White Privilege and Erudition: How Black Me Might Be Doing

White privilege can be a concept that, as sociologically valid as it clearly is, is very vague. It’s called an “invisible knapsack” for a reason: People with white (and male and heterosexual and American and…) privilege don’t notice it, but its effects can be perceived. Another analogy I’ve heard from Scott Meyer of Basic Instructions (regarding luck more than privilege but still in the context of class privilege) is that it’s like a big ugly mustache: The people who have it can see it, and the people who don’t can’t see anything else past it. The knapsack is not so invisible to others.

So let me offer an example.

As I’m starting to engage in activism and writing, speaking and interacting with others, I am of course encountering barriers. Everyone does. Some people disagree, some people are too angry to listen, and there’s simply the wall of apathy that has to be surpassed.

My own writing style tends to be conversational. I like to include slang, I like to sometimes include expletives, I reference movies and video games. I’ve found this approach makes the writing more personable and engaging.

Now, let’s say I was black.

Would I have a reasonable expectation that people would tolerate me as I developed my erudition?

Would I have a reasonable expectation that I would not be mocked for my usage of slang?

For white people to pay attention to people of color, they often must hear the message from truly great orators: Dr. King, Barack Obama, etc.

Tim Wise has pointed out that very few people, white or black, are like Obama. Whether you agree or disagree with his politics (and I happen to criticize Obama from a left perspective), he is clearly an incredibly intelligent, erudite, confident individual. And while George W. Bush may have come across as a simpleton and was simply not a very good orator, in interpersonal dynamics he demonstrated that he was quite charming and witty. Most people who survive the gauntlet of being elected President are fairly special people. They’re certainly not the median.

How much more would I have to censor myself, censor the references I make, if I were black?

It’d be an additional barrier to my success and to me doing the work I am passionate about. And it might also be such a barrier if I was a woman, too. I’d constantly have to make sure I was precisely navigating that line between assertiveness and calm, such that I came off neither as a doormat nor a bitch.

Now, let’s say that white me has a 30% chance of facing a challenge so serious it makes me give up or delay my work.

Would black me, or woman me, have a 40% chance? A 50% chance?

I don’t know.

But what I do know is that the probability would be higher.

This is not a reason for me to be ashamed. It’s not a reason for me to doubt the hard work that I, or anyone else, put in. But it is a reason for empathy, which is the theme of Radical Empathy, a book I am working on.

Maybe the best example I’ve heard is an example from White Like Me.

Tim refers to a very hard-working, self-made businessman. This guy really did embody the Horatio Alger dream; he really did work from almost nothing.

And there was a point where this man was accused of rape in the South.

Now, while this man did of course endure some serious risks and threats as a result, if he were a black man he may have been dead or beaten to within an inch of his life.

So what I take this privilege idea as is a reason for me to work that much harder. I face less barriers, so I should be working harder to compensate.

And I recognize, when I interact with others, that they may not have had the advantages I have had, and so I try to cut them some slack. And that’s true if they are black, or struggled with depression or trauma, or if they just drew a short straw in the genetic lottery and got an illness.

I think we all can do the same, no matter our privileges.


Personal Responsibility and “Stand Your Ground”

Part of the issue of our present gun control politics is that conservatives aren’t just asking for the right to have guns but increasingly the right to use them with less oversight and responsibility. (There are others outside of conservatives who do so too, and I will criticize them as well, but I am seeing this trend by far the most strongly in conservative groups and extreme gun rights activists).

“Stand your ground” laws (and laws like them) are nothing less than the abdication of personal responsibility. They are yet another sign that for many conservatives the idea of “personal responsibility” is more of an excuse to avoid having to deal with savage inequalities than to make a change.

When someone can chase down someone below the age of majority (which in Florida is 18), after having been instructed to not do anything by the police, and shoot someone who is unarmed, and ultimately face no consequences for that behavior, personal responsibility has been obliterated.

It’s one thing to say, “I want to have a gun”. It’s another to say, “I want to have a gun, and I also want to be able to carry it in public, and I want to be able to use it in a way that I feel is defending my property or rights, and I want the law to make it so that it is staggeringly difficult to punish me for that behavior”.

If conservatives actually believe in both gun ownership and in personal responsibility, they should not be advocating laws that lower the threshold for self-defense. They should be making sure that anyone, like George Zimmerman, who uses a gun in a way that responsible adults should not should be punished. Instead, conservatives came out of the woodwork to defend an adult who shot a 17-year old, including outright fabricating many claims about Trayvon Martin and grossly misrepresenting the situation.

Whenever people act in ways that belie their words, it’s always important to ask, “Why?” It is easy to dismiss them as hypocrites or jerks. It’s much harder to engage
with the actual psychology.

Many conservatives are scared of a society that is changing in ways they are not comfortable with and can’t anticipate. Like many people facing such change, they want to cling to the (idealized memory of the) past, and to defend their present.

