Gun Control Theater, Act 58, Scene 947

Gun control is the liberal equivalent to abortion.
Let me explain: it’s a little difficult to remember now, after eight years of Obama Derangement Syndrome causing the Republicans to allow themselves to be taken over by authoritarian nutjobs who actually believe their own bullshit, leading to a real and genuine threat to (and steady erosion of) women’s reproductive rights, but for much of the 90s and 2000s abortion was largely a fake issue.
Which having said, let’s pull back a bit: there was real debate going on around the edges of the abortion issue, like the availability of late-term abortions, but the core notion that some kind of access to abortion in some form was a guaranteed right of all women wasn’t realistically under challenge. The Republicans would, of course, campaign on opposition to it, but no one except the uninformed expected them to actually do anything outside of the purely symbolic. It was just a guaranteed way for the conservatives to get their base riled up and out to the polls, and liberals let them get away with it because the idea that the right to abortion was under threat was a great way to get their base riled up and out to the polls.
Gun control is the same thing but reversed. Every time there’s a shooting, liberals trot out their opposition to guns, but nobody except the uninformed really expects them to do anything to challenge the core idea that some kind of access to guns in some form is a guaranteed right. They just say it because it’s a great way to get to get their base riled up and out to the polls, and conservatives let them get away with it because the idea that the right to gun ownership is under threat is a great way to get their base riled up and out to the polls.
The only real difference is that the Democrats haven’t gone batshit insane in the last decade, and therefore are still playing the same game, while the Republicans have collectively lost their minds and actually started trying to destroy the right to abortion.
And like all political theater, the goal in both cases is misdirection. The point of the gun control debate is to draw our attention away from real problems, the real underlying causes of violence. Because yeah, if we take away guns we might get stabbings with five victims instead of shootings with fifty, but we’re still going to get killings. We’re still going to have angry men (and it is always men, have you noticed?) lashing out in violence against people they hate, we’ll still have police officers slaughtering the people they supposedly exist to protect, we’ll still have a culture of violence and fear.
Because the real causes are things nobody in power wants changed: The individualist power fantasy of being a rugged loner in a dangerous frontier who depends on no one and nothing. The rampant inequality that puts anyone who isn’t rich in constant fear for their livelihood while also telling everyone who belongs to even one privileged population (which is virtually everyone) that they’re entitled to better. The scapegoating that puts the blame for inequality on its victims, encouraging them to lash out against one another. The authoritarian fear of change and difference. Racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry, capitalism, all the mechanisms of sorting humanity into the deserving us who have been cheated and the undeserving them who are stealing from us.
Change those, and the availability of guns ceases to matter. And for all that they seem insurmountable, impossible, unconquerable built-in features of our culture, it’s pretty obvious that trying to push for gun control doesn’t actually accomplish anything, regardless of whether actual gun control would.
So if we’re going to be hammering our heads against the impossible anyway, why not go for broke?

