February 8, 2016

A Realistic 3-Step Program For Hillary Clinton To Earn Millennials' Votes

It's easy (and understandable) for some centrists to misread the left's disdain for Hillary Clinton as a matter of "purity"--a youthful dalliance into idealism before running into the reality of a Trump or Cruz ballot in November.

"Hillary has undoubtedly made a lot of mistakes," a typical argument goes, "and neither the Clinton administration nor Hillary's senatorial career were the ideal bastions of leftward thought. But it's time to put down the red flag and work together for a common cause, kids. Hillary's come around on several mistakes, and besides all that, the Clintons have had a hard road, with Republican intransigence at every turn and the need to balance diverse coalitions. If she can compromise, why can't you?"

And there's some truth to this narrative. She's not a monster, she's not heartless, and, in the final tally, Hillary Clinton seems like a decent human being with a decent grasp of the issues who would work for the causes she advocates in her campaign. And, yes, Clinton has "come around," to the point where her platform honestly and accurately represents a left-of-center agenda in the American political establishment.

But the part about millennial idealism just isn't true: I'm nothing if not a realist. Her campaign, by sheer dint of its own cynical power, is living proof that the United States as currently constructed will never, ever, ever achieve universal health care, much less the broader goal of social democracy. Hillary won't fight for it, and with Democrats like Hillary in power, Bernie can't hope to achieve it. Her brand of Democrats simply doesn't care about poor Americans enough to fight for them, I've decided.


So let's get real. After all, most of us millennials are practical in the final tally--we simply don't have enough in our pockets to be idealistic! So here's a gritty, realistic, simple 3-step mini-agenda that should helpfully illustrate what Hillary Clinton might do right now to earn my vote now and in November:
  1. The Clinton Foundation, their friendly super-PACs, etc. must be irrevocably transferred to a progressive organization separate from either Sanders or Clinton's campaign whose resources must be primarily dedicated to humanitarian and progressive goals. Right now, Bill and Hillary Clinton are worth 9 figures--and a realistic millennial knows never to trust a plutocrat with their political institutions. At least bring that net worth down to a high 7 figures, where a mere 99.99% of us live. Otherwise I have no reason to think you'll represent my interests.
  2. The Clinton campaign must distance itself forever from Henry Kissinger and every other war-criminal still hanging around her door. It should be enough for now to explicitly denounce Kissinger for his war crimes, call for an investigation into Kissinger, and pledge to do better on that front. I believe that Hillary has come along in her thinking on foreign policy--but as a canny millennial I've come to believe you're only as good as the people around you who can support you and give advice. The Benghazi stuff doesn't seem fair at all, but how is someone who listens to Kissinger going to make good, humane decisions on foreign policy that redound to the credit of the United States?
  3. The Clinton campaign must acknowledge that social democracy--or at least a few toddling steps towards it--is a real, important goal of the younger generation, that it's both an ethically and practically good goal, and that we will find anything less unacceptable as our cohort ages into power. Therefore, to this end, Hillary will fight for universal health care, education, food, and housing when in office, and prove her commitment to this cause by announcing several social democrats she would elect to her cabinet. As a millennial who has continually discovered the generosity of the American people only by sharing my troubles, I know that you can't hope to get something until you ask for it. 
  4. BONUS: This almost goes without saying, but this agenda would be incomplete without a massive commitment to gender and racial equality, income and wealth inequality, investment into infrastructure, massive campaign finance reform, environmental regulation. And, because it would be awesome and historic to elect the first woman president but incomplete without this, I want to see something by the DNC to guarantee women are represented in both houses of Congress and all future judiciary nominations.
That's a good start. If Hillary (or Bernie, for that matter) wants my vote, she should prove she represents my interests, and not the wealthy class, hawkish advisors, and milquetoast intellectuals to whom she currently seems to subscribe.

It's only practical, you see.


Establishment writers always puzzle and puzzle about why young people--"even young women!!"--don't seem to want Hillary Clinton to become president. These writers--beloved and sophisticated, if generally obtuse--invent so many tortuous explanations for Bernie Sanders' support. They lecture at length about entitlement and idealism, they pathologize our passion, they talk in serious tones about "messaging". And on and on and on.

On and on to defeat in July. Look, Hillary could do what she always does: Listen to a grave team of august Ivy-educated advisors (class of '06!) about why Hillary Clinton is not a "brand" the "younger demographics" seem to "engage". Her "net favorables" are "underwhelming". Clinton could wait for a generation that Beltway insiders have condemned as "entitled" to pick as the lesser of two evils someone who has shown them mostly contempt for the last 8 months or so.

Or, Clinton could fix the gap between the political reality she is offering and the political reality young people want.

I hope this is helpful.

February 5, 2016

yes, you're a fraud for your music tastes. no, i don't hate you for it

if you've ever harbored a secret anxiety that your opinions on music will mark you as a "fraud", there's a good chance that you're absolutely right. i like music a lot and i can tell when you describe music in ways that are arbitrary and pretentious and meaningless. you're just gonna have to trust me on this--if you're a fraud about music, i pretty much know with certainty that you're a fraud. even if i've never met you or interacted with you. i am standing right beyond you

ah, but here's a little reassurance: if you're afraid further that you're just one more conversation away from being exposed and called out humiliatingly, you're wrong: i'm never going to call you out on it.

first of all, i have no reason or desire to make you feel like a bad person for your musical tastes, even though they're actually borrowed from a critic. i love music, and all i want to do is share it with others. if that means cutting through a little bit of affectation to bond with someone i care about over some music i care about, i can put aside my ego and talk to you like a human being--i can communicate on your level, in other words, and i'm happy to do so as long as it makes our lives a little better. besides, there's a good chance you actually really like music, and there's a very good chance you'll be more honest if i make you feel comfortable.

second and more cynically, you're not alone in this form of anxiety, and, if i called you out, everyone who has the same anxiety would see me as a monster--literally, the bogeyman of their personal nightmares. further, everyone who knows someone who thinks they're a fraud deep down would rightfully see my action as shaming mental-illness over a petty quibble. suffice it to say that mocking you would be more embarrassing to me, i'd look like a bad person. you'd look like the aggrieved victim. and frankly, that's exactly how it would be.

so you're safe. but just know that i know you're a fraud about music, and, while in my heart of hearts i leer for a half-instant at your philistinism, i don't honestly hold it against you. really, you're not a bad person, you just like socializing and projecting a certain image to the world more than listening publicly to what you actually love and talking about it as a person and not as a critic writing the pull quote. face it, there's nothing wrong with you, or even anything particularly uncommon: you have a guilty pleasure in a guilt-ridden society which encourages you to feel guilt for "ill-gotten" pleasure, which is bullshit: society--and the irrepressibly mean human psyche acting upon its ego--is the problem, not you. lots of people have depression and anxiety or just haven't figured out what they're doing in life, or what this whole crazy thing is about.

you're a fraud, sure as the sun rises. but listening to music is such a tiny, adorable thing to be a fraud about. of all the things to be worried about!--i know you can't turn that thought off, but you should know that it's irrational, it's not your fault, and you shouldn't feel bad about yourself for thinking of yourself as a fraud, if at all possible. i basically see you as a kitten, preening and mewling over your keyboard, a little bit sad deep down but putting forth your best face, i'm not the kind of person who eats kittens, except when it's life or death, them or me, and that has only happened once, and it turned out i actually didn't need to, so i would feel extra bad about taking yet another unnecessary life. and it's not out of contempt or condescension that i say this--i like kittens, and i know they are normally pretty rad beneath the surface. you are too. trust me.

you're just fine, you lovable damn fraudster. if you ever get up the confidence to talk about your music tastes even though you don't think you're so smart, hit me up. i'll be happy to hear what you're listening to myself and even help you find other music.

for example, i bet you'd like "Muswell Hillbillies" by the Kinks. that's a good one, based on the feedback you're giving me. every song is crisp as hell. here, fuck; get in the hangout lets listen to it now.

February 4, 2016

Let's Completely Rethink Politics

Let's completely rethink politics. Why not? It's the purview of the most disingenuous and evil in our society, and even apart from all of that, I'm hardly a practical person.

(In fact, I'm somewhat ridiculous. If I ran for office they would dig up so much dirt on me just on how bad I am with writing deadlines that I'd be laughed back to Duluth in a snail's heartbeat, [as the saying goes])

But after reading Jane Mayer's awesome book about the Koch Brothers and their political genius, I'm drawn to the illuminating darkness of the various plutocrats in profile--philosophical mediocrities whose whole lives are one big Davos conference of poisonous sycophants, exotic appetizers downed in a single bite, groups to influence, and thoughtless thought leaders. Everything money can buy--everything except a single person who could testify to the common life of the common person in our era and the single universal truth such a life obtains about the scarcity of anything dependable or sacred. Those are for the people with health care, and personalized education, and opportunities to make more than one particular kind of mark on the world. The rest of us live in continuous view of death, placated only by the sight of things warmer and more interesting than death.

Lest we dwell too far on the Kochs, I nonetheless have this sinking feeling that it might be necessary for me to debase myself and descend into the dark art of politics for a little while. To defeat corruption, I daresay, we must first corrupt ourselves. Corrupt ourselves just well enough to understand and redirect that corruption towards something better, but corrupt ourselves nonetheless.

