Saturday, February 17, 2018

Intellectual liberal pessimism

I like to praise and support the journals that have published me. I like to give them my money, my time, and my platform to advance their cause. The last thing I want to do is criticize a publication that was goodly enough to give me a boost.

Perusing the social media of a past publisher this week, though, I was struck by something that's had me shaking my head all week. I really like this journal. They publish interesting content, they try hard to be relevant rather than purposelessly unapproachable, and they're fun. This social media post from them this week, though, seemed to me an illustration of a rampant liberal intellectual ill:

It was an angry re-post of an editorial by Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke about the #metoo movement. The editorial by Haneke this post was replying to was saying what a lot of other writers--mostly men--have said: the movement risks becoming a witch hunt, puritanical and anti-erotic. I've posted something similar, although I didn't go nearly as far as Haneke. My point was more that I'm uncomfortable with liberals (like me) being the voice of morality and right sexual conduct. It's a new role for us, and I'm not sure we'll be up to the challenge. I don't agree that #metoo has yet become a "witch hunt." I have reservations about it, such as what the repercussions should be for public figures who have committed sexual misconduct. Should they lose their livelihood, when a plumber for Roto-Rooter would be able, after paying whatever legal penalties he owes, to go back to work?

But it wasn't the fact that the editor disagreed with Haneke. It was that she didn't even disagree. She just said "Look, Michael...shut up." I find this to be a liberal fall-back far too often. I don't even want to discuss it. We're right, you're wrong, so stop talking.

I hesitated to post a reply, because, as I said, I really want to say good things about them, but eventually I decided that the whole point of being part of an intellectual community is to be part of discourse. If our relationship can't handle disagreement, what kind of relationship is it? So I let fly:

I hoped that wasn't too condescending. I understand that responses can be emotional, so I don't fault her for being upset. It's just that an emotional response should still be a response. Her response to me was a little more verbose than her answer to Haneke:

As you can see, she got more likes than I did.

It's okay. I don't need the love anyway. 

The more I think about this response, though, the more flabbergasted I am by it. "I don't think there's any discourse worth having." There are a few things I see wrong with this:

1) Any discourse she'd have had wouldn't have been with Haneke. I mean, it would have been with him in a virtual sense, but really, the people participating in the discourse would have been the people reading her post there. It would have been people like me, who think the article had some points and some weaknesses. She's saying anyone who is reading her posts isn't worth having discourse with. That's incredibly pessimistic. The notion that discourse cannot improve the outlook of others is inimical to centuries of liberal belief.

2) I don't think #metoo has become a witch hunt yet. I can't think of any instances--except perhaps the Aziz Ansari thing--where a man has suffered for something he didn't do. But it will happen. So it's worth talking about. Otherwise, when the first case finally goes too far, and a man really is crucified without deserving it, it may derail all the progress the movement has made. It's worth preparing for.

3) Worry about witch hunts is a natural liberal instinct. We've kind of been bred to react that way.

4) I don't know what kind of personal interactions she's had with those who think #metoo threatens to go too far, or that it might be in danger of becoming about more than just taking men to task for their bad behavior. But I can't believe she's spoken with enough people who hold that view to constitute meaningful data. It can't be that it's such an unreasonable view to take that only unreasonable people  hold it.

5) Haneke's opinion is less uncommon in Europe than in America. For decades, we liberals have been lauding Europe's relaxed mores surrounding sex, claiming theirs is a more natural and healthier approach to human sexuality. So should we be surprised if some Europeans are mystified by this attempt of our society to correct the ills our sexual practices have caused? Now, these Europeans may have a completely wrong idea, and may be trying to judge a movement in our society by their own standards. In their (presumably) sexually healthier society, it may be that this movement really would be draconian, because it isn't needed any longer. It may be that it really would seem like trying to do away with the joy of sex. It might also still be needed in our society. We might both be right. But that's a nuance that only careful argument can reveal.

I'm sure I'm making far too much of a social media post done with little consideration. When people post stuff like this, they're really not thinking too much of how what they post fits into larger social narratives. But this attitude--shut the fuck up, there's nothing you can say that's worth saying, so I'm not going to say anything worth saying either--is far, far too common among people I agree with on most political issues.