We can see it everywhere from racist Tea Party signs to “stand your ground” laws. There is real fear motivating this. This fear does come from a very biased, ugly, classist, racist and homophobic place, but it needs to be addressed. It’s not anyone’s fault that they inherited the legacy of institutionalized white supremacy or institutionalized inequality.

We have to teach our neighbors, using good sociology and reasoning, that the biggest threats they face are likely from callous corporations who will poison their air or mangle them at work, or from people within their social network (since most people are victimized by people geographically and socially quite close to them, due to patterns of convenience in criminal behavior).

We have to assuage their fears and find ways of making them feel safer. Including, quite possibly, paying police officers more and increasing their budgets (even as I am worried about doing so based off of my anarchist and anti-racist convictions).

At the very least, we have to act with empathy for their honest concerns, and recognize that perhaps in the dark of the night we are not so different.

Edit: It’s become clear that I have to clarify something which shouldn’t need clarification, which is that I am referring not just to “Stand your ground” per se but to a host of other legal approaches that are reducing the barriers to self-defense (perceived or legitimate) and violence. Something like the Trayvon Martin case should never happen again, yet we are seeing policies being advocated that would guarantee it occurring. And while we can quibble as to which specific laws have led to the problems of the Trayvon Martin case, what’s clear is that Zimmerman felt he was doing nothing wrong.

It’s also become clear that I need to clarify (and this does deserve clarification) that there are non-conservatives who advocate SYG laws and laws like them. I think it’s fairly transparent that such laws lean conservative, but as always there is a continuum of behavior and support. I am replying mostly to the most hardcore who advocate an extreme right of what they view, erroneously, as self-defense.

For additional information on the problems with SYG laws, even ones not as poorly written as Florida’s, http://www.timwise.org/2013/07/clip-4-tim-wise-on-msnbc-with-melissa-harris-perry-the-racial-implications-of-stand-your-ground-laws-72013/ is a good place to begin. I also suggest this article which indicates the cost to African-American communities as well as indicates that it’s not just Florida’s SYG law that is the problem.


Gun Control and the Security Dilemma: Why Empathy Matters

Gun Control and The Security Dilemma: Why Empathy Matters

There’s times when a sociology degree with some extensive political science work can actually come in handy. I know, right?

I am increasingly finding that very basic sociological, political science and anthropological ideas might actually help us have a coherent discussion about some important issues.

There’s an idea in political science called the “security dilemma”.

It’s a pretty simple concept. Anything you do to make yourself safer is going to make other people feel less safe.

Let’s say Country X is in the middle of a bunch of other countries in a big, flat plain. It’s worried it’s going to get invaded. But it doesn’t want to scare anyone else. (Country X has a long history of being very pleasant and peaceable).

So it decides to build a big wall around some of its borders. There’s nothing threatening about that, right? It’s just a wall.

Every other country in the area (let’s call them A, B and C) starts to wonder what’s up with Country X. Why do they need a wall? Country X’s diplomats are saying that it’s “just a precaution”. Wow, that sounds ominous.

Whether Country X intended to or not, they’ve just scared their neighbors. Countries A, B and C are going to find it harder to trade with Country X. They’re going to find it harder to see what Country X is up to beyond the walls. They might even realize that having strong walls lets Country X attack other countries and then hide behind the walls to forestall a counterattack.

Of course, this isn’t to say that every country on the planet should lay down their arms. Having some degree of policing capability, and the ability to patrol and defend one’s borders, is just prudent.

But it does mean that any country that is thinking about building their military power is going to have to think about the tradeoff in terms of making others less secure. It’s a matter of empathy and morality, and it’s also a practical technique to avoid an arms race.

Pro-gun activists really, really need to understand the security dilemma, and it’s emphatically clear that by and large most of them don’t.

For the purposes of this article, I’m going to be focusing on those who advocate for open carry, who want to have the ability to have a weapon anywhere they please in public, and who refuse to even compromise on the issue of not owning an assault rifle. There are reasonable people who simply would feel more comfortable with a handgun in the house and/or would like to hunt or do sports shooting with a rifle, and are willing to take responsible precautions. I am hoping that these people might begin to understand how toxic the extremists in the NRA are, and how recent court decisions about gun rights have some very scary implications for many of us.

Those who want to carry weapons openly routinely indicate that they don’t trust other people. They’re scared of burglars, they’re scared of gangs, they’re scared of any number of threats. They want to have a weapon on hand to deal with those threats.

It’s perfectly understandable. In many societies, people would have a knife or a sword on hand, the equivalent of guns in those times.

But those people are asking us to trust them.

Why? Why should we trust them if they can’t trust us?

If you get rid of or limit background checks, I suddenly have no reason to trust you. If you make it easier to purchase guns from private vendors with less paperwork, I suddenly have no reason to believe you got a gun in a way that would make me comfortable or for reasons I would respect.