We must debase ourselves, my reader, even if we say it's all in good fun! And when we're finished with our works, we can promptly go back to inhabiting the pure souls we really are and have really always been, deep down, before we'd made that fateful choice. "It's never too late for anyone," the dying man intones, to no one, even as the obituary writer clacks out the reality of the matter within earshot and then puts it in front of him. Even as he's still cognizant of words, the man smiles and pretends not to see the rest. "He died peacefully, in his sleep" sounds pretty good just then. And as he reads it, he does. We can never taste corruption as might a chef; we must consume all that we prepare.

But we shouldn't fear our inevitable fallen grace which never brings our redemption--after all, is it not far more terrifying to die without ever having fallen? Yes, far more terrifying to die afraid of bruising even a knee. So let us debase ourselves in the spirit of purity, for fear of the awful corruption of debasement's only alternative!

And when I say we must debase ourselves and allow ourselves to think like a propagandist or as a reformer of political ideologies, I don't necessarily mean we must deceive ourselves with some new System of Ideology with its own specially-fitted Party Blinders. Rather, we precisely should not deceive ourselves as such. After all, the road of well-meant self-deception leads precisely to that place where we can no longer tell the difference between our own bullshit and our deep truths--I can't think of a more fitting Hell, made worse by the awful possibility that one might already have arrived at any time in the near or distant past.

So, the necessity of our corruption and debasement admitted, and the necessity of avoiding self-deception posited hopefully, we begin our work.

We of the younger cohorts still believe ourselves to be in possession of our wits. If that's true, then surely we think of a way to practice politics that we wouldn't be ashamed to find ourselves practicing in 50 years. Let's think of a way that we can be political, in a modern context, without being disingenuous. To engage the entanglements of the world at large without becoming too entangled ourselves as we begin a long history of engagements.

Unlike the modern peddlers of lies which we see pervading our institutions, we should gain our strength from the truth, and deception and misinterpretation should become as toxic to our ears as they are so toxic to our political reality. This strength may not be for today or tomorrow, but for the people one hundred years from today. I certainly won't survive that long. None of us reading likely will, barring a tremendous advance in multiple fields of science. If you can envision yourself surviving that long, then push the horizon up to two hundred years. We need to channel our genius and optimism into others and that means precisely to think about politics not from our own position, where we can believe with all our hearts in the virtue and tenacity of our future selves, but from the position of those who come so far after us--those we cannot be nor bear nor touch. Their lives can be made better then, perhaps beginning today. For what I speak of is pragmatism, albeit a pragmatism writ not over an instant but over an eternity, or perhaps just a generation or two.

I call for advance, yes, but not for an advance so radical that it ruptures its connection with us so wholly as to forget about us or our culture's history. Purification is a ridiculous dream meant for those without much imagination for nightmare. Advance cannot be about purifying (another more rhetorical word is "purging") our thoughts, deeds, ideas, or people--history shows that purification can never sustain for mortals, and the pursuit of such self-purification is always as delusional as the corruption it's meant to excise. Even if such a program should succeed, it can last only as long as the thought, the deed, the idea, or the person in question.

No, instead imagine remaking the structure of all our institutions such that--much like today--each fits in its way into all the others, with no institution, idea, deed, or person supreme, where every system gives way to a larger system, which feeds back into the systems of which it's constituted. Picture institutions that will be flawed but whose flaws serve to lend it credibility by affirming a standard.

(For example, suppose a bank lends too much--crisis or even failure of the bank.may ensue for its miscalculation, but in its moment of crisis it speaks to the principle that a bank ought not to lend more than it really can and that a bank is built on the credibility it maintains in fulfilling its function, even if we might not know just why or how that particular miscalculation really took place. A bank's failure is an affirmation of an underlying principle about its purpose.

Let's imagine for a moment building the seeds of a wholly new society within our own that may come to supplant it, just --in their own way-- as the Kochs and their forerunners have done. Let's imagine for a moment that our institutions might have principles that, when fully asserted, might always push those institutions closer over time to the realization of those principles. And let's imagine that we subject those principles themselves to the same scrutiny. Let's imagine that when in a society misfortune afflicts its noblest or its basest citizen, strikes a blow against its richest or its poorest, or otherwise does not live up to our most potently-stated principles--let's imagine that we treat that as a failure of society, full stop, and the structures and principle that society has embodied thus far. And yes, we can make affordances for the occasional failures of individuals that can not be wrangled successfully into the social world--but we ought to make this the explanation of last resort--because you can't build a society which is collective on individual principles or individual ambitions alone. When this basic truth is forgotten, institutions fail, the history on which that truth is based is distorted, and the whole of all our lives is plunged into society-wide delusions.

Imagine a society, then, which works organically towards the absence of oppression not through a perfect platonic structure that can be planned for in the year 2016, but through a succession of human foibles which are somehow captured as information, which fortifies rather than unsettles the foundation of the institution, or moves it closer to the principle, or moves our principles closer to a still-better world. Just as science builds a base of knowledge fortified by the errors of generations, let's have our institutions build a base of power fortified by the madness of tyrants, by the slaver's whip, by the indifference of nobles who do not fear their subjects. Just as manic tech moguls dream of Singularities, let's strive for a Singular Institution in our politics that can itself become the accelerating virus. A dangerous series of ideas, tactics, and malleable frameworks that when applied to conflict would chip away at the base of all oppressors and fortify their oppressed just enough to end the conflict and move them each a notch closer to one another, one day and one moment at a time, the powerful in every relationship of power clinging to that top rung of the ladder with all their might as all society conspires to drag them down gently until they relinquish it and climb down and find to their astonishment not the brutality of their worst extent but the relief of their most fearless days.

Power can never be innocent, so let it commit only the crimes which it can abide. Criminality is an inextricable part of the legal system, with each criminal (including the State itself) constituting a directly-observable case study into the power of the State. Let power in our future society--one part criminal, one part lawful--be structured not so that a rule will never be broken, but so that when a rule is inevitably broken, the breach will serve to reinforce --even improve-- the rule as such. Let precedent be not only a structural constraint but a structural reminder of mistakes.

Let us conspire to structure all our incentives, all our institutions, and the most basic facets of our reality to continually confront us with the truth whensoever we might stray. And let the relation between individual and incentive, between incentive and institution, between institution and principle, between principle and society, and between society and individual be as clear as day even to the stubbornest fool.

As I hope is clear, I can't begin to picture this society because we're speaking of a new series of forms, and some of them may utterly transcend the forms by which I yet understand the world. I can but imagine it. But some measure of essential simplicity seems necessary--not the gray box of modernism but the simple interface of a bazaar or a road sign. What that bazaar may sell, and what that road sign might say--those are not for me to know, and do not tell me what you think they must be, because they must be the institutions that survive a durable assault of an informed citizenry practicing democracy, or whatever the eventual equivalent of this may emerge.

We can't begin to imagine these societies but let's say as a first attempt that for every political form of oppression (or some other egregious-but-perhaps-necessary form) must be paired with an equal and opposite force of anti-oppression which operates quickly enough to provide feedback (or no feedback, or feedback structured differently than we can imagine).

I've mentioned simplicity because I think it's the only way you can reliably organize people and have them remain not merely passive and content but happy and feeling that something is worth defending. From this simplicity, I assert the need for radical, self-reinforcing transparency in all our public power relations, and with every bit of power, I assert the need for radical checks on that power aided powerfully by the transparency. Eventually, those who may surpass us will fall to the temptations of power as they ascend in power--the key is not to pretend this won't happen but to be certain it will happen and build in epistemic, political, and social checks which will attempt to wrest that power away from them the moment they begin to stray from truth, and force them to return to truth in order to hope to regain it, without impairing the ability of a society to respond to its challenges and alter itself as its people understand society more and more. It's not foolproof--it can never be--but this must be the goal of any modern system in the age of Koch. They debase themselves but they do not deceive themselves. They learn, and learn, and learn from their mistakes and the insights of their opponents--and yet, for all their political genius, their mindset was built on corruption to begin with and their political ideals were broken from the outset. Is this not a perfect lesson, if necessarily tragic? Couldn't we reverse-engineer their techniques, mad visions, and institutions to speak instead to the needs and wants of even the poorest as opposed to the whims and self-destructive self-actualization of the feudal capitalist accumulators?

So in other words, we--and the institutions we infiltrate in the course of our political lives--need to become corrupted by non-corruption itself without losing sight of the corruption we intend to replace. As Ellul reminds us, effective propaganda must be rooted in the truth and only then must branch out to dark interpretation. We must branch off from the facts into dark interpretations, as the cynic must, but branch still further to the brighter leaves of optimism, even as we ascend, first in fear, the awful facts of the matter.

January 28, 2016

Millennial Softboy Gets Real with Pragmatists (Starving Without Spite)

In the Democratic Primary here in the States, too much of our politics--whether centrist, conservative, socialist, identitarian, or nativist--has been driven by raw emotion. Some of us feel the sting of a nation governed by billionaires. Others feel the righteous anger of a nation that has never come to terms with its racist history. Still others fume over climate change, xenophobia, labor rights, health care, and on and on and on. I've been guilty of plenty of unreasonable fury myself the last six months.

And I feel I get it. I get how we've gotten to this fierce and passionate place in our country that we wouldn't have recognized 10 or 20 years ago. The emotions we're feeling are real, irreducible, and powerful, and they stem from undeniably important causes, even if the American public often disagree on the most basic facts. The fear, anguish, anxiety, and loss we're feeling as a nation is near-universal, and it's not for no reason that we're feeling it. And so these emotions have a validity and an urgency all their own, even apart from their causes.

