An anti-despair reading list

The world, it seems reasonable to assume, is fucked. Between climate change, the revocation of nuclear arms deals left and right, and the fact that an increasing number of the world’s most powerful governments are being run by greedy cryptofascist dullards, it seems like we’re moving in a dark direction as a species. It would be easy to fall into despair, to grow helpless.

This, as I’ve argued elsewhere, is unnecessary. But perky web articles and cute, “Hang in there buddy!” memes aren’t really going to keep you going. To stay clear-eyed and full-hearted over the next few decades of your life, you’re going to need to build a coherent worldview, and you can’t cobble that sort of thing together with short-form pick-me-ups. To do that, you need books, and you need art.

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I do not claim to be an expert, but I have managed to pull myself out of a depression over the past couple of years, and I have started viewing the world a bit differently as a result of it. This, in large part, has been because of key books I’ve read. So here is one man’s reading list for fighting despair in dark times.


Nonfiction


British writer John Higgs’ 2015 masterpiece is billed as “an alternative history of the 20th century.” Britain, at the beginning of the 20th century, could reasonably have been considered the center of the world. To a Brit in 1901, the world made sense.

Then relativity and quantum mechanics changed everything we thought we knew about science. Modernism, surrealism, and dada pulled the rug out from under art. Totalitarianism rose, wars became potentially world-ending, we started launching men into space, our economy grew so fast it threatened to consume the earth, and we became so interconnected that we could see what was happening on other continents in real time. In the midst of all of this, Britain stopped being the center of the world. Its Empire was gone a mere half century after its peak.

This unmooring of everything in the 20th century that had been real and certain before 1901 was (and is) baffling and traumatic for many people. But Higgs offers a new way of thinking about it, a way that may help us start to understand where we now are. America, the most powerful nation in the world in 2001, and now a mere 18 years later indisputably in decline, could learn a thing or two from Higgs and the Brits.


This is a beautifully written book detailing 25 lessons we can learn from the history of nonviolence. It explains how “turn the other cheek” was actually a statement of civil disobedience in biblical times, it explains how Gandhi believed that, if you must choose between violence and doing nothing to change things, you must choose violence, it goes into Martin Luther King’s perceived radicalism in the United States in the 60’s (and why people claiming MLK would have “done things differently” from activists now is complete and utter garbage), and it goes into how the Cold War was ended not by Ronald Reagan shaking his fist at the Berlin Wall, but by thousands of dissidents working tirelessly over the course of decades.

Politics can seem impenetrable to common people a lot of the time, but Kurlansky’s book shows that creative nonviolent efforts undertaken by ordinary people have changed things for the better again and again over the course of history. Violence may be inescapable in this world, but we can choose to reject it.


This is the best possible follow-up reading to Kurlansky’s Nonviolence. In it, Chenoweth and Stephan detail why it is nonviolence is so effective. They went through every major resistance campaign of the 20th century, and found that nonviolent campaigns were twice as effective as violent campaigns.

There are a few reasons for this: First, if you run a nonviolent campaign, you are likely to get more people to join than a violent campaign. Second, it is easier for a regime to oppose a violent campaign than it is a nonviolent one: armed rebels can be fought and executed, peacefully protesting civilians are much harder to shoot on (not impossible to shoot on, as history sadly shows us, but the blowback from murdering innocent people is pretty steep). And finally, when nonviolent campaigns win, they tend to transition to more peaceful and less authoritarian forms of government.

This book is packed with practical lessons for dissidents, and with justifications for changing things peacefully. As it turns out, you don’t need guns to change things. You just need to make it so things staying the same is more expensive for the rich and powerful than it is for them to change.


Rebecca Solnit’s 2004 book was written in response to the invasion of Iraq and the reelection of George W. Bush, a pretty bleak time in American politics. Now, 15 years later, it is essential reading. Solnit, like Kurlansky, is excellent at providing an alternative view of history and offers a glimpse of the path forward. In it, she quotes Czech poet and dissident Vaclav Havel, who, when he wrote this in 1985, was in prison.

“The kind of hope I often think about (especially in situations that are particularly hopeless, such as prison) I understand above all as a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul; it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not a prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart; it transcends the world that is immediately experienced, and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons. Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but, rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Four years after writing this, Havel was no longer in jail. He was, in fact, the President of Czechoslovakia. Things change.


Science books are essential for staying curious in dark times, because they remind us how fucking weird the universe is. Rovelli’s 2017 book The Order of Time explains what quantum physicists now know to be the case about time: basically, everything we think about it is wrong. It is not the linear, machine-like thing we imagine it to be as we watch the hands of the clock tick through the day. In fact, only a single equation in physics references its existence. The way we see it moving has more to do with our perception than it has to do with the nature of time itself.

Rovelli is a brilliant science writer, on the same level as Carl Sagan or Neil deGrasse Tyson, and this book is essential for fighting despair because it’s hard to feel hopeless at the state of the world when you realize you don’t understand a fucking thing about it. Nothing beats fear like curiosity, and nothing pulls you out of despair quicker than wonder.


Fiction


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Kurt Vonnegut is the all-time master of compassionate humanism. Slaughterhouse-Five is an extremely dark book (it’s about World War II and the firebombing of Dresden, which Vonnegut was present for as a Prisoner of War), but it manages to also be an incredibly humane story that will, if nothing else, make you feel a little bit gentler towards other humans.

Like The Order of Time and Jerusalem (also on this list), it will have you thinking about how time works, and if we maybe don’t really understand any of this at all.

If that’s the case, then we’re all mucking about down here. None of us really know what we’re doing, the universe is a mystery, and death comes to us all. So it goes.


This remains the most rewarding thing I’ve ever read, but I don’t recommend it to many people, because it is nearly 1200 pages long. Alan Moore is best known for his comics V for Vendetta, Watchmen, and From Hell, but this 2016 book is his magnum opus.

It takes place in Northampton, England, Moore’s hometown, and it jumps around in history, from the 19th century to the end of the universe. Chapters are written from the perspective of Moore’s family members, the daughter of James Joyce, Charlie Chaplin, and the Archangel Michael, among others. Some chapters are written as poems, others as plays, others as pulp fiction. About 400 pages of the book take place over the 10 minutes it takes for a 2-year-old boy to choke on a cough drop (and they are a staggeringly good 400 pages).

The book makes this list in particular because of its sprawling, original vision of life and the afterlife. If you, like me, have abandoned the idea of a heaven and hell, if you do not see any paradise beyond your death or human extinction, then Moore offers a wild, surreal alternative that will make you rethink the world and your place in it. It is a spectacular piece of writing, and incredibly fun to read, if you don’t mind taking a couple of months to get through it.


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Daytripper is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read, and you can finish it in an afternoon. It is a comic book written by twin brothers Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, and it covers the life of Bras de Oliva Domingos, a Brazilian obituary writer. Each day covered in the book is an important day in his life, and at the end of each of these days, he dies. 

It is a beautiful meditation on life and death. It is one of those books where you finish it and just sit quietly with it for a few minutes.

We tend to organize our lives around these big moments, but it is the small ones that end up defining us.


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The Cold War inevitably gave rise to a lot of excellent post-apocalyptic literature, but A Canticle for Liebowitz stands out as one of the most striking and one of the most hopeful for a society on the brink of a different type of cataclysm. The plot is simple: After a nuclear war between Russia and the US, the survivors go around burning all books and murdering intellectuals and academics, claiming (perhaps not unreasonably) that it was knowledge that brought us to this point. 

A Jewish Engineer named Liebowitz working at an army base begins smuggling books containing the entirety of man’s scientific knowledge out to a nearby Catholic abbey in the desert. They are entrusted with keeping this information quietly, to return it back into mankind’s hands when we’ve finally learned our lessons. The book follows the abbey over the course of the next 1700 years.

The book is a thrilling one for us to read now because it imagines life beyond a disaster, and it depicts morality as something that must always be grappled with, regardless of the technology at our disposal.


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Steinbeck’s magnum opus isn’t The Grapes of Wrath — it’s East of Eden. It is in one sense a retelling of the book of Genesis, but set in Steinbeck’s home, the Salinas Valley. The question at the core of the book is an eternal one: are we fated to be good or evil? Or do we have a choice?

It’s a staggeringly good book, with one of the greatest villains in literature, and with central characters who were actual family members of Steinbeck’s.

The conversation at the core of the book came from Steinbeck’s mistranslation of a Hebrew Bible, but it won’t matter, you’ll want to tattoo “Timshel” onto your wrist at the end anyway.


Set aside the 12 years that have passed since the seventh book came out. Set aside J.K. Rowling’s need to constantly modify her books to make them more “woke” after the fact, set aside that she can be kinda shitty on Twitter, set aside that every new movie feels increasingly like a cynical cash grab, and just take the first seven books on their face.

They are amazing guidebooks for people (especially young people) going through tough times. I re-read all seven after Trump’s election, and they worked incredibly well as a pick-me-up.

Separating the art from the artist is probably a fool’s errand, but a flawed person can certainly write some brilliant stories.


Something missing that helped you through dark times? Should I have done His Dark Materials instead of Harry Potter? I totally should have, right? Well this is a living document. Let me know your favorite with a sentence or two explaining why and I’ll add it to the list. I’ll also take poetry and music.

What's wrong with "we probably live in a simulation"

In 2003, 30-year-old Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom published a paper in Philosophical Quarterly titled “Are you living in a computer simulation?” The paper came out the same year as The Matrix sequels, and it caused a stir. 

In 2018, the idea is primarily known through its most prominent proponent, eccentric billionaire Elon Musk. When Musk talks about it, he bases his point on the improvement of video games over time — we had Pong in the 70s, we have incredibly realistic 3-D games now. What if we keep improving in that direction? "If you assume any rate of improvement at all,” he said in an interview with Joe Rogan, "then games will be indistinguishable from reality, or civilization will end. One of those two things will occur. Therefore, we are most likely in a simulation, because we exist.”

Elsewhere, he has been quoted as saying, "There's a billion to one chance we're living in base reality."

Americans in particular eat this shit up. We love eccentric billionaires. You must be an outside-the-box thinker to get rich, we assume, and Musk is a billionaire, so this weird shit must by why. On top of this, Elon Musk, much like Donald Trump or Beyonce, is an internet click-getter, so clickbait articles have repeated this over and over again, and if you spend enough time starting fires on the internet, you’ll bump into a Musk bro who’ll shout at you about how we’re living in The Matrix.

The problem, of course, is that the picture Musk paints is a pretty massive misreading of the simulation hypothesis, and a total misinterpretation of Bostrom’s argument. What Bostrom really said is far more interesting (and far more troubling) than what the clickbait headlines have suggested.

What if we’re all, like, pawns, in some giant alien’s game?

Nick Bostrom. Photo courtesy of the Future of Humanity Institute.  Creative Commons  license.

Nick Bostrom. Photo courtesy of the Future of Humanity Institute. Creative Commons license.

First, Bostrom's paper did not say that we almost certainly live in a simulation. He said that there are three possibilities, and that at least one of them is very likely true. They are:

  1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage (which is to say a stage where we could run high-fidelity simulations);

  2. Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);

  3. We are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Bostrom has suggested elsewhere that he thinks each is probably equally likely, but that’s not something he fixates on in the paper, as it’s not something you can really prove.

The third possibility gets the most play, and it goes like this: If it’s possible to run simulations that are indistinguishable from reality, then a human within the simulation wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. It’s even possible humans within those simulated realities are also running simulations, and humans in those are running simulations, and so on. 

Given how many simulations might be running within simulations (it could get to a near-infinite number), then most sentient humans would actually be simulations, and not living breathing organic beings.

There’s a sort of dizzying but coherent logic to this thought. It’s an idea that has an almost religious feel to it: there’s especially comfort in the idea that we are currently living in an alternate history where Donald Trump was elected president because some jackass future human thought, “Let’s see what happens if we make this bullshit happen." In a world where a supernatural interventionist god is becoming less and less believable to a lot of people, a computer simulation feels like a rational, understandable alternative to a sentient Creator who’s crashing stars together and lighting bushes on fire.

The thing is, you have to get over one very controversial hurdle to even get to the first two points, and then you have to get through possibilities one and two, which is no small task. In fact, to my thinking, point one and point two are far more interesting than the third. So let’s go through it.

A big assumption: Do our brains not matter at all?

At the very beginning of his paper, Bostrom makes an admission: he’s assuming what philosophers call “substrate independence.” This is why everyone hates philosophy. It’s an overly academic way of saying that consciousness can be simulated without actual, physical brains; that our software doesn’t require our hardware. 

This is not a given. No one has really figured out what consciousness is yet. It’s one of the core mysteries of philosophy: what the hell are we? What is our experience of the world? And can it be replicated? If we build an artificial intelligence that can do all of the mental processes that we can do, it may behave as if it’s conscious, but is it?

This is what Descartes meant when he was saying, “I think, therefore I am.” When it comes down to it, the only thing you can know for certain is that you exist. You can trust other humans when they say that they have thoughts, feelings, and deep internal lives, but when it comes down to it, you can never know. You can only trust. Would you be able to trust the same coming from an intelligent computer?

Say you’re running a simulation of a human life, and you have that simulation walk out into the rain. Does the simulation feel that raindrops hitting its face? Does it feel its clothes getting wet? Or does the program running it just say, “I feel the rain on my face”?

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If you believe in a soul or some sort of ghost in the machine, this is an impossible hurdle to overcome. But even if you don’t, it’s still not a done deal. There may be some hitherto undiscovered feature of the brain that gives rise to what we experience as consciousness. It may be a feature that a computer program could not replicate. For you to be a simulation, you who are experiencing actual human consciousness as you read this article, software must be able to replicate consciousness without the actual presence of a human brain. 

It’s not crazy to think that this is possible. But the issue is not settled, and, if we’re being totally honest and are taking a fairly rational skeptical viewpoint, it never will be, just as you can’t be totally sure right now that anyone else besides yourself experiences consciousness. And they have the same bodies and brains as you. It’s much less of a leap, but even then, it’s not a puddle you’re jumping over, it’s a chasm.

You need to make this assumption, this leap of faith, before you even start looking at the rest of the thought experiment. So let’s just make it and move on. We already got this far, so Jehovah starts with an “I,” middle finger to the gods, let’s ride eternal shiny and chrome. We’re doing this.

Point One: Humans might never have the ability to simulate the universe in this much detail

  1. The human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage.

The first part of Bostrom’s trilemma has a few parts to it: first, it might just not be possible to simulate the universe to the degree of detail in which we currently see it. There is an absolutely immense amount of information in our universe, and simulating it would require an unfathomably large amount of computational power.

Our technological advancement over the past few centuries has been impressive, but a study out of Oxford found that, even using quantum computing, you'd basically need a computer bigger than the universe to simulate the universe. And that's just the size, it says nothing about the amount of energy you'd need to power that computer. Even if you tossed away most of the universe and just looked at what we've observed as individuals, the computer required to simulate our experiences would be infeasibly enormous. 

There could be some future innovation or workaround that would solve this problem, but there's no guarantee that there will be. It may just be impossible. Bostrom himself admits that we’re not currently there technologically, and proposes a few workarounds, but they’re all a bit… distant. He suggests we could totally redefine physics with a theory of everything, or that a few thousand years of technological discovery "will make it possible to convert planets and other astronomical resources into enormously powerful computers.”

Those fatal errors are rough, man.

Those fatal errors are rough, man.

That is a big ask. I am as turned on by the idea of a star computer as the rest of you, but that is not coming soon. Which raises the point — can we survive for that long? Even setting aside possible manmade calamities like climate change, nuclear war, superviruses, robot takeovers, nanobot “gray goo” scenarios, or particle accelerators accidentally creating a black hole, we still face the external threats of meteor strikes, the Yellowstone caldera exploding, or, you know, aliens.

We might just not make it to star computers.

The Fermi Paradox

Possibility #1 is, I think, the most likely option in the trilemma. The reason I think this is something called the Fermi Paradox.

Enrico Fermi was an Italian-American physicist, and he noticed that, if you look at the sheer size of the Milky Way Galaxy, it is extremely likely that there is not only a lot of life out there, but that there are a lot of human-level civilizations out there, and potentially a lot of human-level civilizations that have developed the ability to travel in interstellar space (this high probability is based on something called the Drake equation, which I don't have time to get into here, but which you should Google, because it is fascinating.).

Even given the enormous distances from one end of the galaxy to another and the relatively slow pace of interstellar travel, Fermi reasoned, enough time has passed that we should have been contacted by extraterrestrials by this point. He found no convincing evidence that we had, so, he said, "Where is everyone?"

From  xkcd .

From xkcd.

One possible explanation is that intelligent life tends to destroy itself shortly after it acquires the ability to travel outside its own solar system. Technological innovation occurs in conjunction with all other human events, and it may be that the type of society that can master the ability to split atoms and launch itself into space must also be an inherently unstable one.