I'm not the first to realize this, but I have to wonder why Donald Trump's election has done so little to wake us up. I became a liberal because that was the side where I saw the most going on intellectually. We have gotten lazy, though, from assuming we're always the smart ones in the room. I really don't want liberal rabbits to suffer two decades of losses to conservative turtles before we wake up.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Once again, I will support your literary journal when you show me why I'd want to

While submitting stories to be considered for publication recently, I ran into this warning:

Before anything else, a special note:
If you are not currently reading/have not ever read a copy of (Journal Name Left Out), then:
perhaps you are a bit too parsimonious and short-cutty for us, as it is not that difficult to get your hands on our magazine, and it is a really good magazine (we promise) and also
the chances are maybe a bit high that you will submit fiction to us that is not what we are hunting for, because how would you know what we like to publish if you don't read what we publish. 
So, go on go on go on — just grab a copy and we'll post it straight to you, or even subscribe, and do yourself the favour of not wasting your own time, and do us the favour of supporting the magazine that you would like to be published in. We want you as a reader first, and as a contributor second, because do you know how beautiful a transition that is? 
(Really beautiful is the answer.)

I've posted about this before. Just like there are hundreds of writers submitting stories such that no journal particularly needs me, there are thousands of journals out there to which I can submit, so I don't particularly need any single one of them. These journals are largely similar in quality. Unless a journal has a stated aesthetic preference, such as for avant garde or queer or feminist or whatever, a story that could get published in one could get published in another. 
Notices like this are meant to sucker new writers into buying a subscription. Usually, I don't mind the soft sell--"the best way to know what we like is to read our journal." That's fine, I expect it. But there are thousands of journals out there. I can't subscribe to them all. I couldn't read all the content from more than ten or so of them. So does anyone really expect me to subscribe to every journal I am going to submit to? That's absurd.
This particular journal really jacked up its pitch more than other journals. They make it sound, without outright saying it, that they will not publish you unless you've subscribed or bought a copy. 
It's not short-cutty to submit to more journals than you can afford to subscribe to; it's literally the only way anyone is going to beat the odds and get published. Parsimonious? Please. I'm incredibly generous with journals--once they've published me. Just ask the journals who've published my stories. I gave one a year of volunteer service and a couple of donations. I turned down the award money from a few. I will push your social media on my social media. I will subscribe. Just publish me first. Because the best way for me to see that your journal deserves my love over all the other journals I could give it to--the best way for me to see that my tastes coincide with your editors--is for you to publish something I wrote. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Sigh no more, singles. Valentine's Day is meant to make couples miserable, not you.

It's important for me to make it clear, before I say ought else, that I really love my wife. I'm happy with our marriage most of the time, which is, I believe, a lot more than most people can say. If you were to pick 100 women at random throughout the world and sample them for how well-suited to me they would be, Mrs. Heretic would be in the top three of group after group of those women time after time. Some dreamers think marriage is a bust unless you get the one perfect match out of all the billions of possibilities. That's stupid dreaming. In the real world, getting anyone in the 95th percentile is really good fortune in a wife.

But the assholes who bring you Valentine's Day every year will never let you just enjoy how much you've beaten the odds. They will not let you be content being content. It isn't enough you got a spouse well-suited to you at a statistically serendipitous rate. She must be THE PERFECT wife. She must be your other half, split from you before time and then surgically re-attached to you by God, Cupid, and Nicholas Sparks.

Valentines, Inc. doesn't want you to just be happy. You've got to be perpetually ecstatic, and you've got to prove how excrementally ecstatic you are each and every day. Moreover, you've got to leave tangible proof of your ecstasy in a form that can be shared on social media.

The Single's Lament 

Every year around this time, I see posts from my single friends about what the impending Dia del Amor means to them. Some take it as a joke, posting about how they're going to be drunk alone or masturbating or pondering suicide. Others post earnest or passive aggressive things about how couples should be considerate of those not fortunate enough to have someone special to love.

For the record, I'd file this one under passive-aggressive.  

As a person in my mid-forties who has not achieved many of the things on my to-do list in life, I'm certainly not going to be dismissive of your feelings of being let-down if you're single and hating it. And I realize that settling down and having a family isn't like my dream of publishing a successful novel. There's a clock on the family dream. If you're my age and a woman, then the window of opportunity is closing fast or has closed on having kids the old-fashioned way. I don't blame you for your sadness.

But you mustn't think that Valentine's Day is a day out to get you. It's out to get me. You aren't playing the game, and so you don't get judged on whether you're the perfect plus one to your mate.

My Valentine's Day this year

I hate crowds and traffic, and so I generally hate to go out on Valentine's Day. But I've been feeling pretty good about my marriage lately, and I wanted to go out and celebrate with Mrs. Heretic. Let me say that part again--I wanted to go out and celebrate with her. Nobody was forcing me. There was no perfunctory feeling to it. It was a genuine feeling on my part. I came up with my own idea because I wanted to.

I asked her if she wanted to go out the Friday before the holiday to avoid the crowds. We'd get a nice dinner, then go to the mall--the good one--and use some of our tax refund to buy the clothes we'd be needing to get for a while. She likes to shop, and I thought if I went with her in a good mood, that'd be a nice night for her. I offered to throw in a trip to pick up a charm for her Pandora's bracelet.

