I do everything the weird (dumb, inefficient etc) way. I don’t say this as a macho declaration of individuality, but just because I was wired up strange and I know it.
I didn’t do grade school, or high school, or university, nor was I part of an intact functioning family. A ton of other people had a version of that screwy ride through childhood in those tumultuous years (the horrifying extent of abuse perpetrated by the ‘all you need is love’ sixties and seventies generation will not ever be honestly faced, but absolutely does continue to do soul-deep damage to progressive ideas to this day).
Emotionally, I’m still picking up the pieces (some years it all feels intact, and some it all feels like it never ever will be – again, an experience I share with many).
But intellectually I got lucky. Most of all, because my parents were both book nuts. The first book I fell in love with was the fantastically surreal “The Adventures of Bangwell Putt” about an old doll becoming part of a museum collection and meeting her strange neighbours. I wanted to hear it again and again, and I learned to read, following each word with my tiny finger, as my mom read it to me. She even made me my own Bangwell Putt doll from scratch, who I still treasure to this day.
My father read to my brother and I for many more years, (before our family was completely sundered by the whims of the demented high priestess of our cult). We heard Tolkien and CS Lewis, great myths from the Norse Greek and Egyptian traditions, and the simultaneously hilarious and wise tales of Mullah Nasrudin (which is a lovely place to start a conversation with a new Muslim friend, since so many heard those tales as kids also). He used to stop, when he hit a passage that struck him as especially beautiful, to repeat and really savour it.
Small wonder then, that I have never stopped reading or writing, my whole life.
I fell in love with essays pretty young. I honestly can’t remember whether it was Bertrand Russell, George Orwell or Shakespeare’s scholarly contemporary the astounding Frances Bacon who first hooked me, but I had an intellectual crush on all three of them already by the time I was thirteen, and their infinitely curious and yet also rigorous voices have been fantastic friends and teachers to have riding around inside my head with me, all these years.
As a teenager I started mainlining books on politics spirituality and philosophy (again, like many) and like many, I let my head-heart balance get weird many times, because I failed to understand the crucial importance of seeking that balance – not as a luxury or indulgence, for when the hard-slogging revolutionary (or spiritually self-denying) work is done, but as a constant necessary recalibration, to make sure every one of our judgements doesn’t start going wonky as a result of our own internal imbalance or lack of curiosity and energy.
It is impossible for me to express how frustrated I am by older people who think encouraging young people to be angry and upset about the future is meeting a kind of responsibility. It is not. It is theft of pleasure – vulture-like sadism – abuse of youth – just grotesque.
Am I saying there is nothing to be upset about? Well gee – is this the very first piece you’ve read by me? (If so – read any other, to answer that question NO).
The thing is – upset is unhealthy – literally metabolically toxic. When you make people afraid and angry you shorten their lifespans, raise their chances of chronic disease, make it harder for them to experience and remember how beautiful life is (which means we lose touch with why we must work to boost exactly that side of life for everyone) and even to link up in friendship and love bonds and help one another. By promoting upset itself, we set every hopeful possibility back, very seriously.
And we do this enormous and sustained cruelty just so we can pretend that our lazy and poorly defined good intentions are the same as effects – and since our intentions are utterly fantastic (because they are OURS) therefore the effects MUST BE great – and we don’t actually need to look and see if that’s really true, because we KNOW it is.
In fact – we are so sure that we are right just because we felt right when we came up with whatever position it is we hold (about any damn thing at all) that we find those people who do insist on looking and asking questions, outright rude or sometimes even traitorous.
HOW DARE YOU QUESTION MY INTENTIONS BY ACCURATELY DESCRIBING THEIR REAL WORLD CONSEQUENCES? (And this, said always with near infinite indignation)
So here’s the thing about that for me. Because I have worked in education and in practical trades for many years, but always as the joe-job guy (never an official teacher or a manager in a company) I have had a lot of opportunity to look at the consequences side of things, and heard a lot of tales of people whose curiosity or pain was considered punishably unacceptable, according to the trends of the day.
HINT: Zero tolerance means no ability to over-ride policy with compassion or sense. I watched a super intellectual twelve year old black kid get grilled by police (and given a record) just for accidentally discharging the pepper spray his New York mom gave him (still a bit more paranoid than Toronto of the time justified). Everyone knew he had no ill intent, violence or cruelty in his character – but zero tolerance! Too bad, future!
