Is it okay not to have opinions on things?

Was reading this post, by Ferrett, where he writes about not really knowing the reality behind things. His article is in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks (which is something I still know zero about), but I read it in response to the latest tempest-in-a-teapot controversy in the YA world, which was the Stacey Jay Kickstarter thing (author tries to kickstart sequel to book series after publisher drops her; fans object to the framing of her kickstarter and subsequently harass her).

I first heard about the SJ thing yesterday (I think?) but what was weird about it was that my Twitter feed was full of people decrying the fans for harassing her, but I simply could not find any harassing tweets. Like, I knew they must exist somewhere, but Twitter is not a very good interface, and it’s hard to find tweets from the past, and my skills just weren’t up to it. So until someone linked to that storify (the one I’ve linked to), I had zero idea what the harassment actually consisted of or how severe it was: all I had was reaction.

And I piled on there too and added my own two cents and was like, “Yeah, harassing authors because you dislike the terms of their Kickstarters is bad” but in the back of my mind, I felt like I didn’t really know the whole story and that there was a chance I’d be embarrassed.

That’s why I usually don’t opine on political-type things. Because I either don’t know the whole story, or I only know the story because my friends have told me the story, which means that what I think is pretty much the same as what everyone around me thinks. In general, I get a bit exhausted of all the political “me too” on social networks. It’s particularly comical when every single post in my FB feed is about something, and then someone posts, “Why is everybody so silent about…[that thing].”

I mean, I guess I understand. We all view different Internets. My feed is different from everybody else’s. And our feeds are an aggregation of what each individual person we follow thinks is a worthwhile thing to put out into the world. But doesn’t that explain lots of perceived silence, too? Like, I don’t speak out on things because I feel like they’re taken care of. But probably I have followers for whom my voice would be the only one that’s talking about…something. Some issue of major political import. And now they are sadly uninformed, just because I assumed everyone already knew about…that…err…that thing.

As far as I’m concerned, this election was mostly about whether or not to tax soda

Soda-TaxBoth Berkeley and San Francisco had ballot propositions this year regarding whether to institute a tax on soda (and many juices). The tax, at least in Berkeley, is only a cent per ounce, so the cost isn’t that high. And the proposition clearly riled up some huge corporations because every house has gotten fliers about this, and I hear ads about it on the radio constantly. Seriously, if I was to judge by my radio, there were only three election issues in California this year: a) the soda tax; b) a silly proposition requiring mandatory drug-testing for doctors; and c) a school superintendent’s race somewhere in the South Bay (between some guy named Turlock and another guy named someone else–did you know that Timothy Turlock has never been a classroom teacher and that the last time he ran a school district, it went bankrupt or something like that? Or maybe it was the other guy who was bad? I forget).

In my own life, I’m pretty anti-soda. I used to drink copious quantities of it, but I haven’t touched any in about three years. There’s something about it that is, quite frankly, a bit addictive. Soda-drinking does not obey the dictates of hunger. No one was ever hungry for soda. And soda-thirst cannot be satiated. Many people (myself included) are capable of drinking many sodas in a day. Mankind was not meant to consume food that was so sweet! (On the other hand, I am not a scientist. And I don’t know if science is as convinced on the health risks of soda as the public seems to think it is. But for the sake of this post, let’s assume that drinking soda is, actually, in some way worse than, for instance, drinking milk.)

But, on the other hand, there is something awfully paternalistic about this tax. It would be one thing if we as a people were like, “We drink too much soda. Soda is bad. Soda should be taxed.”

But is that what these ballot propositions are about? Or are they about one group of people telling another: “You drink too much soda. Soda is bad for you, and this soda drinking of yours needs to be discouraged.”

I think it’s more the latter than the former. Of course, eventually what happens in these cases is that the nannies brainwash the children. That’s why cigarette smokers often support increased restrictions on smoking. They’re ashamed of their habit, so they punish themselves.