The night pretty much went as planned. We had a nice dinner, in which I gave up my share of the bottle of wine so she could be happy-drunk and I could drive home without worry. We got clothes in a stress-free mostly empty mall. The emptiness of the mall meant we were free to make out here and there. I suggested she get an impromptu ten-minute massage. I thought it was a fun night together.

Right at the beginning, though, as we were on our way to dinner, she said something about settling for an off-night instead of the actual night. She made it sound like she was sacrificing to make me happy, because I didn't want to go out on the actual February 14th. She suggested it would have been more romantic to make a reservation for the night itself instead of working around it. It wasn't a long or a constant harangue. It didn't ruin the evening. It hurt my feelings just the littlest bit. It was just a tiny blip in any otherwise fun night that made it not quite perfect. And not perfect on Valentine's Day is, of course, the worst fucking thing that could happen ever and you might as well call the divorce attorney right now.

I blame Jack Pearson

Why was our mostly-good-but-not-quite-perfect evening not enough? I blame a string of characters we've been made to compare ourselves to. This year, it's Jack Pearson.

This man is pretty much the worst person ever. I fucking hate this guy. 

On the show This is Us, Jack is a child of an abusive, alcoholic father and a depressed mother. His brother, who helped him survive his childhood, dies in Vietnam, where Jack also served. Jack nearly fell into a life of crime, but then he met Rebecca, and everything changed for him. He is romantic, given to grand gestures. He has just the teensiest bit of an alcohol problem, but not in a way that makes him mean to his wife or kids ever. His addiction mostly happens off-camera, and it's only there so the show doesn't get accused of making Jack too perfect. But he is too perfect. He's perfect in his adoration for Rebecca. Every mistake he makes is just a way for him to be more grandly romantic. Every man in 2018 will get graded on the Jack Pearson scale of sweetness and devotion, and we will all fall short. 

I could be more like Jack. I could plan picnics and surprise getaways. I could insist that Valentine's Day was meant to be overdone or not done at all. But that's a trap you can never get out of. Once you do one grand romantic gesture, it demands another, grander one, or else you're left feeling you've lost something. Something done once in a genuine fashion quickly becomes something you're a slave to. Moreover, the whole thing smells of artifice. It's as fake as the holiday itself. 

I never wanted to be a breadwinner. I feared that kind of responsibility, because I didn't think I was cut out for it. I've done it for fourteen years, though, because it kind of just happened that way. This is how I show how much I love the woman I'm with. I keep it together. I don't even complain that much about it most days. I do what I have to do so we can do what we want to do. I don't expect much more from Mrs. Heretic than that she try to keep it together, too. And most days of the year, we're very happy with one another keeping it together. 

Then this particular fucking holiday rolls around to make you feel that good enough is not good enough, although I've been around long enough to know that good enough is actually great. My day-to-day better than average is awesome. It's worth celebrating. Except Valentine's Day tells me that I need to be Jack Pearson when I really just want to go on being Jake Weber. 

Not comparing who has it harder day-to-day, but I am claiming February 14th

I don't want to get into some kind of who-has-it-worse competition with single folks. Loneliness can actually kill you. Some people love their single lives, others are bitter about it. You're welcome to either reaction, or anything in between. If you claim you've got it better than me, then you probably do. If you claim you've got it worse, then you probably do, too. 

But the fourteenth of February is tougher on me than it is on you, single folks. (I mean, unless, like, your husband died on Valentine's Day or some shit like that.) Let's leave aside the financial debacle of the thing, coming right after I've just had to pay the credit card bill from Christmas. Every year starts off with me feeling like I'm supposed to be hopeful for a better year, even though with each year that goes by, I give up a little more on certain key hopes I had for my life. But I adjust, and trudge through the cold and the sludge and try to focus on what is still within my reach. At the very top of the list of blessings I count is how much I enjoy my family. And the best part of my family is Mrs. Heretic, the one I started it with. My life is not what I hoped it would be, but on most days, I think about my wife and my family, and it seems like it is enough.

Then this stupid holiday comes along and makes me feel like neither my life, my marriage, nor I personally am nearly enough. It's a hurdle to get through that I dread. And I can't even rise above it just by knowing I'm being manipulated by a culture with asinine assumptions about love. I grew up with enough romantic comedies that I can never de-internalize some of those idiotic concepts. Part of me will always think of love in Lloyd Dobler terms, or some other sap. (I wonder if Lloyd Dobler ever figured out what to do for a job? When he did, did he become less sweet?) There will be a voice in my head that feels if I'm not literally melting Mrs. Heretic's face off with romance, then the end is nigh (or might as well be). 