I am very thankful that such policies had not come into place about speech at the time, because I also saw many creative projects which were absolutely cathartic (and also familiar to my own young imagination) which might now be judged by the paranoid lens of our time as grounds for forcing that young artist into state mandated therapy (and almost certainly, years of powerful psychoactive medications), as a condition for their even returning to public school.
And just to be clear here – this is how bad it was THIRTY YEARS AGO. I have not had a single report in all the years since then about classrooms becoming less over-policed or paranoid – which means young people are still being forced to be way too serious angry and frustrated, way too young (by the time ten year olds actively self-censor, you have to know we’ve gone seriously off track).
I have to mention here – I LOVED working in education. The system was maddening in a million ways, but the kids themselves and the process of learning were both a genuine joy to work with, in and around. Also, like so many oddballs who find work in education, I was able to offer a few oddball students consolation that not only would it get easier, but that all the things that made them feel like frustrated geeks now, would make them extra cool in a few years – patience!
The finest gifts I got from that work were several friendships with former students which endure to this day (for which I am very grateful indeed). I’ll never forget the night Catherine and I were invited to dinner by one especially gifted student, whose father was a highly respected experienced and intelligent journalist (just as his son is now – hooray!)
On the refrigerator he had a cartoon of a journalist who was staring at a dartboard which had all kinds of subjects taped all over it, he held a dart in his hand, and there was a sign above the dartboard which read – “Today I am an expert in…”
Always made me laugh – and I loved that he had that kind of self-reflective humility. Years later, that same student tried to encourage me to get into blogging. It made sense, I have been writing essays my whole life, and I study a lot of subjects, so I come across helpful and revealing links which, if not original, are certainly under-discussed. But I’m slow to change (still love books and canary pads) so I missed out on the early flowering of this whole landscape of critical writing.
I did finally get Large Ess going a few years ago – and I have been having a lot of fun writing essays that get read by hundreds, instead of a handful like the eighties, or few dozen, like the nineties days of eccentric zine-style publications. I also read a lot of bloggers every day who got well established in that early flowering and now command truly astounding readerships. The fact that so many people like to read people trying to think critically about important things is truly exciting to me.
But because I read in so many different areas, and have for decades, I can’t help noticing that there is a major flaw in the metaphorical dartboard, powering the whole spirit of blogging. Traditionally, journalists do their work with a set of highly evolved reasoning rules and techniques which allow them to take that wide a range, without writing total nonsense or making stuff up just because it feels good. One of the keys to doing that right is to spend more time listening to those who are in the middle of the story, than spouting off about their own emotional impressions.
When I write an essay, I try to write about something I know for sure, which isn’t being incorporated into popular arguments, or to ask a question about missing compassion, on behalf of those who cannot.
I definitely write angry things also – but you will notice that what I am angry about is not my own offended sensibilities, but the fact that we keep gleefully celebrating our goodness (and especially our betterness than those scummy others), while we are doing extreme and unjust harm to silenced powerless others, both here and overseas. The idea that the natural environmental is not a free externality (infinite garbage-can for industry) is an important step forward, but the common idea that we Westerners are entitled to a moral externality on that obscene scale would be just plain silly, if it wasn’t so blatantly and relentlessly lethal. And still I’m not just being grumpy. I don’t want you to feel bad. What I want is for us all to feel good AND actually do good. Thing is, we can’t do that with our eyes closed. And we aren’t even trying to steer responsibly, if we keep playing it like the main point of argument is victory for one point only, instead of advancing the understanding of everybody.
Over the last few months I have read and heard some of the most dazzlingly ignorant essays and lectures (I know, blogs and podcasts) that I have ever encountered in my life – and in every single case they were composed by people who I know for certain have also produced genuine masterpieces of lucid, helpful and unusually insightful thought (why I read and listen to them).
On a simple level, my first response was irritation – because I knew they wouldn’t even try to make the case they worked so hard to make, if only they had the clues I have. Why so smart but also so dumb and lazy? DRAT!
But then I realized it was not so much the fact that they were writing outside of their area of expertise and understanding. Their problem was actually that blogging habits had taught them writing really was a form of jousting.
In each case the genesis of their ignorance-revealing work was obvious – they heard someone else make a point which irritated them, and they wanted to refute that other arguer with a really great memorable emotionally satisfying smack-down. The actual world they were talking about was entirely outside of their consideration – what they were playing was a game of symbols derived from it – and emotions that went with. (Magister Ludi haunts me constantly these days).
