteous beliefs that mingle with all of the personal stuff that we all carry who can't always sort them out. Jesse is sometimes full of shit, but he's also sometimes perfectly right. And this will piss some people off, but I just think this is true of human life: we very rarely experience black-and-white political conflict when interacting with the people we love. I read some people claiming that this movie is just about Jesse's sexism, or his indifference to sexism, and Celine's having to suffer through it. That's just a profound misreading of what's here. Instead it's a human portrayal of the fact that social justice is not a march from a clearly-defined right to a clearly-defined wrong where each issue can be understood in deracinated politics but rather a constant negotiation between contexts, personalities, convictions, and disagreements.

It's also important that this third film pays a check that was written in the second. I quite liked the second movie, but something was bothering me the whole time: what about Jesse's wife and kid? How can he just be forgetting about them like this? The central conflict in the third movie is precisely about those questions. It makes me appreciate the second movie more: in that movie, where the theme of having less time is reinforced over and over again, Celine and Jesse's time together is portrayed as an escape, as stolen moments. In the third movie, we see all the ways in which reality has rushed back in.

The movie ends, as they all do, ambiguously. It may sound odd about a movie that portrays a really horrifically ugly argument that might lead to the end of a relationship, but this film helped me feel better about romantic love and life-long partnership. Perpetually, magazines and publishers release arguments that love is dead, or was always a lie, or that long-term relationships are contrary to human nature, or whatever. I have come to think that these arguments are exactly as immature and juvenile as the fairy-tale vision of love where two people meet and immediately fall in love and live happily ever after. I have had a life filled with both happiness and tragedy and there is no question in my mind that the portrayal of human life or human relationships as some hopelessly bleak and maudlin journey reveals a teenaged sensibility, a grasping and fussy pessimism that speaks of a refusal to confront life as petty indignities and great victories and terrible tragedies and little moments of grace all stacked on top of each other in nothing resembling a narrative or a plan.

Love is hard but it's probably worth it and anyway, what else? We have this idea that either you have a relationship with The One or you're settling, and that the romantic ideal is to pursue the former and not the latter. But as I get older I more and more think that the real beauty comes precisely from the endless negotiation between two flawed people who aren't perfect for each other or for anyone else but who are willing to work to find a way to live together in order to enjoy the good each has to offer. It's not "romantic life vs. settling." It's getting to good enough with another person out of the conviction that there is nothing else and nothing better. And sometimes it doesn't work. I believe in Celine and Jesse together, and I love this movie for showing two people who both can't get along and are meant for each other.

*****
Write it so that it's what you'd want to read. Don't ever try to write it to please anybody else. That's the only advice I've got for you.

*****
This is the kind of story I should know, by now, not to tell here.

So spring means babies, and for me it has meant baby birds. I live on the second floor of a beautiful old house. Weeks back, a bird started to build a nest in one of the eaves. I was worried even then; there was just a few lonely inches, on that 2x2, such a precarious spot. But she built dutifully. Before I knew it, there was sweet chirping.

I had walked to the corner store for beer. (Bud Light Lime. Forgive me.) On the way home, I saw some sort of commotion in the nest, and the inevitable: a baby fell from the nest. I walked over with my heart in my throat. I glanced down and saw just briefly a wriggling little body, covered in feathers like hairs, moving slowly the way a newborn infant moves its arm, like through water. So I did what came naturally: I ran. I'm not very proud of it. I just didn't want to see.

The next day, to my great surprise, I discovered the baby bird still alive. He was chirping like mad. Out of my guilt I had spent the night before Googling about what one does in this kind of situation. The internet discouraged trying to take him in and feed him and raise him myself; I was told he would need to eat constantly and that I couldn't teach him to fly. I don't own a car and there weren't any wildlife rehabilitation places I could get to. But they did say that I could try to put him high up, where his mother could see him and feed him. I couldn't reach the eave, but there's a small evergreen right underneath it, against the house. The chick was moving around a lot. I got some paper towel and wrapped it around him and put him up in the branches. He kind of sat there for a minute, and then took a hop into the depths of the tree. I stared for a minute and went inside.