It may be that the technology those civilizations need, like nuclear power, can be weaponized and that this tends to destroy those civilizations before it can fling them out safely and sustainably into space. Or it may be that these civilizations rely, as we do, on an economy based on exponential growth, which inevitably pushes the civilization up against its environmental limits, causing it to collapse.

It would seem that the universe’s silence is speaking volumes.

Bostrom himself is most concerned with superintelligence and how it might destroy us to preserve itself. He literally wrote the book on it. Naturally, as soon as the book came out, Elon Musk started talking about how superintelligence is potentially more dangerous than nuclear war, which is like saying the hungry tiger five feet in front of you is less dangerous than the aliens from Independence Day which, while technically true, is contextually stupid. Whatever. We don’t have time for it. Moving on.

Putting "should" before "can."

2. Any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof).

This possibility is, to me, the most interesting -- why, we might wonder, would a civilization not choose to use this power? I know for sure that if I had this power, I would play with it in all sorts of ways — I’d want to see what would happen if you made Africa the continent with guns, germs and steel, I’d want to see what would happen if you had Hitler hit by a horse and buggy when he was five, I’d want to see what would happen if Donald Trump had showed up at the third presidential debate with pinkeye. 

And that’s just me — history nerds everywhere would lose their shit by moving a bullet a few inches to the left at the Battle of Trafalgar, saving Admiral Nelson, or by keeping Salieri away from Mozart, or by making the smoke and mirrors a bit more conspicuous during Jesus’s miracles. Fantasy nerds would introduce dragons, horror nerds would introduce zombies. Thirsty housewives would create a world of only Colin Firths, bros would fill the world with pornstars, and 5-year-olds would push the meteor onto a different orbit and keep the dinos alive.

We, as a species, absolutely lack the restraint to not do this. So what future version of us wouldn’t? 

The first possibility is that it would take a lot of energy, and we wouldn’t want to spend it on dicking around with alternate timelines. We’d need it for our important jobs of crashing big stars into bigger stars, or for developing a test that determines who is a human and who is a Cylon. In Bostrom’s argument, the computers he’s proposing are the size of planets. Maybe if we can pull shit like that off, we’re not that interested in alternative histories anymore.

But the second possibility is the one I like the most: my suspicion is that, for a civilization to advance to such a point of having that power, it would need to learn to draw a thick line between "can" and "should."

Scientists over the past few centuries have made enormous strides, and many of these strides have noticeably improved our lives. But at the same time, a lot of these new technologies have put the human race at serious risk. We’ve already gone through most of these so far, so no need to rehash — but might a civilization that survives be a civilization that learns a bit more discretion? Might a sustainable, long-lasting civilization be one that learns how to do without certain luxuries, and to just take certain parts of life as they come?

Our civilization has very obviously not learned this lesson yet, and it seems increasingly unlikely that we are simply going to science our way out of our problems.

Thought experiments and reality

A final note to make here — throughout time, certainly long before the invention of computers, humans have played around with some form of this thought experiment. In a more superstitious era it took the form of, “Is all we see just a demon playing tricks on us?” In a more Frankensteinian era, it was “Are we just a brain dreaming in a mad scientists jar?”

No matter which version you choose, the results are always somewhat similar, but they are invariably fun to play around with. That is the point of thought experiments. They push you into corners and make you think your way out. But there is always a problem with mistaking a thought experiment for reality: thought experiments were usually conjured up by smartass philosophers to make some sort of broader point about the nature of reality and of being human. 

And that’s the issue: reality does not exist to prove your point. It is far more complex and weird than we are capable of grasping. To take a thought experiment that is basically saying, “Things may not be as they seem,” and to say, “Well, the thought experiment is how it really is, then,” is to miss the point entirely.

Billionaires will always have the need to make themselves sound edgy and cool, especially if their billions are contingent on getting Venture Capital and government money thrown at them constantly, but if something sounds implausibly weird (and, you know, a bit like something you’d talk about while stoned), it’s worth examining a bit more closely.

Yes. We could be living in a simulation. We could also be on the brink of extinction. We could be on the cusp of learning something important about responsibility and restraint. All three are possible futures laid out in front of us. The point of the trilemma is to ask: which do we want? And how do we get there?


If this topic is interesting to you, the science podcast The Infinite Monkey Cage did an excellent panel on it featuring Bostrom, neuroscientist Anil Seth, physicist Brian Cox, and the comedians Robin Ince and Phil Jupitus. You can find it here.

Featured photo by Steve Jurvetson.

How to deal with the oncoming apocalypse when you're a new parent

For a year now, I’ve been a dad. Being a dad is great. My daughter is a chubby, smiley little cutie pie who giggles when she sees me, who likes to dance, and who thinks it’s hilarious to put her pacifier into my mouth. It is hard being a parent, yes, but it’s the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done.

My wife and I have always wanted kids, but there was a night in November 2016 where we briefly decided against it. You can probably guess the night. It was a bad night. It was a bad month. The two years that have followed have been no fun at all.

The kicker though, what made us decide to go ahead and have the kid, was that we didn’t want Donald Trump to be involved in our family planning decisions any more than he already would be. We didn’t want the man to hold any psychological power over us, on top of the political and economic power he already wielded.

But the past two years, we’ve both been grappling with the fact that the future our daughter is going to grow up in has darkened substantially in comparison to the one we envisioned we first got married and started thinking about her (then totally hypothetical) life.

For real though, the apocalypse is coming

I am not constitutionally capable of having a rosy view of the future. This may be a side-effect of having grown up consuming almost exclusively dystopian culture. I have long been an aficionado of zombie apocali, of days the earth stood still, of furious roads. I know these are fiction, and that they perhaps distort my perspective on the world, but even setting aside my congenital alarmism, it does appear that we’re coming up on a breaking point. 

The most alarming thing I’ve read recently is The Limits to Growth, a 1972 book put out by the Club of Rome that pointed out that exponential growth (both economic and population) on a planet with finite resources is, to put it simply, not sustainable. The study of LtG was one of the first to use computer simulations to try and predict the trajectory of global political, economic, and ecological systems.

While they ran their simulations, they kept noticing that, on their current trajectory, these systems all collapsed within 100 years or so, and by the year 2100 at the latest. They concluded:

“If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.”

Without a serious global attempt at slowing both population and economic growth, they argued, collapse was almost certainly inevitable, and within a lifetime or two.

The world — briefly — took this seriously. Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof, people started wearing sweaters instead of using their heating. But it was seen as too burdensome, too oppressive, for many Americans, and when Ronald Reagan was elected, the solar panels were binned and the era of unrestrained growth began anew. Now, in 2019, if you hear about slow economic growth, or a dropping of the birth rates, it is inevitably mentioned as a bad thing, and not as the only thing that can prevent us from catastrophe.

The LtG team ran a 30-year update in 2004 (with exponentially better technology this time) in which they found that all of their initial predictions were still pretty spot on, and that we still hadn’t corrected ourselves from the “collapse” scenario. We are now 47 years into their 100 year timeline.

And this, for the record, is just environmental catastrophe. This does not even take nuclear weapons, AIs, nanotechnology, particle accelerators accidentally creating a black hole, or bioterrorism into account as potential world-enders (If you want a full list of the things that might kill us all — along with the ways we may survive — read Sir Martin Rees’ great book, Our Final Hour).

Dealing with the apocalypse as a parent

Thinking about this in the context of my daughter’s future makes me want to swan dive off the Empire State Building. The thought of a total environmental and economic collapse in her life time — with the most likely result being that she starves to death along with billions of others — is almost unbearable. I have stayed up nights (not a smart thing to do in your first year as a parent) fuming at the Trump supporters and climate deniers in my life, apoplectic at their callous disregard for reality, at their willingness to take a measly, short-term tax cut at the expense of my daughter’s future. Sometimes, I continue thinking about it into my sleep, dreaming about shouting at them, about burning all the bridges, about reducing them to quivering, weeping heaps.

I know that other friends, other parents especially, feel this way. The panic we feel is not represented in the media, which, unlike us, is focused on the latest Tweets and bits of palace intrigue. If the media mentions climate change, its attitude is, “Oh look, another doomsday report. Oh well! Nothing we can do!” 

To which we all shout back, WE ABSOLUTELY CAN DO THINGS! The reports all say, “if we take no action, climate change will be out of control.” TAKING NO ACTION IS NOT AN INEVITABILITY!

We don’t have our eyes fixated on our retirement portfolios, like our parents’ generation does. We have our eyes fixated on our children’s ability to even get to retirement age. What we see is haunting, and the inability of the rest of the cultural landscape to grasp this is infuriating and crazy-making. 

Earlier this week, I got home from work and my daughter was standing in front of the door waiting for me, and she raised both arms and screamed “YAAAAASSSSS” while charging at me for a hug. I mean, come on. How the fuck am I supposed to reconcile that delightful shit with the world I'm leaving her? How do I bring that into line with this bleak-ass future with clouds of ash, scorched earth, and hills covered in fire? How did I go from hugs, kisses, and gawp-gawps to The Road?

(”Gawp-gawps,” by the way, are an onomatopoetic term that refer to the sound you make when you’re just EATING THAT CHUBBY LITTLE FACE RIGHT UP.)

The darkest thought, the one that the mind pushes away the hardest, is the thought that it was pure selfishness to have her, that our desire to play house has brought into the world a wonderful little creature who will now undergo untold suffering. Indeed, this is even built into the discussion about growth — we can’t go forward having kids at the same rate1. To do so is to doom them.

“You who grew up tall and proud, in the shadow of the mushroom cloud”

Every generation expects to be the last, and most of this is narcissism — it’s impossible and sometimes unpleasant to imagine a world beyond ourselves. But since 1945, being the last generation has been an actual possibility, and this has made us behave in weird ways. 

If you’re a Republican, it means raping the earth so you can take everything you can get before you go. They have openly admitted this on occasion: James Watt, Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, responded to a question about leaving resources for our descendants with, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns.”

That’s some evil-ass shit right there. But it’s an understandable (if not forgivable) response to your impending annihilation. It’s hedonism cloaked in religious fundamentalism.

My grandparents’ generation spent literally all of their time thinking about “legacy,” which is why our world is covered in fucking plaques. At my alma mater, Penn State, the football coach was so intent on building a messianic legacy for himself that he handed the children in his care over to a sexual predator. When he found out, he didn’t tell the police. To let this out was to tarnish his legacy. So children continued to be raped. This is how badly some people want to be remembered fondly.

But what if you don’t get the comfort of being remembered? What if you are the end? What might you do? Might you take what you can and fuck those who came later?

I’ve become obsessed in recent months with Queen’s “Hammer to Fall,” a joyful little 20th Century danse macabre about resigning yourself to the inevitably of death and decay.

Here we stand, here we fall 
History won't care at all .
Make the bed, light the light 
Lady Mercy won't be home tonight.

It strikes me as odd that we’re so often encouraged to cope with the inevitability of our own personal deaths, but are never asked to confront the possibility of humanity’s death. Only the bleakest nuclear wasteland stories end in the extinction of the human race, but that extinction is just as inevitable in reality as our own deaths. We may evolve to something greater, we may build rockets that take us to terraformed Mars (although that sounds really unappealing if we have to live next door to Elon Musk), or we may escape the bonds of this solar system and live for millennia. But entropy is ceaseless; the heat death of the universe is coming.

At some point, there will be no one to remember us. What if this fact instilled us not with a rapacious consumptive greed, but with humility? What if we chose to instead live our ephemeral little lives as if they mattered, but not so much that they should blot out other little lives?

Wishing I’d been born

When I told my therapist about how much I worried about my daughter’s future, he asked, “Are you sad you were born?”

“No,” I answered. I have not, in fact, ever regretted being born, not even in my adolescent, “I WISH I’D NEVER BEEN BORN!” stage. Not even in the darkest days of my depression. I mostly like being alive, and I told him so.

“Well,” he said, “You were born during the Cold War. Your parents could have reasonably expected the nuclear apocalypse in the near future when they had you.”

I let it slide that my parents didn’t expect the apocalypse, they were Reagan supporters, which — I can’t even with right now. But the point was a good one. Even if they had been worried, I hadn’t been vaporized into a cloud of radioactive smoke.

“When I went to the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam,” he continued, “I remember this moment where I was in the room they lived in, and I saw a little collage that Anne had made with cutouts from magazines. It was the type of thing you see in teenage bedrooms all of the time. And I realized, in spite of how she died, in spite of how young she was, that this was a life well lived.”

This had been sinking in recently with me anyway. All through my depression, I kept thinking about how horrific the world was, how it was dark and full of terrors, how it was bleak and pointless, but I never stopped to recognize that, at least for me, life had been largely pleasant. Even in the face of dreams deferred, loneliness, and the cold emotional deadness of depression, I had mostly enjoyed life. I could die tomorrow, aged 32, and feel that I had lived well. I would want more time, sure, but I would have enjoyed what I got, regardless of whether what cut me down was a heart attack, a bus, or a nuclear explosion. 

My daughter may not get a full-length life. This is true whether the world ends or not. But she can still have a fully-lived life, if I can teach her to live in the moment and enjoy this experience. Even if her life contains immense amounts of suffering, it can still contain immense amounts of joy.  A life cut short by global catastrophe is only necessarily a bad life if you give more weight to the mode of death than you do to the life itself.

That possibility, obviously, is still absolutely un-fucking-acceptable, given that the only reason she should die young is so red-faced, small-hearted, fearful little chodes like Donald Trump can die with a few extra billion in their bank accounts. But. But. To live a short, happy life is perhaps not so bad.

Is optimism possible?

Our inability to imagine a brighter future may, in part, be a byproduct of our culture. Writer John Higgs makes an interesting point. He says in an interview with the Ransom Note:

"It seems to me that the last ditch attempt to say something positive about the future was in 1989 in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventurewhen they say ‘The future will be great – it’s a bit like now, but with really great waterslides’. That was the best they could do. Ever since then the future has been shown as environmental apocalypse, zombie films, all of these things. And to create the future, first you have to imagine it, so this is a very worrying thing.”

Fear tends to inhibit imagination, and given that we’ve all been reduced to piles of quivering flesh over the past few years over the existential threats facing us, whether real (climate change, nuclear war) or imagined (immigrants, communists, Muslims), it’s perhaps unsurprising that our imaginations have failed.

When alternative futures are imagined, they tend to be put forward by 21st century flimflam men, billionaires who believe that AI or automation or Mars will save us, and who will coincidentally make billions more if we choose to heavily invest in those things. And while there could be cool futures with any of those, none of them address the underlying problem, which is the very structure of the society in which we live. If The Limits to Growth is right, then technology alone can’t solve the problem, because technology doesn’t decrease consumption (it usually increases it).

There are people who are imagining different societies, but at the moment, they are relegated to the margins. They are people like Bill McKibben, who in his book Eaarth, imagined a future where our economy is built on sustainability and endurance, where power is decentralized, and where community matters once more. They are people like Gar Alperovitz, who, in his book What Then Must We Do? looks at how a different type of society could be built for the many and not for the few. For Alperovitz, many of the necessary steps are already being taken, under the radar and across partisan lines (I wrote about some of these in an article for USA Today on microbreweries and the political revolution).

What we’re realizing is that the revolution that’s coming is not like the ones that happened in Russia, China, or Cuba, but instead is like the agricultural and industrial revolutions. What comes will be a massive shift in the way we live.

Or, you know, civilization will collapse. It doesn’t have to, though, if we can ditch the laziness of despair and start thinking creatively.

Silver linings

In Rebecca Solnit’s excellent book Hope in the Dark (which you should read if you’ve been in a state of constant despair for the past two years), she points out a curious side effect of the invention of Viagra: when the drug became publicly available, fewer endangered species were being killed for use as aphrodisiacs. Rhino horn, caribou antler, green turtle shell — all of these are traditional folk remedies for impotence, and all of them were rendered obsolete by a medicine that could actually give you a boner. Solnit’s point in this book is that history doesn’t move forward so much as sideways, and that things that were unimaginable 10 years ago are often the reality now. You can’t predict what will change or how.

When I was born in 1986, the end of the Cold War was inconceivable, as was a world shaped by the internet, as was President Donald Trump. It’s not all positive, sure, but I have no fucking clue what my daughter’s life is going to look like at 32, and I don’t know what strange things will take place between now and then. But the seeds of a brighter future are already there.

Take the freshman class of the House of Representatives. They aren’t bogging themselves down in the palace intrigue, they aren’t fixating on the Tweets of a deranged white supremacist, they aren’t “playing the game.” They’re instead out there presenting serious ideas for change, ideas that our current visionless leaders dismiss as impossible, just as the wrinkled old men leading the Soviet Union would’ve dismissed reform and collapse as impossible before Gorbachev took power in 1985.

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As for me, my daughter has sharpened my focus. I’ve joined a local team of environmentalists and I’m organizing a set of lectures at the town library I work at. I’ve decided to stop writing horseshit clickbait for travel sites, and to start writing stuff that can change things. And I’ve started meditating, so I can better enjoy these moments with her, lest they be my last.