Just because you look like an older white male with jeans and a wedding ring doesn’t mean you’re not a threat to me. You could be a rapist, a tweaker, a mugger, just as well as anyone else. I have no reason to trust that you got a gun

This is really important to make clear, so I’ll reiterate it again: Gun activists are asking for society to trust them when the entire point of their appeal is that they don’t trust society.

That’s clearly not a viable position to take. It doesn’t make any sense. It ignores the security dilemma. And there’s even an implicit racism in the idea. It’s the idea, “You should trust me with a gun because I’m white and look like your neighbor. But I want this gun because black people in the inner city who I don’t know have guns”.

If people are allowed to walk around in public with a nine-millimeter, in playgrounds and at grocery stores, I want a gun too, just for me to feel safe.

Now, let me make something clear. I love first person shooter video games. I love action movies. Terminator 2 and Commando are movies I will watch again and again I like the idea of a gun. But I’ve never owned one, and I don’t intend to any time soon.

The open carry people may think they are defending their own rights, but they are actually making it so that I can’t feel safe unless I also have a weapon. They are taking away other peoples’ rights to safety. They are limiting other peoples’ options.

Even if we accept the Second Amendment as justifying private gun ownership, a position that is absolutely and utterly recent and against the Framers’ intent (not that strict construction is necessary), every right in the Constitution and as a matter of logic is balanced against others’ rights.

Moreover, practically, let’s say that others are openly carrying a nine-millimeter. I might very well want not only a .50 caliber weapon but a bulletproof vest. They may in turn want a stronger weapon.

The logic of the NRA is the logic that leads to arms races. It makes no one safe.

I don’t want to live in a society where I’m afraid that anyone could in a heated argument in a bar decide to take out a gun and fire. I don’t want to live in a hair-trigger society where my speed at drawing a gun is going to determine how comfortable I feel in public. This National Memo article indicates exactly how dangerous such a society can be, no matter how much the NRA would love to pretend that every single gun user is eminently trustworthy except for those criminals (as if the dividing line between a criminal and an upstanding citizen is one that is never breached or changed and is a very clear and bright line, something everyone from homicide to vice detectives to sociologists can tell you is totally absurd).

And I really don’t think most NRA activists, even the most extreme, want to live that way either.

And the reason why we do see drive-by shootings, and gang violence, and even the Mexican cartels being so heavily armed, is exactly because of lax gun laws. (Not exclusively, of course; there’s many factors, and I do find some anti-gun activists to be reductivist in blaming only permissive gun laws rather than a host of other variables that are also clearly salient).

The combination of lack of proper ATF funding and the degree to which we have not allowed the ATF to do their job, “straw purchases”, poorly regulated gun shows, unethical vendors, and numerous other components of our poorly regulated gun ecosystem has made it so that guns flow very easily. If a nice, upstanding, suburban family decides to sell their gun to a vendor and that vendor is, unbeknownst to them, not particularly ethical, they may ironically have just armed the very gangs that they fear.

Need I mention that many of the major school shootings have come about because the kids in question were able to steal their parents’ weapons? Or the fact that anyone who has a gun in their house is at risk of those guns being stolen and sold or used?

We have to get even more basic than this. The idea that you have a nine-millimeter pistol or even an assault rifle on hand and that would be sufficient to deter a burglar or an attack is, simply put, insane. Yes, some people will be able to defend themselves properly. Others will find themselves outnumbered or surprised. They may face multiple assailants, gun-wielding or otherwise. As this FAIR source indicates, many times people end up hurting themselves or having the gun taken in a struggle, and much of the evidence on the issue of gun rights and safety has simply been manufactured for ideological reasons. To be fair, there is some research (linked here) that indicates that there is substantial deterrent effect from a gun in the home, and that many people use a gun properly in a crisis situation. But if the research varies on an issue as important as this and with such implications as this, I’d rather err on the side of caution.

What gun activists are proposing in practice, even as they may think otherwise, is a very toxic state that I would call “anarchy” if that did not as an actual anarchist make me bristle. They are proposing a situation where we do not allow the law enforcement that we train and have rules about transparency and accountability for to handle the situation, but instead allow anyone, no matter their degree of mental health or skillfulness, to defuse conflicts instead. I do have my issues with American police, but the idea that an average person can consistently do better than a trained professional in crisis situations is an incredibly arrogant statement.

And it’s a really incredible request because not only has violent crime generally declined, not only are we relatively safe and the incidents of burglary and gang violence are greatly exaggerated by a media that prefers to build rating by any means necessary than to be responsible and to avoid playing into racist and classist stereotypes, but in any instance most of these NRA activists I have seen are straight heterosexual white males in the suburbs. They are some of the safest people on the planet.

This psychology is so important to understand. The safest people on the planet are the most scared of losing that safety and their privilege. It’s an example of the toxic effects of privilege, and it’s something that we have to engage with on a level that disarms (no pun intended) the bias and provides hope that there may be a better and safer way for everyone.

