I am home from the UK, and so is my girlfriend, for good, and things are quite lovely. Thanks for all the well-wishes. We’ve got a bunch of big decisions ahead of us but we’re making them together. It’s very exciting and I’m very happy.
And she can cook!
This Week’s Posts
A busy and contentious week! Lots of good stuff in comments too.
Monday, 5/3/2021 - Is Covid Moralism Forever?
A post about the continued prevalence of overt and angry moralizing about Covid-19 that seems resistant to change, such as the massively consequential fact that 44% of Americans have received at least the first shot of a vaccine. Expresses my frustration with the addiction to judgment that seems to be so deeply ingrained in our culture.
Two of 2020’s biggest stories, Covid and George Floyd, brought the question of public moralizing to the forefront of my consciousness, and I can’t get rid of it. We need responses to socially undesirable behavior that aren’t legal in nature, which means sometimes we must bring social censure to bear. And I’m glad that a grudging and partial taboo arose in 2020 about wearing a mask when appropriate, just as I’m grateful that we have at least grudgingly and partially adopted a taboo against the most naked and awful displays of interpersonal racism. And yet in both cases it seems clear to me that something has gone badly wrong.
Tuesday, 5/4/2021 - Annoying Connoisseurs Make Things Better for the Rest of Us
My thoughts on the way that snobs in various types of consumer spaces, while frequently frustrating on a personal level and sometimes guilty of being unfriendly, really do drive expanded options and superior quality, such as in beer and coffee.
Beer was the perfect vehicle for the collision between authentic pleasure and the inherent deception of creating your identity online. The varieties of beer are endless, dizzying simply in terms of nomenclature and style, and so you can always compete on quantity of knowledge. Meanwhile the qualitative aspects of any given beer are subjective and so one can wax poetic about a given beer to demonstrate a true gourmet’s palate. And of course there was Joe Sixpack, a lower race of beer drinker against which you can contrast yourself and your taste. Were/are all beer guys like this? Of course not. But online life hands the worst people the mic, always. Liking beer online became a cold war, an ever-accelerating race of superior knowledge and deeper investment. In time some of the people who were part of this culture graduated into the industry itself, and so the beer industry became captured by the interests of a small number of self-selected experts. So being a beer drinker no longer meant preferring beer to wine; it now meant being able to tell what’s been triple hopped vs double hopped by the taste. And so now when you ask what’s good in certain places you get the bartender in a $300 apron he bought off of Etsy grunting while he gestures to a chalkboard covered with enough numbers to bewilder NASA.
Wednesday, 5/5/2021 - Letter from a Reader: My New Therapist and an addendum
A reader wrote me five/six weeks ago and shared a story with me, thinking I would be a sympathetic audience. After a lot of internal debate I asked her for permission to post it here and we workshopped it to maintain her anonymity. It’s about her finding a new therapist who introduced politics into their sessions in a way that caused her pain. I also posted to answer some (generally annoying) questions about it.
My first annoyance (and I admit it’s only that) was with the land acknowledgments, where she begins every session by proclaiming that we are on land stolen from the local Native population. This can’t take more than a minute each time, so my rational brain tells me it’s nothing. But I can’t help from thinking, it’s just you and me, I know America is stolen land, I told you I know America is stolen land, and anyway we’re in cyberspace, we’re not on land at all, and by the way you’re charging me by the hour. But it’s not really costing me anything so I kept my mouth shut….
Thursday, 5/6/2021 - All of This Shit is High School
Just poking the hive.
People don’t dislike each other because of abstract politics or morals. That’s not how humans function. People dislike each other because of pure lizard brain shit, the kind of brute emotional entanglements that determined who you were friends with in elementary school.
Friday, 5/7/2021 - Even the Best Star Wars Gets Graded on a Curve (Subscriber Only)
A brief meditation on why I think Rogue One is the best Star Wars film, and why I still think it’s not that great despite that. Still have love for it though! Especially Bodhi.
Not to dwell I just don’t get why we’re supposed to feel the way about Galen the way the movie wants us to feel. He’s a pacifist weapons designer who is clearly meant to be instilled with gravitas but his great noble act is making it easier (but still very hard) to destroy the doomsday device he himself built, if everything breaks just the exact right way in an extremely implausible series of events. Not a hero!
From the Archives
Today I’d like to call your attention to a piece I wrote in frustration with an impoverished conversation about the use of physical restraint in working with children with emotional disturbance and mental illness. I worked in a program for such children for a year and a half or so, an emotionally grueling experience. I developed an immense admiration for the teachers who worked there year after year, dealing with kids who were on their last chance before slipping into the state mental health system or juvenile detention. For their efforts they are awarded with pieces like this from ProPublica’s Heather Voggel, which does nothing to attempt to understand the incredibly difficult circumstances these people work under and are written by journalists with impossibly idealistic views of the world.