When I watch the news, it often feels like I’m on a train that’s barreling over the edge of a cliff. But that was true the moment I was conceived. This only ever ended with me kersplatting on a metaphorical (and, for all I know, literal) canyon floor. The same is true of my daughter. She, too, will die. But I can do what I can to make the fall a fun one, and I can work to keep her falling for a very long time.


[1] The best thing you can do for the environment, by the way, is to have fewer kids. This is far more effective than giving up cars, never flying, giving up meat, or changing your lightbulbs.

So: if you don't really want kids, don't have any! If you do want kids, limiting yourself to 2 will keep you below the population replacement rate of 2.2 children per woman. If you DO have kids, limiting yourself to 2 will mean you're not contributing to population growth. If you want more, that's cool, just talk someone else out of having one, or consider adoption.

What dick pics can teach us about human morality and climate change denial

When I was 25, I moved to London to study human rights. It was a very millennial decision. There was a recession going on, I was living on and off with my parents, and I couldn’t find a job in journalism because nearly every paper in the country was cutting staff or shutting down, so the only alternative to continuing to live with my parents was to go to grad school.

Human rights seemed like the most decent thing I could dedicate my life to fighting for (if not the most profitable) so I went into debt and moved to a different country.

The only honest approach to any academic field of study is to first take what you think you know and tear it down. This is one thing when you’re studying economics or chemistry. Most topics of study are abstracted enough from our daily lives that if a professor were to kick open the door to the classroom on the first day and say, “SIT BACK, MOTHERFUCKERS, AND FORGET EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT YOU KNEW ABOUT ROBOTICS!” most of us would be like, “Okay, sure, done.” It would not ruin our day.

It’s an entirely different thing when what you’re studying is your very moral bedrock, the thing that has influenced all of your decisions in life, including the very expensive one that brought you into this classroom in the first place. 

The problem with human rights is this: they are intended to be universal laws that protect human dignity. But in any real metaphysical sense, there are no such laws. They exist only as a social construct. You might not agree with me. If you, for example, believe that there’s a God who told us what is right and wrong centuries ago, or if you believe that morality can be determined through the use of logic, then you could reasonably reject what I just said.

But you can’t reject this: even if there are universal moral laws, we can’t agree on what they are. They may be “self-evident” to you, but to many other selves they are not evident. When confronted with what, to you, is the clearest, most common sense moral dictum, many people just say, “naaaaahhhh.”

The Golden Rule

Let’s take the least controversial moral law out there. The one that is subscribed to by Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, and atheists alike. 

Norman Rockwell’s famous 1961 painting, “The Golden Rule.”

Norman Rockwell’s famous 1961 painting, “The Golden Rule.”

Isn’t that beautiful? Doesn’t that sound perfect and simple? This is a rule that has arisen independently in many cultures and many religions, both theistic and atheistic, and it is an excellent rule to live by. But it is not universal. 

There is a 21st century phenomenon that derails the logic of the Golden Rule. This phenomenon is the sending of unsolicited penis photos to women in dating apps, or, as they are colloquially known, dick pics. 

Dick pics, nearly everyone agrees, are repellent, but they follow the logic of the golden rule.

The dick pic sender is basically saying, “Hello, kind stranger, I would like to see naked pictures of you. Here, as a sign of good faith, is such a picture of me.”

Should you protest at the sudden “OH GOD, THAT’S A COCK” of it all, the dick pic sender could reasonably respond that they were simply treating you the way they’d like to be treated.

The loophole in the golden rule is a pretty glaring one, and it’s obvious enough when you take a second to look at it: not everyone wants to be treated in the same way. So while the Golden Rule is an excellent method for encouraging empathy and the ethical treatment of others, it is not a rule that can be applied in every situation. In certain situations (especially those of the sudden penis variety), the ethical thing to do with the Golden Rule is to abandon it.

Nothing is universal

You can find exceptions to pretty much all of our moral laws, and the task of studying human rights is essentially a job of demarcating the boundaries between good moral laws (i.e. free speech that allows marginalized people to find a voice without government interference) and bad ones (i.e. free speech that allows troglodytes to make anonymous online rape threats against feminists).

Human experience is so varied, so wildly diverse, that to expect one rule to be applicable to everyone in every situation is absurd. Such a law would have to be so vague as to be meaningless. Even something seemingly harmless, like “Honor thy father and mother,” breaks down, for instance, when you’re Eric Trump.

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Most people, likewise, can find instances where murder is excusable — because you’re protecting your family, because you’re preventing someone else from getting killed, because you’re hungry and he’s not pulling his weight on the life raft, etc.

This view is usually called “moral relativism” by its detractors, but the opposing philosophy, moral absolutism, has done more damage by far. The absolutists count among their numbers Hitler and Stalin and Dick Cheney. To them, the world is divided into right and wrong and they always happen to be on the right side. This provides a pretty clean excuse for dropping bombs on and torturing your opponents. How many Americans blink twice at the knowledge that the bombs we’ve dropped in the “War on Terror” have regularly, even routinely, killed innocent children? Bring up the Atomic Bomb and Hiroshima, and see how many Americans reflexively say, “Well, it saved millions of American lives." They never just say lives. They say American lives.

A moral relativist is going to have a harder time being quite so sure that the mushroom cloud is justified, and might think twice about doing it. God, can you imagine if we dropped a single bomb that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people and our justifications weren’t sound?

This approach also allows what you consider to be moral to change over time and according to context. Circa 1791, it made sense to enshrine the right to bear arms in your country’s founding document because you just won a revolution and are afraid of backsliding into tyranny. 228 years later, when guns can fire bullets ten times faster, when those bullets are frequently piercing the bodies of children, the morality of this stance makes less sense. To everything there is a season.

This idea, that there is no such thing as top-down morality, is terrifying to a lot of people. But there is a better way of thinking about it.

A different type of morality

The primatologist and humanist Frans de Waal argues, in his excellent book, The Bonobo and the Atheist, that if we look to our genetic cousins the chimps and bonobos, we will see that moral behavior exists in the natural world without reference to reason or rationality or towards any religious belief.

Which is not to say primates are not capable of reason and rationality, because they very much are. It’s just to say that their moral behavior comes from elsewhere. So any attempt to base human morality on “reason” is misguided.

de Waal writes:

“The confusion seems to stem from the illusion that all we need for a good society is more knowledge. Once we have figured out the central algorithm of morality, so the thinking goes, we can safely hand things over to science. Science will guarantee the best choices. This is a bit like thinking that a celebrated art critic must be a great painter or a food critic a great chef…

The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover ultimately comes from religion. It doesn’t really matter whether it is God, human reason, or science that formulates these laws. All of these approaches share a top-down orientation, their chief premise being that humans don’t know how to behave and someone must tell them. But what if morality is created in day-to-day social interaction, not at some abstract mental level? What if it is grounded in the emotions, which most of the time escape the neat categorizations that science is fond of?…

My views are in line with the way we know the human mind works, with visceral reactions arriving before rationalizations, and also with the way evolution produces behavior. A good place to start is with an acknowledgment of our background as social animals, and how this background predisposes us to treat each other.”

If we accept this — and I think that we obviously should — we have to accept that we can’t just piece together morality sitting alone in our rooms and thinking about it, or analyzing a book that The Lord sent us, but that we have to get out into the streets and talk to other people about what we want to be as a community, as a people. 

This requires of us both the openness to be able to hear each other’s stories in good faith, and the vulnerability to be able to tell our own. It requires that we be honest with each other about who we are, and be brave enough to stand up against what we think is wrong. None of that is easy, but no one ever said it was. And when you start talking to people, when you get to their experiences and away from their political talking points or inherited ideology, you’ll usually find that they are less stupid, less stubborn, and less ignorant than you think.

When we talk to each other, we learn: Our morality is not up there in the ether. It is down here, in the spaces between us.

Moral curiosity in the face of a cold, unfeeling universe

When I finished my course in human rights, I felt winded. There seemed to be no moral footing for me anymore, nothing to keep me from sliding towards a terrified state of nihilism and despair. Over the next few years, I sunk into a pretty deep depression that I didn’t begin to escape until I was in my 30’s. The world was just so fucking complicated. How, I wondered, can one live when nothing is certain?

The answer ended up being that you do not need certainty to live, and that the alternative to certainty is not nihilism, it's curiosity. Curiosity is the only worthwhile way of confronting the universe, because seriously, in the words of comedian Pete Holmes, life doesn’t make any fucking sense. So we might as well have some fun with it. We might as well explore.

This is the solution, by the way, to all of your totally unproductive political arguments. You think you can beat ignorance with knowledge? Hell no. Ignorance doesn’t give a fuck about knowledge. Because ignorance isn’t an absence of knowledge, it’s a protective shell constructed against scary knowledge.

Think, for a moment, what your conservative elderly parents or grandparents would have to do to accept a) that climate change was coming, b) it could very well lead to the collapse of civilization in their children’s lifetimes, possibly resulting in their starvation or murder by Mad Max-style War Boys, and c) that everything they ever did or believed in contributed to this oncoming catastrophe.

What do you think their response to, “Well, if you look at the climate science and the weather patterns in recent years…” is going to be? Might it be “FAKE NEWS!”? Might it be “LIBERAL CONSPIRACY!”? Do you think it might be, “I’m just going to deny this until I die, because to accept it would actually kill me."

I am telling you right now, I have a 1-year-old, and when I stop and think about what climate change could do to her sweet little face, I want to put rocks in my pockets and walk into the sea. Your parents denial of your liberal or left-wing political views is not just ignorance, it is a deathly fear that if you are right, they have destroyed your life. You! The thing they love most in this world!

You’re not going to beat that with facts. You couldn’t beat that with A Clockwork Orange, Ludovico-technique-style brainwashing. 

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You might beat it with curiosity. People can get to base-level curiosity pretty quickly, and from there, it’s possible to change minds. Curiosity is a backdoor to open-mindedness.

You’re going to die, you might as well accept that. Life, if you choose to look at it that way, is a goddamn meat-grinder. So while we’re here, we may as well be kind to one another, we may as well be curious. And that means asking questions, listening to other people, and believing each other. On that basis alone, life isn’t so bad, even if it doesn’t make any fucking sense.

Being a better humanist in the 21st century

My lecture at the Red Bank Humanists December forum. In it, I talked about the problems with being an Enlightenment thinker in the 21st century, where human right have succeeded, where they fail, and where we as humanists could maybe think about things more creatively.

Further reading!

Your helplessness is a delusion

I was recently invited to a local community college to discuss what we, in the modest little corner of New Jersey that we live in, can do about issues as huge and seemingly untouchable as global human rights. It is a terrible topic for a speech. Human rights, for most of us, is just something to be depressed about, and that is because activists and advocates like myself are notoriously bad at making people feel hope about the state of the world. 

The problem, of course, is that we advocates have pet issues we want to fix, and in order to fix them, we first have to tell you about them. 

If I want you to donate money to my cause to save the Rohingya in Burma, I first have to tell you about the Rohingya in Burma, and that is going to make you feel sad. Then, my compatriot over at the charity next door will come in and tell you about the plight of the Syrian refugee, and this, too, will make you feel sad. This, too, will make you open your wallet, or maybe pick up the phone to call your congressperson.

We have no shortages of causes we’re fighting for, so this cycle will continue with a parade of us detailing the modern world’s atrocities and catastrophes, and eventually, you will not only get tired of donating money, you’ll start to feel numb to the virtually endless suffering of other people around the world.

Activists have a name for this. We call it “compassion fatigue.” You yourself have experienced compassion fatigue if you, like me, mute the TV every time that Sarah McLachlan ASPCA commercial comes on. 

Closing our eyes to the pain of another living being may make us feel cold and callous, but really, the problem is simply that our individual capacity for compassion is finite, and the world’s suffering is infinite.

The choice, it appears to us, is to either numb yourself or to die of empathy.

Helplessness blues

So when we read the news about the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis growing out of it, many of us feel helpless, like there’s not much that can be done. And to an extent, this is true. Assad has all but won the war, so the dictator who gasses his own people will likely remain in power, now firmly backed with the military might of Russia and Iran. Even if we intervened now, that core fact would not likely change, nor would the fact that the “other side” fighting Assad has a lot of radical Islamist elements in it that most of us would prefer not to be allied with.

When it comes to refugees, we’re also past the point of being able to do very much: If they were here, we could welcome them to our neighborhoods and help them rebuild their lives, but the current administration is not going to let them in, and that position is not likely to change, no matter how much we protest. 

We can give money to organizations that support refugees, we can vote for candidates who are pro-refugee, we can get involved with activist groups, and we can educate ourselves on the conflict, it’s context, and it’s history, but short of actually leaving our homes and going to Europe or the Middle East, our ability to directly help is limited.

The reality of the situation right now is that most of what needs to be done for Syria and Syrians needs to be done at very high levels of government, and most of what really needed to be done to stem the violence should’ve been done years ago. 

The details differ, but the same is basically true of the case of the Rohingya in Burma, or the gang violence in Central America, or the ongoing collapse of Venezuela, or the war in Yemen — the decisions that caused these events were made high up, and they were made in the past. By the time they hit our newspapers, we’ve already failed in the ways that really matter. 

That, I admit, is a pretty depressing thought. It’s thoughts like this that make us feel helpless about the state of the world.

I’d like to argue that any sense of helplessness you feel when confronted with these humanitarian catastrophes, though, is misplaced, and that it stems from thinking about it in the wrong way. So before we can figure out what we can do to fight for human rights, we first need to change our thinking about it. And to do that, we need to address the elephant in the room.

Nazis ruin everything

There’s a rule on the internet known as “Godwin’s Law.” Godwin’s Law states:

“As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”

There’s a corollary to this, which is that whoever is the first to bring up Hitler loses the argument. 

There’s a good reason for this: Nazis poison everything. It’s impossible to talk about the world and politics in a world where the Nazis existed, and, sadly, continue to exist. More importantly, it’s impossible to even think about humanitarian catastrophes without discussing the Nazis. They are the black hole of humanitarian work and political activism. You can’t escape them, and your thoughts and actions bend around them. 

Most modern human rights work was built in direct response to the atrocities the Nazis and their allies committed during World War II, and much of what drives modern human rights workers is the specter of the Holocaust. So instead of trying to avoid the Nazis, we should take a moment to confront them: There’s a major problem with how the Nazis influence the way we talk and think about the world. They make us lazy thinkers, and worse still, this lazy thinking disempowers us.

I’ll explain.

Inevitably, whenever people discuss how to stop human rights abuses before they occur, they bring up the failure of Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy when he went to Munich to negotiate with Hitler. The idea being that, if Chamberlain had been more forceful at Munich, World War II would have been averted. 

Chamberlain and Hitler at the Munich Conference.

Chamberlain and Hitler at the Munich Conference.

Here’s the thing: This is not the moment in which we could’ve stopped World War II. It’s chosen more or less arbitrarily, and usually by people who are trying to justify the use of pre-emptive force. Chamberlain went to Munich in 1938. This is one year before the start of the war. It is five years after the Reichstag fire, five years after Hitler banned all other parties in Germany, five years after Germany had begun to rearm. It would be very easy to argue that 1938 was already far, far too late. 

If you chose to, you could make the argument that the right time to stop the Nazis was 5 years earlier, when they started violating the peace agreement from World War I.

But why stop there? If we wanted to really stop World War II, the Holocaust, and the Nuclear Era, we could just as easily go back to the mid-20’s and build a less speculative American banking system, averting the crash of ‘29, the Great Depression, and the global rise of authoritarianism that came with it. 

Or we could go back to the Treaty of Versailles at the end of WWI, which put such onerous terms on the Germans that their interim democracy was pretty much doomed from the start. We could go back and prevent the absurd and utterly pointless violence of WWI, we could undo all of those antiquated alliances and pointless squabbling, all the constant jostling for colonial supremacy. 

At this point, if you’re keeping track, we’re reaching back into the 19th and even 18th century.

I could keep going back and never stop, but I’ll spare you, as doing so would miss the point. The point is that there is no one moment in history where we could’ve prevented World War II. There were millions of moments. The point is that when we discuss the big moments where the course of history could’ve been changed, we almost exclusively focus on moments where old powerful men were making important decisions in closed rooms. Most of us weren’t alive when these decisions were made, and if we had been, we would not have been in the rooms where they were being made. 

Looking at history in this manner, where the only people ever making a difference are powerful old men, and where there’s only one moment in which the right decision can be made, is fundamentally disempowering to the rest of us.

Gentler alternative histories

I would like to offer a few alternative moments to when the horrors of Hitler could have been prevented: like the moment in 1905 or so, when, at a dinner table in Austria or Germany, someone could have spoken out against an anti-Semitic, war-mongering, or hypernationalist comment made by a friend or relative, and didn’t.

We do not know anything about this moment specifically, but we’re all more familiar with what it would have felt like than we are with what sitting in the room at Munich or Versailles would have felt like. This is because we have all been having these types conversations lately. These conversations are often terrible. They are tense and awkward and sometimes they lead to fights we would rather not have. 