The next morning, I took the dog out. The chick was still alive, and no longer in the tree. I saw his mother fly down and feed him. But he kept chasing after her when she would fly, trying to follow behind her on the ground. She flew across the street and he hopped after her (he could cover a lot of ground surprisingly fast) but when he chased after her into the street he couldn't get back up over the curb. It was a really sad sight, and there were cars all around. I was surprised and happy he was still alive but it seemed like life was conspiring for me to watch him die. So I grabbed more paper towels and chased after him. I was so scared to pick him up because his little body was so fragile that I ended up chasing him under my neighbors car. He hopped up on one of the tires and it took me forever to get him out and my neighbor thought I was fucking with his car. But I got him.

The paper towel was wrapped around him and through it I could feel his little bones like eggshells. He was so mad, squawking at me like crazy. This time I made a little nest out of coffee filters and put him securely in the tree. After I stuck him in there, he didn't move or make a sound for a moment, and I thought, oh shit, I killed him, I must have crushed his little bones in my hand. But I watched for awhile and I saw him breathing. He just sort of heaved some breaths. He seemed utterly exhausted, just spent. So I waited for a minute and went back in the house. That was the last I saw of him. I'm sure he died. But I didn't see it, and if I'm being 100% honest I guess not seeing had become the point.

I stopped hearing a lot of chirping from the nest. I feared the worst. A big chunk of it fell out a couple days later, but I didn't see anymore chicks. All I really wanted was for one of them to make it. I began to see dead chicks all over town in the next week, since I was by now looking for them when I was walking around, but then I also became more aware of adult birds.

Well: one of them made it.


I was coming home from school and I saw this little fledgling chilling on the top of the porch. He was very noisy. Now, if this isn't all too perfect for you (I swear it's true), Mama bird was giving him flying lessons. She would fly from the porch to the top of this tree and he would very unevenly fly out there. It was kind of scary how far he would dip down in the air before he would pop up, little wings beating like mad, but he always made it. Then up to the eave where the nest had been. Then back, following the mother, every time. He hung around the house for a long time. He'd be sitting on the eave or the roof or on top of the porch chirping. I was a little nervous because I didn't see the mama but he looked plump and happy and eventually I saw him fly on his own. I threw a hot dog bun on the porch for him once. I haven't seen him the last few days. I think he was finally ready to really head out on his own.

I named him Little Dude.
***** 
You find people who believe that to make good art, one must have experienced tragedy. I don't believe that's true. It's too neat, too clean, too obvious. But if it's true, don't stress about it. Don't worry about getting in touch with tragedy. Tragedy is going to get in touch with you.

*****
To write a post about getting to good enough is something of a cheat. Because to my surprise, the last few years of my life have been better than good enough. I can tell you without exaggeration that I have been happier the last several years than I ever thought I would be. I am not, generally, someone who expects happiness, given the reality of the world we live in, the ubiquity of tragedy and the profound ambivalence at the heart of the human project. Yet here I have been: more fulfilled and content on a day-to-day basis than I would have thought possible.

It's a funny thing, trying to square your own happiness with a philosophical ambiguity towards human life as a global phenomenon. But I guess that's life's way of telling you to spend more time experiencing and less thinking about experience. I wish I could tell you that there was some grand strategy I employed to get here, but it's just been the process of getting out of my own head and recognizing all the reasons I have to feel happy and fortunate. I can't tell you how much I appreciate my day-to-day existence. I'm surrounded by brilliant people, I have the material things that I need, I drink and eat out with friends often, I get to sleep in a lot, and best of all, I get to teach. When I think about how much contentment I enjoy in my life, I reflect on what privilege really means.

Of course, such things can change, and life has conditioned me to be prepared for the other shoe to drop. But if there's one thing that I feel confident in about myself, it's my capacity to survive, and if my lovely existence now is transitory, I know that I can face what comes next with the confidence that I have earned the ability and the right to enjoy my life. There was a time when I wouldn't allow myself to enjoy good times; now I trust myself to find enjoyment and fulfillment even when things are bad. I guess I just grew up.