The problem isn't call-out culture; it's sin culture

You’ve heard about it, I’m sure. Them young’uns are back on the lawn, destroying civilization with their opposition to casual and institutional prejudice, care for the well-being of trauma victims, and belief they can effect meaningful social change. The latest fad in finger-wagging at the young people with their loud music and baggy pants is articles about the terrible oppression of “call-out culture,” which allegedly is silencing people with the fear that if they stray from an ever-shifting, impossible to keep up with orthodoxy, they will be inundated with accusations of various forms of bigotry.
But that’s really not the problem. Shaming people for certain behaviors is a powerful tool for social engineering. People don’t like feeling ashamed, and tend to modify their behavior to avoid it. If we could create an environment in which people were generally ashamed to express racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic views, that’d be a huge victory for social justice and a step toward a better world.
The problem isn’t that we shame people who support, intentionally or otherwise, systemic injustices. The problem is that we then don’t allow them to change. Shame doesn’t work to change behavior if you cannot escape the shame by changing your behavior!
And that’s where sin comes in. Sin is a toxic concept endemic to Western society which posits that undesirable behaviors–“sinful” or “wicked” acts–create a permanent stain on a person. That, in other words, doing something bad alters who you are; that, in short, once you have done bad things you are a bad person, and everything you do thereafter is tainted by your badness. This idea originates with Christianity, of course, but it can be found throughout secular culture as well: it’s the basis for our retributive system of punishment for crimes, it’s the reason that, in Star Wars, “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” Countless other examples abound.
This is, of course, absurd. Human beings possess agency; there is no necessary connection between what I’ve done before and what I’ve done next. I’ve always tried to embrace diversity, but tomorrow I could change my mind and become a white supremacist or an MRA. I mean, I almost definitely won’t, but I could, and what’s more it’s impossible to say for certain whether I will. I certainly have no intention of doing so now, but human beings are, as I said, free-willed agents; I could do literally anything that is within my physical capabilities. (Which is not to say that people don’t have personalities or moral restraint that somewhat limit their behavior; just that they can act contrary to those if they really want to.)
I know I can suddenly do something out of character or evil, because I have done so before. (Hell, my morals and politics now are wildly different than they were 15 years ago.) And if that’s the case, certainly someone who has, in the past, done a great deal of evil could suddenly start doing good?
Every few days or so, I see someone on Tumblr link to or reblog a clever, insightful, or enlightening post by someone else, and then a third party messages them to say “That person you reblogged is evil because [bad thing(s) they did before].” To which, well… so what? They did bad stuff, but now they’ve done something good. I can walk and chew gum at the same time; praising a good action does not mean that I think the person I’m talking about is (to use the Tumblr parlance du jour) a cinnamon roll, anymore than shaming a wrong action means I necessarily think that person is worthless trash capable only of evil.
I’m not saying you have to forgive people. That’s your choice, and frankly I think forgiveness is overemphasized and overrated in our culture. I’m saying that when someone does something wrong, shaming them can absolutely be appropriate response–but when they do something right, shaming them because they did something wrong before is counterproductive. It doesn’t mean saying “Okay, they’re a good person now,” it means saying “This person who has done a great deal of wrong actually did something right for once.” You don’t have to forget or forgive what they did before, you don’t have to give them cookies or a medal–but if you choose to praise something good they did (and again, I’m talking about shaming or praising actions, not persons), you shouldn’t have to apologize or retract it when you find out they also did something wrong.

An open letter to white people

I worked a bit late on Friday. I’d ducked out early a couple of times earlier in the week, and I needed to make the time up, so it was almost seven by the time I got on the train. They started hooting as soon as I got on the train, four or five black teenage boys, all about 15 or 16 years old. They started shouting things like “Cracker alert!” and “Uh-oh, white people on the train! Behave!” I ignored them and remained focused on my phone, ignoring people on the train being what my phone and headphones are for.
I sat down, and they clustered around me, shouting and trying to get in my face, demanding to know if I was looking at porn, calling me “cracker” and “fat fuck,” yelling that my ancestors had enslaved their ancestors. I continued to ignore them, and two stops later changed trains, as I always do. They also went from the red line platform to the green/yellow line platform, like I did, and then they were gone.
It was frightening. Triggering, actually; being surrounded and targeted by teen bullies is not an experience I expected to have again at 34. It was deeply hurtful and upsetting. It was also the only time in my life I’ve ever felt like I might be in danger because I’m white, and the first time in decades I felt targeted because of my ethnicity. (Previous times were because I’m Jewish, not because I’m white.)
And if I were a self-centered child who doesn’t understand the difference between anecdote and data, between incident and systemic problem, I might well use meaningless terms like “reverse racism” or “anti-white racism” to describe this incident.
But here’s the thing. I’m 34 years old, 31 of those years in the U.S., and that was the first time in my entire life I was targeted for being white. I can virtually guarantee you that there are no 34-year-old black people who grew up in the U.S. and were never targeted for their race. In fact, I can virtually guarantee you that anyone who is 34 years old, grew up in the U.S., and has never been targeted for their race? Is white.
And yeah, they’re wrong that my ancestors owned slaves. My ancestors were too busy living in Eastern European ghettos and being targeted by pogroms. But that doesn’t mean I don’t benefit from the legacy of slavery. Every white person in the U.S. does, whether they want to or not, because the entire system is tilted.
I’m not saying that surrounding and screaming at white commuters is justified. But the anger behind that act? The anger is completely justified. There is very, very good reason for black people, as a group, to be angry at white people, as a group. The reverse is not true. That’s why “reverse racism” isn’t a thing; racism is unjustified anger at an entire group of people. (Or hatred, or indifference. But they’re all related, and the same arguments hold.) But all white people, without exception, benefit from the legacy of slavery. (Though, obviously, in different degrees.) Doesn’t matter that none of us were there, that none of us had a choice about benefiting from it, or that our society is so stacked against so many people in so many different ways that for most of us that benefit wasn’t remotely enough to get by on. We still benefited, and it is therefore on us to acknowledge that and fix it. And, therefore, anger against us, for failing to use our power to fix the systemic biases that benefit us, often to refuse to acknowledge even that those biases exist? That anger is entirely justified.
That doesn’t mean the behavior of those teenagers was okay. It wasn’t. In that train car, they were five tall, fit teenagers picking on a lone, short, fat man. They were teenage boys trying to show off for each other, prove their dominance and shore up their fragile masculinity by trying to bully someone who, in that specific moment, was weaker than them, and who could serve as a synecdoche for the culture that tries constantly to make them feel weak and inferior.
But it wasn’t racism, and incidents like it aren’t evidence that racism against whites exists or is a problem in the U.S. Quite the opposite; their rarity is proof of how strong the cultural bias is in our favor. And, in turn, how obligatory it is for us to acknowledge the problem and work to fix it.