I don’t know. When you’re dealing with broad, societal problems, you have to use policy mechanisms like taxes in order to discourage or encourage behavior. However, I hate the way these policies get transformed into personal imperatives. I feel as though taxes like these are only going to contribute to a world where people who drink soda are considered bad and people who eschew it are considered good. We already have enough of that with weight issues, and it’s disgusting. But it seems impossible to say “soda drinking should be discouraged” without also saying “people who drink soda are doing something that is wrong.” I guess maybe our mythos could be, “People who drink soda are paying a tax that exculpates them from the act: since societal costs have now been internalized in the cost of the product, people can drink it with a clear conscience,” but somehow I don’t think that’s the message that’s getting through.

Life continues to be a thing that I am living

This is a photo that came up when I searched for 'gentry.' It is the country music duo Montgomery Gentry. They're actually one of my favorite groups. I've listened to "Some People Change" roughly 200 times, according to my iTunes.
This is a photo that came up when I searched for ‘gentry.’ It is the country music duo Montgomery Gentry. They’re actually one of my favorite groups. I’ve listened to “Some People Change” roughly 200 times, according to my iTunes.

Got so dull that I engaged in volunteer work today. Yes, I volunteered at an anti-gentification non-profit. I was going to drive people to a city council meeting, but then it turned out that they didn’t need any extra cars, so I just took their new volunteer orientation instead. I wouldn’t mention it, except that helping people in any capacity (particularly political activism) is so out of character for me that it deserves mention. But gentrification appears to be the hot-button topic that people care about in the Bay Area nowadays, so what the heck?

At the initial meeting for this organization (at least I think it was for this organization…I am really not sure how all these nonprofits are interconnected), someone asked me why I was there, and I said, “Well, my friend invited me, and I didn’t have anything to do today” (It was Sunday night), and she laughed and said, “That’s funny. You’re funny.”

But I wasn’t joking. I’ve reached a stage in my life where I am doing atypical things just to combat boredom.

Speaking of gentrification, I just sealed the deal on an apartment in Berkeley. It is an amazing apartment. I am already in love with it. I am sure that over the next few years I will slowly grow to disdain it, but for now I am still in the honeymoon period.

I’m also slowly making my way through a new novel. I refuse to get excited about it, though. So many other books have collapsed on me that I’m not gonna believe this one is gonna get finished until I’m at least halfway through.

Despite the overall tone of this blog post, life is pretty good. I’m really glad to be back here in the Bay. It’s a strange place. Aside from college, I’ve really only lived here for eighteen months, but I feel really at home here. And I’ve gotten a pretty panoramic view of it over these past three months: I spent a month in Oakland; six weeks in SF; and now I’m on my second week in Mountain View (for those not in the know, SF and Oakland are about fifteen miles apart, and Mountain View is forty miles from both of them).

Do Americans really _want_ more leisure time?

Source: CNN
Source: CNN

Yesterday, I was linked to this marvelous interview with David Graeber (who’s an intellectual associated with Occupy and the anti-globalization movement). In it, he talks about the decline in demands for more leisure time:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the great divisions between anarcho-syndicalist unions, and socialist unions, was that the latter were always asking for higher wages, and the anarchists were asking for less hours. That’s why the anarchists were so entangled in struggles for the eight-hour day. It’s as if the socialists were essentially buying into the notion that work is a virtue, and consumerism is good, but it should all be managed democratically, while the anarchists were saying, no, the whole deal—that we work more and more for more and more stuff—is rotten from the get-go.

I’ve wondered about this a lot. There doesn’t seem any obvious reason why our economy is organized in such a fashion that everyone has to work so many hours. But, for some reason that’s not only the way it is, that’s also the way people have accepted it should be. You see people agitating for a better social safety net, but you rarely see them agitating for a shorter workweek. Even the existing labor protections re: work-weeks are kind of a joke. There are so many jobs in the US (like computer programmer) which don’t pay overtime even though they don’t really fit into the exempt categories.