Crude gladiatorial intentions like this might be fine if we confined this stuff to art criticism or comics culture, but we do keep invoking the world at large to bolster our arguments, which means we have some responsibility to notice ACTUAL EFFECTS and not just pleasing constructs of words and symbols, which allow us an algebraic victory, on what has become a controlled contrived and arbitrary playing court.
The one that made me actually scream and almost throw my tablet out the window, was someone who began their argument about Gaza saying, “But were they really suffering before this? If we use health care as a rough general proxy for their social conditions…”
No dude – thanks to a very high level of education and donations from many Arab states, Gazans had almost first world health care. Other basics – food, for instance, not so much. For years, the entire population was forced to the edge of famine by their conquerors – who allowed them to import just barely enough calories per person to survive. In fact, almost nothing else about the place worked right – just healthcare. So everything past that opening (an hour’s worth) is just utter nonsense, because he is using a faulty postulate as an axiom.
And yet the guy is so smart thoughtful and courageous elsewhere. ARG! Can’t we just pick some pleasing wise and thoughtful icons and then believe everything they say? Really really not.
I also saw one of the most compassionate sweet-hearted and brilliant writers about mental health and politics go off the rails a couple of times during the last few weeks. Wildly oversimplifying in pieces about Artificial Intelligence, high finance and even Gender (ambitious, if naught else) in a way which proved he had not been paying attention to developments in any of those areas for at least five years, but was instead simply irritable and very clever. (Which point no one was actually arguing).
And yes of course I am trying my best to take some lessons here myself (and of course will do so imperfectly, but at least it is on my mind, rather than beneath my consideration).
So now let me take a wonky run at a story that you either haven’t heard about, or are almost certainly completely sick of already.
The resignation of Harvard President Claudine Gay is one of those extremely revealing events, where you can really tell who is curious, and who is grumpy about their own particular thing, but not much interested in the nature of the world.
Here are a few pieces of reality which attach to this story:
She absolutely was mediocre in the extreme, as a scholar. Terrible record of research and publication (Harvard has numerous teaching assistants who have done more) and she made no substantial contribution to the corpus of learning of any kind.
She also absolutely did break plagiarism rules for which Harvard would deny a student their degree and or expel them. You can’t have a cheating leader, and also have a culture of integrity in your institution. That is both simple and real.
Sabrina Salvati (Sabby Sabs podcast – recommended) asked – why isn’t anyone asking questions about the people who approved her plagiarized thesis paper? That too, was clearly substandard work.
In any case – however it was that she rose through the ranks, the fact is that she comes from privilege, had a rich cosmopolitain upbringing, and because she was raised inside elite culture, she was extremely good at the court rules and back-room undemocratic administrative culture side of things – working those levers. A scholar of power itself, perhaps?
She was not fired for any of those reasons, she was fired because a rich guy got angry at her, because of her poorly considered answers before congress about Israel.
This is the worst possible reason to fire anyone, especially the head of a supposedly independent institution, key to shaping new thought leaders. Should this precedent go unchallenged, we could have even worse purges of academia than we have already, on more and more grounds, leaving less and less diversity of thought – and these purges of academe are already worse during this last decade (by number and percentage) than during the worst days of McCarthy paranoia.
Purity is an insane desire. There is no one true voice, adequate for all peoples cases and purposes – and anyhow, even if there was such a thing, it sure as hell wouldn’t speak in state force and dollars!
If we look around, we can quickly find dozens of articles which say her firing was ‘just racism’ (rich white man, female black academic) – but that’s unhelpful bullshit – because it is missing all the learning points.
We can also find many writers who say her firing was righteous, because she was obviously unqualified – which is also surface-true as a lazy oversimplification and still BS, because it avoids the most important question – are we still doing academic freedom here or not? (And if not – not only “why not?” – but also “YIKES!”)
What I think of when I think of Claudine Gay is Roland Fryer. Fryer actually did come from the sort of difficult background which would entitle him to be obsessed by issues of racism, the way Gay, who had no such early trials is – but Fryer does not do that.
In fact, after demonstrating extraordinary mathematical ability, and then finding himself in the field of economics, where he could use that math to ask big questions usefully, he decided to ask one of the biggest questions of our time. What is the deal with black people and American cops? Are they actually murdering over pure racism? Do the numbers actually prove that horrifying impression, now shared by so many?