But, as a fairly young person, squarely in the Millennial bracket, I am all too in touch with my emotional life. And I've found there's quite a harsh limit to what disclosure, vulnerability, empathy, and sentiment can produce. At some point, we have to move from passion to politics. It's time, for once, to be pragmatic rather than emotional, and not simply in the dullard centrist's notion of putting aside fundamental disagreements to "get things done", whatever they may be and whoever must be harmed. No, we have to get things done that are substantive, positive, and efficacious. Emotions have no place in this calculation. Passionate anger fades or turns to bitterness with time while political power and its institutions alone endure.

We can't be held in thrall purely to emotion--however valid its causes might be--as so crucial an election is upon us today. Rather, we have to go beyond our grievances and start thinking about the United States as a whole, to think about what kind of nation we're going to be living in 10, 20, and 30 years down the line, and what kind of nation we're leaving to the generations who will follow us on their own cohort-specific journey.

So as January draws to a close, with the Iowa caucuses mere days away, it's time to think about the pragmatism of the electoral situation now--bereft of emotion.

Here's where I'm coming from:


1. Life is unfathomably difficult and hopeless for the worst off among us, except by the standards of the Third World--which is to say, the standards of abjection and subsistence. In the US, where the mean income is high but so many are left out in the cold, a small plutocracy stalls every attempt to reform this state of affairs. This isn't sentiment; it's the truth of the matter, if you'd only care to look.

And if you're left out in the cold, you might as well just die, because second chances are hard in coming. It's so hard to make it in this world without a car, or with a disability, or if you're a person of color, or if you're a poor woman who can't afford to have a child, or if you're a kid on the wrong side of the education-reformer track, or if your town has no jobs. And there's, naturally, quite a lot of overlap between all of these groups.

For those of us not in near-misery, we're still teetering on a dark precipice: If you can't afford health insurance, or, if you aren't quite poor, but you're always one catastrophe away from food insecurity, starvation, homelessness, or utter dependence, then you're hardly free from the vicissitudes of the powerful and the whims of the wealthy, which seem increasingly likely to be the same thing these days.

If you're an immigrant or an ethnic minority on the wrong side of a xenophobic working class, you're hearing what they're saying and you're afraid a little more every day of expulsion or persecution.

In short, if you're left out in the cold in America, what you really lack is freedom from fear, whether you're from the poor and afraid of falling out, or you're from the middle class and afraid of falling back. Much of the anger we've seen in this election is a simple mutation of this fear.

It's hard to make it in this world with a job, and without a job. It's hard to make it in this world with a college education, and without one. It's hard to make it in this world unless you were born along a path of success, all because we live in an unforgiving corporate feudalism in which all who wander too long are lost.

This has been a cold world for humans since time immemorial, and yet the social democracies in Europe have seemed a bit warmer and more forgiving than their wealthy-but-overworked technocratic cousin across the Atlantic.

2. So far, the Democratic establishment, led by its candidate Hillary Clinton, is the seat of power for a staunch left-neoliberal party which says all the right things on cultural theory and does everything in its power to take them away in fiscal practice. Bernie Sanders is much further to the left of Hillary, but it's clear that Hillary represents the Democratic establishment and that, even if Sanders won, he would himself have to helm this same broken establishment.

The current Democratic establishment--birthed as it was as the Soviet Union was falling and as the United States was in the midst of issuing decades of anti-socialist propaganda towards its own citizens--has given no indication that they will ever decide to represent a humane, popular, moral agenda of social democracy. Furthermore, most of the Democratic operatives, with their smug elitism, now take my generation's votes for granted, despite that we would clearly prefer such a social democracy. Our votes are treated as unserious, impractical, and naive. We who feel most acutely the difficulties of this world also feel most acutely that those difficulties have stopped mattering to most of the people who matter in the Democratic party.

We've seen two major popular uprisings in the Democratic base the past two years--the Ferguson/Baltimore demonstrators, and the Sanders supporters. Both of these were spearheaded by committed young people who wanted a brew a tad stronger than the tepid Occupy, um..., tea. The Democratic establishment warmed to BlackLivesMatter only when they could put some of their own people in charge (e.g. Deray McKesson from TFA, a political backbone of the charter-school movement), and only to the extent that those folks don't get out of line. And the Dems still really haven't warmed at all to the Sanders people--whom they treat with condescending scorn as angry harassers, naive outsiders, and conspiracy theorists, even when the only consistently-held conspiracy is that people who receive money from finance and pharmaceutical companies will act in the interests of those industries.

The Democrats are so out of touch. All they know how to do anymore when they meet an opposing force--even one of immense populist potency and social justice--is to triangulate and compromise to the right, and to co-opt, colonize, concede, or marginalize the left. Since the ascendancy of the DLC in 1988, they've never met a good idea on the left that they actually liked enough to advocate nor to implement--they can be forced, if absolutely necessary, but they don't actually believe in the ideal of a social democracy or of a society which lacks a permanent underclass. Whether they lack the imagination or the spirit to believe in such a society is beside the point. What we know is that they act in the interests of the richest individuals and corporations in the United States, and not in the interests of the poorest individuals or unions.

The Democratic establishment has revealed itself to be close in spirit to the New York Times editorial page--boomers dissembling about civility and looking for any excuse to avoid the central questions of our time. They read Piketty and Stiglitz on inequality and cluck and shake their heads. They read about the uncompromising GOP which wins every battle and how important it is, therefore, to compromise. They seem to be wounded by genuine engagement that isn't conducted with the respectful civility of an Aaron Sorkin play about Franklin Roosevelt--as if all of that silly uprising nonsense should have ended with the air controller strike. Occupy is nice, but can you clean up a little bit and go get a job at Goldman or Blackstone? They're not such bad people there. They're not. In short, Democrats like Black Lives Matter and think it's tragic what that cop did, and they can offer a few BLM/Sanders people a job, but they are as deathly afraid of any Republican of a good old-fashioned mass movement.

3. So here's the ultimatum: The Democrats either need to shift quite a bit further to the left than their party leaders have signaled they'd be comfortable with in this general election, or I simply cannot vote for them. I'm not too proud to beg, but that doesn't mean I'm gonna vote for you. I can't see myself voting against the Democrat; more likely this "protest" vote would take the form of a third-party candidate. I say "protest" in quotes because it's not simply symbolic--it's proof-positive that I did not treat your bad candidate's inadequacy with "Millennial disengagement", but with dispassionate rejection. It's information for the technocrats to process, to do with as they will, no more and no less.

4. If a Democrat can act like my generation of young and legitimate disaffected individuals exists, can make a sincere effort to court the poorest people in our society with an agenda, promises, or can give some genuine and public demonstration of good faith on that front, then I'll vote for them. And I might even work for them. I might even try hard to get them elected. It's that simple. Give me a good reason to vote for you, and I will vote for you. Please stop making this so difficult.

One of the most egregious things about the DLC/Obama era is that they publicly shame poor mothers and black fathers and take all the credit for their efficacious victim-blaming. The Romans make a desert and call it peace. The Democrats help to make an underclass and call it reform. That in and of itself isn't so bad, but then they turn to their victims with smug self-confidence and tell us to our faces that it was just politics, and "we're really on your side!"

So, they tell us, we shouldn't shame them for their debased pride. They bragged--and found it in their interests to brag--about mass incarceration and welfare reform, until very recently. The Democrats can be tough on crime too! If that's what you're telling us to get elected, why should I assume you won't go twice as far when you're elected? Seriously, tell me, beyond just trying to appeal to me, what exactly I'm supposed to do with the pride you took in demonizing the hard-working underclass that you continually have conspired with Hayekian Republicans to create?


In sum, I really, really want to support the Democrats, but they've given no indication they care about my engagement, my values, or, in the final tally, my country--at least beyond their donors in the upper class and their middle-brow upper-middle-class. They expect my generation's vote despite doing nothing to show they'll even bring our concerns to the table, much less to the president's desk. Again and again and again they disappoint us, and again they chide us for not voting. They get in the pages of the Washington Post and write an op-ed about the staggering entitlement of the Millennials. Won't they ever learn to deal with reality?

And I guess, increasingly, I've come to accept that my answer is no: I can't accept this reality--I can't accept this country--until it begins to act in basic consonance with any of its stated values. And it seems that Democrats, while responsible stewards of what is left of our republic, don't really want to act that way. They simply want to maintain a stable position on their own little island of influence while the sea level rises imperceptibly every year. The wonks propose increasingly toothless agendas and technocratic trickery in service of pathetic candidates and reforms.

Liberals are seeking to salvage the country by becoming a group with such an unremarkably small and copacetic vision that no one will mind their presence, and in a way they've succeeded wildly. I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis' vision of the hereafter in The Great Divorce, where sinners, in their self-imposed smallness, fall through the cracks of heaven.