Somehow, on a spiritual level, our relation to work and leisure has changed. I think there is an extent to which people actually require work–even meaningless work–in order to provide their lives with purpose. You see this when writers go on vacation or take time off from their day jobs; they’re confronted by an open expanse of time and find it impossible to make any progress at all. When you have so much free time, you’re forced to confront questions of value: What is worth my time? What is worth doing? Why should I do this instead of something else? What does all this effort mean?

But when you work for someone else, all of those value questions are taken away from you. And while you hate the lack of autonomy, there’s also something pleasurable in being freed from the need to confront questions that are, fundamentally, unanswerable.

In his interview, Graeber addresses the other main source of meaning that our society accepts: altruism.

Most people in America accept that it’s worthwhile: a) try to make money;  and b) try to help other people. That’s why people who try to find some meaning within the working world often try to find it within ‘helping’ professions (the stereotype is the Wall Street person who drops out to join a nonprofit)

And, as Graeber, notes that’s why those professions are so poorly remunerated. People actually want to do them.

However, his notion–redefining ‘work’ as being that which helps others–doesn’t actually solve the leisure problem. It merely shifts it around. So now instead of working sixty hours a week to make value for your corporate overlord, you’re doing it to make value for your school or your nonprofit overlord.

People don’t really want leisure, per se. Instead, they want something in their life that is more meaningful than the work that they are given. But I think that once upon a time, people thought that they could use their leisure time to create their own meaning. Nowadays, I think that we implicitly believe that meaning comes from institutions.

Look at the arts. Why do so many people want to become published novelists rather than, say, accomplished letter (or email) writers? It’s because when you write a beautiful letter, then you need to accept and embrace that letter’s worth on your own. It’s something that you create for yourself (well, and one other person). Whereas when you write a novel, you only really accept its worth when it sells.

Before people can demand more leisure, we need to have some understanding of the worth of leisure. Before we can demand it, we have to desire it. I wonder right now what more leisure means to people? Does it mean more time playing video games? More time watching TV? More time driving your kids to various appointments? More time drinking in bars? All those things are fine, I guess, but it’s no surprise that Americans don’t really want more of them.

There’s something a little bit endearing about right-wing extremism

happy-go-lucky-posterPeriodically, my Facebook feed gets riled up when some ultra-rightwinger decries multiculturalism or eulogizes the antebellum South or says that Obama is going to put us all in concentration camps or engages in some other tacky political display. And then everybody will jump in there and be like, “Grr, those people are ruining America.”

Which is totally okay. I don’t support those beliefs, and those people certainly are harming America, and everyone tends to view these things through the filter of their own experience: if I’d had more negative interactions with ultra-rightwingers or with their policies, then perhaps I too would be extremely enthused about bashing them.

But I was recently watching a British movie, Happy Go Lucky (directed by Mike Leigh) that crystallized some of my mixed feelings about right-wing fanatics. In this movie, there’s an abrasive driving instructor who slowly develops a romantic attraction for his pupil, a kindergarten teacher. And this teacher also becomes somewhat fascinating with the driving instructor. She wonders what made him so uptight and abrasive and tries to probe him and figure out whether he was bullied in school.

And then he goes off on this tirade about how school is all about shoving you into a box and making you regurgitate the status quo and how if you do that then you end up successful and happy, but if you insist on thinking for yourself then you end up shunted out and miserable. And I am totally onboard with that…right up until the tirade turns into a racist rant.

I really liked the driving instructor. I admire anyone who really cares about what he does. One of the most charming parts of the movie is where he explains his teaching philosophy to the kindergarten teacher after she laughs at one of the silly mnemonics that he’s trying to make her memorize. He takes his job really seriously, and he honestly believes his instruction will save his pupils’ lives someday. This is a guy who’s schlubby and lonely, but he’s not pathetic. He’s found a way to live, and, to me, there’s something gloriously countercultural about that.