An upcoming article I intend to write on the topic will focus on sociological factors for gun violence, which I do believe are downplayed by centrist liberals in preference to a gun control model. But I’d like to end on a much more positive note instead.

I would love to find a way to allow people to keep their handguns and their rifles. I would love to empower responsible gun owners. As an anarchist, I always prefer to find the least coercive approach.

But why isn’t the NRA doing exactly that?

I don’t mean the NRA leadership; they have proven repeatedly to be aggressively reductivist.

But what about the NRA rank and file?

Why don’t we find ways of mitigating gun violence and making our streets safer while limiting restrictions upon our liberties as much as possible?

Whether the Second Amendment is about private ownership of guns or not is sort of moot. We want to be freer than the Framers intended.

There’s many ideas we could pursue. Just as we limit the number of methamphetamine precursor products someone can buy in one shopping trip, why don’t we limit bullet amounts that can be sold to any one person at any one trip? This would prevent bullet stockpiling. Better techniques for gun registration and bullet fingerprinting wouldn’t infringe upon anyone’s rights. And if our concern is that we don’t want government to have too much information, why not keep the information hashed just like we keep passwords hashed, accessible only to law enforcement with a proper request? Why not make the registration system as transparent as possible?

Many gun activists point to the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and others as examples of comparable countries to the United States that have reduced gun violence. I think these are fine comparisons, even though there are certainly some important differences. But I find many of their solutions more coercive than I’d expect.

The fact that NRA and pro-gun activists routinely snottily defend their right to have unlimited destructive potential and do not wish to concede that that right must be balanced against any other rights or legitimate state needs demonstrates an overwhelming lack of empathy. These people are proving in the very breath that they are saying they deserve guns that in fact they simply do not.

If someone actually cares about making their neighbors safer, they will promote ways of improving safety that they would be willing to accept. They would promote compromise instead of extremism.

But we can’t let those extremists dictate our dynamic.

So, let me try to start a better dialog.

I don’t want to take away anyone’s gun unless it becomes clear to me that doing so is the only way to protect far more people. I don’t want to take anyone’s property that they worked hard for. I have no interest in seeing anyone hurt or burglarized. I respect the security concerns of the right.

Is it too much to ask for them to do the same for me and those like me who find our gun culture toxic and crazy?


Robot Society and Human Flaws

So often, we debate about the flaws of human nature. We discuss how humans may be fundamentally cowardly, or cruel, or greedy, or whatever. People might say that the foster care system’s problems are just a sign of human apathy and greed, or that we are destined for nuclear hellfire or obliterating ourselves with climate change.

Let’s step back for a second and think, though. Is it just being stupid, flawed apes? Or is something else going on?

Imagine a society of robots.

These robots can be perfectly rational. They have no emotional distortions, no biases. Their instrumentation is engineered perfectly. Their optics don’t have the problems of the human eye, their semantic networks exceed ours. You can imagine them like C-3PO or Asimovian robots or however you please. They can be First Law compliant or not; it’s moot.

Would these robots make mistakes? Would they make miscalculations, errors of judgment, or decisions that ended up being flawed? Would they make inaccurate observations?


Any instrumentation will break down. Anyone who’s worked with any computer, whether the biological variety or the electronic one, knows that there are errors. The more complex the system, the more prone to unexpected errors it is. Complicated systems interact in complex ways.

In fact, a lot of modern psychology is finding that many aspects of what we think of as human flaws are in fact really wonderful computer engineering. Our instincts, for example, may sometimes be distorted or biased, but research is discovering that many human instincts are incredibly accurate. Similarly, perhaps part of the reason we’re struggling to create computers that have the capabilities of humans in crucial ways is our inability to give computers emotion. Emotions are powerful short-hand processing tools.

Any sentient being is probably, near as we can tell (it’s hard to say for sure since we haven’t encountered any others with our degree of sentience), going to have flaws and limitations. It’s a consequence of having limited processing power, limited instrumentation, limited perspective. Chaos theory teaches us that there are some systems that modeling is virtually impossible even with the greatest supercomputers imaginable. Weather systems, for example, are so massively chaotic that, supposedly, “the extreme non-linearity (chaos) of the equations that govern the motion of air means that something that small [as a butterfly’s flapping] can lead to huge differences weeks and months down the road…even if you had a perfect forecasting model, and perfect observations of the atmosphere from weather stations placed 1 meter apart for the entire depth of the atmosphere, you still could not predict whether or not it would rain a month from now. That’s how chaotic the atmosphere is“. And, of course, I highly doubt if even very advanced robots would be able to gather perfect data and have perfect forecasting models all of the time for every possible chaotic problem.

Information theory is an emerging science and we have to meet actual aliens, so everything I’m saying here has to be taken with a grain of salt. Still, the fact that systems as complex as our brains fail at some major tasks may not be a sign that they’re flawed but that those tasks are actually a lot harder than they look. There are some information theorists who despair of us ever being able to create something markedly more complex than the human brain with anything like our present understanding.