But they are as important now as they were in 1905 Germany, for a single reason: there are often children present at dinner tables, and children listen. Children that hear about how war is glorious, that hear their country is destined to rule all, and that hear that Jews or gays or immigrants are untrustworthy and subhuman, are going to have a very hard time shaking those ideas off in adulthood, no matter how well-meaning and decent they grow up to be.

It would be tempting to imagine that if Hitler had heard an adult he respected speak up for the humanity of the Jews at a young and impressionable age, that he would never have been more than a failed painter, of the harmless type that still lives in your Uncle’s basement. But I think most of us have trouble imagining Hitler as a child, without the mustache and swastika, without the seething, furious charisma. It is hard to imagine the most evil, warped human being most of us can think of as ever being anything but evil and warped, even if we ourselves have never met a truly evil 5-year-old.

Instead of trying to imagine a better Hitler, let’s think about all of the other dinner tables in Germany, the ones filled with the 5-year-olds that would one day join the stormtroopers, attend the rallies, work in the factories, and turn a blind eye as their neighbors were beaten in the streets and dragged into cattle cars.

Imagine if they had learned, at a young age, that a person is a person, regardless of race or religion, that their country was beautiful but that others were, too, that their destiny was not one of conquest and domination, but of peace and cooperation. Imagine if a country full of those kids would have been quite so willing to follow an embittered, failed painter into the violent oblivion of the Second World War.

Now: None of the parents of 1905 could have possibly seen the future that was bearing down on them and their children. None of them could have possibly fathomed the decades that lay in front of them. You can’t really fault them for not being able to see the future. But if you can judge a parent by the children they raise, they were among the worst parents in history.

It is because these kitchen table moments are not recorded in our history books that we don’t remember them, but there were far more of these moments than there were treaties, sanctions, or proclamations, and even in those important, historic instances, all of the men who were in those big important rooms had once sat as children at humble kitchen tables.

The argument is not that the acts of the powerful do not matter, but that the tone of them is set by the accumulation of millions of tiny little acts of kindness or cruelty in a thousand little communities over the preceding centuries. 

What is true of genocides is true of hurricanes: the real life saving work is done long before the crisis point hits.

The darker timelines we never lived

Most importantly, you do not hear about the genocides that didn’t happen. You don’t hear about lives that were saved, about children that were unharmed, about women that weren’t raped, about family heirlooms that weren’t stolen, because if we’re successful in our work, those people don’t exist. If we’re successful in our work, no one will ever thank us, because no one will know there’s a reason to give thanks. 

It’s impossible for us to compare ourselves to darker, more violent timelines that may have resulted had people been crueler in the past, or brighter, more peaceful timelines had we chosen to be kinder and wiser. But there is reason to think that we’ve been getting better as a species over time.

There’s a school of thought out there right now, most notably put forward by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, that says that rather than focusing on short-term, horrifying anecdotes, we should be looking at the broader trends of history. And the broader trends of history are much more positive than you might imagine: violence has steadily declined over the course of history, as have the number of wars, massacres, and genocides. Fewer people are dying of preventable disease, life expectancies have lengthened, and respect for human rights has risen around the world.

There are, of course, major weaknesses in this theory: past performance is not an indicator of future success, and “fewer genocides” is not the ideal, “no genocides” is. A decrease in violence and hardship also doesn’t really matter all that much if we destroy the world with nuclear weapons or climate change in the next few decades, which seems increasingly possible by the day. 

But this outlook does give us a dose of much-needed hope for the future. It does show that human beings can change, and that they seem to gradually, glacially, on an almost generational scale, change for the better. 

A more realistic system of thinking is offered by Rebecca Solnit in her physically slim but emotionally massive 2004 book, Hope in the Dark. Solnit, unlike Pinker, sees the flaws of humanity with clear eyes, but she suggests that hopelessness is still an irrational response to the world. The sheer amount that has changed in our small lifespans alone should lead us to reject the idea that we can see the future and that it’s bleak. 

When I was a kid, virtually no one used the internet, which, for good or for ill, now shapes the world in massive, unpredictable ways. When I was 3, the Berlin Wall fell. A few years before, a world without the USSR was unthinkable. Until I was 16, gay sex was still illegal in 14 states. After Bush’s devastating reelection in 2004, virtually no one would have told you a black man could ever be President, let alone in the next Presidential term. 4 years ago, before Obergefell v. Hodges, there were 15 states where gay marriage was either banned or was not totally legal.

The work that led to these changes started small. It was not Reagan who knocked down the wall, but ordinary Germans, Czechs, Poles, and Russians, dissidents who for decades had been writing poetry and fiction and essays in jail cells and gulags and in the secret corners of their homes. It was not the Supreme Court that legalized gay sex and, eventually, gay marriage, but groups of activists who insisted on their dignity for decades, and were willing to sacrifice their time, money, and personal lives to demand that dignity in court. It was not Obama who brought us a black President, it was thousands of activists who, for centuries, demanded equal rights for blacks, even if it meant being beaten, imprisoned, and sometimes murdered by the very state that was supposed to protect them. 

The "great men" are just surfers. We are the waves.

A butterfly flaps its wings

Most people are terrified of the apparent chaos of the world, but there’s something beautiful about it. Chaos, for one thing, makes the future impossible to predict. This is because small, even microscopically insignificant actions now, can snowball into something massive. This, for those of us who feel insignificant or small, should inspire hope rather than dread.

Most of us are familiar with the Butterfly Effect, the idea that a butterfly can flap its wings in China and that this can cause a hurricane in the Atlantic months later. While no one has ever caught this asshole butterfly in the act, the idea itself is now widely accepted among meteorologists and climate scientists. 

In historical terms, the idea is similarly expressed by the old proverb.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

You cannot predict what will change our future. You cannot predict what it will look like. We do not see the horrible futures that collapse every time we choose to act with kindness rather than cruelty, or the bright, beautiful utopias that evaporate when we lash out at those around us, but those futures are as real for us now as they were for the parents of 1905.

Push it in the right direction. Start seeding more good into this chaos.

Go ahead, little bug: flap.

Insider tricks for fighting the social media attention-capture machine

This is part two of a two-part piece on how the internet captures our attention, and, in doing so, wrests control over our own lives away from us. The first article focused on the how the attention economy works and it’s history (using pornstar butts and soccer player abs to keep the reader from getting bored). This article will focus on tools for fighting attention capture.

I broke it into two articles for two cynical reasons: first, people don’t read articles that seem really long. The last article was about 3,500 words, and even though people will spend 10 hours a day online, they get pissed if a half an hour of it is focused on one single thing. The second reason is that many websites will try and parlay a click into more clicks, so as to increase ad revenue. Advertisers pay higher rates for sites that have low “bounce rates,” which refers to the percentage of followers that come to a single page on a site and leave. Better to hold them and keep them poking around. One way to get them to do this is to produce quality content. Another way is to hack the stats by doing garbage slideshows or two-part posts.

As a sign of good faith that I am only using these tricks for good, I’ve added more butts and abs into the post. Carry on.

How to reclaim your attention

If you read the first part of this piece (don’t worry if you haven’t, they each stand up fine on their own), you are now about 3,550 words in. which is longer than you’ll spend on most pieces of internet writing. This is why I used pornstar butts and soccer player

Telling you that I’m using tricks, by the way, is, in itself, an attention-holding technique called lampshade hanging. This is when you draw attention to a trick you’re playing on the audience to reassure them that you don’t think they’re stupid, that you’re all aware the trick is being played, and that you aren’t trying to pull something over on them. Everyone gets to feel clever, and we can move on.

Knowledge of tricks like this, along with a few other tools, can help you reclaim your attention and be more intentional about how you spend your time and life. Here are my suggestions, as an experienced attention hack:

FIRST: LEARN MINDFULNESS

The number one biggest lesson is to keep an eye out for stuff that draws you in without your making a conscious choice to give your attention to it. If your response is automatic, chances are, you are vulnerable to manipulation.

The best way to learn to detect your automatic reactions it to take up some sort of mindfulness practice. Mindfulness doesn’t necessarily mean meditation, it’s just a practice of learning to notice what’s happening in the present moment. By doing this, you can start noticing what your brain does when it’s on autopilot, like, for example, when you pick up your phone without really having intended to, or like when you realize you’ve eaten half a sandwich and can’t remember starting it.

As a nice side effect, learning to do this is also really good for your physical and mental health, and for your general well-being. You will probably be able to find meditation classes in your area, but there are also thousands of videos, apps, and sites dedicated to the practice. The app I use (and very much recommend) is Headspace.

SECOND: GET OFF THE INTERNET

As with all addictive or unconscious behaviors, the best way to reduce your indulgence of it is to remove the stimulus that causes it. And social media in particular is an attention capture nightmare, so the more time you can spend away from it, the better.

A few practices that could help you do this:

  1. Download apps like Moment which track your screen time and help you to reduce it. The new Apple iOS also now has a “Screen Time” section under “Settings.”

  2. Take a week (or a month) off social media.

  3. Delete Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from your phone — reserve them for while you’re on a computer.

  4. Turn off your phone’s color. Colors grab attention, and grayscale doesn’t quite as much. Lifehacker has a guide for how to do so here.

  5. If you have a thought that you feel compelled to post, write it down elsewhere and see if you can work it into something more long form. Alternatively, call someone who will appreciate the thought and tell it to them.

  6. Install an adblocker to cut out at least some of the noise.

  7. If you get your news from social media, stop. Media that’s free is usually bad media. This article is excepted, of course, but free media follows the same model as the hacky yellow journalism from the 19th century. There’s a saying in Silicon Valley, “If you’re not the customer, you’re the product,” and that ideology fundamentally compromises the integrity of that media. So take out a subscription to the sources you appreciate, or give $1 an episode to the Patreon of a podcast you like. It will usually cost you a good deal less on a monthly basis than a daily cup of coffee will.

  8. If you have specific blogs or sites you like, sign up to their email blasts or their RSS feeds rather than getting their stuff from Facebook or Twitter. That way you get what they’re producing, but without all of the other noise of your feeds.

THIRD: BEWARE OF MUSIC

The things that are the most automatic are the things that require the least processing in your brain. Which means that you are most susceptible to music and images, far more than you are to words. You would be susceptible to touch and smell, too, but smell-o-vision never really took off, and advertisers haven’t figured out how to give you a massage while telling you about their product yet.

Starting with music: There’s an amazing song from the 90's band Blues Traveler called “Hook,” where they basically tell the audience throughout the song that the only reason they’re still listening is because the band is using a good hook. They happened to have stolen that hook from Pachelbel’s Canon in D, which every listener has heard 10,000 times at a wedding, and naturally finds catchy.

Modern pop music has distilled this catchiness to a science, to the point where a lot of music is lyrically total nonsense, but musically is virtually impossible to stop listening to. There was a lovely viral video a few years back that showed how many of our favorite pop songs use the same basic four chord progression, which is very pleasing to the ear. Churches regularly use this progression in their hymns, as a way of holding the attention of the congregation.

Churches, by the way, are the all-time kings of attention capture. They’ve understood for centuries that, to hold an audience, you need music, you need visuals, you need stories, you need repetition, and you need community. This last bit is something advertisers have seemed the least interested in focusing on, except in a superficial “we’re all united because we drink Coke” kind of way.

Anyway: beyond the structure of the song, we have emotional attachments to music that can’t always be understood in a rational way. It’s tied to certain times in our lives, it’s tied to certain feelings, to certain relationships, and so the use of a popular song in an ad or a piece of propaganda is inevitably going to make you feel strong things, making you more susceptible to the message.

FOURTH: BEWARE OF IMAGES

In writing, we can’t rely as much on sound, so we rely instead on the use of images. It is a sad fact that, in getting someone to click on your article, the image generally matters more than the headline or the text of the article itself.

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The most obvious pull is sex. Hence my use of butts and abs to hold you thus far. This is a pretty unsophisticated technique, but it doesn’t matter, because it really works.

Sex aside, it’s easy enough to spot an image that’s been chosen to pull you in. The biggest rule is that it has to evoke some sort of emotion. And what evokes the biggest emotions are other people. The original editor of People Magazine, Richard Stolley, developed a set of rules for choosing who goes on the cover of their magazine, and, though the specifics change from publication to publication, these rules still pretty much stand today for attention capture through the use of images:

1.  Young is better than old.

2.  Pretty is better than ugly.

3.  Rich is better than poor.  

4.  Movies are better than television.

5.  Movies and television are better than music.  

6.  Movies, TV, and music are all better than sports. 

7.  Anything is better than politics. 

8.  Nothing is better than the celebrity dead.

Obviously, that is an embarrassingly cynical list, but when you buy (or click) on impulse, your choices are dictated not by your rational brain, but by your id, which is, to be honest, pretty shallow.

Beyond those rules, there are a few other guidelines:

You pay attention to the color red more quickly than you do to other colors. This is basically an evolutionary quirk: in nature, red can be indicative of poison (as in a coral snake or a black widow), of sexual arousal (flushed cheeks), of food (berries or apples), or of danger (fire! lava!). It’s also far less common in nature than blue, green, or yellow, so we notice it a lot quicker, and when we do, our response is one of arousal. That is why most apps use red as their notification color, and an article headed by an image with a streak of red in it somewhere will be more likely to pull readers in.

You pay more attention to faces expressing strong emotion, like joy or anguish. This is basic human empathy. Seeing strong emotions in others elicits strong emotions in us, which is why social media can feel so draining after a tragedy.

You are more likely to laugh at an image than at words. This is just a matter of barrier-to-entry. It requires more processing time to read and laugh at a written joke, so it’s better to deliver it in an image. This is why memes are so huge — they are a more efficient delivery package than text. There’s even a subgenre of internet comic and meme-making that just adapts text Tweets visually.

Cuteness is king. You knew this, already. The fact that cats are now internet-famous tells you all you need to know. Oddly, studies have found that cuteness actually produces an aggressive reaction in many humans — this is the “YOU’RE SO CUTE I WANT TO SQUEEZE YOU TO DEATH!” emotion you feel when you see a particularly cute baby or puppy. This is because our brains are trying to regain emotional equilibrium after seeing something that turns them into little puddles of gentle, soft feelings. The aggressive reaction does not repulse you, it pulls you towards the object of your aggression.

It other words, it makes you want to click.

FIFTH: BEWARE OF WORDS

Finally, and least importantly, are words. Words are the bane of an internet writer’s existence, because no one wants to read them. Big blocks of text are very intimidating, which is why I’ve been punctuating this article with videos and images.

(Fine — I would hate to insult your intelligence. You’re not scared of lots of words. You read big books and only read the features section of The New Yorker. But lots of text is intimidating to enough people to be noticeable in the analytics. A large enough number of people will click out of an article with massive blocks of text to make it not worth it, overall, for the writer to use them.)

The unfortunate truth is that, occasionally, while writing, you have to use words. And there are ways to make words less scary to readers.

One thing you can do is break up the text.

People are intimidated by big blocks of text.

So writers will just turn short sentences into standalone paragraphs.

Yoast SEO, a pretty standard Wordpress plugin that helps you increase the stickiness of your posts, suggests not putting more than 150 words in a paragraph.

It’s also best to keep sentences under 20 words (I am currently breaking this rule), and keep sections under 300 words before breaking it into a new section. This is why listicles do so well. They naturally break up the piece. They also give some words more importance than other, through the use of headers. In an article, the most important words are in the headline (which is what triggers the click), followed by the blurb posted on Facebook, followed by the headers in the article, followed by the words in the article itself.

(Often, by the way, the only words that the writer of the article actually personally chose were the words in the article, and not the title or the headers. So if you get pissed about a headline, just remember that the person you’re angry at is usually not the writer, it’s the editor. So your hate mail is mean and dumb.)

If the text gets too lengthy and I’m running low on listicle points, I can break up with images or videos. We’re basically just 3 year olds at heart, and when we flip through a page and don’t see a lot of pictures, we’re kind of done.

This is literally the best GIF I know about. Please don’t leave my article.

This is literally the best GIF I know about. Please don’t leave my article.

This obviously works in advertisers’ favor. Yeah, I can pick a video or a photo to show you here, but why not make every third photo an ad?

A lot of internet ad tools are automated. They’re rarely chosen by the actual contents of the article — the ad software usually just plunders the article for keywords, and this often means the ads stand in direct opposition to the message of the article itself.

For example: When I was writing a blog in 2008 in favor of the travel boycott to Burma, Google AdSense posted ads for plane tickets to Yangon, the Burmese capital. I am sure Google’s ad algorithm saw “Burma” and “travel” in my keywords, and made a guess at what type of ad my readers would like.

Ads aren't evil.png

THIS IS TECHNICALLY THE SAME SECTION, PLEASE DON’T TELL ANYONE

In a pinch, if I have to use words in my article, I can use a few tools that hold attention.

  1. Hyperbole — words like “epic,” “staggering,” and “amazing.”

  2. Identity labels — “millennials,” “people of color,” and “Trump supporters.”

  3. Emotional triggers — phrases like “heart-wrenching,” “pissed off,” “all the feels.”

Our minds have a well-documented negativity bias, so negative words will have a stronger impact. This is why you’ve seen your social media flooded with extremely negative articles about the state of the world. This is why you feel despair all of the time.