The worst part about this is that it obscures the very good thing I do have. Valentine's Day makes it hard for me to see what I appreciate most other days of the year: that graded on terms of how love actually (another terrible movie) works in the real world, ours is pretty great, and I'm lucky to have what I have. Valentine's Day is my Tantalus punishment--where I am within arm's reach of the thing I want, and still unable to enjoy it. 

But feel free to start up the "being single sucks" memes again on February 15th. I'll give them a thumbs-up. 

Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Book of Mormon and Donald Trump: How important is it to be right about everything?

A week ago, I put a bet on the Philadelphia Eagles to win the Super Bowl. I don't watch a lot of football anymore. There are a lot of reasons why I've cut back on my football watching over the years, but the main reason is just because I've decided I don't want to spend too much time in my life doing unproductive things. So I only watch the playoffs.

The guy I made the bet with is a pretty big fan. He has a fantasy team in a league with a cash payout, so he pays close attention to the week-to-week goings on in the league. I couldn't have named more than three players on the Eagles, and probably not more than ten on the Patriots. He knew every player who would be involved.

I only made the bet because I like to have something to balance out what I want. That is, whenever I do bet (and it's always a small bet), I bet against the team I hope wins. That way, I get something no matter what happens in the game.

I ended up winning the bet. My lack of a system beat his highly organized system. My lack of knowledge beat his extensive knowledge. Not just his--nearly all the experts picked the Patriots.

Results and expertise

Whenever the experts are wrong about something--like, say, the 2016 presidential election--there's a temptation to make fun of them for their self-imagined expertise. If there's anything the Trump presidency has been about, in fact, it's been a war against the culture of rule by expertise. And why wouldn't it be? Everyone said he had no chance of winning. The "experts" all wrote him off as a joke, but he persevered, energized a base of voters who had never voted before or hadn't voted in a long time, and won.

So when it came time to run the country, when everyone was saying that now that he'd won, he needed to learn to be presidential, he went his own way again. He has kept on tweeting. He hired a cabinet and a staff with a few old pros, but a whole lot more genuine neophytes to politics. (To the extent he has hired anyone--there are still a lot of jobs unfilled.) He doesn't even feel it's important to be informed about the world in any exhaustive sense, as every other president in recent memory has. He gets a hyper-trimmed-down version of the Presidential Daily Brief, and that's on the few days when he actually chooses to get the brief at all.

This tendency to ignore the experts drives me crazy. I may have gotten lucky in the Super Bowl, but that doesn't mean I have some brilliant intuition the experts lack. Most of the time, they'll be correct more often than I am. And even when they're wrong, they'll have a more valuable explanation than I will of why the unexpected happened. Everyone knows the unexpected can happen. As they say, that's why they play the game. That doesn't invalidate expertise.

More than that, the repudiation of expertise is a threat to me. I'm someone who makes a living off my reputation as an expert. If the culture begins to revile expertise and look for simple explanations that tell us what we want to hear, I may be out of a job.

The revulsion of expertise isn't new in America, of course. The earliest great American literature, Washington Irving's Legend of Sleepy Hollow, features the jock Bram Bones getting the better of the nerd Ichabod Crane. The jock picking on the nerd is a well-established trope in America. Even stories that seem to celebrate nerds, like Big Bang Theory, are simultaneously mocking them, making it look like anyone who has worked to achieve mastery in a subject is automatically socially inept and clueless outside of his narrow field of mastery.

The Book of Mormon and when facts might not matter that much

I recently confessed to liking musicals. Here's a lesson from another one. Trey Parker and Matt Stone's 2012 smash "The Book of Mormon" gets plenty of laughs from picking at the dogmas of Mormonism.

But the musical is doing a lot more than just making fun of Mormon beliefs. It seems to be saying two things at once, both "Look, I could never actually believe this stuff," but also "but it obviously does really good things for the people who do believe it, so far be it from me to tell you to stop believing it." Or, as the end of one South Park episode had it:

The truth is that even for us experts, there is a lot we have to admit we don't know. Friends are always asking me, because I've been following Korean issues for a long time, about what I think will happen on the peninsula. The truth is that I don't know anymore than anyone else. I can tell you a lot more details than the average person about the background to the current situation. I can explain why one outcome or another might be possible. But I don't know what's going to happen.

If you were trapped beneath a giant box suspended in the air, and that box was held by a rope to the ceiling, you'd want to know if the rope would hold it. I'm like a physicist trapped next to you. I can tell you what I suspect the tensile strength of the rope might be, and I can estimate how much weight it might be capable of holding given the particular angles of the pulley system. But if I don't know what's in the box, I can only guess what will happen. I can know everything about the physics of falling and nothing about whether this object will fall.