Despite the anti-poverty rumblings and the outrage that might be detectable in the preceding discussion, I'm not exactly a Jacobin wanting dead counterrevolutionary bodies in the street, nor a revolutionary seeking any Romanovs to smother. It's not emotional, it's not hateful, and I'm amenable to compromise. These are loose demands. But that compromise should come from a place of genuine necessity and not deception or naked power-brokerage. Hillary is making noises about repealing the Hyde Amendment, and good for her, and good for Bernie for voting against it. But they're running to become the successor of the president who allowed the most striking and most unkindly iteration of the Hyde Amendment in one of his more egregious compromises. It's so wearying to read all day about the rights of women and find, just before you close your eyes that night, that all your work was for nought, women across the country condemned to a harder life.

I use this example to point out that in and of itself, my trouble is not about whether the Democrats nominate Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. I'm not so naive to think a nominated Sanders might not tack right himself in the general election, because at the end of the day, it's his job not just to run but to win. What's more, I understand that Washington is full of sophisticated political scientists who can lecture you for an hour about the Median Voter Theorem and how it's so important to be just to the left of your Republican opponent, who will, of course, be swinging left to capture the same swath of Median Undecideds. I get that politics is more of a team sport, like cycling, than a pure marathon of individual candidates' wills. And I get that the well-educated Harvard graduates carefully whispering in each candidate's ears just want the best for all of us, because they know that we on the left can all make things easier for one another if we just follow these simple rules of power and compromise once in awhile. As a political entity, Washington is myopic and technocratic, and even a major shift in their calculations will be just that--a shift, not a fundamental challenge.

So yes, these are loose demands I'm making, and perhaps some part of me also recognizes that it's absurd to hope the aristocratic echochamber might pause to "lean-in" from their virtual-reality Vader-eggs in Davos to listen to a guy who can barely write a half-decent sentence. But I don't think my absurd desire to be heard reveals absurd desires: My demands are rational and not driven by emotions. I will vote for the candidate I do believe in and a half-vote for the candidate I don't believe in. And while many of us will ultimately hold our noses and cast a ballot for the nominee no matter what, I'm willing to bet that what I'm saying is the spirit of my disaffected generation of young social democrats. I'm willing to bet that this is more or less the logical underpinning of all our apparent fickleness and sentiment.

It's very simple: We won't show up for another wolf in sheep's clothing. We will not skip work or school or organizing or our otherwise-difficult lives to cast a ballot for someone who isn't really going to ameliorate our nation's problems. Some of us would rationally prefer to starve. We're on a decades-long, involuntary hunger strike for basic dignity, and every year more and more of us realize it. This is the calculation we've made, and now that we've made that calculation, we cannot act otherwise. Anger doesn't enter into it. It's time for those of you in positions of power to realize this, not simply to rationalize it. We are dying, and we will not stop dying until you help us fix the mess you helped to create. As soon as you recognize it, you will have so much power, and in service of a just cause. But until you do, you will have neither power nor justice nor will you deserve it.

In Wisconsin, the leaves will be falling as November approaches. Unswept oak leaves, once young, die and decompose and deposit tannic acid into the ground, harming the topsoil and grass.

The grass and flowers that might have flourished and thrived--if someone had only swept the leaves away!--will be stunted, sparse, and discolored the following spring.

Chemistry takes its course regardless of our laments.

January 4, 2016

Where Did All You Zombies Come From?

Intro - Non-Dullards And Cents
On Twitter, Ryan Cooper tweeted out a piece by MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes, written in 2004 after his experience canvassing for Kerry in suburban Dane County (in Wisconsin around Madison).

In the piece, Hayes writes methodically for a sophisticated, entrenched New Republic audience about the real nature of those mythical Undecided Voters out in the hinterlands, which turns out to be at once more humane, exotic, damning, and revealing of the electorate than the thousand standard-issue election-year takedowns of those faceless non-entities.

As someone who grew up in Dane County around this time, I was struck with some thoughts after reading Hayes' piece.

I highly recommend you read Hayes' piece first, as my piece is based on that piece, and his piece is a good piece all on its own. To put it in economic terms, my two cents are only worth one cent to you right now, unless you read his two cents first, so you get four cents in total by reading both of these pieces. If you think about it, that means his is worth three, but the third cent of his piece is only redeemable if you read this one, and this paragraph is the voucher, upon whose authority I argue you should read both pieces and get the desired four cents. Even if you don't accept my authority at those rates, I'm arguing that his - by virtue of its broad relevance to U.S. politics - is a more lucrative venture on its own per unit of time.

Folks, while that was a metaphor, I'm being very literal with the currencies, too. I haven't received ad revenue from this blog, though I did buy the domain for a nominal annual fee, and God knows I'm not any good at self-promotion. We're literally taking about two cents in marginal lifetime income if you read and enjoy this. I need to start shilling books.

Part 1. When in Dane, do as the Danish do
I grew up in Middleton outside of Madison and might have answered one of the doors that Chris was knocking on in that piece. I would've been 15. I was passionately political; first (at that time) among the anti-war left, then shifting to the libertarian right in the anecdote below, before drifting out of politics and then suddenly to the far left, a couple years ago and then ever since.

All this to say: Even at a fairly young age (perhaps as young as 12), I was well-versed in the pundit's sense of having opinions on all the issues of the day, even if my inexperienced mind was pretty useless for contextualizing those issues. And I was well-versed not simply in regurgitating issues and stock opinions, but genuinely interested in--and engaged with--the underlying governing philosophies spanning the American political spectrum. I was 15 when the 2004 election came around, and so naturally most all of the important details of these issues still eluded me. But I kept up with cable news all the time, read dozens of articles online to understand the issues I didn't yet have a grasp on, and had preferences for the commentators whose lies I couldn't yet detect, and who, therefore, might just be telling the truth. I was fascinated by all I heard and determined to understand politics. I watched the Daily Show and got most of the jokes. I watched Bill Maher but didn't like it as much. He wasn't as funny and he and his guests shouted over one another. I was so engaged that I had preferences about how to vent my political energy with comedy.

In short, I was committed as hell. I thought I was pretty smart, albeit with a whole lot to learn. I was far more right on this count than I could have imagined, to my great embarrassment and chagrin. But that's a whole other thing. It will have to wait for Part 2.

Part 2: Shocking Levels of Stupidity For Someone So Young
Fast forward a couple of years. The author, at this juncture, found himself attracted to libertarian ideas at this point in the narrative. You need to know that for the story I'm telling but I'm saying nothing else. I have no intention of going into how taking Econ 101 in high school had led me down the dark path of Going Galt--this isn't meant to be horror, but instructive comedy.

So, sometime in late 2006 or early 2007, at 17 or so, I was still reading politics everyday and was generally regarded as "the one libertarian that [forum-goer] don't [really] hate" on the liberal Obama-centric Facebook group I frequented. I grew a lot intellectually and found myself exposed to lots of ideas, thinkers, and writers I probably never would've found alone. And it was on this site that I had a staggeringly-revealing online conversation after some months of discussion. It (staggeringly) revealed a fundamental mode of stupidity I had kept within me, and which I had apparently kept from everyone else as well as I'd kept from myself.

I don't remember exactly how it went down but I do remember I'd started in on a well-meaning conversation with some bearded, elder socialists in the Facebook group, and they tried to patiently illustrate to me how libertarianism was a silly ideology which lacked not only consistency but failed even to produce meaningful answers on any relevant political issue. I was obviously skeptical, so they pushed back and asked me to name an issue relevant to my everyday life. And this is where it happened. See, gang, for all that reading I'd been doing and all the indisputable comprehension of the issues I'd shown in thousands of political conversations, I'd entered a conversation in which I was suddenly unable - no less to my own astonishment than to the astonishment of anyone else - to name a single everyday effect of politics on my life.

Now, that's not at all to say that politics was just a fun little game to me, nor is it to say that I didn't really care. If I'd thought harder, I might've mentioned gay marriage and the family friends I knew who were directly affected by the neo-lithic Republicans and mindlessly-centrist Democrats on gay marriage. Here were literal gay people who literally wanted to get married in my immediate circle who couldn't, because of politics. But even if I'd thought of that in the moment, all it would've done is paper over what the conversation had revealed to me: My comprehension of politics, for all its sophistication and internal consistency, lacked something deep and fundamental. It's not that I'd been thinking of politics as a fun little game, but that, much like a game, I was allowing politics to be placed inside a box in my mind which was largely separate from the rest of the world, rather than as a totalizing force which exerted itself on every price, action, and even thought, as all-consuming, foundational pyre which deserved, if anything, more attention than the ephemera-obsessed mass media could ever give it. In my defense, I did recognize some of this complexity but largely ascribed it to "market forces and government distortions", in that inimitable and adorable ideological game that such people play. But even accounting for this, I was still shockingly ignorant of the full totality of the effect that politics has on observable reality.

In an interview from around this time, I recall Stephen Colbert discussing how his character never overtook his real personality, thanks to Second City's improv dictum that one should "wear your character as lightly as a cap". Nothing could better describe the level of engagement of my fast, agile, fidgety mind on my hobbies. I could discuss politics for hours on end, but at the end, politics was just a hobby to me. I wore politics as lightly as a cap, and discarded it when I went to class or met with friends or wrote.

Despite my superficial understanding of the game and how it was played, I was, much like Hayes' Undecided Voters, fundamentally ignorant of the myriad ways politics actually affected my life. For all I really grasped as it pertained to the world outside the conversations, I might as well have been an idiot savant who could only produce columns from the internal logic of other columns. And, going forward, I began to observe (to alarm) that I'd always confront a new or unfamiliar issue with dumb, almost-blank silence, as if I had no thoughts within my head. I came later to realize that what I'd been doing in this silence was assimilating the new issue and my opinions about it into a self-consistent narrative which fit with my other opinions on other issues. Once I had fully assimilated the issue, I internalized it and refocused my gaze on the world. All this to say: Keeping your ideological blinders on is hard work!

