In Uncategorized on November 6, 2012 at 11:33 am
Today is the presidential election, and I have a few thoughts. First, I’m predicting a decisive win for Obama. Calling a landslide prior to the election is in almost no one’s best interest: it reduces the election’s value as a news item (so media outlets won’t do it), encourages voter apathy (so campaigns won’t do it), and exposes the predictor to the possibility of looking extremely foolish (so people with reputations won’t do it). Probably for these and similar reasons, all elections look close beforehand; but I’ve never thought we were anywhere near to electing a President Romney, except perhaps for a few days after the first debate, when the electorate seemed to wonder if Obama still wanted the job. In my opinion, Obama heavily outclasses Romney in political acumen and personal authenticity; his vision for the country seems basically right rather than almost completely wrong; and his performance during his first term more than qualifies him for a second one. So without any evidence, I trust that the aggregated judgment and intuition of the American people will produce an Obama victory.
Second, I wanted to remark on and celebrate the tolerance of most Americans during this election, which, it has been delightfully easy to forget, is between a Mormon and a black man. For such an election to be fought mostly on the issues, both political machines must have calculated that attacks against a candidate’s racial heritage or religious faith would disgust rather than energize voters. How strange and admirable that we struggle more to accept Romney’s personal wealth in a time of national hardship than we do his conviction that Jesus will one day rule from Missouri. Noticing these markers of progress as we work to develop a literally catholic culture makes me excited to live in this country.
Last, I’d like to express my gratitude for and faith in the American experiment itself. This country is like a family, and like most large families we experience a great deal of conflict, much of it extravagant and harmful. But particular occasions—weddings, funerals, reunions—can bring families together, and at these occasions the power and sanity of the family bond becomes apparent. Tonight is a reunion for this country, and even if half of us go to bed horrified by the judgment of the other half, we will have had the opportunity to glimpse the enduring strength of the American fabric. That’s something to celebrate.
In Posts on July 28, 2012 at 2:55 pm
I can’t stop listening to Channel ORANGE, the recently released album by the American R&B artist Frank Ocean. Perhaps my favorite track is “Bad Religion,” a ballad exploring Ocean’s unrequited love for another man. He recently performed it in what I think is a devastatingly beautiful live version. Besides just wishing that everyone within earshot would listen to the song (and the whole album), I’m writing about it because it subtly shifted my politics on gay rights.
I’ve always been for gay rights, of course: I have no reason not to be, and it’s consistent with my understanding of how society should be organized and what freedoms the people in it should enjoy. But I’ve also maintained a robust respect for opposition to homosexuality on principled (for example, religious) grounds, partly out of a sense of historical context. Homophobia has been the unquestioned norm for nearly all of history, including during much of many Americans’ lifetimes; even if those prejudices need changing now, what sense is there in demonizing people who are simply continuing to hold the beliefs with which they were raised? Gay rights will be as unquestioned in fifty years as women’s suffrage is today; why fill the intervening space with conflict and ill will?
This was before “Bad Religion,” performed live on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. What was missing, or at least absent, was the visceral feeling that gay people truly love each other in precisely the way that I feel love. That feeling makes it difficult to see opposition to homosexuality as anything but the unconscionable denial of gay people’s rights by individuals who may be well-intentioned—I haven’t forgotten that part—but whose opinions are plainly wrong and cause real and unnecessary harm. “Bad Religion” certainly isn’t a work of political art; but the truth and humanity of its exploration of unrequited love is maybe the most powerful kind of political statement. If you can listen to it and still dismiss gay love as somehow false or different, I simply don’t know what to tell you.
In Posts on May 5, 2012 at 11:53 am
I’m not good with certain kinds of details, which alarms me both because I understand facility with details to be part of intelligence and because details themselves are extremely important. For example, global finance is essentially a multitrillion-dollar trade in details: you think the Malaysian central bank will allow the ringgit to depreciate in a bid for export competitiveness in its garment sector, but I know that the prime minister has asked that politically sensitive increases in the price of imported rice be left until after the next election; we bet, my detail is better than yours, and I become rich at your expense. I wouldn’t want a career built on profitably exploiting these kinds of minutiae: I wouldn’t enjoy it, or, I think, be terribly good at it.
My problem isn’t that I can’t understand details, but that I often don’t care about them because they seem to miss the big picture. I sympathize with Eduardo Saverin, the Facebook cofounder whose share in the company Mark Zuckerberg diluted down to two percent with a duplicitous contract. Some stupid contract has nothing to do with the “real” question of who founded Facebook and got it off the ground. How can a sentence on a piece of paper change everything? Similarly, I had a finance professor who used to receive free seat upgrades by complaining about his seat, knowing that the airline’s policy was to placate complainers by upgrading them. This worked on every flight for a few years, until he received a handwritten letter from the company telling him never to fly with them again. He told this story with pride, but I felt embarrassed to hear it, and worried about the resources the airline had to spend stopping people from gaming its systems, as well as about the generic, fuzzy “guiltiness” of my professor.
Acknowledging that indifference to details is not the way to win a court case or launch a hedge fund, I want to argue for the wisdom of seeing things in broad, holistic strokes. In the examples above, a piercing intelligence in handling details (dilution in a contract, a company’s complaints policy) was matched by a pseudo-autistic indifference to their contexts. This indifference leads to the creation of powerful externalities: embittered ex-friends who launch lengthy court cases, exasperated airline executives who may discontinue generous policies for everyone, and the psychological weight of having betrayed another’s trust for money, control, or legroom. Economic theory has been rife with detail-oriented people inclined to ignore these externalities simply because they can’t be bothered to quantify them, and it has taken some brilliant and courageous thinkers to incline the discipline to see Zuckerberg and my finance professor as something other than heroes of rationality, people who won “something for nothing.” The wisdom of vagueness is the sense that such an assessment cannot be true—the voice that protests, if intuitively and incoherently, that the trust of your friends, the sanctity of your conscience, and your wholesome treatment of strangers are not actually “nothing,” and may even be the details that really matter.