Does that mean we can’t improve? Not at all. We can teach better awareness of our limitations, we can make better institutions, we can get better data. And maybe our ability to make amazing pieces of technology will allow us to create a bunch of plastic pals who are fun to be with who will complement us. Maybe we’ll find as we meet extraterrestrial life (assuming any is out there) that they have very different capabilities and can complement us. (Of course, maybe we’ll find out that they are very similar to us because of the limitations of biological systems).

So when you forget your keys or make a mistake in life, cut yourself some slack.

Maybe a robot wouldn’t do any better.


Freedom, Options, and the “Teen Bubble”: Why We Need To Solve the Skill Mismatch

Aristotle taught that anything, no matter how good, can be problematic if it’s out of balance. (Like the inequalities of his own society).

We face a situation where freedom is out of balance with other goods.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that Americans are too free. We still need more freedom.

But to do that, our idea of freedom has to change.

In America, we are told, “You can do anything”. Many other industrialized countries have a similar idea.

Yet so many people end up flipping burgers, bagging groceries, or working at a gas station.

Is that because they want to do those things? Was that their dream as a child, to grow up and ring people up for their Mentos?

Sure, there are some people who want to take it easy. They don’t mind working at a menial or even dead-end job. They just work enough to make it and get by. This is especially true for the young, people in their twenties with no families.

But these are nowhere near the majority. Moreover, those people who have such a lack of work ethic themselves don’t come from nowhere.

Instead, most people find that they want to do something better but don’t have the skills to do it. They don’t know what the options are. They despair about being able to find better options. They’ve been burnt too many times by bad employers to want to try again.

I have seen friend after friend struggling to find valuable work that they believed in, or even any kind of work at all. We have a society where some people literally have the wealth of nations, yet we can’t give everyone gainful or secure employment.

Of course, as a left analyst I can trot out the same statistics, and they do need to be heard. We don’t have a full employment policy. Without full employment, some people will structurally not get jobs. That means they not only don’t make money, but rack up debt and don’t build their skills and resumes. We’ve cut welfare programs even as a lack of a full employment policy alone means we will keep some people structurally unemployed. We’ve made it sociologically very easy for people to be terminated and made job security virtually non-existent. We’ve allowed homeless services and mental health services to decline, such that many people who could be productive with some help are instead condemned to failure. We’ve allowed tuition to rise. One can go on and on to explain why our society is both so inequal and so socially immobile (i.e. so few people are able to either climb or fall in terms of their socioeconomic position). This Hamilton Project set of articles about poverty is a great place to begin for a more positive view.

But this problem begins far earlier.

It’s based off of a basic philosophical mismatch in the way we think about freedom.

See, “freedom” never is going to mean absolute freedom. I may have the right to swing my arm around, but that ends an inch from your nose, as a judge famously put it. I have the right to speak my mind, but I don’t have the right to graffiti your house with an anarchy symbol or to libel someone.

What that means is that “freedom” is not defined as things one is theoretically allowed to do but based off of a set of socially available options. I can pick from a host of options that society allows. We can discuss how our society may close out some legitimate options, but there’s a more basic issue, which is that we are giving people a host of options to choose from but never articulating in a clear way what they are or how one could get there.

We are throwing people into adulthood with no idea of what the options are that are available to them, let alone with the actual skills and education to do something about it. I have seen virtually no one in the 20-to-35 year-old brackets having a keen and clear understanding of all of their vocational options.

That has nothing to do with freedom. Throwing someone into an ocean without a life preserver does not give them freedom to swim. It makes them drown.

Worse, this isn’t a problem at the high school level. It’s a problem in college too. I graduated with a Sociology degree with precious little idea of how to apply it, aside from more study. Yes, I could have gone to more job fairs and such, but the institution has a responsibility to communicate these expectations and prepare confident jobseekers.

Moreover, it’s practically a cliche now that even very motivated college graduates are likely to still need extensive on-the-job training in their field. People spend tens of thousands of dollars on tuition and other expenses, and they’re still not truly ready for actual work in their field. College shouldn’t just be about work, of course, but it should succeed at vocational aspects as well as developing people with an array of perspectives and tools for life.

Meanwhile, so many people trying to enter the job market struggle with the classic catch-22: To get any job that would give them needed experience, they would need experience to enter the job. This catch-22 becomes more pernicious when one considers that one needs to be able to make money to get a car, buy nice clothes, wash those clothes, have an apartment, have a functioning shower, etc., all of which are necessary to get a job to be able to pay for college.