*****
Now: you might tell me that I didn't quite pull off telling the true story of the two chicks, and I'd agree. A little too cloying, a little too sentimental. I would not offer it if I wasn't trying to explain something. It may be the case that a story about trying to save a little baby bird just can't be expressed without falling into the maudlin or the overly dramatic. It's much more likely that I can't express it, that such a story exceeds my talents as a writer. Don't get me wrong, I'm great. I got chops. But I don't have that kind of chops. The reality is that, for many of us, with our limited abilities, the most emotional aspects of our lives are going to be the hardest to express. That's the bittersweet part. The great part, though, is negotiating that. It's in the process of self-discovery as a writer where you see if your technique is equal to your material, where you find out if you have the chops to tell the story you want to tell. The answer is frequently no, and that's frustrating, but finding out can be great. And you do get better. It's like exercising. You do your reps and you watch yourself improving, inch by inch.

Which does not mean that you get as good as you want to get. You can work on your jump shot for hours and you will get better, but that doesn't mean you get to start for the Knicks. Talent is not fair.  There is no deserves. And you don't get what you want in life.

But, look, I told the story. It's the only way I have to work out the things that are in my head. And that's ultimately the motivation: stuff happens, in your life or in your imagination, and you get to write about it. That has to be the motivation for most of us, because most of us aren't going to be making money doing this. That's just the percentages. I never said not to write. I could never say any such thing. I just said that you have to practice self-defense, that you shouldn't tie your heart too tightly around something that might not happen, and that you've got to forgive yourself if it doesn't. Then, if you make it, it's all a celebration anyhow. 

I may not tell the story of Little Dude and his sibling all that well, but I have to tell it, and at this point in my life the sentiment and the imprecision have to be forgiven. Because the reality is the whole thing made me incredibly emotional, and when I thought about writing it, I knew that it was exactly those emotions that people could make fun of. And I even get that, I understand it. But at this point there is no turning it off. You do learn about yourself. You learn about what little neuroses you can slowly put away and which you can't. I am fine with the way I look, until I look at myself the wrong way, I like my own voice, until I hear it, I can socialize with anyone, until I see them seeing me. Those things get a little bit better but the slightest cracks, and I'm back to where I was. That's okay. The truth is that at 32 I am no more able to control the intensity of the emotions that I experience when I watch a baby bird fall out of the nest than I would have been when I was 17, and that I will likely live the rest of my days choked by emotions I have no capacity to express. So I can live like that honestly or I can live dishonestly out of fear of displeasing other people.

I just want to give up a little anger every day. And I want to figure out the things that I need to be harder on myself about and the things that I need to forgive myself for, and I want to stay passionate but to forgive others for everything, and I want to be more fully myself every day. So let's celebrate good enough, and let's get free, and long live Little Dude.

the "Bert and Ernie are gay" thing says a lot

So this trope is old, but here's the New Yorker's new cover:


I would argue that this is in fact a really unfortunate portrayal of common attitudes. First, it's actually not conducive to gay rights or gay dignity to act as though every close male relationship is necessarily a sexual or romantic relationship. But worse, this is subtly a perfect distillation of how your average liberal views gay people, as Muppets: sexless, harmless, inoffensive, childish, silly, and ultimately mere fodder for the condescending entertainment of straight people.

Personally, I don't think that a group that has for decades labored against a brutally oppressive regime that humiliated them, assaulted them, and systematically denied them equal rights should be analogized to imaginary characters that have been built out of felt for the edutainment of children, nor that American liberalism's obsession with meaningless symbolism and empty uplift is a long-term strategy for success. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

how the NBA became a league for snobs

Over at Medium, I've written a piece about a trend in NBA commentary that has bothered me. Please check it out, and share if you enjoyed it.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

you don't get credit for being better than absolutely horrible



I post this tweet not because it's uniquely disqualifying but because it's so perfectly indicative of the divide between liberals and the lefties in question. And more, of the reason why American liberalism has such a hard time sustaining success.