Don’t get me wrong: the world is a mess. But the coverage of the world is disproportionately focused on the bad. Frequently, the bad stuff that the media focuses on is low-hanging fruit, like Trump not standing in the rain for veterans, and not on the really bad stuff, like the global slide towards authoritarianism or the fact that technological innovation can’t and won’t save us from climate catastrophe.

For identity, it’s tweaking on something deep and personal that you probably feel protective or angry about. “Millennials” is an immensely popular one because everyone who’s not a Millennial despises Millennials, and everyone who is a Millennial feels screwed and maligned. Generational, geographical, sexual, ethnic, racial, religious, or political identities are all fair game.

The big lesson here is that whatever is written has to evoke an emotion, not a thought. Even when rational inquiry is being discussed, irrational and emotional phrases like “science says” will be used. This is very clearly a nonsense phrase, because “science” is not a monolith, it doesn’t say anything, and scientific consensus constantly changes. Usually, this article will be covering a single study that has yet to be replicated or peer-reviewed, but which says something emotionally appealing, like “Science says drinking whiskey will help you live longer.

THIS PARAGRAPH HAS INFORMATION. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT WILL PROBABLY FEEL PRETTY NORMAL.

Actual statements of fact are a harder sell for clicks, so titles that make factual statements will often employ something called the curiosity gap. The curiosity gap is a headline writing technique in which you’re given enough information to be curious, but not enough information to satisfy your curiosity. The curiosity gap as a concept was developed by Upworthy, and in its worst incarnation, it read something like, “These puppies had never met a veteran. What happened next will blow your mind.”

That type of headline has mercifully gone out of style. Nowadays, the curiosity gap is still used, it’s just used much more tamely. This headline was pulled at random from the front page of the Washington Post, as I write:

THEY ARE A LESBIAN JEWISH-PALESTINIAN COUPLE. HERE’S HOW THEY ARE USING COMEDY TO CONFRONT STEREOTYPES.

You can see the formula: Statement of fact. Promise of more within the article.

The least effective titles are, in fact, the most informative ones. They are the ones that try the least to engage any of your irrational processes, and instead just try to deliver information. Probably the worst thing you can do for a title is to moralize. The word should is poison for clicks. Far better to exaggerate, manipulate, or evoke something sensory through imagery or onomatopoeia.

Roy Lichtenstein’s “WHAAM!” painting.

Roy Lichtenstein’s “WHAAM!” painting.

Achtung, Baby!

Methods for attention capture evolve over time as readers get wise to them. But the core principle remains the same: appeal to the part of the reader’s mind they have less control over. And regardless of the form it takes, it is monumentally effective. On average, Americans spend over 11 hours a day engaging with media (mostly screens, sometimes radio/podcasts).

The correct response to that is holy shit.

That’s too much of your time to not be in control. Which is why the most important thing you can do to reclaim your attention is to learn the difference between actions you undertake automatically, and actions you take intentionally.

This is not easy. When you start a mindfulness practice, you will quickly realize just how much of your day you spend on autopilot. This is because your automatic responses are deeply ingrained. They are habits that we don’t even realize are habits. To try and master them can feel like a monumental task.

But it’s not. It’s actually quite liberating. Once you aren’t just reacting to everything around you, you can carve out some space to think or talk or write on your own. You can actually create.

The things we pay attention to are the things we end up spending our lives on. And the internet, even more than the television, is a massive machine that’s built to seize and hold our attention for as long as possible. This is not to say there aren’t things worth paying attention to on the internet, it’s just to say that we should be making the choice of what we’re focusing on ourselves, not as some sort of thoughtless animalistic response.

We should have the ability to put down our phones and be with each other without unconsciously picking it up to check it. We should have the ability to close out of Twitter and pick up a book, or go outside and breathe the air without thinking about how we can snap a good pic for Instagram.

And perhaps most importantly, you are not valued by the people who are taking your attention. To them, you are not a human who loves, who feels joy and sadness, ecstasy and pain, who creates, who destroys, who lives and dies. You are a click. You are a product. You are a consumer. You are a drone. You are just a number on a spreadsheet. And they’re not even turning you into a lifeless object for a interesting reason. You’re being used to sell dumb bullshit.

Fuck those guys. By hacking your attention, they are stealing your finite time on this earth to hawk their gauche, pointless bullshit. No butt, no sick burn, no cute kitten is worth that. There are better things you can do with your time. There are better things you can do with your life. They don’t have to choose how you spend your life. You can. Take your attention back.

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Guys? Guys. You can leave the page now. Christ. Y’all thirsty.

Guys? Guys. You can leave the page now. Christ. Y’all thirsty.

The internet is destroying your life. Here’s how to fight back.

In the latter half of the 20th century, a group of people called the Discordians discovered something magical: the Number 23. They came to call this esoteric bit of wizardry the “23 Enigma,” and pointed out that, once you start looking for it, there are all of these strange recurrences of the number 23 in the world. A small sampler:

LeBron James and Michael Jordan, the two greatest basketball players of all time, both wear the number 23 on their jersey. David Beckham, Don Mattingly, and hockey legend Bob Nystrom also wore 23.

Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times, each parent contributes 23 chromosomes to their child, William Shakespeare was born and died on April 23, Princess Leia was held in cell AA23 in the first Star Wars, Kurt Cobain was born in 1967 (1+9+6+7=23) and died in 1994 (1+9+9+4=23), Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859 (1+8+5+9=23), September 11th adds up to 23 (9+11+2+0+0+1=23), and so on.

It is at this point that we should point out that the Discordians are worshippers of chaos, that the 23 Enigma is utter bullshit, and that this is why the Discordians love it. Simply put, when you decide something is special, you start looking out for instances of its specialness, and inevitably, you find them. The universe is immense, complex, and chaotic, and our attention can only focus on so many things at a time, so if you start looking for a pattern, you will be able to find it. 

You could apply the concept to anything: there are masses of people (not all necessarily gullible or stupid) who believe in a concept called synchronicity, which is when a series of seemingly connected coincidences occur in a meaningful way. The concept is used by many as a proof of God: “Well, if the universe has no meaning, explain this unbelievable coincidence.”

This is why fundamentalist Christians see “666” everywhere, why theists find infinite instances of God’s benevolence and mercy, why atheists find infinite signs of a supposed God's cruelty and wrath. We all tend to find what we’re looking for. In reality, we are beings with an extremely finite capacity (about 120 bits per second, according to some fairly reliable research) for absorbing the nearly infinite amount of information the universe throws at us. Our minds have necessarily evolved a mechanism for selecting which bits of information are important.

The ability to separate the important information from the irrelevant information would have been very useful for literally every form of life — creatures that spend all of their time reveling in awe at the oneness of the universe make for excellent and easy snacks — which means that this ability is not only innately human, but innate in organic life itself. It is, in no small part, responsible for our very existence. 

But it also means that the mechanisms that developed this selectiveness came before higher level rational thinking. So our supposedly rational minds still select the focal points of their attention using arcane, reptilian, even amoeban tools. Our pretensions at rationality are, at best, only partly true, and at worst, are totally delusional.

For more on the Discordians, the 23 enigma, and just a staggeringly good book, check out John Higgs’ brilliant   The KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds.

For more on the Discordians, the 23 enigma, and just a staggeringly good book, check out John Higgs’ brilliant The KLF: Chaos, Magic, and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds.

The end result of the 23 Enigma is that, even though the Discordians were just trying to prove a point about the randomness of consciousness and attention, they ended up making 23 special to a lot of people. You can find hundreds of little spots on the internet where people talk about the importance of 23, not realizing that the entire concept was made up by chaos worshippers trying to prove a point about selection bias. There are even two movies about people who are obsessed with the number 23, including a very bad one starring Jim Carrey. 

In other words, by lying about 23 being special, the Discordians actually made 23 special. Enough kids grew up worshipping Michael Jordan or LeBron James or Princess Leia that 23 has retained a childlike mysticism in their old age — indeed, when I was working as a listicle (or, less generously, clickbait) writer, we had data showing that 23 was the most effective number of items in a list if we wanted to garner clicks. 

You do not need to believe in numerology for this to work on you. The next time you see the number 23, you’ll notice it. We are not rational in the allocation of our attention, and this makes us extremely prone to manipulation.

The attention economy

I need to admit something, right here and now — I am not sure how long I can hold your attention, and I want you to read this through to the end. So if you stick with it, I promise that, a few paragraphs further down, there will be an image of pornstar Christy Mack’s butt, and later on, an image of soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo’s naked abs. Just bear with me, they are body parts worth reading towards, I promise.

Tim Wu’s excellent history of advertising and propaganda,   The Attention Merchants   ,  is interesting and terrifying. Find out how America inspired Hitler! And how Hitler inspired advertisers!

Tim Wu’s excellent history of advertising and propaganda, The Attention Merchants, is interesting and terrifying. Find out how America inspired Hitler! And how Hitler inspired advertisers!

We currently live in something called “the Attention Economy.” It’s a phrase that seems designed implicitly to actually drive people’s attention elsewhere, which is why I’m forced to bribe you with asses and abs, but it’s an immensely important concept to understand for someone trying to be a decent citizen in the 21st century. 

The Attention Economy dates back to the early 19th century, when newspapers started supplementing their income with ads. Prior to this, their money was mainly made on subscriptions, but they had to charge higher rates for this, which limited their readership. Then, a newspaper man called Benjamin Day, who ran the New York Sun, had an idea: you could charge less for a subscription if you sold ad space. This switched the newspaper’s primary clients from the reader to the advertiser. The reader, instead, became the product. You could charge advertisers more if you had more readers, and how would you go about getting readers? By trying to grab their attention with flashy and lurid headlines.

Tim Wu describes the result in his excellent history of the advertising industry, The Attention Merchants:

“A consequence of that model is a total dependence on gaining and holding attention. This means that under competition, the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative, whatever stimulus may more likely engage what cognitive scientists call our ‘automatic’ attention as opposed to our ‘controlled’ attention, the kind we direct with intent. The race to a bottomless bottom, appealing to what one might call the audience’s baser instincts, poses a fundamental, continual dilemma for the attention merchant — just how far will he go to get his harvest? If the history of attention capture teaches us anything, it is that the limits are often theoretical, and when real, rarely self-imposed.”

This model is the one used to this day by both Facebook and Google which, despite all of their ads proclaiming their intent on “bringing us together,” are primarily advertising companies. The evidence is in where their money comes from: Alphabet, Google’s parent company, made 84% of its revenue in 2017 from advertising. Virtually all of Facebook’s revenue comes from ads.

Their algorithms are based, as such, on delivering not only the content that's most likely to be useful to you, but what you’re most likely to click on. Content creators understand this, and, whether consciously or unconsciously, build their material on what’s likely to capture and hold your attention for the longest period of time. 

But enough about that, here’s Christy Mack’s fabulous butt.

 
 

What butts, clickbait, and Nazis have in common

Ms. Mack, if you don't know of her (you liar), is a retired pornstar, and this particular picture of her butt is being used to sell a product, which, as it happens, is actually a molding of her butt which you can buy and use as a sex toy. I apologize if that is offensive to you in any way, but you cannot risk losing someone’s attention in this game, and you would not have stuck around for a Toyota ad. Mack is holding your attention to sell a product, and I am (hopefully) holding it so you listen to what I have to say. But these aren’t the only things attention can be leveraged for.

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Attention-capture is also the main feature of political propaganda. Hitler, for example, was a notoriously entrancing speaker, and he intuitively understood the importance of capturing and holding attention. When people now ask how Hitler so thoroughly brainwashed an entire nation, it was largely because a) he held their attention, and b) he utterly destroyed anyone else who may have vied for their attention. You could not escape Hitler’s ideas in 1930’s Germany, and this totally warped that country’s psyche to the point where they became, well, Nazi Germany.

After World War II, most of the world became deeply suspicious of political propaganda (with the obvious exceptions of the late 20th century’s great dictatorships, which fully embraced it), but most people did not extend that suspicion towards the use of attention capture for commercial purposes. Marketing firm Yankelovitch estimates that in 1970, the average American saw 500 ads per day. The number in 2006 was up to 5,000. Try counting, just for one day, just how many ads you hear on the radio, see on the TV, pop up on a webpage, or you pass on a billboard. The number, whatever it is, is high.

This leads to ad saturation, which means ads have to try crazier and edgier things to stand out from the sea of ads that we’re immersed in every day. Sex is the obvious place to go, but other popular methods include appealing to some sort of base patriotism, latching onto celebrity, or employing a particularly infectious earworm or catchphrase. 

These all have diminishing returns, though. Just look at what’s happened to Budweiser over the past 16 years: they went from the nonsensical but catchy “Wassup?” catchphrase that literally everyone was saying in 2002, to the incomprehensible “Dilly dilly” in 2018.

In the 2010s, as the lines between politics and commerce in all other arenas have increasingly blurred, ads have gotten a bit more political. Politics, it seems, is the main thing that holds people’s attention these days. So Nike (notorious for its long-term use of sweatshop labor) is now a supporter of progressive hero Colin Kaepernick. 84 Lumber is pro-immigrant, and Always feminine care products is, perhaps unsurprisingly, allying itself with the feminists.

Indeed, it is in part because we are so open to being advertised to that the line has gotten so blurred.

The biggest actor by far in recent years has been Facebook, which treated the 2016 election like an ad moneymaking bonanza, and which became an extremely effective place for people with less-than-great intentions to sink dark money and disinformation into. Facebook actively lobbied against any sort of restrictions being placed on that revenue. 

New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air

"Facebook had used its lobbying power. It had argued to the Federal Election Commission that it should be exempted from rules that require television advertising to be identified by the source of the funding. You know, that point at the end where they say who who paid for the ad. They said we shouldn't have to follow those rules because we're a new technology, and in their filings, they said you don't want to stifle the growth of new innovation.”

We all know the end result: massive amounts of disinformation were targeted at inflaming Trump’s supporters and depressing Democratic turnout for Hillary Clinton. Russia or not, Trump’s strategists have actually said they wouldn’t have won without Facebook. Osnos again:

“To this day Facebook is struggling with that fundamental paradox, which is that on the one hand, their business and their success depends on their ability to tout their powers of persuasion. They are telling advertisers ‘We can encourage users to listen to you, to believe in you, and to act on what you are telling them.’ And yet at the same time, they’re trying to say that they have not had this dispositive effect on our politics. And that is a contradiction."

(The entire Osnos interview is fascinating, by the way, as is his piece in the New Yorker.)

I personally experienced the political power of Facebook in 2016 while I was writing and editing at a travel site that primarily produces clickbait. On a whim, our senior editor okayed the posting of an inspiring Bernie Sanders video, and it blew up like nothing we’d ever seen before. It was in the realm of millions of clicks in a single day. We usually got, at the time, around 10 million pageviews a month, so this was a huge deal for advertising revenue. The call went out to our writers and editors: Yes, we are a travel site. But we should try to find a way to integrate politics. 

I was happy, because I like writing about politics, but we did not have anything close to the budget required to produce actual political reporting, so what was produced was, to put it lightly, of varying quality and usefulness. There was certainly no budget for fact-checking, and turnaround time was expected in a manner of hours, so I have no doubt errors got through.

It could be justified, though, for clicks. It could be justified, as long as we were holding our audience’s attention. And if people hated it?

Hang on, let’s pause for a second and look at Cristiano Ronaldo’s abs.

 
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Double trouble 😜@cr7underwear

A post shared by Cristiano Ronaldo (@cristiano) on

 

Hateclicking is still clicking

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” you might be saying. “Why the fuck are you using Ronaldo? Didn’t he just get accused of sexual assault?”

You might, if you really like this piece, share it anyway, but with a caveat on Facebook that you find my use of a sexual predator to hold your attention to be problematic. Others will comment on that post, many will agree, many will disagree, and more people will click on my article.

We in the clickbait business understand that attention is attention, and it does not matter if it is good or bad. If anything, humans have a negativity bias, and having a negative reaction to Ronaldo makes you more likely to share this article on Facebook or Twitter than if you simply “liked” it.

I, as a human being with moral agency, can rationalize my use of the sexual predator’s body by saying I was trying to make a point. Writers are really good at coming up with rationalizations for skeezy actions that are ultimately profitable to them.

In all honesty, if you’re writing something political for a clickbait site, the biggest sin is to be even-keeled. Inflammatory writing is what drives clicks, and it drives clicks from both your supporters and from your detractors.

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You yourself are not above this.

Tell me you’ve never posted an article you’ve hated to explain why. Tell me you’ve never commented on an article you hate. Yes, you may have been having a conversation, and that conversation may have been productive. But that conversation kept you on Facebook, and the more time everyone spends on Facebook, the more they can charge advertisers. Your attention was held, regardless of whether it was held by outrage or sex or joy. The morality of it all is completely immaterial.