Part of the problem is what Joseph and Claudia Allen call in Escaping the Endless Adolescence “the teen bubble”: Teens are spending much more time with other teens than they are with the kind of adults they’re going to be come. Every other society has had adolescents apprentice, going on rites of adulthood that were basically vocational training. From hunter-gatherer societies where children were taught how to hunt and skin to feudal societies where they were taught their eventual job, other societies trained adolescents. Of course, those societies don’t have the options we have. But there’s no reason that we can’t have the freedom of options and the guidance as to what options we can pick.

What are some things we could do to burst this teen bubble and resolve this problem?

First of all, we could at the sophomore level of high school, if not earlier, start preparing adolescents for actual careers. That would include vocational counseling, apprenticeship programs, business engagement and leadership, job fairs, etc. This would also function as a mental health checkup. We would find out about adolescents who may have undiagnosed problems, instead of expecting adolescents with busy schedules and limited forward planning and self-awareness to figure out they have a problem for themselves. We could even mandate that every high school graduate had to have taken at least one course approved for actual work.

This would in turn mean that these courses would actually engage people to make social connections. For example: I was in an AV class in high school. Three buddies and I made a fun little mockumentary trailer short on our own time. Our teacher supported us some, but there just wasn’t the connections to have us directly meet with someone who could have us immediately start working. Imagine if that senior year of high school someone looked at our project and said to me, “This is great. You’re going to Davis, right? I know someone who needs a video editor in Davis, that can be a job you keep throughout the year”. Then someone in Davis looking for a qualified applicant would have one. Such a person could even have encouraged me and my buddies to pursue film school and to keep making films, and pointed us in the direction of indie filmmakers who could use our talents or mentor us.

Ceramics and pottery classes can have artists and ceramics makers come in and tell students about local opportunities. Programming classes could have local software development companies come by and explain what they’re looking for. English classes could take aside the brightest students and connect them with local poets, novelists, bloggers, and journalists.

Ultimately, this would likely require mandatory one-on-one career counseling time. But a mere hour per student could help students have a much better idea of what jobs are available to them, where they want to go, and so forth.

Second, colleges can emphasize vocational training far more extensively. They can send out campus wide e-mails. Professors can bring in people from organizations like Target who are looking for graduates with a host of skills.

In college, I met frequently with sociology advisors to make sure my course load was taking me the right direction. That should have been a time to get me to sign up for job fairs, inform me about upcoming events, etc.

Of course virtually every college imaginable has job fairs and social networking and alumni networks. But this needs to become part of the package. It wouldn’t really be that expensive to make sure that colleges produced adults ready to work in a variety of fields. And colleges need to be doing a much better job at making sure that a graduate is empowered to find a profession.

Third, government itself could get involved. We could increase unemployment benefit funding to include funding for vocational classes. We could increase job training programs. Government could even create PSAs about areas of the labor market that are underserved and get people excited about those areas.

What’s truly remarkable about this is that everything I’m saying is non-coercive.

The only thing we’d need to do to facilitate this that might even be arguably slightly coercive would be to increase educational expenditures. Of course, the total tax burden wouldn’t need to go up. We could take it out of moneys for subsidies to the rich, or military spending. We could even close some tax loopholes (which would increase taxes for some in effect of course). We’d have to be able to hire teachers with real job experience and connections, coaxing people out of the private sector to come teach valuable skills. We’d have to pay some more vocational counselors, psychologists, and so forth. But all of this would just increase options, and it’d provide businesses with access to passionate kids who knew what they wanted to do and were ready to learn.

And if people were honest about helping the poor and preventing poverty, we could do so much of it just through volunteer work. Local businesses could volunteer to create after-school programs to teach adolescents about their options. People with employment connections or with counseling experience could meet with high school sophomores and ask them, “What do you want to be? Who do you want to be?” Anyone with a marketable skill could help students make a club. A computer programming club, for example, could teach kids passionate about technology to learn C++, or web design.
I know that many adolescents wouldn’t have an answer for that question. That would then lead to a process of investigating and discovery. But I would have had an answer. Actually, I’d have had many. “Activism, helping people, being heroic, writing novels and articles…” Any one of those could have put me into a different trajectory from the one I took.
Nor is anything I’m suggesting anti-free market at all. One issue with the free market is always that it takes time for people to be educated to fill roles in the first place. This would assist the free market. It would help produce adults who could quickly adapt to gaps in the labor market.
It is true that incredibly self-reliant, focused people who have a very specific dream and refuse to take “No” for an answer can often find resources. Then again, I’ve seen such people still working at McDonald’s, struggling to keep their heads afloat.

And I can admit that not every high school graduate is necessarily going to be able to become a CEO or a novelist instantly. But there’s no reason we should have them be unemployed, and there’s no reason business owners should constantly be complaining that college graduates just aren’t capable of even after four years.

Yes, we can always say “The parents should do more”. But by that logic, we should just get rid of public education altogether! Parents can’t be expected to know every important skill that their child will need to know, unless we only want children to have the same jobs as their parents. Moreover, where will parents get those skills in the first place if the educational system was broken for them too? And that’s not even mentioning that many parents are already struggling to deal with adolescents without also having to prepare them for a very difficult job search. Society should make things easier for us as parents and citizens, not harder.