The point is not, and has never been, that "both parties are the same." The point is that neither party offers a remotely acceptable alternative, and that attacking the left-wing for criticizing provides a disincentive for the marginally better party to improve. Liberals and Democrats constantly tell us that the Republican party and mainstream conservatism are a uniquely dysfunctional and destructive political force, one which keeps getting worse and not better. That's true. They then say that we must support the Democrats because they Democrats are not as bad. The problem is that when you've already established the total worthlessness of the other option, "not as bad" is a terribly low bar to clear. If you keep supporting the less-awful side in a way that forbids criticism of that side, as so, so many liberals and Democrats do, there is no incentive for that less-awful side to actually be good. That's precisely the condition with the Democrats today: they haven't responded to Republican shittiness by becoming better. They've simply slumped into being worse and worse.

Now I don't take Hayes himself for being the kind to forbid criticism of Democrats, as so many do. But when he or other smart liberals say things like this, they're contributing to an intellectual landscape where the balance is tilted massively towards a belief that supporting Democrats is always the thing to do. And, sure enough, one of the first positive replies to this tweet was someone saying "Nader 2000," which is one of those liberal codes for "no friends to the left of Joe Lieberman." (Always hilarious: people who hate Ralph Nader for supposedly getting us into war in Iraq who love Hilary Clinton.)

And, listen, fuck the Democrats. Seriously. Yes, they're better than the Republicans, just like getting the hair ripped off of your balls is better than getting a tooth pulled out with a pair of pliers. That is not good enough. Fuck the Democrats and their union-busting and their hypocrisy on the surveillance state and their willingness to go to war and their horrid, self-pitying defeatism. Fuck them. Vote for them if you must, but fuck those guys.

Leftists are constantly being attacked for not offering a politically plausible plan. And yet I find that it's in fact liberal Democrats who fail to articulate anything resembling a coherent political strategy. How do you get Democrats to actually govern in a way consonant with your values? During the election, when I was talking about not voting for Barack Obama, between the screams of pure rage and redbaiting, the liberal Dems would say, "criticize him when he's in office to get him to do what you want, but elect him first!" But that time when it's supposedly okay to criticize Democrats and push them in a particular direction never comes. Ever. The election was over, and they still yelled at us, for talking about drones or chained CPI or Syria. The time to defer to Democrats, in the eyes of most liberal Democrats, is always. I'm just recording my experience. Meanwhile, their theory of change is... what? When the only bar Democrats are required to climb is "better than neo-Confederate, warmongering, women-hating assholes," what possible incentive is there to improve? It's Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football, again and again and again.

Now the usual suspects will appear to complain that I'm stating the obvious. And I am. Others will ask why I bother, given that liberal Democrats are incorrigible. Perhaps they are. But look, as long as this notion is expressed by people of prominence, we have to respond clearly: the point is not that they are the same. The point is that neither is good. And if you think "better than the Republicans" is good enough, then shame on you. If you think it's not good enough, express a theory of politics for how it gets better when so many of your number are dedicated to shielding Democrats from criticism of all kinds, or tell those people to stop shutting down criticism of Democrats.

Are the Democrats, in some Platonic sense, better than a party that tries to suppress the black vote, excludes and demonizes Mexican immigrants, pushes for limitless war, guts basic social services, tries to rob women of control of their own bodies, bans gay marriage, and generally sets the country on a path to enrich some small sliver of our people to the detriment of the rest? Yes. Congratulations, guys. What a laurel.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

various endorsements

Because I know you're all just waiting intently for me to tell you what writers I like.

1. I frequently disagree with him, but man, Wesley Morris can write. I know it sounds obvious, but if you want to find work as a critic or commentator, get your prose right.

2. I though Sam Biddle was kind of a jerk when he wrote for Gizmodo, but his sensibility and writing style are perfect for covering the absurdity and arrogance of Silicon Valley at the new Valleywag.