The outcome belongs to God

I'm something of an enthusiast for studying the American Civil War. I didn't mean to become such an enthusiast, but living here in Maryland, within 100 miles of most of the major battle sites of the Eastern theater, it's pretty compelling to go and walk the grounds where the war was fought. I've always been fascinated by Robert E. Lee. He is remembered as a great General, and well he should be. But if you've ever been near a group of officer candidates or military school students at a place like Antietam or Gettysburg, you'll note that the instructor is struggling to not simply say that Lee screwed up at these battles.

In fact, Lee made a lot of decisions that were questionable from a military standpoint. He was often rashly aggressive, although he realized the North could replace lost men and supplies much more easily than he could. He had to avoid attrition. In the Civil War, taking a good defensive position and waiting for the enemy to come to you was usually a winning strategy, but Lee ignored that strategy often.

The amazing thing is that Lee often made his bad choices work out. It's difficult to say why, but I'd guess at least part of the reason was because his men believed in every choice he made. The Confederate States of America had strong lieutenants and a strong belief that God would give them the victory. Lee himself, although he carefully planned his campaigns, also believed in the end that the battle belonged to God. The army didn't know enough to realize it should fail, and so it held off failure for an impressively long time.

There is an old saw in the military that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Lee, understanding this, realized that although he had a responsibility to plan as best as he could, he also could not be paralyzed by the contradictory advice his experts would offer him. Everyone raised to think in a university learns that all arguments have many sides, many competing arguments, and good academics sometimes learn to balance those sides until they almost argue themselves out of having a viewpoint. That's the point of academics. But outside the academy, where decisions have to be made with imperfect knowledge, decision makers have to compartmentalize what they don't know from what they must do.

Trump has not been without victories

For me, the main Trump approach to governance that flies in the teeth of expertise is his switch from liberal globalism's "win-win" approach to a competitive model. And though the majority of experts decry this change, it has won Trump some victories. The Chinese, for example, seem to be cooperating with enhanced sanctions on North Korea. Trump's blunt, aggravated bluster against North Korea, which many were sure would push the Chinese toward its traditional ally, has, for now, had the opposite effect. Even though sanctions on North Korea had been taking a toll during the Obama administration, everything on Daily NK, the South Korean journal with sources inside North Korea, seems to indicate that sanctions have begun to bite much harder in the last few months.

Does this mean Trump's madman approach is working, even if he is, possibly, literally a madman and not just someone playing a part? (And is madman theory even more effective with an actual madman?) Or is Trump just temporarily on a lucky streak?

Expertise does matter, but experts need to remember humility

General Eisenhower once said that plans are worthless, but planning is everything. Of course expertise matters. Of course leaders have an obligation to understand the landscape of their decisions. But in the end, it is impossible to make a perfect plan. In the end, focusing on all one does not know can prevent someone from doing anything. I'm a big fan of agnosticism, of admitting our ignorance. And I think it's okay to avoid action where we don't know enough to act. But sometimes, situations arise where inaction is simply not acceptable, and in those times, we have to act with imperfect knowledge. 

It is possible that an imperfect plan, carried out resolutely by competent lieutenants, can succeed where a better plan carried out in doubt may fail. 

Of course we who call ourselves experts have a responsibility to share all the relevant knowledge we have with those who must make decisions. We have a responsibility to insist leaders listen. But we also have a responsibility to realize with humility the limits of our expertise, which is, in the grand scheme, quite limited indeed. 

Trey Parker, in commenting on religious beliefs of friends while discussing his musical, had this to say:

I have religious friends, and they're like, 'Well, if you look, it's proven.' And you're like, 'No, it's not proven.' Don't try to tell me that you can prove this stuff. Just say 'I believe it,' and I'm down with you. Don't mix the two together. Because you can't logically say, 'We know that Jews came from Jerusalem and settled in America and turned into Native Americans.' That just doesn't make any sense. But at the same time, if you say, 'I believe this,' I say, 'OK. Cool, man.' Because at the end of the day, we all have certain beliefs and deeply held things that probably don't make a lot of sense to anybody else.

Experts can resist claims that clearly are not factual. If Trump said Kim Jong Un were insane, a Korea expert could offer proof that this isn't true. A Korea expert can offer alternate global strategies based in fact. But nobody has it all right. Nobody has enough of a grasp of reality to offer an iron-clad promise that any particular way forward is the right one. The Eagles might win the Super Bowl. Mormons might be happy, even if they're wrong. 

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Ontological ethics

When Christianity no longer held water for me in my mid-twenties, I spent a lot of time trying to dream up alternate systems for ethical decision-making. Not that Christianity provided the greatest system for making tough choices to begin with (in applying the Golden Rule, for example, how do you decide who the most important "other" is to do unto when there are competing interests?), but I had a hard time coming up with something to replace it, and pretty much all my attempts failed.