He had a whole group of graduate student researchers look through the crime reports for a major city over a period of years and analyze them very carefully, and they came to two surprising conclusions (which didn’t really surprise social scientists that much – though having the hard data to point to, is of enormous benefit).
First – it turns out that police do not actually resort to using outright lethal force on black people more often. Given a confrontation, the odds are actually slightly less. Just as social scientists have been saying for some time, the key factor is how often you interact with police, and that varies far more directly with poverty than with race. By raw numbers, American police still kill more white people every year, very consistently, but because blacks are over-represented among the poor, they face a disproportionate risk of hostile confrontation, also.
Their second finding was also difficult – police absolutely do treat black people differently when they interact with them – far more likely to be aggressive, hostile, rude, contemptuous, insulting and degrading, a whole lot more use of sub-lethal force, also.
Unsurprisingly, nobody on the left or the right welcomed his research and those two paired findings. Black organizers really liked the dramatic idea of calling cops in general outright racist murderers, even though the poorest blacks in many areas are now screaming for more police protection as the murder rate keeps increasing thanks to defunding, other similar policy shifts and increasingly hostile political attitudes. How much would you want to risk your life for people who despise you? The best quit first (just as we should expect) making everything worse.
Anyhow, those inconvenient people who are suffering from an oppressive climate of neighbourhood violence are getting in the way of some really great recruiting slogans! How rude – can’t we label the desperate cries of the poor some kind of hate speech, and shut them up with force of law?
At the same time, the people on the right who were so excited about his finding that police were not actually more lethal, based on race itself, completely ignored his proof that blacks really have suffered outrageously degrading and unfair hostility from police since forever. The widespread public anger which was triggered by the famous murders, was stoked by this very real and problematic abuse – and that is the thing which must be faced head-on and changed.
And here I have to stop to make another big point about math and understanding.
The cops who are the really outrageous openly racist scumbags are a very small but very active minority, just like the tiny proportion of black criminals who personally cause insane amounts of trouble – almost all of it, trouble for other black people in their neighbourhood.
Averages don’t really exist. No actual person is average, or representative – percentages don’t smear. When we think in big sweeping categorical terms about things, we are applying that dumb zero tolerance standard to a human – an unparalleled masterpiece of complexity – reducing them to a yes/no checklist – obliterating our own basis for compassion and understanding, and so insisting – those can’t be millions of friends and allies that I haven’t yet figured out how to reach – they are just things in the way of the great and sacred work – outright enemies, even.
Not because of what they actually are – but because of how lazy we are, in the way we think about almost everything except our own strong feelings and opinions.
So what happened to Roland Fryer? He got in big huge trouble, of course. No one wanted to accept his message – and so the hunt was on for a way to discredit the messenger.
But how did they take him out? Did they effectively refute his findings with better research? (no). Did they put up a more powerful or convincing argument by other means and then win open debates against him? Nope. You should listen to the guy – you would have to know more than he does, to have any hope of winning an argument against him – and the odds are extremely good that you do not.
They banned him from teaching for a punitive period of years – by magnifying a flirtation which was in very poor taste, into a ‘federal case’ in effect saying that he was an evil man, because he was not of the refined repressed and ass-corked palace-rules-following elite. (As the economist and professor Glen Lowry said of him – with a big smile – “Roland is just not a domesticated negro”)
Guess who lead the charge to silence this black man who kept saying inconvenient true things that no one wanted to hear, and shut him up using means other than honest academic argument?
Claudine freakin’ Gay did – that’s who. The very soul of ‘class’ and power.
So – is this a giant mess that should bother us? Why yes it is.
But is it simple racism, or simple incompetence, or simple anything? No kids, it just ain’t. (and precious little else qualifies either, when it comes right down to it).
From now on, I’m reading people for what they know and care about, not for what bugs them (even if their tantrum flatters one that I enjoy to an unwholesome degree myself).
That way I am way more likely to realize places I am wrong, which means learning something – replacing a defective logical-branching with a better one – which means more and more fresh learning from that point on.
Effective contradiction is NOT A SLAM – it is a precious irreplaceable GIFT. A compass that points straight to our own ignorance – WORK HERE NEXT.
The kind of feedback without which, we might very well just stay this dumb angry and lazy forever.
(and keep right on self-congratulating, even as we consume the world to death)