Oh, and he’s also a crazy racist who believes that the government is forcing nonwhite people to immigrate to Britain and shoving multiculturalism down peoples’ throats in order to deprive the noble British people of their heritage. And he also believes in some crazy connection between the American Government and Satanism. The Illuminati might be in there somewhere, too.

Now…are his beliefs deplorable? Yes.

But is he ruining the world?

I don’t know.

To me, it almost feels like he’s part of the solution and not part of the problem. This is a guy who’s obviously very switched on. He thinks for himself. He forges his own path in life. And he’s figured out a way to live in accordance with his own values. And, to me, that’s much more important than what you believe about immigration.

I mean, you just need to look at the medium and the message. The things that the guy says are repulsive. But the way he lives is admirable. During the five minutes per day that he talks about politics, he might be making the world a worse place, but during the whole rest of the day, he serves as an example to all the other sad, lonely, and trapped people who are searching for some way—any way—to live with integrity.

Not in love with straight women making fun of Grindr

Cannot believe how perfect this image is.
Cannot believe how perfect this image is.

Recently, a bunch of articles where women sort of poke fun at the way people behave on Grindr (a smartphone app that connects queer men who are physically close to each other at that moment).

I’m sure there are queer people who’ve linked to these articles and found them amusing. In fact, my boyfriend told me that the ‘straight women read Grindr messages aloud one’ was quite funny, so I obviously don’t speak for all queer men, but I do speak for myself, and I have to say: I don’t really find these articles to be amusing. In fact, they feel a little condescending to me. Like…women can get away with making fun of men’s foibles because they are, in many ways, bound by those foibles. But Grindr is something that actually has nothing to do with women or with their expectations, and I don’t see why they have a right to comment upon it. Or even if they do, I’m not really amused by articles that amount to: “When we judge this behavior according to our own dating standards, it seems quite ridiculous.”

Because my natural response is…well…who asked you?


P.S. Actually, I wouldn’t even be in love with queer women making fun of Grindr, but I guess that’s a bit more allowable, since queer men and women are, for now, stuck together in the unholy alliance that is the LGBTQUIA movement.

False Consciousness

This fellow was a member of the landed gentry
This fellow was a member of the landed gentry

The Bay Area is an incredibly expensive place to live, and one of the main topics of conversation there is rent and where you’re thinking about moving to. One thing that struck me when visiting the Bay Area was how concerned people were about becoming gentrifiers. It was interesting to me, because people would freely talk about how poor people in the Mission District and Oakland are being priced out of their neighborhoods by newcomers, and say things that reeked of guilt, like, “We are the problem.”

And that’s definitely one way of thinking about it. But that is such a foreign notion to me. I don’t live in a world where upper-middle-class people victimize working class people. I live in a world where we are all at the mercy of vast, impersonal economic forces. Like, people don’t move to Oakland because they want to: it’s not that great to live somewhere full of crime, where you’re a minority amongst people you distrust and who distrust you–a place that is not particularly walkable and which everywhere exhibits signs of the grossest urban decay. People don’t move to Oakland because they’ve decided it’s a better environment than San Francisco–they go there because they’ve been priced out of San Francisco. What is true for poor Hispanic people in the Mission District is also true for graduate students or someone who works at a nonprofit or as a salesperson at a tech company. San Francisco is really, really expensive.

And, sure, now Oakland is also becoming fairly expensive, but what’re you going to do? The only places where a person can afford to move in the SF Bay Area are places that’ve historically been awful. And all the places that’ve been historically awful are places that’ve historically been filled with people of color. There’s not some mystical historically-white township full of affordable housing that people are refusing to move to because it’s not hip. Even places that people sneer at (Fremont! Milpitas! [which are both majority-Asian, by the way]) are not inexpensive.