Why I’m Turning Off Anonymous Comments

Because they’re worthless.

Now let’s back up a second. I am not, I should be very clear, referring to the content of anonymous comments–I have had a number of very insightful comments which happened not to be made by someone who gave their name. These comments are valuable and I’m glad to have received them.

And I have not been inundated by anon hate the way some blogs I follow have been, so it’s not really about that–although the possibility of that occurring is a factor in the decision, definitely.

No, the issue is twofold. First, anonymity is entirely unnecessary here. The only reason a person might need to be anonymous is if some kind of negative consequence were going to befall them either for what they say, or for being here at all. But I’m fairly confident that none of my commenters is living under an authoritarian regime likely to arrest, torture, or murder them for expressing an opinion on a blog, nor do I suspect that any of you are engaged in some kind of undercover operation or secret agents or otherwise subject to the sort of scrutiny that makes connecting to the Internet a risky endeavor–and if you are, what are you doing risking coming here? No, for anyone actually commenting here making a Google account on a fake name is surely protection enough, and if you’re really paranoid you can even do it through an anonymizing proxy of some sort.

And since none of you need an anonymous posting option, I’m under no obligation to provide it–and anonymity works against what I’m trying to accomplish with this blog.

I want, ultimately, to do three things with this blog. The first is to get my ideas and words out into the world. Having or not having anonymous comments makes no difference to this purpose.

The second is to provoke and participate in discussion. Anonymity makes this difficult, because I have no way of telling if multiple anonymous comments in a thread are by the same person or not.

The third is to create community, and anonymity makes this impossible. Anonymous commenters are a faceless, amorphous mass. Because I do not know which comments are by different people and which are by the same people, it is impossible to build a sense of who anyone is. Identities become impossible to discern, and without individual identities there can be no relationships and therefore no community.

And, frankly, I am disgusted by the culture of the Internet, and much of that disgust is provoked by the rampant abuse of anonymity as a shield from behind which cowards can bully and harass, express bigotry without exposing themselves to the social consequences, or maliciously and sadistically hurt others to make themselves feel big. Even putting aside trolls, it encourages a dehumanizing and depersonalizing sense of power and distance, a hyper-rationalist form of discourse in which having an identity is an exploitable personal flaw and expressing emotions is a signifier of weakness and inferiority.

That is not what I want my blog to be. I don’t want people to just make provocative statements, I want them to defend those statements with the passion that only comes when your reputation depends on it. I want continuity between discussions, so that something a person says in one thread can be brought up in a later one to ask them to explain an apparent contradiction or hypocrisy. I want people to own what they say, so that they put a little thought into it before they say it. And most of all, I want the opportunity to get to know the people I interact with here, which requires that they be people and not faceless ciphers.