In a future “No Duh Report”, I am going to discuss vocational training more extensively and how the educational system that we have simply serves no one, not even business. The idea is so crucial that it deserves deep commentary. So many 20-to-35 year-olds I speak to are very angry that they were never taught how to balance a checkbook, how to manage credit cards, how to pay their taxes, how to register to vote, or any of the other social expectations they are required to learn.

But for now, it’s important that we banish the idea that freedom means letting people drown. Throwing someone a life-preserver can help their freedom. Making sure they don’t drown in the first place is even better.


Cartesian Doubt and Despair: Finding the Center

Cartesian Doubt and Despair: Finding the Center

Imagine if you could send yourself a single message, at any point in your past. For the sake of argument, say it had to be less than one hundred words.

What would you want to send yourself? What would you tell your past self?

Something like “It gets easier” or “Hold on, you’ll find something incredible” would be nice. But what if you told yourself, “Look for Jenny”? Maybe you would alter the past. Maybe you would change the network of events that led to you meeting Jenny.

Imagine, then, that you’ve chosen to send yourself something that would be comforting in a hard time. It might not change any decisions you made, but at least it would make you have an easier time of it.

The message I wish I could have sent myself was, “Everything you are going through right now is a cocoon. You are going to be paying in suffering and pain, but you will at the end of it come out as the man you have wanted to be”.

Anyone who has ever tried to psych themselves up, inspire themselves, knows how difficult it can be to find something that holds true. Our words seem to just echo with no effect, bouncing off of the defenses of our negativity. We seem to be speaking with hollowness, resonating into the air.

It is staggeringly hard to find truth that sticks to our bones.

There’s an idea in psychology called “metacognition”. Basically, it’s thoughts about our thoughts. If you think, “I want a cheeseburger”, that’s just a regular ol’ cognition. It’s based on memories that you have of good cheeseburgers, social signals about how a cheeseburger is a good meal, and a feeling of hunger. It may even be based on wanting to eat for comfort. Now, if you think, “Why do I want a cheeseburger?”, that’s a metacognition. You’re asking a question about your feelings or thoughts.

We can’t control what we feel at the most immediate level, not perfectly. We can choose how we react. And it is at the level of our feelings about our feelings that we tend to do the most damage to ourselves.

I wasn’t just that I was suffering in those past moments. It was that I was resentful of that suffering. I didn’t see the point of it. I often take a cosmic perspective, and from that perspective I wonder why it is just that we were made this way, born to have an experience we found unpleasant. One can say that it’s the way the universe is, or point to evolution, but that is an explanation of fact not of justice. It’s possible to understand the universe and resent it.

That’s why that wisdom would have resonated with me. I knew intellectually it’d get better. I knew intellectually I would likely eventually get what I wanted. But it’d have been nice, at the time, to understand that I had to go through those moments to become what I wanted. In retrospect, I would have endured three times more of those moments to be where I am now.

There are two philosophers who faced uncertainty and pain in their lives that we can draw inspiration from, not just philosophically but psychologically. They are Socrates and Rene Descartes.
Both Socrates and Descartes traveled, and found that their understanding of the world was altered. They began to hear about phenomena in life that made them wonder about the nature of reality in general. Descartes in particular found phantom limb syndrome, the experience amputees will have of still feeling sensations from a long-gone limb, to show very interesting things about the mind.

Both these men went through a period of extreme doubt. Socrates had a voice in his head, what he called a “daemon” or spirit (and what many people today think may have been schizophrenia), that told him only what was wrong, never what was right. Meanwhile, Descartes wanted so badly to put his philosophy on a firm footing of certainty that he decided to adopt a position like Socrates of absolute doubt.

Descartes at the end of this process, doubting everything and assuming that a demon was out to trick and hurt him, found one of the most important philosophical concepts ever: Cogito ergo sum, or “I think; therefore, I am”. This idea is elegant in its simplicity and wide-reaching in its implications. It means that if you ever wonder if you exist, the very fact that you are wondering means you have to be. It’s absolute. It’s utterly logical. It’s inarguable. Arguing against it is literally absurd. Maybe we’re brains in jars, maybe we’re all in the Matrix, but we certainly exist in some form.

From this basic concept, Descartes created a philosophical system. Many of the aspects of it have been rejected, but for him, he had found something that would hold. The cogito was a pinion for him: It let him know that his mind and his thoughts would always matter.

I bring these men up not for their philosophy, nor even for Socrates’ great moral wisdom. I bring them up because they experienced doubt and they both found a way of looking at things that survived their own brains.

We inherit so many ideas, just like Descartes and Socrates, that are inaccurate from our society and from our lived experience. Quantum physics alone shows us that the basic way that we view reality is wrong. We intuitively feel that if we look at a rock that we are doing nothing, but at the subatomic level, any observation will actually change that which is being observed.