If Hayes' undecideds often didn't grasp the relevance of issues to the world around them, I was a tad smarter: I did the same, then compounded my problem by aggressively imposing atop this ignorance a self-consistent mass of sophisticated opinions about those same issues, so that at all times I felt very sophisticated and yet had the same basic distance that allowed my beliefs to exist and frame my identity and yet remain totally independent of the world outside. Which led to strange behaviors, like ranking Ron Paul my favorite candidate and espousing anarcho-capitalist rhetoric all year, then voting Barack Obama in the general election without a second thought. It makes perfect sense in a land where anything can be justified, so long as it fits what had come before. And just about anything does.

As soon as the others in that original conversation started to respond, nicely of course, with obvious and real ways in which the economy, ideologies, and policies in my world-at-large didn't "just happen", I knew at once the depth of the mistake I'd been making.

Part 3 - The Dialectic Comes Around
I drifted out of politics amid a few years of decreasing interest and the increasing demands of a STEM degree, but I began to notice that for a lot of ostensibly-sharp libertarians and not a few liberals, this same compartmentalization of politics from the life they lived was real and ubiquitous. For these people--whose politics generally tended toward default variants the by-osmosis slightly-liberal status quo of Madison--politics was, like religion, a thing you believed in and prayed to in private, and which only reared its head in public in pathological or contrived instances where the participants hadn't yet papered over their relatively-superficial differences or converted one another.

Now, I wasn't quite apolitical during these years - though I was conveniently absent when Madison became the literal focus of progressive thought for two years - so much as I felt very deeply that I didn't have the epistemic basis for having any political opinions. I felt my own stupidity had to be accepted once and for all, or, at least, addressed, before I felt comfortable moving past the brilliant nonsense of my past.

The result of this self-doubt was an irritating variant on the "just asking questions" guy that sometimes appears in comment sections or social media. Very much in the vein of a "silent majority"-type, but with a strong paranoid streak, I decried any and all claimants to political knowledge and tried to figure out, right in front of them, the banal artificiality and falseness of their beliefs. I went from the amused, humane parodist of my adolescence to a corrosive, detached satirist, especially as Obama showed who he really was, to the general exhaustion and exasperation of most everyone with whom I'd previously relished discussion. "How could you have been so naive? How could I?" I would ask, perhaps with a more pleasant tone. "Drone Strikes??" I'd inquire sharply. And others politely demurred.

I didn't ever come back to politics so much as my idiocy at 18 (earnest intention without engagement) met its equal and opposite idiocy: Engagement without earnest intention. My political detachment had forced me, almost by default, out of the present and ephemeral completely in order to focus on other interests like music, sports, writing, and my fields of study in math and computer science. And, because there was a lot of that to do and, because a lot of it could be a slog, I was forced, again almost by default, into reading the authors of history, biography, and politics, all of whom made more broad-minded analyses than I'd been capable of handling when I was younger. And I took them more seriously than when they were mere markers of Yet Another of Young Dewey's Prodigal Intellectual Achievements; rather, I began to take far more pride in processing the arguments of great texts \well\ than in merely being able to claim the conquest of Such An August Text As "War And Peace". From all these readings and all the writerly banter that ended up ensuing, I came to see, quite directly, what had been exposed for me long ago but hadn't concretely materialized: that nearly everything, in fact, was influenced by politics. And, in many cases, I was able to point to the causes of this-or-that, and unravel what otherwise might have seemed obscure, inscrutable, or, most absurd of all, apolitical.

The events in Ferguson, Missouri were the capstone on this informal curriculum -- for the events represented an undeniable demonstration of white supremacy, and therefore a demonstration of everyone defending it, everyone fighting it, and everyone within and outside this spectrum. Without realizing it, I had things to say about this event grounded in historical fact, and I had things I wanted to read, because I grasped its partial significance in an instant and knew I wouldn't fully grasp it until I had completed a broader corpus.

So in the end, I never really got back into politics so much as, having been freed from any fiction that it could be compartmentalized, politics in its ubiquity lurched forward into my awareness and came to suffuse my whole consciousness, the undecided voter within me finally starving by the siege laid inadvertently by the committed non-voter, who'd hungeringly conquered every surrounding territory with indifferent ease.

July 16, 2015

ADHD Type Inattentive: Kafkaesque Inner Lives, Demons of Entropy, and a Life of Diminished Capacity

1. Introduction

I was diagnosed with ADHD (inattentive type) in January of this year and have been pursuing treatment ever since. I'm 26. In the 6 months or so since I've been taking medicine, I've been trying to come to terms with what this disorder has meant for me. In doing so, I've had to come to terms with what it means to be human, in order that I might understand how to live out my remaining decades as a human.

Now, that last bit may seem pretentious or overdramatized, but if we stop and think about it, it's not such a big question.

It's not such a big question when - for twenty-five years, for 300 months - I'd lived more or less in the top of a brain that cannot sit still. A brain that cannot sit still is remarkably fun to inhabit and remarkably exhausting, exhausting not only of energy but of means, fortitude, and identity. And yet... for all the trouble the disorder has always caused me, dealing with this brain is the biggest question (perhaps the only question) that I have to fix in my life. Now, while I can't prove this, I think most people have bigger questions in their lives than the question of how to be human. And I think those questions involve much deeper problems than the problem of how to live with being human. Strip away the veneer of the philosophical and put it in concrete terms of work and time and suffering. Put it all on a scale and strip of the metaphysical its usually-afforded privilege: I don't think it's that big a deal, for me. This is my biggest problem and it is a privilege to have this as my biggest problem. For people with ADHD type inattentive (or any other type) in general? This isn't necessarily true. They may have worse problems with the disorder than I do, or less resources to deal with them, or it may intersect with comorbid conditions like depression and anxiety, or it may intersect in a troublesome way with religion, race, or gender. Others may have more soaring ambitions, or a lower margin of error, or a more troubled family, or have more expectations foisted upon them. Others may have any number of obstacles which make it harder for them to deal with their disorder. I do not. I am a man without a country seeking only asylum and all I have in front of me is to seek.

I am extremely fortunate that my only major problem is largely philosophical and metaphysical in nature. And I do not take that good fortune for granted. I see in this fortune an obligation to seek out and communicate what I can of the challenges I've faced, so another person reading this may find some commonality and may find answers to their larger challenge, for whether for themselves or for a loved one.

2. Stand By Your Manager (Unless Your Company Sucks)

Despite being reasonably intelligent and having all the privileges of personhood that society has to offer, I submit that I have never fully enjoyed the full usage of those privileges until January of this year. My brain may have a normal capacity, but my life has never reflected the full measure of that capacity. My life is limited to the complexity which that brain can manage in a life, and that brain has never been able to manage much at a time. I can listen to Bach pieces I've studied and hear four voices simultaneously and how these voices interact. I can participate in video games or watch sports and "see the whole field" better than most people. I can read a book and solve a theorem pretty well. But these things are games whose rules are largely defined for me. When the prescribed rules go away, so too does my confidence and ability to thrive at the game, because I cannot enforce rules upon myself as most others can, In the sprawling eternity which stretches over every possible life a person can live, I cannot begin to fathom the voices and lights that others are given. I cannot know what calls most people to move one way or the other among their options. I simply lack something. And what I lack can lead people, if not always wisely, to lives far more commensurate with their abilities. For 300 months, I'd never heard such voices and have navigated my space of possible lives alone. What I heard and saw instead were noise and static punctuated incidentally by days and nights and the precious-few obligations I'd created for myself, usually by accident or self-deception.

No amount of habit-forming can make things fundamentally better, because there's a finite complexity my brain can handle. Fixing my ADHD-related problems is a zero-sum game on some level. I used to lose my keys all the time. Then I adapted to that, and now I rarely lose them. But when I was adapting, I would lose other things much more frequently. So I tried to address both. And when I'd adapted to that by carrying things in a central location, I got a lot worse at keeping track of all the things I now kept anchored to my person, best visualized literally as a full backpack with a hundred disparate objects. When I got better at keeping track of that, I started losing my keys again.

Let me talk in a more structured way about what it means to live inside this mind. This is a moderately-long tangent, but it's a tangent that will help premise and clarify what is to follow. Bear with me, if you will.

As I understand the current science, the "deficit" in "attention deficit disorder" is less about attention and more about the executive functions of the brain. As their name suggests, executive functions are sort of like the mind's managers. These managers are responsible for planning our projects, dividing our goals into bite-sized tasks, and generally keeping us motivated. They keep us on task, help us allocate time, manage our resources for us, and tell us where we left the key to the break room. They get rid of the distractions and let us do one thing at a time. These managers are the editors who tell you to be yourself and let them figure the editing out. While we're busy living our lives, our mind's managers help us reason about ourselves and others from past to present to future. They take everything in and use it all to construct narratives. The managers living in our mind bring cohesion to all our thoughts. They manage the managers, even.

In short, the executive functions of your brain manage, govern, and organize your thoughts, which allows you the space to manage, govern, and organize your life.