3. A couple of years ago, I would have told you that the last thing the internet needed was another tech site. (I often wonder: is there such a thing as Peak Commentary? As of right now, it looks like the answer is no. We seem to have an infinite appetite.) But The Wirecutter, to me, shows that there's still room for new sites if they have a clear editorial philosophy and really invest effort in what they produce. The Wirecutter runs reviews of products, but it avoids the twin poles of bad contemporary criticism, fanboy fawning and snarky dismissal. Instead, they carefully and soberly explore the landscape of available devices for particular needs, compare prior reviews, and recommend options based on budget and need, in accessible and enthusiastic prose. Check out founder Brian Lam's piece on the iPhone. It advocates without engaging in the typical aggressive condescension that's typical of pro-Apple reviews. (Then get depressed when many of the commenters engage in that exact shitty behavior.) As an Apple skeptic, it's nice to see someone who can articulate a case for an Apple product that is based on the actual product, not on weird personality cult bullshit. Great site all around.

4. You should really subscribe to the Slurve, if you're a baseball fan, or interested in new media models. It's surprising to me how different the experience of reading an email newsletter is from reading, say, a paywalled website. An email, for me, has a different sense of obligation than a new post on a site. That might not sound like a good thing for something that's intended to be enjoyed, but for me, it actually is: it forces me to sit down and read the thing and have that mental space devoted for awhile. This summer is hugely important for me, academically and professionally, and it's important to take a regular break where I focus on something completely different. So in the morning, I have my coffee-and-Slurve time. One of the best parts of my day.

5. I like Devin Faraci's writing about movies, Catie Weaver on celebrity weirdness, Steve Randy Waldman on economics and politics, Moe Tkacik on anything, and Charles Pierce yelling at people, when the people getting yelled at are deserving. I also like you.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

most students resist being educated

I'm reviewing a book at the moment, and the author included the by-now boilerplate notion that the internet has made traditional education obsolete: whereas once information was locked away in the brains of teachers, or in ivory towers or expensive encyclopedias or whatever, now, information is free, and thus any student who wants to know things can simply find them online, and so teachers are out of a job. This idea is typically directed against collegiate educators, for multiple reasons, most saliently America's deep hatred of our fantastic higher education system. But the elementary logic is applicable to anyone who teaches. I hear it constantly. It's bullshit, though: it misunderstands the nature of education, and more, the nature of students.

First, education is not and never has been about giving people knowledge. I wonder if the people making this argument have ever heard of a public library. People have always been able to get their hands on information, if they've been willing to do a little work to get it. The internet just makes it a little bit easier. If education were as easy as giving people information, then we would not talk about some such thing as education. We'd have no need to. You should know that when the printing press was on the rise in early modern Europe, there was eerily similar talk of educators being out of business. If you can just put all the knowledge in books, and those books are no longer the property of a powerful caste, what purpose do monks serve? But of course, having a book filled with the world's knowledge, and having that knowledge, are two separate things. I assure you: when I teach freshman composition, I could leave my students alone in the classroom with their textbooks for the whole semester, and they wouldn't come out of it with any more skills or knowledge than they had when they first started. My job is to cram the education into their heads.

I don't exaggerate, and I imply resistance for a reason: most students, in most educational contexts, resist being educated. It's true. It's not just true, but banal and obvious. Why do we have truancy officers? Why do teachers device intricate schemes of punishment and reward? Why do we have Norman Rockwell visions of students playing hooky or sitting in the corner with a dunce cap? Because many students have only the barest desire to learn. That's why people made it illegal for them not to go to school!