One of the more promising-seeming attempts to me was something I thought I might term "ontological ethics." That is, when a morally ambivalent situation arose, I could look to a pre-existing statement about my identity, about who I was, to guide me. This is, I think, something of the thinking behind the mission statements or identity statements that some organizations write. They hope to be guided in tough times by a statement of identity. Many have argued that this was what made Johnson and Johnson's highly ethical reaction to the 1982 Tylenol scare so admirable and why the company enjoyed such a good reputation afterwards.

I saw an example from literature I thought might provide a model. Well, only sort of from literature. It was Jean Valjean from Les Miserables, but I was primarily thinking of the Valjean from the musical, not the Hugo novel. That's because the primary ethical test Valjean faces in the musical is one he puts in rather pointed and ontological terms.

I confess. I like musicals 

If you've forgotten, the context is this: Valjean was a criminal who was released on parole. He broke his parole and became a wealthy factory owner and mayor, but the obsessive inspector Javert is determined to find Valjean. He believes he has found him in the mayor, but is unable to coax Valjean to reveal his true identity. Javert lays a trap for Valjean: he lets Valjean think that he has found a man Javert believes to be Valjean, and that Javert intends to send this innocent man to prison for life.

Valjean gives serious thought to letting the man go to prison. He is not without good reasons:

I am the master of hundreds of workers
They all look to me.
Can I abandon them, how would they live,
If I am not free?
If I speak, I am condemned,
If I stay silent, I am damned.

From a utilitarian standpoint, Valjean is probably better off letting the other man take the fall for him. It's a difficult time for working folks, and Valjean is a benevolent factory owner. His arrest and the loss of all he has built will probably mean empty stomachs for many children dependent on the wages his workers earn. From a "greatest good for the greatest number" reckoning, Valjean should shut his damn mouth.

But Valjean has decided before this particular ethical dilemma that he is not ruled by utilitarian choices. He was saved by an idealistic decision made by a priest that was the antithesis of utilitarian thinking. Therefore, Valjean determines that:

My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone,
He gave me strength to carry on...
Who am I? Who am I?
I'm Jean Valjean.

That's great, but maybe a little too neat

I was very attracted to this resolution Valjean arrived at by applying an ontological solution. It seemed incredibly profound. But maybe a little too profound. This resolution was kind of a contrived and stacked solution. Of course he's able to answer his dilemma by simply answering the question of who he is: that literally is the question. Try to think of a single ethical dilemma you've faced where simply determining who you literally are so easily resolves the problem. I bet you've never faced such a thing.

(Side note: I'm probably misusing the term "ontological." Although ontology is the branch of philosophy that deals with being, I think it's more concerned with fundamental questions of existence, like what it means to exist and how we can know if something really exists. Questions like "who am I?" are more personal questions asked in modernity, and are more pop psychology than philosophy. A Google search reveals only a very moderate use of the term "ontological ethics," and if it were a more philosophically valid term, I imagine it would have a lot more currency. I don't see anyone using the term in the way I meant it twenty years ago.)

Three levels of a similar dilemma

Let's say you're a Marine, sworn to uphold the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. In scenario one, you are a corporal ordered to lead your squad up a hill, and you believe the attempt will fail and you will all die without serving any useful purpose in the defeat. In scenario two, you are a General ordered by the Pentagon to carry out a strategy you believe will be ineffective and lead to many more deaths on both sides of the war than an effective strategy might. In scenario three, you are the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and you are being told to plan and prosecute a war you know the President has rigged evidence in order to start. It's an unjust war, you believe, but one the President feels needs to be fought for larger geo-political ends that justify the means.

The Corporal

As a corporal taking the hill, you aren't being asked to do an ideologically unethical thing (assuming the conflict you are in has passed whatever just war tests you apply to it--you're here, after all, so I assume you believe in the war on some level). You're being asked to do an unethical thing from a utilitarian or practical standpoint. Sacrificing lives for a cause is noble; doing it for nothing is stupid and unethical. Of course, there are possible complications. You might be wrong. Maybe the officers know something you don't know. Maybe they're counting on you to lead your squad so well you accomplish the impossible. Maybe this bad choice is the least bad choice they have.

You could refuse if you're sure the plan is bad and will kill people for nothing. But then you'd go to the brig, and someone else more enthusiastic about following bad plans will take your place. You could follow it out fully and hope for the best, but then you'd be the one who has to live with dead Marines and thinking you could have done something to help them.

There are also alternatives that try to avoid the worst effects of either choice, a Captain Kirk-like searching for the choice that avoids the no-win scenario: You could pretend to carry out the orders with alacrity, but find all kinds of procedural reasons to slow-roll the plan. You could hope that if you slow-roll it long enough, it will get cancelled.

