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Feeling; gay rights; “Bad Religion”

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.

Details

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.

Racism, irony, and “gingers”

In Posts on February 7, 2012 at 4:03 pm

I’m worried that Anglophone culture is inventing a new racial category: “gingers,” people with red hair, pale skin, and freckles. Like most Americans who have heard the term, I first conceptualized “gingers” as a separate category from “white people” after watching the South Park episode “Ginger Kids.” Characteristically for South Park, the episode satirizes racism while also arguably indulging in a great deal of it; the show has always succeeded in taking extreme liberties—repeating the n-word umpteen times in another famous episode—by positioning itself as ironically depicting social ills with the actual intent of lampooning them. If you’re offended at the depiction, you’ve missed the irony, or so the logic goes.

I trust that the South Park writers’ actual race politics are blameless, but the story gets more complicated. Since the airing of “Ginger Kids,” “ginger” as a racist term has continued to develop momentum and is now doing real damage, inspiring not only expressions of evidently sincere hurt from redheaded people, but actual discrimination and violence. The term remains culturally acceptable thanks to a soupy half-irony that allows for the simultaneous enjoyment of a clean racial conscience and the thrill of racist titillation. This half-irony can be thought of (in a hopefully useful analogy) as a viral adaptation, allowing the term to propagate without triggering the regular responses of the cultural immune system.

The seamless transition from satirizing racial prejudice to exercising racial prejudice suggests that irony can shield racism—or even create it ex nihilo—just as readily as deflate it. I suppose the easy conclusion would be that we simply shouldn’t give voice to prejudice, not even ha-ha prejudice; but I strongly believe that forbidding people to have a sense of humor about a topic only makes it funnier, and I also object to the brittleness and self-righteousness of that approach. I personally don’t intend to stop enjoying, and propagating, racially charged humor within the boundaries of appropriateness that I and the world set. So I suppose my main takeaway from the “ginger” story is that irony isn’t a panacea: we are never as hip and detached as we think we are, and the world itself has an inescapable aspect that is flat, straightforward, serious, and painful.

Further viewing: What actually got me thinking about this topic is a recent (and extremely graphic) music video from musician M.I.A., depicting genocide against red-haired people. I noticed that my primary response to the video was not “what if a totally neutral group, like redheads, was suddenly discriminated against?” (as probably intended), but more like “we need to stop depicting discrimination against redheads.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Posts on January 16, 2012 at 4:28 pm

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. I watched some less famous video recordings of King (here’s one), which I found humanized him and increased my admiration for him. It was obvious that he wasn’t an abstract hero, destined to stride around altering history, but a person who understood the immensity of the problems he faced and dedicated himself to facing them anyway—which at this point in my life is the only conception of a hero I find interesting. Also, I felt I could see that King genuinely wanted the best for everyone: his motivation was not merely to carry out some historical agenda, but actually to help people better their lives. In other words, King was good (in the sense of having right motivation), not merely great.

On the negative side, I was surprised by the bullying tone of King’s white interlocutors in some interviews he gave (such as this one). And I was absolutely appalled to learn details of the FBI’s maltreatment of King, which I had known about only in general terms. King’s Wikipedia entry quotes a threatening letter, anonymously delivered by the FBI, rife with the language of race hatred; this CNN article excerpts an earlier draft of the letter.

I recognize that, on some level, it’s funny for me to express surprise that whites in the 1960s were in the habit of talking down to blacks, or at the depths to which the US establishment would sink to discredit King, whose goals look so obviously worthy in retrospect. But I have had little personal experience of these sorts of abuses, and until recently I was inclined to write them off as conspiracy theories. What systemic injustices will we shudder to recall in fifty years? (Our brutal drug policy and our involvement in some aspects of Israel’s relations with its neighbors strike me as two likely candidates.) What earnest, decent campaigners do we now bully and abuse? (For me, the only person who comes readily to mind is Obama—but he’s the president, which feels somehow different.)

“Strong” and social discourse

In Posts on December 10, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I had an interesting debate with a lot of my classmates over “Strong,” the Rick Perry campaign ad in which he laments that “there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military.” The debate wasn’t about whether Rick Perry was wrong (answer: he is), but about whether my classmates were justified in calling him names, most colorfully an “unimaginable asshole.”

I believe they were not, and over the course of the debate I understood my reasons better. Since name-calling is an attempt not to understand a person, the basic issue is how much curiosity we should have about a viewpoint we disagree with. And I think the answer has to do with whether it is possible to hold that viewpoint reasonably—making the answer time- and issue-specific, because the range of reasonable positions on any issue evolves unevenly with time. The Founding Fathers owned slaves, and would have been unquestioningly homophobic if anyone had even thought to ask. In 2011, both slavery and homophobia are as wrong as they ever were, but it is now far more possible to be a basically reasonable homophobe—as millions of everyday Americans are—than a basically reasonable slaveowner. In 2100, homophobes will be one in a million, dwelling in log cabins and mailing pipe bombs; but the 2096 outlawing of the meat industry will still spark heated debate among relative moderates.