It is precisely this phenomenon that Donald Trump used to rise to national prominence and to take the United State Presidency. Trump is a master of manufacturing outrage. When he says something awful — say, ripping up the Constitution, targeting immigrants, women, or the most vulnerable people in our society — it energizes his white supremacist base and infuriates a lot of people that that base really likes to infuriate. There’s no reason or rationality behind anything he says, because there doesn’t have to be: the point is the attention. And whether it’s positive or negative, he’s got it.

We are still, two years in, shocked that he won’t stand in the rain for a World War I memorial. We still talk about all of his legal and ethical violations, both big and small, almost endlessly. Are we still really surprised by anything he does? Or are we just addicted to hating him? And what horrible things are happening in the background while we fume about the totally predictable, if perversely fascinating, shenanigans he engages in?

Rethinking the attention economy

Even if Facebook and Twitter collapse in on themselves (which they likely won’t for a while), even if Donald Trump is impeached by January and we all get to go back to our old lives, it’s worth trying to better understand the way our attention economy works, because it’s where we all live at the moment. It’s the reason the world feels like a terrible car wreck you can’t look away from. It’s the reason you’re constantly feeling furious or personally attacked.

The good news is that there’s a solution embedded right there in the name: if we live in an "attention economy," a place where attention is the currency, then it is up to us as stewards of that currency to be a bit more responsible about how we spend it. Someone who spends all of their money on gambling or clothes or booze, for example, is generally thought of as an impulsive, irresponsible spender.

It's surprising, then, that we don't think the same about the people who aren't in control of what they pay attention to. If anything, attention is a more valuable currency than money. Money is essentially a collective fiction that we've all agreed is valuable, even though the material money itself holds no or little actual value to us.

Attention, on the other hand, is the mechanism through which we focus on and experience the world. It is, a la Descartes, the only thing we can truly know exists. 

The things that we pay attention to are the things we spend time on, the things we spend time on end up defining our lives. By this standard, people who spend their days fuming about Trump’s latest Tweets and getting into flamewars with MAGA bros, neo-Nazis and Russian trolls are literally spending their lives focused on Trump, and not, say, on building a better society, or on having productive, good-faith conversations with friends and family, or on writing something new and original that could actually change the world in a good way.

If we want to really return to a spot where we’re building the world we want to build, and aren’t merely responding to the abhorrent world being built around us, it’s worth returning to the lesson of the 23 Enigma.

The lesson of the 23 Enigma isn't that people are dumb and easy to trick. It’s that if you call attention to something, people will start to notice it. It will absorb more of their thoughts, and it will start to gain meaning. This thing doesn’t have to be fancy, and it doesn’t have to make sense. It can be something as simple as the number 23, or a pointless wall along the Mexican border. If you can get people’s attention and say something is important, even the ones who don’t rationally believe you will still find themselves thinking about it more. Because our attention is not directed by our smart brain, it’s directed by our idiot brain.

The corollary to this is that if we learn how to master and direct our own attention, we ourselves can be the ones choosing what’s important and what’s not.

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This is part one of a two-part piece. The next one focuses on actual tools for fighting attention capture.

I broke it into two articles for two cynical reasons: first, people don’t read articles that seem really long. This article was about 3,500 words, and even though people will spend 10 hours a day online, they get pissed if a half an hour of it is focused on one single thing. The second reason is that many websites will try and parlay a click into more clicks, so as to increase ad revenue. Advertisers pay higher rates for sites that have low “bounce rates,” which refers to the percentage of followers that come to a single page on a site and leave. Better to hold them and keep them poking around. One way to get them to do this is to produce quality content. Another way is to hack the stats by doing garbage slideshows or two-part posts. Sound infuriating? Good! I reveal more of these secrets in the next piece!*

*They’re not really secrets. They’re general knowledge in the industry. But people don’t click for general knowledge.

As a sign of good faith that I am only using these tricks for good, I’ve added more butts and abs into the next post as well.

Read Part Two Here.

The first few weeks of parenting are kind of a nightmare

It has been just over a month since our daughter was born, and I have now heard independently from several different sources an alarming admission. Paraphrased, it goes something like this:

In the run-up to having our kid, all of the courses we took and the doctors we visited told us the same thing: ‘Don’t shake the baby.’ I was always like, what the hell, who on earth would shake a baby? Why does that even need to be said? But then about a week into having a kid, I thought, ‘Oh, I can totally see why people shake babies.’

This, to the outsider or non-parent, sounds incredibly dark. Shaking babies, it goes without saying, is bad. It can give babies permanent brain damage or it can kill them. It is a really sad, upsetting thing to think about. But while I can’t speak for the broader population or prove my point with any real numbers, almost all of the parents I know and have discussed this with have admitted to having those feelings in the first few weeks of their baby’s life. I suspect it is a fairly widespread impulse, widespread enough for healthcare professionals to repeat warnings about it ad nauseum prior to giving birth, even while (I hope) the numbers of people who actually do shake their babies are much smaller.

I bring this up now because I had this impulse, and because the first month of having a baby was absolutely fucking harrowing. I am telling you this here because, in the darkest moments, I went online seeking some sort of confirmation that what I was feeling was, at best, fairly normal, and at worst, not totally abnormal. It took me a long time to find it.

What we don’t talk about when we talk about parenting

My wife and I have both felt a disconnect between the way people talk about pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenthood and our actual experience of it. People like to say that pregnancy is a “magical time,” and that childbirth is a “beautiful miracle.” Pregnancy was not magical for us, as my wife spent the entire 9 months extremely nauseous, and the last few months in intense physical discomfort. She also wasn’t allowed to drink for most of the first year of the Trump Presidency. Let that sink in for a second.

Childbirth, likewise, was not something I’d classify as a “beautiful miracle,” because I reserve the word “miracle" for things that are both uncommon and unexplainable, and childbirth is both extremely common and totally explainable. Nor was it “beautiful.” A sunset is beautiful. A puppy playing in the snow is beautiful. My wife is beautiful. My wife in indescribable agony is not beautiful. It is torture. It had another beautiful thing (our baby) at the end of it, but the process itself was, in a totally objective manner of speaking, a complete goddamn nightmare.

The common phrase for the first few weeks of parenthood is “it’s a special time.” That, too, is misleading. It is certainly different than what we are used to. It is certainly an adjustment. But the comments of “Oh, it is such a special time,” and “Haha prepare to never sleep again haha!” failed to capture, I think, the enormity of those first few weeks. Afterwards, we kept looking at each other and saying, “Why didn’t anyone tell us?” Of course, people did — they tried to. But they held back just a bit, or we didn't quite gather what they were trying to tell us.

Why aren’t we honest about this time?

I suspect there are a few reasons for this. The first is that most people don’t want to scare the shit out of new parents. That is fair. If I had known what was coming, I would have been terrified. Better prepared, but terrified. 

The second is that unless a parent is in those first few weeks themselves, they’ve gotten to a point where their baby is, on the whole, far more delightful than it is difficult. It doesn’t take much — our daughter over the past few days has started giving us her first smiles, and holy hell, that alone almost makes those first few weeks worth it. I am sure in a few months it will be hard to not look at this time with at least some sense of nostalgia.

The third, and perhaps the most insidious, is that Americans in general suck at confronting the darkness within. There is nothing darker than saying, “Yeah, in those first few weeks, in the blackest hours of the night, I felt something akin to hate for the small defenseless newborn in my care,” so most people don’t do it. Better to tamp those feelings down than to give them voice and publicly reveal yourself to be a bad person, mentally ill, or worse, kind of a drama queen. Darkness that’s tamped down instead of dealt with, of course, tends to bubble out in horrifying and uncontrollable ways, but hey — "horrifying and uncontrollable darkness” could replace “E pluribus unum” on the penny as the US motto at the moment.

The fourth and final reason is that it’s just a really hard experience to put into words. Plenty of people said, “Guys — listen to me. It’s really exhausting. It is not easy.” But with a few exceptions, those comments failed to warn us of the encroaching darkness. I am a professional writer, so I am going to make an attempt at explaining it myself now, before I’ve had the chance to let this period be shaded by nostalgia.

What even is a baby

“The comedy of man starts like this,” Father John Misty says, “Our brains are way too big for our mother’s hips. So nature, she divines this alternative: we emerge half formed and hope whoever greets us on the other end is kind enough to fill us in.”

The thing about a newborn baby is that it is basically still a fetus. The features that they will take on in life aren’t totally discernible. Their eyes are puffy, their heads are weird-shaped, and they are covered in hair. Their motions are erratic, as they do not yet know that their arms are, in fact, attached to their bodies. They are cold for the first time. They are hungry for the first time. They are frantic to be neither of those things. But the only method they have of telling you this is by crying. So they do that, a lot. The only other things they do is poop and sleep. 

This does not mean you don’t love them. But in descriptions of meeting their children, many parents veer towards the hyperbolic — an instant connection of deepest love, and all that. And I'm sure for some people, this is true. But the thing is, a sizable percentage of mothers don’t feel this instant connection, and are shocked, to some extent, at the alienness of the baby that has now been thrust into their care. Mothers, who just went through the most physically grueling moment of their lives, are not given any serious amount of rest. Breastfeeding must happen immediately, tests need to be done, stitches sewn, nurses and doctors consulted. Fathers are left in a daze at seeing their wives go through that trauma, and, even more so than women, have trouble fully fathoming that they are now fathers.

For the record, I cried the first time I held my daughter. It was a pretty wonderful experience, and she was beautiful, in her weird, monster-y way. I did feel big feelings, and a lot of them were good. But it was, like so many major life events, a situation that was not-quite-as-described. It had been described so many times as an experience of unadulterated joy, and it was much more complex than that. 

Sleeplessness blues

When we got home after a couple of days in the hospital, we put the bassinet next to the bed. Aside from shaken baby, the thing doctors harp on most is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which, as far as syndrome names go, is probably the most descriptive and melodramatic of them. Babies, they tell you, can die at any minute for no apparent reason. You must be constantly alert. So that first night, you are a) either listening to your baby fuss and squirm, or b) are hearing nothing, and are constantly getting up to check to see if she’s breathing.

This is where the infamous sleeplessness comes in, but what I found was that the sleeplessness itself was not the problem. I was pleasantly surprised at how well I could function on three hours sleep and a cup of coffee. What was alarming was the side effects. We need sleep to process the events of the day and our emotions, and there are a lot of emotions that come with having a baby. If you can't process those emotions away with sleep, they end up smashing into each other like a 32-car pile-up, and you become an unstable wreck of a human being.

My first few weeks were complicated by the fact that I’m pulling out of a long depression. Depression for me was rarely sadness — it was more often emotionlessness, so the sudden return of very intense emotions was that much more overwhelming. 

There is a final point to make here: A newborn baby’s cry is torture. No, literally: the CIA coupled sleep deprivation with the sound of colicky babies crying to torture people. It makes sense, evolutionarily — nature would want us to address our babies needs, so why not make their preverbal way of asking for help something that causes us intense distress that we want to alleviate immediately?

But babies don’t always cry for an immediately discernible reason, and in the first weeks, you may not have figured out which cries mean "poopie diaper" and which mean "I'm hungry" and which mean "I have farts inside my body that I want outside my body but I don't know how to work my butthole yet." So it’s the middle of the night. I haven’t slept more than 2 hours at a stretch in a week. And there’s a inconsolable screaming baby next to me. It was never going to go well.

Emotional breakdowns are a fairly personal thing, so I won’t go through the details here, but I will say that I classify one morning as among the worst moments of my life. That level of anxiety coupled with emotional distress brings all of your worst feelings about yourself right up to the forefront, and, having just pulled out of a depression, my worst feelings about myself were fairly raw and fresh.

It made me crazed enough, in some moments, to wish I could do anything — anything — to stop the baby from crying. If it hadn’t been drilled into my head that shaking babies kills babies… well, I hope that I wouldn’t have done it. But I don’t know that I wouldn’t have done it. And not being 100% sure that you would never do something that could harm a baby is a rough, rough thing to know about yourself.

The “It Gets Better” of parenting

At week 5, those moments are still relatively fresh, but they aren’t happening any more, and our daughter is behaving less like a fetus and more like a human every day. It is still stressful and tiring and often not fun. It is sometimes wonderful, but enough is said about that everywhere else.

If you have a newborn or are about to have a newborn and you have read this far, know this:

You are not crazy. It really is this hard. It does get better, but it does so gradually, and that moment where you will actually sleep through a night may seem impossibly, desperately far off, so me saying “It Gets Better” won’t really help you right now. You’re putting in a lot of work with zero returns right now — no smiles, no giggles, no looks of recognition in the baby’s eyes — and that is grueling work. Allow yourself to admit this.

There are a few things that new parents can do to try and get through the first few weeks (which, I promise, genuinely are the roughest). This is what worked for me, it may not work for you.

  1. Go to therapy. The one silver lining of my depression was that I already went to therapy, and this was essential for getting through the first few weeks. My therapist gave me tips on dealing with the stress, but more importantly, he listened.

  2. Don’t take it out on your spouse — instead, commiserate with each other. My wife feels like an old war buddy now. We’re closer than ever. If we’d been at each other’s throats, our marriage would be over. It was that bad.

  3. Try putting in earbuds when the baby is crying. It keeps you from getting too stressed, but allows you to still try to soothe them. The “just put the baby down” advice that most people give is difficult because it doesn’t stop the baby crying, and, if you live in an apartment as we do, you can’t really escape that sound. Earbuds and music at least lowers the decibel level to something manageable. Of course, if you are on the brink of shaking the baby, just put her down and leave the room. But when you come back in, do it with earbuds or earplugs.

  4. Talk to friends that are parents, especially the ones that are willing to be frank with you. If it weren’t for a few friends and family who were bluntly straight-up with me about the difficulty of the first few weeks (“You’re gonna want to give the baby back,” “Hey: At some point in the next few months you’re gonna lose your cool. Don’t beat yourself up about it.”), I would have felt like I was going crazy and would have fallen into complete despair.

  5. If you need support and aren’t finding what you need from family and friends, the place I found it online was — don’t laugh — postpartum depression message boards. I admit that, technically, I have never been postpartum, as I have no uterus, but if you’re a man and you’re a parent of a newborn and you’re dealing with depression, then that’s the place where you’ll find people going through something that feels similar.

  6. Exercise and get fresh air. It sounds impossible in light of all the sleeplessness, but it is a requirement.

  7. Rope in friends and relatives to babysit. Go to the grocery. Sit in a park and stare, haunted, out over the trees. Go get a drink with your spouse. You’ll both be shellshocked, but getting away from the baby —even just to run errands — is a huge help.

It does us no good to not talk about these things, even if they're bleak. "It takes a village" is 100% true, but we are not organized into villages any more, so a lot of us end up feeling isolated and alone in our darkest moments. It doesn't need to be that way.

Featured image by Rick McQuinlan. That's another fun thing, by the way -- even if your baby's super cute, when they really start screaming, their face turns gargoyle-hideous.

Why internet flamewars haven't solved gun violence, climate change, and healthcare yet

Every time there's a mass shooting in the United States, social media goes through a very predictable cycle. After yesterday's shooting in Florida (if you are reading this on another day, just replace "Florida" with whatever state was the most recent), this meme went around the internet:

My feed, which skews progressive, tends to devolve into bilious fury pretty fast. Which I totally understand -- kids getting killed over something that was totally preventable is probably the one thing that we should be getting spluttering mad about. But a lot of the comments end up lashing out at the gun owners in their feeds. And there's a bit of a problem with that: every gun owner I've ever spoken to supports some level of gun control. The numbers hold this up: most Americans agree that some form of gun control is a very good idea. 84% of Americans believe in background checks. 89% believe there should be restrictions for buying guns if you have a mental illness. 83% believe that gun sales should be banned to people on no-fly or watch lists. 

If they, the gun owners, believe in some level of gun control, then us getting into flamewars on Facebook (about how gun control worked in Australia, about how gun deaths in the US compare with the rest of the world, about how the 2nd Amendment can be read differently and also as it's name suggests, can be amended) is a huge waste of time. We largely already agree on the facts, at least with enough consensus that, if we all voted on it, we'd approve at least some gun control measures, and some lives would be saved.

In America, consensus doesn't translate into policy change

The same is true of a lot of other supposedly divisive issues: 68% of Americans believe climate change is man-made. 61% of voters believe we should cut defense spending, not increase it. 60% of voters believe in Medicare for all. 83% support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. 80% of Americans believe that large corporations and the extremely wealthy should be taxed MORE, not less.

The question then, is this: if we all largely agree but our government isn't making policy changes based on that consensus, then who is the government serving? Who benefits from this situation and has the power to keep change from taking place?

A video came out a few years ago that explains what's going on. I know it's annoying when articles ask you to watch a video, but this one is worth taking a couple minutes on.

The TL;DR, if you can't take the time to watch it, is what you expect: basically, broad, countrywide consensus on issues does not translate into policy changes. But if the rich (whether it's rich people or rich corporations) want something in America, they are likely to get it, regardless of what the rest of America thinks. If they don't want something to happen, it is not very likely to happen.