Given that, all this guilt smacks of false consciousness. People have this sense that they are the movers and shakers and they are the decision-makers even though they’re just as much at the mercy of the system as everyone else. The system might have given them a few more privileges than everyone else, but it hasn’t given them any more power.

Why it’s sometimes a good idea to use a negative tone against people who agree with your political opinions

meanThe other day (or was it today?) my twitter peep T.S. Christian was writing about how she doesn’t understand the tone argument (i.e. the argument frequently made about activist postings–that the tone is too controversial or strident): after all, the tone doesn’t invalidate the content.

And I was thinking, you know, this is a common feeling in the activist community. And there’s a really good reason for that. It’s because a person’s perception of tone is often driven by an unconscious racism on the part of the hearer. There’s really nothing a black woman can say that’s not going to sound aggressive to a white man. So if activists put too much stock in the tonal perceptions of people they disagree with, they’d go crazy, because some people are just never going to “hear” them right, no matter what tone they use.

So let’s take that as a given.

However, I think most activists will agree that–regardless of how their tone is perceived–they do vary their tone in a purposeful way. Sometimes you make an observation in a highly derogatory way and sometimes you say it in a conciliatory, understanding way. I’d say that neither of these is inherently superior to the other, since both are rhetorical tactics. Political speech–even more than most speech–has to walk a delicate line between emotion and reason.

Because, ostensibly, politics–and particularly public policy–is mostly about reason. In a liberal democracy, we start from basically the same principles–we all hate suffering and oppression–and then try to argue, in an evidence-based way, for policies that will reduce suffering and oppression. And once there is enough agreement, then a policy will come closer to fruition.

However, in practice, everything is about emotion. Because change is not about agreement, it’s about action. And the point of political discussion is not to get people to agree with you; it’s to get them to act.

In this world, there’s plenty of agreement without action. For instance, I believe in all the right things, but I literally never do anything about them. I don’t even use my tiny amount of social capital to advance the causes that I believe in, because that might mean upsetting some people. It’s just not worth it to me. My agreement is worthless.

However, if I was angrier about the state of the world, then I might be more inclined to act.

I recently had tea with a friend of mine who spent most of our two hour discussion talking about how powerless and angry he felt over the state of the world. And it was clear, to me, that he simply felt the distress of the suffering much more keenly than I do.

I think that, to a large degree, the purpose of much political speech is not to make some Republican into a person like me; it’s to make people like me into people like him.

I think you can see this most clearly in some classic activist texts. For instance, Martin Luther King’s Why We Can’t Wait is an intensely angry jeremaiad against moderate whites for the way that they keep telling black people to wait for their time and not rock the boat and not engage in radical action.

What is the purpose of that?

To me, it feels like its purpose is to strike people in their sense of complacency. It’s to tell people that you cannot reap the rewards of agreement any longer; unless you act, you are the enemy. It drives some people away, but that’s okay. Their agreement wasn’t worth much. However, it drives some people closer…and those are the ones who really matter.

I think that this is why the wars within various liberal movements are so powerful and so vicious (I’m thinking, for instance, of the ever-simmering war between progressive white women and radical women of color; or the war between affluent gay males and the rest of the queer community). It’s because that’s where movements are won or lost. If the gay marriage movement has taught us anything, it is that the opinions of the majority do not matter, precisely because most people in the majority will alter their opinions as soon as they perceive a shift in the general climate. The issue in any progressive cause is not with going from having 10% of the population in agreement with you to having 50% in agreement with you–it’s in going from having 100,000 people who are willing to act to 500,000 people who are willing to act.

Alot of so-called hypocrisy and irrationality is just due to the problems of making decisions while in possession of incomplete information

This post at the Alas Blog brings up the following graph from the Washington post

And then the author of the post says:

“Although the partisans on both sides look like dolts here, obviously on this issue Democratic hypocrites outnumber Republican hypocrites. (This may be a case where Republican skepticism of the Federal government’s ability to do anything has served them well.)”