When Aaron Swartz died, I read a couple people lamenting that not everyone is self-educated in the way he was, that not everyone could enjoy unstructured, self-directed education like Swartz had. And I just thought to myself, god, what a fantasy. What a silly fantasy. Most people are never, ever going to be autodidacts. If such a thing were likely or even possible, we wouldn't have our endless educational debates. Let me tell you a dirty secret about college students: they mostly want more structure, not less. They are constantly asking for rubrics and models and explicit directions on how to get an A. That's the question: not "how can I do this my own way," but "how can I ensure I get the best possible grade?" I am constantly pushing back against their desire to be told how to do every individual step in every individual assignment. There's no sense in which my teaching or my students or my university are unique, in that. Many of my students are brilliant, but they want to do as little as possible to succeed. You will find that they share this tendency with most people. That's precisely why a self-directed, self-motivated, and intellectually curious student is always so refreshing. I love undergrads and I love teaching, and I'm not trying to damn people here. I'm saying that this is the role of an educator. It's not to unleash information and let students find their own bliss. It isn't, it never has been, and it can't be.

Again, the same complaint from me: our debates about education are filled with so much bullshit fantasy about what most students or all students are like, that there's no room to talk about reality. The orthodoxy in education debates is to talk as if every student is some budding genius who needs only to have their potential unlocked and then to pursue their own bliss. Most students are not like Aaron Swartz and they never will be. Trying to erect an entire educational system based on the habits of the extremely rare individuals at the top of the heap is idiocy.

To be useful in the education debate, you have to imagine your average student, in any level of education, as you do the average person. And very few of us imagine the average person to be a budding genius. This romanticized fantasy about what most students want or can achieve is a direct and serious impediment to making education as good as it can be. What's more, it demonstrates the basic poverty of our national conversation on the topic: so many of the loudest voices have never taught anyone anything at all.

it is rational to flee from torture

As I write this, the media is working itself into a frenzy about Edward Snowden fleeing Hong Kong, possibly for Ecuador, and is passing through other countries on the way there. (Frome RED CHINA to COMMUNIST RUSSIA!) The usual suspects are arguing that this is proof positive that he's a traitor, or whatever, under the unassailable logic that only a guilty man would run from the brutal regime whose crimes he's exposed. I would merely like to remind them that a United Nations functionary last year confirmed the obvious, which is that the United States tortured Bradley Manning for actions similar to that of Snowden. It is profoundly rational to flee imprisonment and torture. Indeed, I have a hard time thinking of anything more rational. Might be relevant.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

the credulity divide

This piece at Gawker by Max Read is indicative of one of the hardest parts of getting people to wrestle with our country's horrific violence, what I call the credulity divide. The credulity divide refers to the distance between the factual information that Americans will recognize and their default stance towards critiques and accusations leveled against the government. So Read is a guy who seems very informed and reasonably accepting of the vast amount of misdeeds that our government has done, in the recent and distant past. He has to be, like anyone has to: the declassification of old documentation has again and again revealed that our intelligence services and military have been guilty of just about every "conspiracy theory" leveled against them. From the Bay of Pigs to the Gulf of Tonkin to the Shah to the Year of Living Dangerously to Honduras to MK Ultra to cocaine trafficking in Los Angeles to rendition, on and on and on. All dismissed, at one point or another, as the sort of thing our government would never do. All confirmed beyond reasonable doubt with evidence.

I see no reason to believe that Michael Hastings's death was anything other than a sad and terrible car accident, the kind that kills 180 Americans a day. And I understand why people are sensitive to these accusations. I've never been one to talk about taste or what's "appropriate" myself, but I get why people who knew and loved Hastings personally would be put out. Evidence has to come first. But read most of the comments on that piece, and you'll see that's not the spirit in which they're written. Instead, they are mostly merely mocking of conspiracy theorists as a category. What's strange is that I'm sure the large majority of them would admit the long litany of crimes the United States has committed: assassinations, renditions, torture, the destablizing of legitimate governments, the support of illegitimate governments, funneling weaponry into civil wars, providing intelligence to secret police.... That's the credulity divide: how acceptance of the fact of US misdeeds does not influence assumptions about who is or is not credible, or what claims deserve to be dismissed out of hand.

People believe in conspiracy theories about the American government because the American government has never not been involved in violent conspiracies, since at least the end of World War II. I would like to see the default assumption switch from mockery of those alleging conspiracy to suspicion of the government. Evidence still has to come first. But when you're constantly assuming the worst of people making allegations, you make yourself overly credulous towards a government that does not deserve credulity.