Valjean himself ends up with a mixed response. He turns himself in, but when Javert will not give him three days to wrap up his affairs, Valjean clocks him and escapes again.

The General

The General is in an incredibly tough spot. His objection to his orders is in a murky area between ideological objections and practical ones. He could refuse his orders. As a General, he may be able to simply retire, and he could then write an op-ed in retirement about why he thinks the war is being handled wrong. But again, it's likely someone else will take his place who is a lot more gung-ho about carrying out what he thinks is a broken plan.

He has many of the same half-measure options the corporal does. He could carry out his orders according to the letter of the law, but refuse them in spirit. He could find dozens of subtle ways to undermine the strategy. He could use his position on-the-ground to slightly alter his tactical orders from what the Pentagon wanted. If he does it well, he might alleviate some of the worst parts of the Pentagon's plans. If he just quits, his influence will be limited to whatever credence the public gives to his post-service testimony.

The Chairman

The Chairman's position is the most problematic. He has the most evidence of a clear, idealistic moral wrong, but he also has the most leverage to be able to mitigate the effects of the wrong. He could, of course, quit his job, take his case to the public, and hope the court of public opinion vindicated him. But what if the President, in spite of fighting a war against his objections, rather likes the Chairman and takes his opinion seriously? What if the Chairman, by staying at his post, can at least change the kind of war America fights, if not the raw fact that there is a war?  Should he give up his best shot at influencing the situation in order to make a point?

What all three quandaries have in common

None of these moral dilemmas can be solved by applying the Valjean test. You can't say "Who am I?" and come up with an answer that will point you in the direction of a solution.

But maybe there is something similar that could be useful

If you've ever taken a multiple choice test, you're probably familiar with the strategy of answering the same thing to two different questions, because you know it's the right answer to one of them, and you figure it's better to know you're getting one of two right rather than take a chance of missing them both.

While I don't think real life offers us many instances where we can just ask ourselves who we really are and get a useful answer to a moral question, it's possible that we can develop a heuristic that will at least limit our possible errors. It's a different question from "Who am I?" It's "If I have to make a mistake, what kind of mistake would I rather make?" For the corporal, for example, his possible mistakes are: 1) Stand up for the safety of his troops and be wrong that the mission was really doomed, or 2) Err on the side of following orders, and find out that his suspicions were correct, and his Marines died without accomplishing anything discernible.

To use an example more common to many of us, let's say someone is asking us for money. We suspect they're scamming us, but there's maybe a twenty percent chance the story we're getting is real. Is it worse to trust someone and be a sucker or to doubt someone and miss a chance to help?

If we decide for ourselves what kinds of mistakes most suit who we are, and we stick to making those kinds of mistakes, we may not improve our chances of getting it right in any one situation. We might, however, limit the types of mistakes we are likely to make over the long term. Assuming that out of 1,000 truly difficult decisions, one type of action or the other is likely to be the right one in about 500 of them, we can, by being consistent, be right at least 500 times. And we'll find it easier, perhaps, to have failed on our own terms. Changing the kind of mistake we're willing to risk making with each situation, however, makes it possible we will be wrong more than half the time. (It also makes it possible we'll be right more than half the time, but do you want to take those odds?) It can also leave us bitter when we make choices that don't suit our own inner voices.

Still not sure this is satisfying

I don't know if twenty-some years of pontificating on this has led me to a more satisfying solution than I started out with. For one thing, it's possible there are some people with such a developed ability to weigh outcomes, they really can make the correct decision more than half the time. I wouldn't want to preclude people from making decisions differently from one situation to the next if they can really do it well. For me, though, I tend to be so often paralyzed by tough choices I almost just never even make them. At least having some rough algorithm might get me to make the decisions.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Quixotic citizenship

When the Nunes memo came out on Friday, I took some time to read through it. Then I took some more time to read a few background stories on some of the key people: Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Rod Rosenstein, etc. It wasn't exhaustive research; all-in, I spent maybe 45 minutes. It was an important moment in the political life of the country, and I thought I should put in a minimum amount of effort to know what was what. I'd say what I did constituted about the minimum.

I then watched as one person after another posted opinions on my social media feed that showed they had done--let's say somewhat less than the minimum amount of reading.

I've been wondering a lot lately whether American democracy is a doomed project. It requires a lot of work out of its citizens, but if it forces that work out of its citizens, then democracy dies. So it relies on a personal sense of responsibility in each of us. A state founded on trust in the sense of personal responsibility of its citizens seems overly optimistic these days.