For about a year and a half, I worked in a public school that had a special, segregated section for kids with severe emotional disturbance. Some of the students were significantly mainstreamed into the general ed population, but many couldn't be, as they posed too much of a risk to other students and to themselves.
Those risks were neither hypothetical nor minor. The more severe of these cases were children who typically could not last a single school day without inflicting harm on themselves or on others. I have personally witnessed a 10 year old lift his 40-pound desk from the floor and hurl it towards the head of another student. I have witnessed a student jump from her seat to claw and bite at another, with almost no provocation. I have seen kids go from seeming calm to punching other kids repeatedly in the back of the head without warning. The self-harm was even worse. I had to intervene when a child, frustrated with his multiplication homework, struck himself repeatedly in the face with a heavy fake gold medallion, to the point where he drew his own blood. I saw a student try to cut his own lip with safety scissors. I saw a girl tear padding from a padded wall and eat it; when she eventually had to be removed from the school via ambulance, she urinated on herself, rubbed her face with her urine, and attempted to do the same to paramedics….
Song of the Week
Oh-ooh! Oh-oh-oh! Oh-ooh! Oh-oh-oh!
Substack of the Week
I was offline when Angela Nagle’s notorious “The Left Case Against Open Borders” piece was published and didn’t read it for, I don’t know, three or four months after it came out. Let me tell you: when I did read it, I hated it. Hated it. Still do. I thought it was comprehensively point-missing. I thought it caricatured the left position on immigration. I thought it ignored the basic moral calculus on internationalism - the recognition that it’s absurd to believe that I have more moral responsibility to someone born one mile north of the US-Mexico border than someone one mile south of that border, a distinction that could not be more random or arbitrary. I also think that Nagle’s position really undermines some basic elements of any coherent long-term socialist economy. The data has come back on socialism in one country, and it’s not encouraging. Internationalism is no more easily removed from the project of socialism than decommodification or egalitarianism. It’s “workers of the world, unite,” not “workers from California to New York, unite.”
Also I’m recommending you subscribe to Nagle’s new Substack for today’s Substack of the Week.
We’ve witnessed remarkable changes in social values over the past decade even as material change seems less likely than ever. One of my least favorite is the idea that you can’t have a political enemy who is a personal friend. I run in activist circles and there this attitude is distressingly common: politics is life and death and therefore you can’t have friends who don’t mirror your political assumptions. And it seems like this attitude is spreading to more and more people, certainly on the liberal/left half of the political spectrum. Probably this is due in part to the fact that there’s less to sacrifice: as we’ve sorted into more and more undiluted partisan and ideological camps, particularly among the college educated, you’re just paying less of a price by refusing to hang out with Republicans. How many people in upper middle class urban educated America interact regularly with conservatives at all? Still, you’re to be political at all times and to see all things through a political lens or you’re privileged. And of course we’re all meant to understand that politics are especially important today, despite the fact that there’s no reason to believe we’re in an unusually important political moment at all.
(By the way: yes, politics are life and death, which means that your first responsibility is to be politically effective, and refusing to ever be cordial to those who you must inevitable interact with and bargain with is not being effective, at all.)
Well, I think this whole attitude is stupid. Life is complicated. Good people believe stupid things, very often including in our own families. No, I don’t want to be friends with literal Nazis. The problem is that now our political debate is so broken that anyone to the right of Tip O’Neil is called a literal Nazi. And that’s just not conducive to a functioning society. As much as people want to wave away the advantages of a liberal democracy, the fact of the matter is we’re in one and that’s not gonna change anytime soon. That means political disagreement will and should exist, including among our friends and neighbors. The zest for political triumphalism among affluent liberals lately has created this weird combination of pessimism and optimism: pessimism because you get credit for exaggerating the depths and permanence of oppression to the point of fatalism, optimism because people talk as though if we can ban a few people on Facebook then suddenly Republicans won’t exist. I’ve known some lovely conservatives. Still do. I can’t look past all political disagreements but I can look past most. Sorry.
Besides, Angela and I agree more than we disagree. She did have some good points in that essay. It’s true that a lot of left opinions on immigration are half-baked or out-and-out ridiculous. Many in the socialist left seem to prefer an I’d-rather-not-think-about-that mentality towards the subject. Politically nothing resembling open borders is possible in the foreseeable future. And, it’s true that “all the poor people move to the rich countries” is not a viable plan. (I mean, the rich countries would stop being rich, for one thing.) Any internationalism would have to arrive after significant restructuring of the worldwide economy. In any event, I also value Angela’s general focus on structural economic analysis for and solutions to social problems, a stance that was the default socialist position even 10 or 12 years ago but now invites great grief. I also admired her book, Kill All Normies, which is often criticized for blaming the alt right on Tumblr, an argument that the book simply doesn’t make.