I disagree with this statement. I don’t think that this shows hypocrisy at all. I think that discrepancies like this are natural whenever you ask people to make a decision about something on which they’re not fully informed (and why would an ordinary person ever be fully informed about the policy levers that the government can use to affect gas prices).

In the absence of detailed information, a question like this boils down to trust. Do we think that the government would do something if they could? If we trust the government to do something about this problem, then the fact that they have done nothing must mean that they are unable to do anything.

It makes sense that Democrats would not trust Republicans to do anything about gas prices. Thus, even though they had done nothing, there remained the possibility that there was something that the Republicans might be able to do which they simply chose not to do. On the other hand, Democrats are more likely to trust Obama to do something about gas prices. The fact that he’s done nothing, is, to them, confirmation that there is nothing that can be done.

To me, this does not seem like hypocrisy or irrationality to me. Rather, it seems like perfectly sound thinking.

I think that people who are very interested in something are often very prone to overestimating how much the random person on the street actually thinks about that thing. In the case of politics, I think this is a particularly egregious problem. To political commentators (even amateur ones), politics is everything. But to the ordinary person, it’s pretty much nothing. Any political question is likely to be given less than ten minutes of thought during a given year.

And that’s the way it should be. For an ordinary person, there are only two politically relevant questions that need to be asked. 1) Am I going to vote Democrat or Republican? and 2) Am I going to engage in radical political action?

The answer to question one can be disposed of by most people in less than thirty seconds of thought. The second question is one that most people answer in the negative. Any political thinking that does not affect the answer to either question 1 or question 2 is a waste of time. This ‘gas price’ question is the definition of an irrelevant question and it deserves the lack of research that these respondents displayed when they responded to it.

To me, it’s no surprise that Dharun Ravi is refusing to accept a plea bargain in the Tyler Clementi case

Recently, I’ve seen articles in the New Yorker, on, and on Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog that all wonder why Dharun Ravi–the boy who is being charged with spying on Tyler Clementi’s sexual activities before the gay teen committed suicide–hasn’t taken the plea bargain that would let him off without jail time and with some protection against deportation (Ravi is not an American citizen).

All of these articles seem to take it for granted that a New Jersey prosecutor will somehow be  able to influence the Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and/or a federal judge to avoid deporting a convicting criminal. To me, this seems like an extremely fragile guarantee. We live in a country where people are routinely scooped up and held without trial in immigration lockups and deported. A country where legitimate visa-holders are denied entry to the country for no stated reason. A country where people of South Asian descent are added to mysterious no-fly lists or terrorist watchlists or even targeted assassination lists without any sort of judicial review. This is a country where mentally handicapped American citizens have been deported to Mexico merely because they had hispanic names. Its a country where American-born children are deported along with their illegal parents. This is a country whose authorities are brutally unforgiving to both criminals and to immigrants.

If Ravi takes a plea, then his fate will not be adjudicated by his fellow Americans. It will instead be left entirely to the doubtful sympathies of (largely white) prosecutors and judges who tend to build their careers by fostering hard-line nativist sentiment. To me it’s not surprising that he would be willing to trust himself to a jury that will almost certainly include people of color, recent immigrants, and the descendants of recent immigrants. Sure, his juvenile activities might have had horrible consequences, but I think it’s not impossible that a jury of ordinary Americans might think that ten years in prison and a lifetime in India is too steep a punishment for those actions. Furthermore, I also think that it’s entirely possible that he sees avoiding deportation as being worth risking the possibility of a few years in prison. What is a 19 year old American kid going to do in India? What kind of life is he going to have? In fact, I wonder that more people have not emphasized the racial element in this case. Because of his race and immigration status, Dharun Ravi has to suffer more punishment for this same crime than an American citizen or someone from a less impoverished country would have to. If it wasn’t for that, then I am pretty sure he would have settled and this would all have been over months ago.