Rick Perry is representing the views of a broad swath of the American population which believes, probably based on a particular religious upbringing, that homosexuality is wrong. Undoing this misimpression demands a society-wide investigation into the evidence on religious and scientific claims to truth—an investigation which, although increasingly conclusive, is still ongoing in the social discourse. In this environment, name-calling solves precisely nothing. By contrast, calling someone who opposes extending the franchise to ethnic minorities an asshole still doesn’t help anything; but that debate has been settled so conclusively in America that anyone who wishes to continue it is most likely just stirring up trouble. Or, if you like, just being an asshole.

Incentives

In Posts on October 6, 2011 at 2:09 pm

One of the most powerful notions I’ve picked up in my study of economics is that “people respond to incentives.” That is, regardless of people’s views, attitudes, and beliefs, they tend to be irresistibly drawn to things that reward them, and neutral to or repelled by things that do not. This view tends to make people a sort of liquid, flowing around the circumstances they’re put in. If people can’t do business through official channels, a booming black market is bound to develop, just as water is bound to flow downhill. The “incentives” model makes extremely powerful predictions of aggregate behaviors, and it’s also helped me to understand elements of my personal life, such as why my actual conduct often falls short of my goals. (Perhaps I feel like I “should” do something more than I do; but perhaps actually doing the thing offers very little reward except guilt alleviation.)

But where does this leave human agency? “Incentives” may be a good way to analyze trends in the aggregate, but an individual’s conduct can—and must—rise above the structural forces acting on him or her. My concern is that students of economics (and other disciplines that deal heavily with incentives) sometimes end up falsely rationalizing cynicism and amorality, by setting their general models of people’s tendencies as the standard of their personal conduct. (I have a stylized image of a disgraced Wall Street banker saying, “Of course I did it; I was incentivized.” Well, fine, but that attitude is the essence of criminality.)

The people I most admire—George Washington and some other founding fathers, certain religious teachers—had incredible integrity. When they knew what they should do, they did it. So in addition to studying the venality of people in the aggregate, perhaps we should study and imitate the integrity of the people we admire. After all, if we model our ethics on averages, we are essentially aspiring to be ethically average—all while demanding inordinate wealth, power, and influence based on our “training.” Depending on how much you blame Wall Street excesses for the current global economic crisis, this is either a recipe for disaster, or an actual cake.

Look, it’s not all about the election

In Posts on September 22, 2011 at 6:37 pm

After reading this BBC article reporting on a speech by President Obama on Israel, I felt a familiar frustration at the cynicism of mainstream political reporting, and particularly journalists’ tendency to ascribe every single one of Obama’s actions to a presidential election that remains well over a year away. (Just to illustrate the point, here’s the first mainstream newspaper article I found with a Google search for “Obama economy”; its first paragraph links Obama’s appointment of an economic advisor to the election.)

The BBC article argues that Obama has changed his tone on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to defuse Republican candidates’ narrative that he has “thrown Israel under the bus.” Now listen to the excerpt from the speech embedded toward the top of the page. As usual with President Obama, I found it fair, accurate, and humane. Obviously, Obama is well aware of the domestic politics surrounding the situation; but should the media be in the habit of cheapening his motivations so thoroughly? Is there any chance that Obama’s reelection strategy is simply to do the right thing and improve people’s lives? After all, he is the President—might he actually be trying to do the job we elected him for?

I think political reporting is so cynical partly because cynicism is almost the only kind of analysis mainstream reporters are allowed to add to the raw facts: being nominally objective, they can’t directly support or criticize either side of a political dispute, but they are allowed to cast aspersions. I also think cynicism—particularly around politics—is a festering cultural wound inflicted mostly by Nixon, at least in the US. As for how it ended up at the BBC, maybe we exported it; or maybe they have their own reasons. And, of course, it is true that politicians must act strategically. But in this case, and on Obama’s attempts to fix the economy, I mean, c’mon.

Death and art

In Posts on July 17, 2011 at 2:46 pm

Yesterday, in lieu of watching the final Harry Potter movie, I read a lot about the series online. I was very interested to read JK Rowling paraphrased as saying that its central theme is Harry coming to terms with death. That reconciling death would be the main theme of a series of coming-of-age novels reinforced, or at least reminded me of, an increasingly strong impression I’ve been having about art: Mature art acknowledges death, and immature art proposes alternatives to it.