We assume that capitalism is just, or democracy is the best form of government. But why? Many other people lived perfectly happy lives under different systems, and many people are miserable under our present forms of government.

Many of us assume that God exists. Why? For many, it’s because they were told so. It’s not just that they think that there is a God, but that that God is named Yahweh or Allah, that it has the specific forms that it may seem to have in the Bible. This is a belief based on faith, of course, but it’s also a remarkably specific insight. Why would it have happened exactly that specific way? It absolutely could have, but it absolutely could not have. We better have some kind of experience of God or interaction with the divine, some kind of indication that the beliefs that we hold onto actually help us, before we can be confident in them.

To be absolutely clear: For the purposes of this wisdom, I’m not saying whether these insights are right, wrong, philosophically defensible, empirically valid, or anything of the sort. I am saying that we have assumptions that we inherit. Capitalism and democracy may very well be good things (I’m sold on democracy and want more of it, not so much on the capitalism), but if they are then it should be because of concrete advantages we can point to, ones based in values that are as universal as possible.

These assumptions go deep. Why is murder wrong? Why is theft wrong? Why is rape and sexual assault wrong? There are coherent answers to these questions, but psychology has taught us that many people will never ask the questions to any real extent in the first place, trapped in conventional thinking and socialized assumptions.

To anyone going through pain, especially changemakers despairing that they may be able to reach out and make a difference, I always try to say this:

Try to make this a time of Cartesian doubt. Challenge everything you believe.
In the depths of despair, we can discard illusions. We can get rid of things that don’t hold. It takes work and its takes us focusing, but we can seek out answers and get rid of unsatisfactory responses.

It’s rather like Michelangelo with the statue of David. We are working away at the marble of our selves until we make the person we want to be.

This is an active process. Despair is the chisel, hope can be the hammer.

Because whatever you hold onto, that’s going to be the pinion that holds you to reality.

For me, the things that I kept coming back to were a few simple ideas. Heroes matter. Peoples’ suffering matters. It is possible to aid others with suffering, even as we are flawed ourselves. This world matters. And I wanted to be a hero.

Once I realized that, I was willing to discard everything that impeded me from the goals that followed from those cognitions.

Who do you want to be? What do you want to think? What do you want to believe in? No one can decide that but you. And finding out is a wonderful process. It can be painful, but it is like preparing to run a marathon: Something you have to put sweat into in order to get out what you want. And it’s okay if it takes you some time. Everyone’s path is different. I wish you the best of luck in finding out.


July 4th: Loving Our Country and Wanting to Improve It

July 4th has always been a complex holiday for me.

I’ve always enjoyed spending time with the community, having some fun, watching fireworks. I don’t even mind the monster trucks or the other aspects of excess. I wonder how sustainable such a holiday is, but whatever.

Yet I also begin to get very uncomfortable at the extreme celebrations of jingoism and militaristic violence. I also find whitewashing (virtually literally) the past has some very uncomfortable racist, sexist and colonialist implications.

Either the past matters or it doesn’t. I’ve seen far too many people reject the idea that slavery should matter or Native American genocide should matter, then wrap themselves in the deeds of Founders they not only didn’t know but also may have found many of their opinions abhorrent or irrational.

Today’s a good time to remember that Thomas Jefferson warned about “moneyed incorporations” and banks as being threats to democracy. Or that Benjamin Franklin was a deist who said, “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his divinity”. (To Franklin I would have said: Buddhism, fuck yeah).

I often call America the first anarchist nation. It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but this country really was born on the intellectual, philosophical, and political rejection of hierarchy and dominance. Yes, the Founders were flawed and ended up creating a vision with slavery, dominance of women, slaughter of Natives, etc. But that core idea was wonderful.

So today, I’m not going to celebrate the politics.

What I will celebrate is the hope.

I will celebrate the hope that led a bunch of farmers, merchants, and very poor people to take arms against one of the most powerful militaries in the world and face it down with courage and tenacity. (And the help of the French, our brothers and sisters of liberty who we have unfortunately gotten into a bit of a hissy fit with).

I have been told by foreigners that only Americans would have the conceit to think that they can fix the world.

Well, fuck yeah. Damn straight I do. I know that as a white American heterosexual male I have been born to immense privilege. I also know that that privilege has given me a vision of what a better world can be like, and a desire to share it. That’s a bodhisattva vow, and I’m not apologizing for it.

I am an arrogant, audacious, hopeful American. That doesn’t make me better than anyone else. It doesn’t make my country better than anyone else’s. But it does make it special, and awesome. Just like we should love ourselves for our unique traits and love others for theirs, so too should we embrace what is great about our country while working on a trajectory of improvement for that which is flawed.

Then tomorrow, when we’re coming off of our high of beer and brats, ribs and rallies, we should face some of the bad and strive to improve it.