Happy Fucking Hanukkah

Here’s the thing about Hanukkah: It’s a fucking nothing holiday. It’s President’s Day or Arbor Day or some shit like that.

And here’s the other thing: for two thousand years, one of the major goals of the Christian religion has been to eliminate the Jews by some combination of killing us and turning us Christian. (I mean, one of the major goals of the Christian religion is to make sure everyone in the world is either dead or Christian, but Jews have historically been a particular obsession. Also, note I said “one of” and “Christian religion” not “the sole goal of each and every sect of Christianity and individual Christian without exception,” so kindly take your strawman and shove it up your slippery slope.)

And they’ve pretty consistently failed. I mean, they kill a few million here, convert a dozen there, but we’ve persisted through Inquisitions and pogroms, forced conversions, missionaries, kidnapping of our children, and “stealth” conversion attempts like Jews for Jesus.

By far, the most successful attempt of the 20th and 21st centuries? “Happy Hanukkah.” Because inexorably, thanks to the spirit of “inclusion” (being included by Christianity is rather a lot like being included by the Borg), American Hanukkah has morphed into Christmas with a menorah. It’s morphed from a holiday where the kids get a daily small treat for a week to a major gift-giving event. It’s become a time of “warm feelings” and “family togetherness” and fairy lights and fucking godawful novelty pop songs.

And an entire generation plus of American Jews has grown up believing that the biggest holiday of the year happens in December, and that “big holiday” is equivalent to “gift exchange.” I have met more than a few, Jews who celebrate Hanukkah and nothing else, or just Hanukkah and Passover, and don’t know that there even is anything else. Jews whose own kids will just celebrate Christmas and be Christians, and another fucking drone joins the collective.

So when you say “Happy Hanukkah” to me, or you put up a “Happy Hanukkah” sign in the middle of big gaudy display of Christmas decorations, and you have never mentioned or given any indication of having fucking heard of Pesach, Sukkot, Shavuot, or Yom Kippur, then I know what you’re really saying. “We are Christians. You will be assimilated. Your cultural and religious distinctiveness will be repurposed to service us. Happy Jewish Christmas.”

To which the only response is, “Fuck you.” And, possibly, “Mr. Worf… fire.”

Fundamentals: Where Morality Comes From

I’m a firm believer that the key to understanding some aspect of human behavior is to understand the motivations behind it. If you know why people do what they do, then understanding what becomes trivial.

Further, I firmly believe that you cannot prescribe until you first describe–that until you have done your best to understand what something is, you have no business arguing about what it should be. So it follows that, if I am going to talk about morality and ethics–and given that I regard morality, politics, and aesthetics as inextricably intertwined, I have talked and will continue to talk about them–it behooves me to first try to understand what motivates them.

So why do people want to be moral? The glib answer, of course, is the same reason anyone ever wants anything: they think it will feel better than the alternative. But what feelings, specifically, are at work with morality? I think it comes down, ultimately, to four emotions:

  • Shame: Being seen by others as immoral feels bad, being intimately associated with rejection and negative judgment.
  • Guilt: Seeing oneself as immoral likewise feels bad, being associated with failure and self-doubt.
  • Pride: Seeing oneself as moral (and being seen by others as moral) feels good, because it’s associated with acceptance, positive judgment, achievement, and self-esteem. (Note: Tentatively I place the sense of fairness here–that is, we wish to be treated fairly and to treat others fairly because of its impact on our sense of pride. It’s possible, however, to regard fairness as a separate, fifth emotion underlying morality.)
  • Empathy: Not exactly an emotion, but definitely emotional in nature and a strong motivator behind altruism.

Ultimately, moral behavior is a matter of avoiding shame and guilt, pursuing pride, and acting with empathy. Moral crises come about when it’s not possible to do all of these at once–for example, when avoiding social disapproval means failing one’s own standards and vice versa.