Which is why we aren't getting gun control -- because gun manufacturers don't want it, and have effectively organized against it. If Americans are like, "Hey, children shouldn't be murdered in their classrooms, let's maybe do something about all of these guns," the gun manufacturers, through lobbying groups they fund like the NRA or through funding given to think tanks, can insert narratives into the media about how the real solution is more guns, a gun in every classroom, and about how "guns don't kill people, people kill people."

Available at  Welcome to Night Vale!

Here's the bad news: Facts aren't going to save us.

It should be clear to us, by this point, that we aren't going to win by proving anyone wrong, whether it's in an internet flamewar or on some sort of daydream national stage where we publicly embarrass the President of the NRA so brutally that he breaks down crying, admitting he's wrong, and says they'll give up their violent ideology and work to make amends with the families of all of the people that died because of the policies they've pushed for years. We are (literally, in the latter example) dreaming if we think that's going to be the case.

Facts don't have power in this situation, because facts are not, at the moment, the main currency in our political economy. If they were, then we'd be doing a lot more to fight climate change. We'd stop fighting the War on Drugs. We'd drastically change the War on Terror. We wouldn't use the death penalty. And we wouldn't have Donald Trump as our President.

This is depressing, but the sooner you get over it, the sooner you'll be able to actually start taking steps to change things.

What matters to the powerful is not truth, but power itself.

Activists like to talk about "speaking truth to power," but as Noam Chomsky once said, "You don’t have to speak truth to power, because they know [the truth] already." Rather than speaking the truth to a power that doesn't care about what the truth is, we should instead try to take their power away from them.

In the US, money is power. Power is money. People who are extremely rich are extremely powerful. They are the ones influencing policy. And if we don't like the way they're doing it, we need to ask ourselves -- how can we take their money away from them? 

This is a big question that I'm going to write more on in the coming months, but I do have a few ways we can get started right now:

First: Get off your high horse. The people you are friends with on Facebook are not the people who put this system in place. They might be helping to support it, but if you talk with them, they will probably agree with you on the broad points, and probably would change things if they were in control. Also, if you are a working adult, you have likely, at some point, had to "sell out." You have made a decision which, if money were not a factor, you would not have made. You took a job you found to be a little skeezy. You have continued working for a person you did not respect because you wanted the paycheck. You didn't speak up over something wrong that was happening because you were worried you might lose your job. Most of us are not pure. Most of us have made compromises because of money. And we've rationalized what we did after the fact.

Now, imagine that it wasn't a job you would lose if you did the right thing, but a massive corporate empire. Imagine what sort of rhetorical pretzels you'd be able to bend yourself into in order to justify not making changes. It's important to understand this: Trying to convince a person of the truth when accepting that truth would mean fundamentally changing everything about who they are and have been for their entire lives is not an easy (or even really a worthwhile) task. 

What is more effective is to work to take away their power. Slowly erode it over time. Elect officials (locally, if you can't elect them on the state or federal level) who aren't friendly towards them. Stop buying their products. If you have investments, make sure they aren't in companies that are undermining our democracy. Don't give money to oil companies, or gun manufacturers, or private prisons, or big banks. Put your savings into local credit unions instead. If you have the stomach for it, get involved in acts of civil disobedience and protest. Get involved in your community. Start changing things in small ways. The big changes always follow from the small ones.

Most importantly for now is this: We can get creative about how we take away their power, but we're not doing ourselves any favors by getting into heated internet blow-ups with the people who aren't responsible for these problems in the first place. There is a way out of the situation we're in. It's just not in the direction we've been heading.

An open letter to my daughter at one day old

Dear Sophie:

Hey little girl! Welcome to the world!

These next few years are going to be a lot of fun. You're going to be able to fart and cry and no one will judge. They'll just giggle and tell you you're sweet. You’ll get to play and learn and eat things like pizza and ice cream for the first time. Everyone around you is going to agree on how you should treat other people. They'll tell you to be kind to strangers, to be compassionate, to put others before yourself, to understand that everyone else feels just as deeply as you do, and that you are no better than anyone else. They’ll tell you to share, to apologize when you’re wrong and to forgive when you’re wronged. 

But when you're 10 or so, they'll seem to forget that. Your farts and cries will get eye rolls and sneers. People will start agreeing less on how others should be treated — they’ll say they believe everyone’s equal, but they won’t act like it. They'll give you excuses to think you're better than other people. They'll tell you to trust your fears more than your loves, that humility and forgiveness are signs of weakness, that money is more valuable than love and kindness, and that cruelty is the same thing as intelligence.

Design by  Tim Doyle

Design by Tim Doyle

This is a test. Everything is an elaborate put-on, a very hard game, to see if you remember what you were taught as a kid. It will be very hard, because people you admire will not like you because you are acting the way that we were all taught to act as kids. Many of your friends will forget what they were taught, and will lazily slip into meanness and spite. You’ll be offered very high-paid jobs that aren’t really very good for the world, but which will be fun and dazzling and soulless, and it’ll be very hard to not sell just a bit of yourself to them in exchange. 

You will occasionally make slips, and you'll feel sad about it. It will keep you up at night. But you can choose to stay strong, you can choose to stay kind. And after a while, others will see this strength and kindness in you, and they'll be drawn to it. And you will help them remember what they forgot.

A lot of people will tell you that you'll be rewarded for being good. Some people will tell you that if you're really good, you will get to live in a different, much better place when you die. They call this place "heaven." This is another test. We're not kind, compassionate, and selfless because it gets us something. The secret, baby, if you know what it's worth, is that, ooh, heaven is a place on earth.

You'll get that joke, kiddo, in maybe 15 years, if I can get you into 80's hair ballads. Even then, you're going to think it's a mediocre joke at best. My jokes will be a great test on your capacity for kindness and patience. 

But there is no heaven we yet know of, Sophie, except for the one we create here on earth. We have to love each other and care for each other, not because we'll get rewarded for it, but because if we don’t, our earth turns into the opposite of heaven, a place called hell, where everything is painful, frightening, and lonely. People will try to tell you that this is a real place, too, and they will try to use that to scare you into doing what they want. This, too, is a test. We create our own heavens and hells — anyone who tries to tell you it’s up to someone else is trying to trick you. Don’t fall for it.

When your mommy and I were growing up, things were very steady. Most people like us had jobs and families and where we lived, there was no war, no violence, and no huge, horrible disasters that scarred everyone and everything. Our parents and grandparents were not so lucky. They saw poverty and violence. They saw destruction that had never been seen before. They saw cruelty that we are very happy to have only heard tales of, and to have never seen ourselves.

You, my wonderful sweet girl, will probably not be as lucky as we were. Too many people forgot what they learned as kids. They forgot about kindness, about sharing, about forgiveness. And because so many people forgot, fear and hate and selfishness are getting stronger, as they were when things were bad before we were born. We've also started playing games with the future of our earth. We’ve built ways to blow ourselves up, and ways to slow cook our earth like it’s a big fancy soup. These were very silly things for us to do, but for a while, we honestly thought we were making things better. We know better now -- we're just being stubborn, refusing to admit our mistakes. You, sweetheart, are going to have to deal with the consequences of our well-wishes and our stubbornness. It will be hard. It will be bad. It might be too much for us to handle.

But if you remember what you learned in these first few years, you will be able to stay strong and kind and brave. You'll resist the bad things, and people will see how strong you are, and that will make them feel stronger. Then, even if all of the bad things can’t be fixed, even if it all falls to hell, you will remain a tiny pocket of heaven.

Your Mommy and I love you. We are sorry for what you're going to go through, but trust us, it is worth it. This world is cruel and ugly and brutal, but it can also be kind and beautiful and fun. If you fight the bad parts and seek out the nice parts, you’ll leave this life having done a good job. We believe in you. We love you to pieces, you kicky little potato. We can’t wait to see what you do.

Love, 

Your Dad

Featured photo by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. This post was originally published on my personal blog.

John Steinbeck, Kate Tempest, Abraham Lincoln, and making sense of Donald Trump a year later

A few weeks before the election last year, I predicted that Donald Trump was going to lose, but that we'd still have to face the people we knew and loved who had voted for him. I wrote:

He’s so fundamentally terrible that, when friends or family members support him, I’ve started to think things I’ve never thought before: “Are they okay? Is voting for Trump a good litmus test for basic human decency?”

Because it’s hard to see a Trump supporter and not see a person who appears to be callously, casually lobbing grenades into the homes of the women, immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and democracy enthusiasts in their lives.

The morning after he won, someone who had read that article emailed me at 6 in the morning telling me to kill myself. Facebook had erupted. Friends who were trying to process what had just happened, who were shaken to their core with grief, were using social media as a support group, all while being sniped at by their Trump-supporting friends and relatives, whose rage had not seemed to dissipate with their victory. 

The overwhelming feeling was one of despair, and it was most electrically, most heartbreakingly expressed in a poem by British artist Kate Tempest, that started making the social media rounds post-inauguration, set to a deeply disturbing, deeply moving video. 

I am quiet, feeling the onset of riot
Riots are tiny though, systems are huge
The traffic keeps moving, proving there's nothing to do

'Cause it's big business baby and its smile is hideous
Top down violence, a structural viciousness
Your kids are doped up on medical sedatives
But don't worry 'bout that, man. Worry 'bout terrorists!

The water levels rising! The water levels rising!
The animals, the elephants, the polar bears are dying!
Stop crying, start buying
But what about the oil spill?
Shh, no one likes a party pooping spoil sport.

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John Steinbeck on America's fundamental disconnect

I could not -- and cannot still -- fully grasp the decision to vote for Trump. I know the platitudes that the American left has come to parrot, that Trump voters were driven by anger and ignorance and fear, that Russia rigged the election, that it was a fluke brought on by James Comey, but none of these excuses have ever felt sufficient to me. See, I know Trump voters -- they sit with me at holiday dinners and treat me with kindness and decency. They buy me drinks, they take interest in my life, they give me hugs instead of handshakes. They are people I love.

The biggest challenge for me has been reconciling the people I love with the rage I feel towards their actions. Recently, we held a baby shower for our daughter, who is due to be born a few days before the one year mark of the Trump Inauguration. A room full of family and friends -- many of whom I know voted for Trump -- showered us with gifts and generosity that, frankly, we really needed. 

But seated in a pile of gifts, I found myself ungraciously wondering why, if so many of these people were so invested in my child's future, they'd voted for (and still supported!) a dangerously unstable man who was threatening the world with a nonsensical nuclear war that literally no one wants. Why they refused to accept the science of climate change, or at least were willing to ignore it for a modest tax cut that would only marginally improve their lives in the short-term while drastically worsening our daughter's in the long term. Why kindness, generosity, and compassion could be extended to us, but not to anyone outside our small little group. 

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Over the course of the past year, this disconnect, this chasm between belief and action started appearing in everything I looked at, on the right and the left, in my friends, in my family, and in myself. Our values, I came to suspect, were not something by which we lived, but something to which we merely gave lip-service; psychic lullabies which, through repetition, would help us get to sleep at night.

 This disconnect, it seems, is nothing new: In his 1945 book Cannery RowJohn Steinbeck wrote a passage that could now be applied explicitly to Trump:

“It has always seemed strange to me...The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” 

The problem, it seems, is not that we have the wrong values, it's simply that we refuse to live by them, or failing that, to even examine what living by them would mean. We fail our values constantly. And when we fail our values, we open ourselves to claims of hypocrisy, claims which those of us on the left simply cannot shelter ourselves from.

To have integrity means to not be divided against oneself. How many of us can say we have integrity? How many of us can say that we live what we believe? If we are to truly believe in things like kindness, generosity, and honesty, we may have to radically reimagine what the world should -- and could -- look like. We may have to radically reimagine what we ourselves should -- and could -- look like.

Solzhenitsyn on the line separating good from evil, and Lincoln on the end of America

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Soviet dissident and writer of The Gulag Archipelago, wrote:

“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil. 

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person."

The work, it seems, must start at home -- in ourselves and in our communities. It is in this, a year on, that I have found a glimmer of hope -- where I live, here in New Jersey, a year after the election of maybe the worst person in America to its highest office, we elected we locally gave both of our town council seats to Democrats, we flipped our conservative district's State Senate seat away from a long-standing GOP incumbent, and we elected a governor who is in favor of public banking, treating immigrants like actual human beings, smart gun control, and marijuana legalization.

I have still not figured out how to handle the rage I feel at Donald Trump's election, but I have done a better job, over the course of the year, at figuring out how to spread the targets of my rage around more justly. His election does not fall exclusively on the people who voted for him. It falls on the people who, like myself, were complacent with an unjust system because it benefitted them. It falls on the people who, like myself, failed to fight racism and bigotry in their own homes and communities. It falls on the people who, like myself, chose to dismiss the suffering of others as inevitable, rather than choosing to do something about it.

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In Abraham Lincoln's 1838 Lyceum address, he discussed what could possibly bring down the United States.

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it?-- Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!--All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.

We shall see which we end up choosing.

Featured photo by astoller.

What can today's left learn from the Russian Revolution?

100 years ago today was the October Revolution in Russia. It was, quite possibly, the most important single event of the 20th century. Without the October Revolution, there is no Stalin. With no Stalin, it's possible that many western powers would not have seen Hitler as the lesser of two evils (the French right wing, as Hitler marched on Paris, shouted "Better Hitler than Blum!" in reference to the Democratic Socialist -- and Jewish --President of France).

Without the Soviet boogeyman, there's no justification for Vietnam, for the CIA-backed coups in Chile, Guatemala, and Iran, for the American training of neofascist Central American death squads. Without those, there's no Ayatollah Khomeini, no General Pinochet, no Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.

There's no need to arm the mujahideen to fight the godless commie invaders in Afghanistan, there's no backing fundamentalist Islam as an anti-communist alternative. Without this divine cause to fight for, the founders of al-Qaeda never meet, and the towers never go down.

Without Stalin, there's no need for a show of massive force in Japan. There's no need for an atomic bomb. There is certainly no need for an arms race and a space race, no need to get to the moon by the end of the decade. Without this fear, the fear of bombs and lasers shot from satellites, there is likely no serious funding for NASA, no real space exploration.

There's no Red Scare, no McCarthy or his acolyte, Richard Nixon, there's no Truman Doctrine, no napalmed villages and cluster bombs and Khmer Rouge.

There's no The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, no Red Dawn, no James Bond, no Dr. Strangelove, no The Day the Earth Stood Still

It is, of course, reductive to trace history back to a single day -- events both before and after might have gone differently, and none of this was inevitable. You could make a very good argument that the actual fire started with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but there would be an event before that and an event before that. It was, as the poet William Joel says, always burning since the world's been turning.

But in St. Petersburg, on October 25th of 1917 (November 7th by our calendar), something impossibly immense happened. And we've never fully grappled with it.

The Revolution and the Left

The history of the Russian Revolution is not taught in American schools, and when it is, it's usually misrepresented. There is currently a documentary on Netflix (simply called The Russian Revolution) that suggests the whole thing came down to a personal grudge that Lenin had towards the Tsar, which is just fundamentally stupid -- the revolution was a mass movement resulting from centuries of oppression and hardship. Individuals were able to influence its outcomes, but no one man dictated its course.

If you're a leftist and you're interested in the history, I'd suggest picking up China Mieville's October, released earlier this year in preparation for the Centennial. The left has never fully grappled with the Russian Revolution -- it has never dealt with the fact that the Revolution, initially so full of promise, got hijacked by thugs and bureaucrats, and that the resulting totalitarian regimes caused the death of millions. When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90's, the right wing -- especially the capitalists -- were able to claim "the End of History." Capitalism won. Communism lost. There are no more stories to tell, there are no alternatives, just endless prosperity.

Now, 26 years after the collapse of the USSR, it's clear that history has not stopped, and that capitalism, while fun and enriching for a select few, also happens to be turning our planet's atmosphere into a slow cooker, and is filling up our oceans with plastic. Poverty has not ended, war has not ended, all are not equal, all are not free. 

It is time for a return of the left. But there is one thing still looming over us: October. We can still learn from it.

1. The revolution happened spontaneously -- after decades of activism and organizing.

In 1917, there were two revolutions: the February Revolution and the October Revolution. The first deposed the tsar, whose family had ruled Russia for over 300 years. The tsars reign was a brutal one -- massive swathes of the population lived as serfs (only a slight step up from slaves) until the 1860s, and any political unrest was met with ruthless repression.

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Because of this repression, peasants and serfs grew to hate the tsar, making Russia a popular place for radicals. Anarchists like Peter Kropotkin, Mikhail Bakunin and Leo Tolstoy became popular figures, and socialists found a fertile recruiting ground. In January 1905, a mass of workers, while trying to deliver a petition to the tsar, were fired upon by tsarist troops. Up to 1000 people died, the day became known as "Bloody Sunday," and massive social unrest followed. 