And just as an unmanaged, ungoverned, and unorganized company is a formless mess to work at, filled with arbitrary requirements and the vague, mostly-unrealised sense that for the salary you've been given, you should be working harder... or smarter... or better... "But what?" Your bosses have no answer. They're too busy directing the entire company to solve 7x7 Rubik's Cubes today. "What profit can that bring the company?" you might ask, but your bosses don't have a good answer. They shrug and say "It's just what we need to do now. My boss told me to do that." And your bosses's bosses, if you should turn to them, don't have an answer either. They seem to feel that the company should apply to a temp agency, but they are also thinking that maybe the company will never have resources to do even that. Conflicted, they do nothing. So today, they tell you, working on the Rubik's Cube it is. Or nothing. Or a vocal arrangement of gospel songs. Whatever. It doesn't matter. Nothing does matter in the company you're at, until there's an emergency or an appointment some jerk in accounting accidentally made. And when your company's CEO must travel to Hong Kong or simply make a trip to the pharmacy and get groceries by the end of the week, your CEO struggles against the bonds of a torpid, Kafkaesque bureaucracy before going out without having showered, in a shirt buttoned hastily. Better than to miss the bus.

My mind is a fast-paced experience, one part intelligence, one part ADHD, and eight parts the natural seasickness of living on a world whose contours and geometry seem to shift and warp without my conscious direction and without my conscious foreknowledge. My room gets messy not because of my thousands of actions but because a demon is messing things up to screw with my head (and misplacing my keys). I have to run to catch the bus not because I dawdled for fifteen minutes but because I sat down and innocuously checked my email when all of a sudden a demon moved the hands of the clock three full notches. I'm not a freelance writer not because I've never had the skills to force myself to sit down and write something without self-deception, but because a demon has decided to curse me with a sensitive intelligence and deny me the peace and quiet I need to write. I'm unemployed not because I can't bring myself to organize my prospects and act upon them systematically in the here and now, but rather because a demon has taken another drop of my potential from me.

And in a way, though they're all obviously ironic, that last part has some truth to it. There is a demon which takes from me - it is entropy, thief of time, scourge of order. I'm not the only one afflicted by entropy (clearly no one is immune), but most people have managers who hire security just to deal with that particular demon. I have no such security. I must fight that demon myself, even when I know I should be working, even when the bosses' bosses get their act together for once and put all resources towards gainful employment or education. And I get seasick and disoriented living in this chaotic world and body of my own unwitting creation. This seasickness manifests not as sickness or migraine but as a deep mental fatigue. Just as it's hard to write and think through a headache, it's hard to put a life together through the thousand lingering wounds, emotional and financial, that a scattered mind's manager unwittingly inflicts upon its employees. And as one of the employees within this madcap company (I am the particular stream of thought you're reading now), I can tell you: My resources are always drained fighting with futility a demon, and the demon cannot be contained by fighting it on any one front or by any one stream of thought. As soon as my attack on it assumes a recognizable order, the demon at once adapts and finds a new angle of attack. And if you give up entirely, it splits itself in twain and pursues a fatal pincer.

And yet, since treatment, and since the all-important awareness of how this disorder affects me, I've begun to see how this demon may at least be rebuffed, if never quite conquered. And that leads me to the question: What does it mean to be a human being? So many aspects of human nature I'd quite lately derided as phony and affected, I now see instead as rational consequences of living in a society of managed minds. In other cases, a more managed mind has perforce pushed me far outside my default expectations for life, which has allowed me to realize that most of humanity functions according to different rules, and that those rules have different strengths and weaknesses.

Here are a couple of examples which hopefully illustrate the depth of the reassessments I've made in the past six months.

3. Appearances as reality and general social signals

How a person chooses to present themselves should not be used as the basis for judgment of that person, and especially not in the context of a workplace. Come on. That's just basic. First of all, they have no choices over many aspects of that appearance, and the parts they do choose, we cannot expect them to choose exactly nor meticulously. We need to judge one another on words, deeds, reactions, and intentions. To do otherwise is to monstrously oversimplify reality, and companies in our ruthlessly capitalistic economy, who worship the altar of efficiency and bring to the table a highly sophisticated and efficient approach to productivity evaluation, will necessarily judge people on the basis of their productivity and general social fit. There is simply no room for inefficiencies like that to remain for long in a major company.

The viewpoint described above (at least the last part) is a precious and naive view of the world that I held until I was about 19 or 20. Yeah, I definitely whiffed on that one. While my current viewpoint is likely only a shade less naive and idealistic, it's more complete: After all, appearances do say something, and can say quite a lot. For me, even after I'd disabused myself of the corporate idealism, the full importance of appearances was always elusive until I started reasoning about it after pursuing ADHD treatment and thereby getting a taste of these executive functions. Something that had always been opaque to me and missing from my mental model of human nature is that most everyone in a society has those little managers in their head telling them how to contextualize the information from their own lives and the information around them, including, most crucially, the social signals that comprise much of our culture. A person builds an appearance in full view of what their mind's managers are telling them to wear after reviewing all the data. Therefore, an appearance is not just a projection made to the world and held to without regard to feedback but is made in full view of continuous feedback. An appearance is a negotiation between a person and the particular culture they're in. Until very recently, I had not been aware any such negotiation was taking and, so, naturally, wagered very poorly.

Though I'd never had the parallax that allowed me to express this or reason coherently about it, I must have known this on an intuitive level. After all, like most young and scared children, I dressed so I wouldn't be embarrassed at school. But then, I suppose also like many young and scared children, I grew my hair long from very early in my life as a form of self-expression. Somehow I felt utterly embarrassed by the possibility of a shirt that looked dorky but was utterly horrified at the possibility of cutting off my unkempt, sprawling, impossibly-dorky hair style to satisfy the mob of classmates. And somehow when a jerk cut half of the long part in high school when my back was turned, I didn't really even care. Everyone else was telling me how significant it was, but I didn't care at all. It was just a bully, and it was just hair. I cut off the rest, went to a place, and didn't regret any of it for a second, and didn't grow it back. But I kept the hair in a binder as a memento, without any sentimentality. I wasn't just repressing my emotions (I did that too from time to time). No: I actually didn't care. Which, considering I thought of it as foundational to my self-expression, is pretty weird. I didn't change. I just didn't have either of those tendencies in me fully, and pivoted without even needing to attempt it. I didn't care because "I" simply did not exist as a coherent, identifiable thing. Somehow "I" was occupied by several different people in the exact same form and circumstance and went between them seamlessly. I didn't have a manager to warn me of the inconsistency and I didn't have a manager who seemed particularly worried about enforcing the inconsistency in identity. The truth is, while I had a personality and thoughts and classes and friends, mostly my childhood involved doing a bunch of random crap arbitrarily, punctuated arbitrarily by some shame and some pride, and none of it made any sense or made me feel anything significant. I apologized audibly and profusely to navigate busy hallways but didn't feel any shame about not talking to someone if I didn't feel it. I felt crushing anxiety over the most indifferent and innocuous masses of people but somehow didn't mind approaching anyone individually. I just made no sense, and that's because I wasn't really there, fully. There was no connection between my intentions and my actions, and my intentions as a youth were already so divided and undefined that it's hard to say they ever really existed.

Whatever the case, I think my school years went pretty well. But given how warped my ADHD-stunted perceptions were in retrospect (even by kid standards) and in many ways still are, I have to think my fond memories of school came in part because I never really had my ability to manage and organize myself tested in a significant way. I was disorganized but that's just who I was. And I never felt a need to organize myself to socially signal anything... well, other than the signal that I didn't want to socially signal anything. I just wanted constant stimuli, conversations, alone time, and a never-ending simultaneity of joking conversation and smirking intellectual effortlessness that I could end totally if I ever got too bored of anything, and a notebook to draw endless crappy drawings and scribbles in that never got any better. I was never too popular and never sought popularity in school, though I wasn't unpopular either and never felt a pressure to differentiate myself (though I conspicuously never stood for the Pledge of Allegiance because public schools shouldn't promote religion nor nationalism and apparently I decided that for myself around 9/11, when I was 12. What a freaking weirdo/dweeb lmao). I made friends in high school by sitting at a table and listening until I was one of the people who sat at that table, and I honestly would not have cared if they had rejected me. I was so self-possessed despite not possessing much of a self, I was so self-confident despite having nothing to confide, and I was so self-assured despite the fact that I physically felt like I was overwhelmed in any crowd of people. I tried a couple other tables and got bored because they just talked about each other and I wasn't interested in them, or anyone. My school days were largely fine - even despite a crumbling family rent by death - largely because my limitations never infringed upon my goals. I never had a problem with high school classes, never had a problem with taking vanishingly few extracurriculars, and my main goal at the end of the day was to get home, take of feed and rid of waste, and go to sleep until 11PM where I could live my real life in my favored hours of cool substance. I could scarcely imagine wearing even a button-down shirt until several years into college; that is, outside of literally presenting myself to the entire town in the form of orchestral concerts.