And there are a lot of alternatives to it. It’s hard to imagine the entertainment industry without them. (In fact, to stretch the point, perhaps proposing alternatives to death is what entertainment is.) High-status characters are so attractive because they symbolize invulnerability: since they have the situation under control, whether by dint of a rapier wit or a superpower, they don’t have to worry, and that’s how we wish we were. Bond films are built on this addiction to status symbolism, and are a crystal-clear example of compelling but immature art. Similarly, every part of every movie where one character leaves another gape-mouthed through an unexpected display of verbal fireworks is a play for status, and almost always an oblique denial of mortality—particularly when the character receiving the dressing-down is some sellout in a suit, whose lost agency is redolent of death. Gritty private eyes, antiheroes, chain-smoking existentialist poets, and punk musicians are another kind of escape from death: their nihilism supposedly beats death at its own game, as if you could learn to survive in a coffin by swearing off light and air. And the comforting flatness of sitcom characters and movie sidekicks denies death by embodying the impossibility of a safe, reliable world. How we might wish for a drinking buddy who always—always—has a ribald story to cheer us up, without suffering through real crises or unwelcome changes of his own. In real life, though, he’s wishing for the same thing in us.

In real life, and good literature, death is a constant fact (“of life”) rather than an individual event. When a situation escapes our control, we are confronted with the power of reality to contravene our wishes, symbolizing death. When we lose something we intended to keep, such as a relationship, a job, or a court battle, it symbolizes the fundamental indifference of reality to our plans, including our plans to exist. Good art may contain real heroism, but it does not present false alternatives to the least negotiable of life’s truths. By this criterion, Harry Potter is pretty good art for something so popular. And it’s interesting how the final book’s closing “All was well” is somewhat ominous, precisely because it’s so false. Anyway, I’ve heard the movie is great.

Ordinariness

In Posts on June 22, 2011 at 11:01 am

In my adulthood, I have been consistently surprised by the ordinariness of authentic things. Few of the events which I would put in a premature autobiography caused me much excitement at the time, and the truly great and truly terrible people I’ve met have seemed much less unusual than I would have predicted. It’s like the part in Star Wars where Luke can’t be bothered with Yoda because he is searching for a “great Jedi master.” (The cliché “eerie calm” also seems relevant as an example of this kind of strange mundaneness—even disasters often fail to be as cinematic as we expect.)

I think this mismatch between reality and expectation is due in part to how others communicate their own experiences. Communication implies content, something that seems worth imparting; the spaces between the content are often written off as “unremarkable.” So a friend relating a life-changing music concert would likely compress a full day’s experience, with bathroom trips and hundreds of other banal details, into a single burst of ecstasy—and might even overstate the ecstasy, since the nuances of just how ecstatic one was or wasn’t would tend to make a story drag. This intrinsic bias is hugely heightened in most media, which are under relentless competitive pressure to grab our attention: C-SPAN can show two minutes of an empty Senate chamber, but nobody with market share to capture would dare try. The result is a shadow world not only of gunfights and orgies, but of only the interesting parts of gunfights and orgies. We rarely even watch the stakeout, or the part where everyone takes off their shoes.

Then comes the real world, which is disconcertingly different from the ways in which we describe it. In my case, I have had to train myself to recognize authentic things despite their blandness—and, sadly, a number of those things have passed me by because I was expecting something more spectacular. If any of this sounds familiar, I’d be interested to hear about it.

An optimistic view of the future

In Posts on May 31, 2011 at 11:52 pm

Humanity in the 20th century withstood repeated global war, the aggressive expansion of two persuasive but ultimately horrific political systems, unprecedented strain on Earth’s resources, and the rapid diffusion of the first technology ever to threaten our survival as a species. And yet, eleven years into the next century, the unmistakable trend among most human populations is toward longer lives, concern for human rights, and a shared access to both the truths of science and the accumulated wisdom of world culture. Since optimism is so rarely practiced in persuasive writing, it might be interesting to describe what we can hope for in the coming century if humanity continues to meet its challenges so well.

We will see the end of predatory, autocratic government, as improving social and economic infrastructure facilitates the continued expansion of human dignity. China, which we presently use to keep ourselves up at night, will continue to modernize until its growing middle class forces a convulsive liberalization; it and other emerging powers will compete primarily economically in a generally benign multipolar world of liberal powers bound by economic ties, resulting in a steadily improving world quality of life. Resource and climate pressures—a major concern—will prove manageable, as necessity sparks the innovativeness and political will to mitigate them. World population will stabilize with general affluence; a more balanced international economic system will make conspicuous consumption and ecological excess (as practiced particularly in the US) more costly and less tenable than at present; and values will continue to shift toward postmaterialism—all leading to a permanently sustainable human relationship with the environment. As with fascism, communism, and slavery in the recent past, humanity will continue to transcend unproductive political and social movements, including religious fundamentalism, oppression of women, racism, and even hardheaded nationalism if it means unnecessary callousness toward foreigners.

Also, one slightly more specific prediction: Western psychology is still shockingly crude, and is due for a massive breakthrough (which I suspect will come partly from understanding and replicating the psychological and neurochemical effects of meditation). Future psychology could make contemporary mental illnesses and their present treatment seem like medieval horrors, and might even help us directly address the fundamental dissatisfactions and insecurities that cause most other human misery. That’s the hope, anyway—comments and jaded lectures on the badness of things welcome.