That makes the work of being an informed citizen feel hopelessly quixotic. It's rather like what writing short stories or these blog posts sometimes feels like to me. It takes a lot of work, and the whole time I'm doing that work, a voice in the back of my head is telling me that it's unlikely all that work will bear any fruit. In the case of stories, I'm up against tall odds getting them published, and even when they do get published, they aren't read by many people. In the case of this blog, it often feels like I'm shouting into the void. Other than a couple of friends, I'm not sure anyone even reads this. But I feel a compulsion and a responsibility to express my thoughts. Leaving behind the results of your own struggle to figure out the world for others is a basic human activity. Without it, I don't think we'd survive long. So I write, and try not to think too much about how little it's heeded.

For a citizen in America, there are other, competing demands on our time, and putting in the effort to know something about what's what in the world probably seems like wasted effort. What difference does it make if I spend a few minutes to learn about something? I have no influence, so the impact in the world of me knowing what I'm talking about is, on a practical level, exactly the same as if I knew nothing.

Yet here I am, writing on another Sunday morning. The world relies on individually meaningless acts of billions of people, acts that are meaningful only in an aggregate manner that we will never comprehend, one we really have to take on faith.

America might be doomed. Nobody who doesn't know me personally might ever read anything I write. I press on, not because I think my individual efforts can change either thing, but because the alternative is to quit, and that seems more frightening to me than to lose a battle slowly, contesting every inch of ground along the way.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Remember when this used to be a fiction writing blog?

Yeah, me neither.

I was thinking the other day about the stories I wrote that I managed to get published. They are:

1) A story about an Ethiopian refugee who became an Olympic long-distance runner.
2) A story about two refugees from Eritrea who were kidnapped in the desert while trying to escape.
3) A story about a second-generation Eritrean-American trying to help his family pay to bring a refugee family member out of Africa.
4) A story about a poor kid in Baltimore and his role in the 2015 riots.


5) A story about a working-class white guy who accidentally kills someone on his first day on the job as a truck driver.

1-3 are all about Eritrean or Ethiopian immigrants/refugees. #4 is still about the marginalized, and its main character is still black. Only #5 has a white person who is, if not rich, at least scraping to reach the middle class.

Politics, or something else?

Absent other information, if I had to guess, I'd assume the editorial boards of most literary journals are left-leaning politically. That would mean, among other things, a preference for diversity, for wanting its content to be about more than the realities of white, male American life.

My own success rates seem to bear this out. I've written about 30 short stories in the last four years. Only six have been about people who weren't white. Four of those got published. Only one of the other twenty-five has been published.

Some white writers complain about it being harder to get published as a non-minority. I don't think that's exactly true, and I don't think it's as closely linked to political beliefs of editors as one might think. Every journal gets hundreds of stories and can only choose a few. Many of them are of similar quality, and it's very hard to pick winners from similar products. It's not always a political decision to pick writing either by a minority or about a minority. You're just trying to put together a good collection, and that means you don't want all the material to seem the same. The diversity isn't ideological, it's pragmatic. The magazine just seems better that way.

Not that it's never ideological. It used to bother us on the Baltimore Review that our journal was named for a majority black city but our contributor page was always so lily-white. I was always on the lookout for writing from black writers or about black, urban issues that reflected the city. We seldom got it. That meant that if you were black and sending us a story, your chances improved. The other editors once picked a story I didn't think was very good, but had been written by a politically active trans-gendered woman. It was about the evils of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. Or something. I really thought the other editors picked it because it said what they thought enlightened literary journals ought to be saying.

This isn't new advice, but make it new

It may sound like I'm writing one of those oh-so-precious "It's-hard-for-a-white-man-to-make-it-in-the-world" pieces, but that's not my point. If there is a bias in favor of minority writers, my point is that this is natural. Every writer has to struggle with the difficulty of writing something that seems fresh and new. Minority writers maybe have just a small advantage at making it sound new, because what they're writing about may seem new to editors and their readers. And I have no problem with that.

The lesson for everyone else is nothing novel. You have to write something people haven't already seen a thousand times. That show "This is Us" that literally even woman I know is crazy about is an interesting example. It's really about the realities of white, middle-class America. One character defends his family to a snobby theater-type, " So what if we're normal?" Except that they're not normal. They're triplets. Well, twins who lost their triplet in birth, so their parents decided to adopt a black child who'd been left at the hospital on the same day as their twins. One of the twins is a well-known actor; the other is a 300-pound woman. So, not normal.

You might be even whiter than I am, if that's possible. You might not know a couple of languages and have worked inside communities that give you access to good stories most people haven't heard before. But nobody's normal. Everyone has something weird, different, and new to talk about. Find that and write about it.

Because as much as people want a story that's strange, they also like to see themselves in stories. Finding what's abnormal in your normal life allows you to combine the shock of the new with the shock of the familiar.