All this to say that I lived a long time half-unable and half-unwilling to even think about what it means to exist in a culture. It was not forced upon me, it did not seem to align with my goals or my view of things, and the part of our brains that usually demands us to confront these things was running at low capacity in me. And all this to say that for the vast majority of humanity, the choices a person makes before they reach your field of view (in view of your view) can tell you a lot about that person, maybe as much as or more than the stuff they can't control. Are they meticulous? Did they get up in a hurry? Are they conscientious of their appearances enough to spend the 5 minutes per week to keep their hair cut regularly? Do they cut it short? Do they wear it long? Do they wear a buttoned shirt? Do they care if the buttons are right? Do they wear dress pants? Are they trying to impress potential lovers or potential employers? More than anything else, are they a person presenting themselves in a way that aligns with their goals? Or are they ascetic? Are they Bohemian? Are they unaware of the signals they're sending? Are they a wreck whose placidity belies the windstorm they'd clearly just walked out of? Did you remember to shower? Alex Dewey... is Alex here today? I raise my arm in a hurry. "Present!" I say, too quickly.

I realize this stuff is insanely basic to the vast majority of you out there and I did understand it on a visceral, unstated level. But until I'd used medication and consciously began to employ my executive functions to any effect, I could not reason concretely about these things as I did in the previous paragraph, because my default frame of reference has always been a Charlie-Brown-and-Lucy-esque relationship with personal organization, and the few times I kick the football I've also kicked myself in the head and spend the week in recuperation, Lucy mocking and o'er-looking me--smirking with triumph--for ever thinking I could succeed. I didn't have much control over what I did in life and I floated along just existing, and when I had anything at all to say it was in service of an intellectual pursuit or to enforce a terrible sense of humor on all of my friends, with tormentor's glee.

So, anyway, I've never dressed quite right. I've never dressed immaculately or even close. I can hardly reason about myself as a person, after all, and it's that much harder to reason about the intricate details of a non-entity's presentation. Only recently, with some treatment, have I come to recognize on a visceral level that non-entity as myself, and to recognize that I am really that person every day of the week, and that person is pretty much the same whole, integral unit. (Well, except for Two's Days. Ugh.).

Now, for precisely the reasons I've outlined but from a different frame, judging appearances as reality is still total BS and people who do so should seriously examine their underlying assumptions, lest they unwittingly contribute to a world less worth inhabiting (though I can see how you might think that a world with fewer of me in your purview is perforce a better world [please, bring it up next time you see me!]). Far from being superficial, judgment based on appearances is actually deep... and deeply misguided. It privileges received cultural and personal stereotypes over the complexity and substance of real people - especially the real people who don't have that extra half-hour a day to signal their desired place in a hierarchy, whether because of illness or poverty or the demands of a busy life which can be more important than the life of work or leisure. Or, simply, you're dealing with people who have made the simple (and perfectly adult) decision not to value that particular type of social signalling to the same extent. Are those people you want to exclude? Maybe, but it should be a careful decision. Judging appearance as reality is not my cup of tea and I try to challenge it whenever I can, because it reifies the American culture which is fundamentally built on exclusion and homogeneity, and does so invisibly to all participants. A better world is stymied every time we lose an opportunity to connect with someone who will challenge us over someone who will not.

In other words, it's not BS because appearances don't matter much... it's BS, because appearances can and do matter. They just matter in ways that shouldn't exclude us in a pluralistic world from approaching someone with a truly open mind, every time.

I wrote these last couple paragraphs in a bizarrely-neutral American voice in that I'm not explicitly mentioning classical categories like race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability status, and class. Discriminating in a way that perpetuates these underlying power imbalances is so obviously wrong I need hardly mention it. But I always wonder if these categories (with a seasoning of intersectionality) really do cover fully the deep gulfs that exist in our society between people. Sometimes I think we in the US are just exclusionary, close-minded people looking for one more reason to build a moat around our bomb shelters made out of guns, and some people have simply borne the historical weight of that close-mindedness by coincidence alone, and while it's relatively easy to trace ex: the rise and partial ebb of racism, this close-mindedness in our very natures seems to exist in a place that cannot be viewed or even conceived of by us except in moments of transcendence of (or transcendent surrender to) this, our fundamental national evil. 

Happy Thursday!

4. Creative Life and The Voices

I find it hard to talk about myself as a person because I live a hundred different lives every day of my life. I occupy a hundred different voices, adopt a hundred different styles, know a hundred different ways to talk, and feel a hundred different impulses and motivations to do a hundred different things. And none of it fits into a coherent whole. Now, granted, the better part of such sprawling ambition never gets completed, and most of these hundred things are lost to random chance and recursive diversions that I never come back from. But the experience of being so many people - while as exhausting in its own way as living in an unmanaged mind - is a way of performing that gives me insight into the human condition and is the foundation of my creative inner life.

I don't know if this is ADHD or just generally the kind of mind I was born into, but I feel genuinely that I can write in any voice, adopt any mannerism, be any kind of person, write any kind of sentence, and do anything I can fathom doing. I can't do it as well as someone who lives their life as that kind of person, writing those kinds of sentences, and who fathoms with their whole being what it's like to do and be those things. I can't fake what a doctor would say. But I can mimic how they talk and act: I can listen, and listen well, and my brain seems constantly to record, reassemble, and recapitulate the auditory data I've gathered as if calculating the next move in a card game. And thereby I can reason about the nature of my fellow human beings in a comedic, musical language both beyond and immune to actual reason. My creative life has always been the interplay of a hundred Characters and Voices which I slip in and out of. My musical mind has always had a capacity and a compulsion to explore these Voices, and a capacity and a compulsion to switch Voices as soon as one wears out Its welcome.

Most of my favorite pieces on this website and that I've written in general tend to be cases where I've nailed some particular voice. When I nail a voice, the end result is either to bring enlightening illumination to bear on the darkness of the eternal and universal human condition, or else to make someone titter the tiniest bit. Okay, almost always that second one. And it's mostly me who titters. I love Twitter.

And in this vein, getting a good manager for my mind - and having the knowledge that I am entitled to one as a human being - has sometimes felt like a withering of my creative life in this respect. I simply feel much less fluidity in pivoting from one type of person to another. Stephen Colbert, quoting a Second City improv mantra, once said "Wear your character as lightly as a cap." I used to find this so easy, but I've found that part quite a bit harder in the six months I've been medicated. On the other hand, I feel much more energy to pursue the type of character that I really want to hit at that moment. I feel much less able to run rapid-fire dialogues in my head and much more able to run detailed character sketches in my head. And though the speech between the characters feels less musical and less natural, the characters themselves seem to have a richer, more coherent inner life.

In general, when I've written, I've felt more ability to express an idea rigorously and on command when on medication, and less ability to express beautiful-but-nonsensical prose. I'm more able to read poetry but less able to feel poetry on an auditory level. I'm more apt to feel emotion towards literature in general and less able to feel emotion at my own ability to make a distant connection in that literature. The bizarre-but-distant connections are still there but they're less vigorous and immediate. By contrast, while I've always felt an impulse to think and speak rigorously, the demand for rigor in my ideas has never been more vigorous and immediate. I'm less able and less willing to kill a sentence with three metaphors. On the other hand, I'm less able and willing to curry together eight or nine metaphors into an amazing paragraph.

To be clear, I still have the same basic aesthetic and the same love of writing - I still love attempting the dense, silly, impossibly-delicate, ironic-and-satiric prose that aspires poorly to Wodehouse, Chekhov, and Borges, My favorite part of this blog has always been the weird, awkward, dead-on prose. For example:

"If [then-Cavs-coach] Mike Brown lost his glasses and they [Brown and then-Hawks-coach Mike Woodson] were standing together, I would have legitimate trouble handing the glasses to the right one, even if I'd seen from whom it had dropped."

This moderately-long throwaway sentence from 2010 is nevertheless worth far more to me than the many thousands of words I'm writing right now, and the only reason I'm writing these words is to get to those words. My life goal (other than, like, helping people? idk lol) seems to be to write the kind of comedic two-sentence description that all at once 1. says nothing, 2. contradicts its own literal premise, 3. establishes or characterizes a narrator, 4. establishes or characterizes a person to which that narrator refers.

In me, the spirit of playfulness is as strong as ever but for good and for ill it has found more use for rules and structure.

And I'm still just as bad at sitting down and deciding to write something. The "trick" this time was a long bus trip to a doctor's appointment which forced me into people-watching (impossible before treatment/diagnosis) and reading.

Apart from trying to systematize tricking myself into writing (no easy task, as alarm-clock-snoozers everywhere can attest), my goal must be to blend the two impulses - to find creative processes that give me back my fetish for baroque and impossibly-distant constructions even while my mind's hardass, no-BS middle manager keeps me on the path to rigorous expression.

5. Conclusion

To sum up a conclusion that will hopefully finish the sequence of words that the above chain of ideas has started and developed: As a person who lived with massive undiagnosed and untreated ADHD for 25 years, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. I'd maybe give myself a "B minus" (though I did well on the exam today!) and bump it up to an "A" because of the many other things about life I have been blessed with. But as with all unqualified music reviewers, there are extreme, insane nuances to my opinion (and my grading system would take days to explain) that mostly reside in my own limited perspective.

On the other hand, I feel comfortable speaking from my limited perspective today precisely because the last months have seen that perspective become much broader and deeper. The question of what it is to be a human being has become far more apparent to me, even as I sense its development yet lags far behind the average person: In short, to be a human being is not just to live and think and consume and produce, but also to aspire and to plan, to reflect and to reconcile ideas, to exist in four dimensions and to be able to see one's past self and future self as real (or at least real potentialities). To be a human being is to be able to give a command performance of that humanity in speech and song and rejoinder, and not to slink away and regroup whenever something unexpected shatters your ability to process information well enough to address a situation. To be a human being is to have some kind of mental and emotional integrity and stability that persists from moment to moment, and to be able to manage my mind both in the moment and in the long-term. It's to be able to react to a situation in real time and to be able to provoke a situation in real time, and to do both in full view of what is pursued (even if the full causes and implications of that pursuit may yet elude us).