Of course, looked at this way, it becomes immediately obvious why no logically consistent moral code–regardless of the metaethics behind it–can really work: emotional states aren’t logically consistent. And we can’t actually reject this emotional basis, because without it there’s no reason to be moral. Nor can any one of these emotions be ignored: Shame is necessary because it’s how we learn to be guilty. Guilt is necessary because it’s the moral equivalent of burning one’s hand on a hot stove. Pride is necessary because without it the only advantage to being moral over being amoral is that you might get caught. And empathy is necessary because without it morality becomes an irrelevant abstraction, unconnected with the material wellbeing of real people in the real world. Together, shame and empathy prevent morality from becoming solipsistic or narcissistic; guilt and pride prevent it from becoming conformist.

So why bother with thinking about morality at all? Why not just go with kneejerk emotional responses to every situation? I think Daniel Dennett has a good answer here, and I recommend the relevant chapters in his Freedom Evolves on the topic. (And all the rest of it, for that matter.) But basically, thinking about moral questions and coming up with rules of thumb serves a few purposes.

The first reason is what Dennett describes by analogy to the story of Odysseus and the Sirens: Having principles is a way of metaphorically tying ourselves to the mast, so that when we face a situation “in the moment” we are better prepared to resist temptation. In other words, principles are about recognizing that we are imperfect actors and sometimes make decisions in the moment that, once we have time to think about them, we regret. Thinking about moral questions and adopting rules of thumb or broad principles is a kind of self-programming, training ourselves to feel extra guilt when we break them and extra pride when we follow them, thus increasing the likelihood of resisting temptation in the moment.

Another reason is communication. Part of morality is accepting responsibility for one’s community, and shame is a critical tool for policing that community. Shared principles are a key way for a community to define for itself how it will police its members by clarifying what kinds of behaviors are appropriate for other members of the community to shame. Of course members of the community may disagree, resulting in conflict, but conflict is an inevitable (and frequently desirable) part of being in a community.

Be clear, however: principles, lists of rules, and all other attempts to codify morality are models, which is to say they are necessarily not the thing modeled. Morality is not adherence to a set of principles, but rather a complex and irreducible social and emotional state, which is why excessive adherence to principles leads always to advocating obviously immoral behavior. Ethics, in other words, is rightly a descriptive, not prescriptive, branch of philosophy: journalistic ethics is a description of how good journalists behave, not a set of commandments handed down by the journalism gods from on high. Studying such models is obviously very useful in becoming a good journalist, but is not in itself sufficient–like any rule set, the point is to understand them well enough to know when to break them. Journalistic ethics are, of course, just an example–the same goes for any other kind of ethics.

Of course, if morality is emotional in nature, it follows that just as there is no “correct” way to feel about something, there is no “correct” morality. That said, just because there’s no correct way to feel doesn’t mean there are no incorrect ways; it’s simply factually untrue to say that there isn’t a broad consensus about certain behaviors in certain scenarios. Baby-eating, for example, is almost universally regarded as repulsive, and so we can fairly safely say that a model of morality which prescribes eating babies as a normal practice has failed to accurately depict its subject.

More to the point, it doesn’t actually matter that there’s no correct model: if my morality–which here includes both the ways in which I model morality through principles and reason and the underlying emotional reality–demands that I oppose someone else’s actions or attempts to make their model of morality dominant within the community, then it demands it. Which of course is why people give logically inconsistent answers to ethical dilemmas: the curious responses to the trolley problem are of course completely understandable once you recognize that while passive and active choices aren’t logically different, they feel different.

In the end, as with aesthetics, any prescriptive model will necessarily be imperfect. But that’s the human condition, isn’t it? Making do with imperfect materials, striving ever to replace our old mistakes with new ones.

Washington, DC’s Seasons Reimagined as Political Affiliations

Summer is definitely a Republican: oppressive, unpleasant, serious threat to the health of the elderly, poor, and infirm.

Fall is a libertarian. Basically the same as  summer, but with fewer downpours and more drizzling. Also it’s moldy and I’m allergic. 
Winter is a Democrat. Ostensibly the opposite of summer, it is certainly more pleasant, but ultimately only a little better for the people summer hurts. It’s all part of the same destructive cycle in the end.
Spring is genuine liberals: honestly lovely, nice for everyone, and so tiny and ineffectual it’s possible to miss entirely that it exists.