In general Angela has endured a lot of slander and lies in the past few years because of her heterodox politics. She has been a victim of the sudden popularity of being socialish, as distinct from socialist, the way that an entire generation of people with not the slightest idea of the economic or political underpinnings of genuine socialism suddenly adopted the label and started policing others through ham-handed references to the books they had not read. Angela is frequently accused of wanting a “red-brown” alliance, which has become an accusation du jour within the social media left. Unfortunately these people know as little about fascism as they do about socialism. (Word to the wise: if you constantly use the terms “Strasserite” or “Nazbol,” which are non-entities in actual traditional socialist dialect, you’re outing yourself as someone whose journey to socialism was made up of 45 minutes of reading Tumblr.) Angela is a great writer and mind with whom I frequently disagree. I hope you’ll consider supporting her financially.
Nobody Move, Denis Johnson, 2009
Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is one of those sacred books to me, an absolute marvel of writing proficiency, historical importance, and aching moral loss. (And all will be saved. And all will be saved. And all will be saved.) Nobody Move, a sharp little stab of modern-day noir and dirty crime novel pleasures, is delightfully profane. Our protagonist Jimmy is a scumbag gambler who owes money to the wrong people, including one tough guy who particularly would like to pay him back, given that Jimmy shot him in the leg. Again and again Jimmy comes thiiiis close to the end, until… This one’s brief and breezy, a triumph of detective fiction dialect that’s just slightly too much, which makes it just enough. I don’t want to give anything away but I will say that the ending is somewhat elliptical, and if you need unambiguous literal meaning in your fiction then this is one to avoid. For the rest of you, check it out.
Comment of the Week
Of course, going to a Beer Forum On The Internet is going to subject oneself to cask-strength Internet Fandom Shitheadery but, at least here in Chicago, I've gone to incredibly specialized taprooms and never felt put down upon because my beer tastes run to “I'll take whatever Pilsner you got that I can drink 10 of without getting blind 'cuz I wanna drink all day.” And I live within walking distance of Brewery Row here, and those dudes are fucking NUTS about their beer.
It's nice. One can enjoy the beers and the booze without the cult aspects. I've absolutely refused to so much as look up a beer rating online and I think I've missed out on not a thing and absolutely benefitted from not doing so. - Shawn
OK gang, hope your weekend’s off to a great start. Commenters, say what you will below. (Be good) Not sure what’s coming next week but probably a look at Black conservatism in the age of the social justice movement and possibly a consideration of why YIMBYs are their own worst enemy.
Thank you for that article about use of restraints in schools. I am a social worker for kids with developmental disabilities some of whom receive restraints. One of the kids I support also had his arm accidentally slammed in a door when being put into seclusion like the article mentions. I agree this should not have happened... But you gotta love the idea that what the field needs is more restrictions in what we are allowed to do and correlating punishments for workers, not for the workers to have adequate pay and benefits to do dangerous and extremely stressful work, allowing them to attract and keep qualified workers, along with the funds to create adequately supportive school environments for these kids. what's the other options for a kid who is regularly violent at home and school? he can attend school where restraints are used. or maybe he can be home schooled by his parents, who arent special education teachers -- in my state parents can be paid for this at least, but then *they* are the ones dealing with the violence and the feelings of shame and isolation that come when your kid is violent toward his family. or, if the family has the resources, the kid can go to a day treatment center with little academic instruction provided, surrounded only by other kids with disabilities, after many torturous months on a waiting list, following the same guidelines the schools do for restraints -- but the center has more resources to make it a safe and less stressful environment (resulting in fewer behaviors).
Having spent most of my life with political views outside the mainstream, I am always perplexed by the people who are only friends with those who agree with them. Most of my formative years I was a communist. If I adopted that approach I would’ve never spoken to anyone! Even during my years as a normie Dem I was living in a Republican area so that was completely untenable. I didn’t even encounter this phenomena until I went to law school in a big liberal city.
People like that seem to always have a) trendy political views; b) live in a politically homogenous urban area; c) primarily knowingly interact with people of different perspectives through their family or social media (or both). Knowingly being the key word, because there’s a connection between how strident and loudly expressed their political opinions are and how likely people of another stripe are willing to voice the opposite. Usually the only ones who do are the same, for lack of a better word, assholes on “the other side,” thus reinforcing each side’s belief in the awfulness of the other.
Meanwhile, I’m friends with numerous Trump voters. None are Nazis. None are anymore racist than the average Clinton/Biden voters I know (bigotry is a spectrum, not a binary). They certainly have opinions and beliefs I disagree with but they also have opinions and beliefs that I agree with and others that I find reasonable even if I don’t agree.
I cannot recommend highly enough to people that if you don’t regularly do it, have discussions (in real life, NOT through social media) with people who disagree with you politically. Not with the goal of changing their mind but just to learn their mind. Because if your theory of politics is that anyone who disagrees with you is evil and that politics is (as Freddie rightly says) important, there’s no way to have a functioning democracy.