I have always been human, and my humanity with ADHD was as real when untreated as it is real when treated. But certain fundamental aspects of being human - and seemingly all of the active, situational components as well as much of the subtler, planning components - had always eluded me until my diagnosis and treatment. Then as now I had certain inalienable rights to live my life. Then as now I - as with every other human being - had certain exceptional capacities that I was able to express.

But only recently have I been able to employ those inalienable rights and my special capacities to anything like the fullest measure. Only now has the fact of being human been known and present and a premise to reason from, finally having stolen a foot of space back from that all-pursuing, all-ruining demon of entropy never to be known, never to be present, and never to cease its unreasoning quest to destroy me.

I still have far to travel to develop my mind and body and habits to reach any semblance of a life fully lived. For now, I am biding my time, trying to contend with the awesome fact that there is, in fact, at least a person in there.

March 31, 2015

Metallica and High School Gymnastics (or: "The Routine And Its Subversion")

Intro - Thursday

Back in 10th grade, I took a gym class. At some point, the class had a gymnastics unit, where we learned a bunch of simple rolls and stretches and cartwheels. Now, the gymnastics unit was about three weeks long. Its capstone was to be a three-minute routine of rolls and stretches and cartwheels that we'd practice (in teams of 3 or 4) over the course of the final week, to a song that we'd chosen. We were to perform this routine on the final day, in front of a video camera and our classmates.

I swear, this is going somewhere.

As a generally-chill-if-somewhat-awkward little high school student (weren't we all?), I found my gymnastics team of 3 or 4 pretty naturally. We were a fun crowd of moderately-ill-proportioned male high school students who were all in the Close-Acquaintance-To-Real-Friend range. I liked them all and I thought they were cool people, not in the "popular" sense but in the "decent and authentic human beings" sense. This story is not really about them, but about every other group, as you'll see.

A slightly ominous note: My group was about as preppy as raw meat (un-prep-erred), and, the favorite musical genre of my group was collectively just a tad closer to Metallica than Yellowcard or, say, The Beatles. More on that later.

Because I was clumsy as hell in addition to being ill-proportioned, I saw it as important to the newly-formed team that I at least bring my musical taste to the table. Music was certainly up my alley, after all: I was a music nerd in high school, and always have been. Though clumsy and shy as a performer at the time, I certainly had a musical family and had inherited a musical ear. And I loved music. I played piano, guitar, and viola in the high school's orchestra and loved playing them all. I was in the midst of my first compositions and listened to plenty of classical music.

And, given that the events of this story take place circa 2005, I was also downloading music all the time, and my poor, terminal Sony Walkman (or whatever they were called back in 2001) was perennially stocked with all sorts of cool music. My tastes were relatively mainstream (except for the Mahler on my mp3 CDs), but I knew even then that I had an ear for quality. I was the designated music guy for our little gymnastics group and, as we were leaving gym class for the weekend, I promised to bring the best CDs I could find for next week.

And so it came to pass that I brought a few CDs to gym class on Monday that would determine the whole course of human history.

Day 1 - Monday 

I think I brought three CDs to gym class on Monday, though no one is really sure. I definitely brought at least two:

#1. The aptly-named-and-numbered "One" by the Beatles filled with all their #1 hits (27 songs, as I recall).
#2. Metallica's "Black Album".
#3. ??????? (no one is really sure)

As noted previously, my group, given this selection of music, certainly would (and did in fact) fall immediately into the "Metallica! Awesome, Dewey!" camp. I was more ambivalent about stylized dancing to Metallica, and most (all?) of the other groups were squarely in the Beatles' camp if I had to bet. So, when a few people asked to borrow the Beatles' CD to check it out, I naturally offered it to them without a thought and went back to helping us come up with the best gymnastics routine we possibly could. We set our routine to "Enter Sandman", as I recall.

It was a fun class. We did some fake wrestling on the mats and eventually came to some consensus on a general structure for our gymnastics routine. Good vibes all around. High school always benefited from a dose of enforced creativity, I found.

Day 2 - Wednesday 

The second day of practice was much like the first. We proceeded to screw around and eventually put together an entire routine, carefully pruning moves for difficulty and potential for embarrassment (we were collectively ill-proportioned enough to find certain moves impossible, and avoided these moves studiously). Again, a couple people from the other groups borrowed my Beatles CD to check out (I was surprised at the sudden interest, but quite happy to contribute to their musical development!).

It was all going fairly well. I was nervous about Friday -- we weren't perfect yet, and it was a little embarrassing to think that the cameras would be rolling. But in the grand scheme of things it was a bunch of high schoolers doing a gymnastics routine. It was just a lot of fun, you know? What could go wrong?

Day 3 - Friday 

On Friday I gainfully packed up my copy of "The Black Album", kept it in the Walkman so it wouldn't risk getting scratched on the bus ride, and for good measure left all my other CDs home. No sense risking those CDs and their jewel cases when I really only needed the one.

After a nervous chuckle with one of my team members in another class, I arrived to gym class in full spirits. It was the final day of practice, and it would culminate in a recording of all our routines. And I was prepared.

As I put the "Black Album" into our group's boombox, a kid from one of the other groups asked where my Beatles album was. I said "Oh, I didn't bring that today, haha, we're just doing Metallica, we decided."

The other kid asked, "What do you mean?"

"Oh, we didn't need the Beatles CD today. My group likes Metallica more, as you might expect, ha."

The kid was stunned. "No, Dewey,... Look, every other group was depending on you to bring the Beatles CD today. We've all built our routines around it and no one has any other CDs."


I didn't and still don't know how to respond to that kid. I apologized profusely to anyone that was feeling down about it. And yes, that was the right response, socially. But there was no right response speaking cosmically. I had sinned against the order of things, and I hadn't even known it. In my heart of hearts I still don't know how to process that information. It was a stunning violation of everything that had ever been possible to be right about that day. I had ruined everything about that gym class in a single moment of thoughtless inattention, and I'd been too oafish to even realize it.

But it's not my place to speak as judge of things. All I can do as a storyteller is recount what I saw and give you the ensuing facts.

It is quite possible - though not particularly likely, in the age of digitization - that there exists a VHS tape from 10 years ago of 24-some high school students doing stilted, awkward, unfamiliar gymnastics routines in groups of 3 or 4. And on this tape, every single one of the groups is performing to a song chosen with little notice from my copy of Metallica's "Black Album".

At least two of the groups separate from ours did "Enter Sandman". Going last, I think we quietly shifted to "Unforgiven" to prevent a farcical scene. At least one group did "Nothing Else Matters", and still another did "Wherever I May Roam". I can still hear the intros to some of those songs, burnt in my memory as an embarrassing reminder of my transgression. I was feeling a little weird about doing a routine to "Enter Sandman" and I hadn't been remotely preppy.  But to their credit, the other groups stuck with it, certainly did a better job with the gymnastics than I did, and 40 minutes later, we had all survived the onslaught of Metallica that I had unwittingly unleashed.

I tried to have some empathy. I really tried. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a popular girl whose routine now climaxed in James Hetfield sadistically growling "KEEP YOU FREE FROM SIN, TIL THE SANDMAN COMES" instead of a key change in "Penny Lane". But she saw me and told me those were her shoes, not mine. Yours are over there, I think. Oh. Yeah. Honest mistake. Sorry. And sorry you had to do "Enter Sandman" instead of "Penny Lane", also. I really screwed that one up, haha. Dewey, you're smart but you're such a spaz. I know.

Every day I pray to whatever gods may be that this film didn't survive the age of digitization.

All the stoicism the other groups showed in the face of adversity made an already-senselessly-funny thing all the more hysterical. Funny on a level that I couldn't process. So funny you couldn't even laugh if you'd wanted to at times, because true humor probably needs some kind of ironic distance and we were all right in front of one another as we performed the grave, interpretive gymnastic routines to heavy drums, bass, and James Hetfield's delivery of pontificating snarls.

All this to say that there were plenty of opportunities for laughter. Unfortunately, I couldn't openly take advantage, because such mirth might just be mistaken for ill-intent and malice aforethought. By that point, I had established sincerely that I Am Really Sorry Guys For Causing All These Problems, and therefore declined to laugh so as not to blow my cover, even though it had been an honest mistake from start to close.

Surprisingly, there wasn't much laughter among the other groups, all considering. Everyone was too embarrassed at their dilemma and seething at the kid who had let it happen. I think my group --being the same ones who had fatally chosen Metallica to start with-- really enjoyed it, though they didn't show it openly; there's a chance that they moderated their response to spare my feelings. Would that they could know how much I just wanted the scene to break down into collective, hysterical, relieving laughter. But it was not to be. I definitely couldn't laugh in those circumstances, though, if you're reading this, there's a good chance that you might see why - to me - it's right up there among the funniest things I'd ever seen, and the humor far outweighed the embarrassment from the first heavy-stepping routine I saw.

But I didn't laugh at the time, true to the form I'd chosen. Stone-faced, apologetic, and without any irony, I silently applauded the adaptability of the others' routines.