The socialists were led by a rabble of charismatic men who had given names and political names -- there was the fiery orator Vladimir Ulyanov (better known as Lenin), there was the bookish, charming Julius Martov, Lenin's friend and, in many ways, opposite, and there was the eloquent, brilliant Jewish writer and theorist Lev Bronstein (better known as Leon Trotsky). The socialists formed a democratic workers council called a soviet, led by Trotsky, and began organizing mass strikes across the capital of St. Petersburg, but after a couple of years, the uprising had been effectively suppressed by the tsar, with 15,000 dead. 

Many of the leaders of the revolution had to flee the country, and were demoralized by their failure to depose the tsar. In Russia, the nationalist groups that had been used to fight the socialists began attacking their favorite scapegoats, the Jews, and killed up to 4,000 people. Lenin, now in exile, said in a 1917 speech, "We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution."

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But Russia's peasantry had been radicalized, and the repression of the 1905 Revolution was not popular. Over the next decade, Russia would enter the horrific, destructive World War I, and the tsar would become increasingly isolated from his people.

In January 1917, workers in St. Petersburg went on strike in honor of the 12th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. More strikes followed, in spite of the threats of a police crackdown, and the factory bosses made a huge mistake -- they locked the workers out of the factories, putting them, all riled up, onto the streets.

On February 23, 1917, rallies were held in honor of International Women's Day. No one planned it -- but the rallies turned into an uprising. And the soldiers who were ordered to put down the revolution, tired of war, tired of the tsar, refused. In early March, the tsar was forced to abdicate.

Unlike the October Revolution, which was more closely resembled a coup d'etat, the February Revolution was a mass, organic uprising that took down a 300 year dynasty. But it would not have happened without literally decades of planning, failure, and death. Many who did the work of the revolution did not, as Lenin said, live to see it.

2. Revolution is easy -- governing is harder.

From February 1917 to October 1917, Russia was ruled by a provisional government. The government was thrown together hastily, and was run by popular socialist Alexander Kerensky. Kerensky was not a revolutionary in the way Lenin or Trotsky were, but he was popular, and he was willing to work with the ruling class to transition towards a political system where more power was given to the soviets, which at the time, were totally open and democratic.

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But Kerensky had an impossible job -- the workers and radical socialists were calling for "All power to the Soviets!" while the military was threatening a coup. Lenin was also calling for an immediate end to the war, which was obviously a non-starter for the ruling class and the military brass. It was only through the power of his charisma that he was able to keep things together for so long -- and eventually, the radicals grew to hate him as a man willing to compromise with the tsarists, while the military started to suspect it didn't need him at all.

Eventually, a General named Kornilov attempted to overthrow the provisional government. The coup was stopped, but Kerensky lost a huge amount of support as a result -- he'd been trying to compromise with the military, and the military had stabbed him in the back. During the coup attempt, Kerensky also had to arm every socialist to stop the advancing troops -- which meant that the Bolsheviks were now popular and armed. Kerensky no longer had the people at his back, and he no longer had the military. His coalition had collapsed, and there was a power vacuum.

In October of 1917, the Bolsheviks seized power in an almost bloodless coup. The provisional government was dissolved, and Lenin declared the world's first ever socialist republic. What would follow was a bloody, 5 year civil war. At the end of that war, Lenin would be near death. During the years in exile, Lenin had allied with an amoral thug by the name of Ioseb Jughashvili, who used robberies and kidnapping as a way to raise money for the party's papers and activities. Jughashvili went by the political name of Joseph Stalin, and would emerge at Lenin's death as the most powerful man in the country. His main rival, Trotsky, had ignored him for too long, believing him to be no more than a dumb brute, and not worthy of Trotsky's time. 

Lenin, Trotsky, and most socialists believed that the revolution had to be global for it to work. Capitalism had to collapse. During the October Revolution, American journalist John Reed (writer of the famous October account Ten Days That Shook the World, and subject of the Warren Beatty epic Reds) reported Trotsky saying the following:

"In any case, if Europe continues to be ruled by the imperialist bourgeoisie, revolutionary Russia will inevitably be lost. There are only two alternatives; either the Russian Revolution will create a revolutionary movement in Europe, or the European powers will destroy the Russian Revolution."

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The latter is what panned out -- Germany, the only other place that may have fallen to revolution, cracked down hard on its socialist movement, and government-backed paramilitaries executed many of its leaders, like Rosa Luxemburg. The global revolution never happened. And Stalin was no ideologue. The man just wanted power. So he instituted "Socialism in One Country," which, to many leftists, was a contradiction in terms, but which allowed him to ally with other non-communist countries (like fascist Germany) since he was no longer actively working towards their overthrow and global revolution. He murdered anyone who opposed him, or he drove them out of the country, and in the 30's he built the thuggish kleptocracy that we all grew up knowing as the USSR.

On the night that Lenin declared the victory of the people in October 1917, many were celebrating -- revolutions are cathartic and liberating. It is the collapse of the old and the beginning of the new. But Lenin himself would almost immediately start undermining the revolution by cracking down on dissenting voices, and what Lenin started, Stalin would finish. In just a few years, the Revolution would be dead in all but name.

In the St. Petersburg assembly, only one man seemed to recognize what the Bolsheviks were abandoning when they tossed the power-sharing provisional government aside, and declared compromise was no longer necessary. It was Lenin's old friend and rival, Julius Martov. "One day you will understand," he said to the Bolsheviks as he stormed out of the assembly, "the crime in which you are taking part."

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3. Violence is not our friend.

For those of us who believe in things like justice, equality, and freedom, there's a fundamental problem with resorting to force to settle our differences: it's that morality does not play a part in the use of force. If you get into a fistfight, the strongest fighter usually wins. There are sometimes upsets, and there are certainly ways for a weaker person to use technique and strategy to their advantage, but the moral correctness of what you're doing does not play much of a role. Morality, in games of force, is often more of a liability than an asset.

The Russian Revolution is a pretty horrifying example of this. In the power vacuum left by the collapse of the tsarist government, left by the civil war and the death of Lenin, the man who came out on top was not the man with the best ideas, it was the man who took the time to consolidate power.

Nonviolence is not just a moral stance, it's also a strategic one. In Mark Kurlansky's book Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea, he mentions that even Gandhi, the world's most famous practitioner of nonviolent protest, didn't think of it as 100% essential: "Violence is any day preferable to impotence," Gandhi once wrote. "There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent."

Rather, nonviolence was seen as an obvious tool for a subjugated people going up against a far greater power. If you can't fight and beat your enemy in terms of sheer force, then you need to force them to play a game you have a chance of winning at. If you refuse to fight them and they end up beating you in the street, tear-gassing you, sicking dogs on you, or spraying you with firehoses, then they are likely to lose any sense of moral high ground among their supporters, and will be undermined in that way.

If Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., had decided on armed revolution to achieve what they wanted, they likely would have lost, and the cost would've been so great that it would've changed who they were. What happened in Russia was a perfect example: when the revolution fell into civil war, the most powerful, amoral elements came to power. Even the supposedly ideologically pure among the Bolsheviks took part in suppressing dissent. There's a great scene in Warren Beatty's Reds, where John Reed says to a bureaucrat who'd censored his speeches: "When you purge dissent, you kill the revolution. Revolution is dissent."

The issue with the use of force is that it makes dissent impossible. A divided country cannot effectively go to war. Even in America today, this is true -- the biggest political taboo in our country is questioning the wars we're involved in, which is often reframed as "disrespecting our troops," or being "anti-American." Even in the midst of one of the most polarized political environments in American history, almost no one of any real political prominence is questioning whether the war on terror, now in its 16th year, should maybe start wrapping up sometime soon.

Resorting to violence, then, has two major issues for today's left: first, the people we're up against have more military power than us. So confronting them with violence is just bad strategy. And second, violence distorts who you are. It forces you into situations where you will, inevitably, have to make moral compromises. 

4. Divided we fall.

When the Soviets celebrated their revolution, they celebrated October and not February. But February was the real democratic uprising -- and the provisional government, while deeply flawed and likely doomed from the start, was a fairly noble attempt to try and unite all the factions that eventually would tear the revolution apart. 

This factionalism is impossible to get around in reading any history of the revolution. The main rift in the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party was between the Mensheviks, led by Martov, and the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin. Those names literally mean "minority" and "majority," and the initial split was over a fairly trivial technicality. The Mensheviks were further divided into nationalists and internationalists, and there were other, unattached factions of the RSDWP like the Mezhraointsy, which Trotsky initially belonged to. Then, there were the Socialist Revolutionaries, of which Kerensky was initially a part, which were divided into right and left wings. There were anarchists, there were the bourgeois cadets, who wanted a reformed government more closely resembling the US or the UK, and there were parties belonging to specific unions or trades.

This tendency towards factionalism has continued in the left to this day. Lefties are still willing to reject people who aren't left wing enough, in spite of having roughly united goals of freedom and equality. While fighting for the left against the fascists in Spain, George Orwell wrote, in his classic Homage to Catalonia:

"At Monte Pocero, when they pointed to the position on our left and said: 'Those are the Socialists'... I was puzzled and said: 'Aren't we all Socialists?' I thought it idiotic that people fighting for their lives should have separate parties; my attitude always was, 'Why can't we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?'"

This tendency to splinter was fostered and exploited by people like Stalin. Stalin used an atmosphere of paranoia to get people to inform on each other, to pit former allies against each other, and to effectively undermine any of his serious opposition. A favorite tactic was to accuse groups he didn't like of being "Trotskyist." Stalin despised Trotsky, and blamed him for being an double agent working for the fascists. Anyone who was a Trotskyist, then, was a mole, a scab, a spy. Likewise, when the Bolsheviks launched their coup and declared that they were now in charge, they had no choice but to either walk that back and allow compromise, or brutally consolidate power and, ultimately, undermine the entire revolution.

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Homogeneity is the great strength of the right wing -- they can easily present a united front, because they typically find unity in an ethnicity, class, or nation. The left has to learn to make diversity its strength, and must learn to unite in favor of the common interest, or it will always be doomed to fail.

5. Change comes fitfully. Forcing it isn't worth the human cost.

It would be a mistake to say that the Russian Revolution was inevitably going to end with Stalin. But it was very probably doomed from the start. The chaos of revolution is almost always, in history, followed by a pendulum swing towards law and order. And the worldwide revolution that Lenin and Trotsky believed was essential for the revolution's survival simply never came. 

Revolutions are rare historical moments when everything is suddenly tossed up into the air, when old structures come tumbling down, and individuals can suddenly have a disproportionate impact on how things turn out. They are euphoric, chaotic, and terrifying, and real and substantial changes can come from them. But they are never the gateway into a brave new world that we imagine they will be. 

Change is slow and imperfect, and we will never make it all the way to utopia. If we try to force our way there, the human cost may well be enormous. Instead, follow the words of Ursula K. LeGuin:

"You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit or it is nowhere."

Make the changes you can now. Help the people you can now. Do the boring, unsexy work now. If you wait for the revolution, it will never come. If you refuse to wait, then it is already here.

Featured photo by Jorge Lascar.

Donald Trump doesn't deserve your rage (and it's probably helping him anyway)

It's been an enraging few weeks to live in the land of Trump. First, the President told the people of Puerto Rico, whose home had just been crippled by a massive hurricane, that should feel lucky that they hadn't suffered a "real catastrophe" like Katrina. Then he picked a fight with the mayor of San Juan, who had simply been begging for more assistance, while explaining that it was impossible to effectively help them because Puerto Rico is “an island surrounded by water. Big water. Ocean water.” Then he tried to do a Puerto Rican accent. Then he tossed paper towels out to survivors like they were t-shirts at a Minor League Baseball game, and later bizarrely bragged about how soft those paper towels were, and how much the crowd of disaster survivors loved him.

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And that's just Puerto Rico: he also picked a fight with athletes who have been protesting the murder of innocent people at the hands of the police, saying that they should be fired for exercising their right to free speech. His administration went so far as to stage a ludicrously expensive counter-protest featuring his empty shell of a Vice President, and he later tried to use the death of former NFL player and veteran Pat Tillman (who was known for his liberal politics, corresponded with Noam Chomsky, and supported war resisters) as a reason why players shouldn't be allowed to kneel during the anthem.

He repealed the Obama-era clean power plan, which could potentially do enormous harm to future generations through added carbon emissions. He pushed a tax plan that would give him, personally, a billion dollar tax cut, while trying to cut healthcare for the poor and decrease women's access to birth control. Then he pushed an immigration agenda which is just naked white supremacy.

Oh, and he's single-handedly taken us to the brink of nuclear war with North Korea, who literally no one thinks we should go to war with.

It's been an enraging few weeks.

Fffffuuuuuuuuu---

Take a second. Take a deep breath. In. Out. Okay. Let's move on.

If you've got a conscience, have been paying attention, and have been living in America for... Jesus Christ, it's been nearly 10 months of this shit, you are likely very tired and very angry. It is understandable. It is the natural response. But I'm going to need you to let go of that rage for the rest of the article. Here. Here's a dog who loves his stuffed animal.

Dawww. What were we talking about, again?

Dawww. What were we talking about, again?

Better, right?

Right. The thing about all this rage is that it may actually serve Donald Trump more than it harms him. There are undoubtedly positive side effects to all of this anger -- the newly mobilized left that has arisen post-election seems to be moving the Democrats leftward, and organized democratic movements like Indivisible may have played a large role in the fact that the GOP, despite having both Houses of Congress and the White House, have not been able to pass repeal and replace.

But we're still angry, and we're still working primarily in response to Donald Trump. There is an excellent quote from Ursula K. LeGuin's brilliant book, The Left Hand of Darkness:

To oppose something is to maintain it.

They say here “all roads lead to Mishnory.” To be sure, if you turn your back on Mishnory and walk away from it, you are still on the Mishnory road. To oppose vulgarity is inevitably to be vulgar. You must go somewhere else; you must have another goal; then you walk a different road.

In his epic masterpiece, Dune, Frank Herbert puts it differently:

What do you despise? By this you are truly known.

This idea -- that the things we hate are simply the other side of our coin -- is a centerpiece of Daoism. If we did not know light, darkness would have no meaning. If we did not know sound, we would not be able to fathom silence. Good could not make sense without evil. You are, to some extent, defined by the things you choose to be against. So you must choose carefully.

Donald Trump, the Internet, and the Attention Economy

Let me put it in a less mystical way.

I've worked in the internet writing business for almost half a decade, and I know most of the tricks for how to get something to go "viral." A piece about sex is just naturally going to get more clicks than a piece about something drab like books. More people will click if you appeal to emotion than if you appeal to reason. Short, catchy posts with lists and multimedia are more appealing than long blocks of text. Distraction, emotion, simplification, and humor are valuable; context, nuance, reason, and balance are not.

The key is to get people emotionally engaged enough to click, and then to keep them on your webpage -- by whatever means necessary! -- for as long as possible. The turning point in any internet writer's life comes when they realize that people hating their piece is just as valuable as people loving their piece.

Anger, rage, hate, righteous indignation -- these are all just as big emotional click-drivers as happiness, humor, and love. You know what gets people to click on a garbage headline? Indignation. You know what keeps them on the page? Long, angry comments. If it is your attention that I want, I will be much more likely to get it if I can teach myself not to care whether it's positive or negative attention.

Let me tell you why I hate you.

Let me tell you why I hate you.

Donald Trump is the undisputed master of the attention economy. This isn't to say he's a genius: most of the tricks I've mentioned can be figured out by any intuitive 5-year-old. The only real brake on someone using these tricks to the fullest extent is integrity and a basic moral code. And if you have neither of these, if the only thing of value is attention -- well, then it's very easy to get.

Donald Trump's attention machine is almost beautiful in its simplicity. When he Tweets something outrageous, liberals attack him (fie! shame! disgusting!) and his supporters attack the liberals (hypocrisy! political correctness! frog memes!). It's a nightmare firestorm, but Donald Trump loves the fire, as long as it's swirling around him.

Meanwhile, the island of Puerto Rico languishes, but our attention is on the tossing of paper towels.

How do you fight someone and ignore him at the same time?

If those of us on the left do not want to be defined by Donald Trump, we will have to stop playing his game. We will have to stop giving him the attention he wants. And this will be hard to do, as he is the President of the United States of America, and, unfortunately, plays a pretty central role in our news cycle.

But there's a simple question you can ask yourself every time you read the news:

Who deserves my attention?

Is it the Puerto Ricans who are trying to rebuild their homes and lives? Is it the women who won't be able to afford birth control, the people who will lose coverage under repeal and replace? Is it the children whose lives will be demonstrably worse as we continue to turn our planet into a slow-cooker? Is it the tens of millions of people who would die in a nuclear exchange, including the innocent North Koreans who have been oppressed by their government for decades? 

Or is it Donald Trump?

Undoubtedly, there are times that he will attack people and we will need to defend them, but instead of making the story about his inadequacy as a human, you can make it about the humanity of the victims of the things he does.

There is someone who's doing it right

I mentioned Trump's "feud" with athletes earlier in the article: Trump has tried to make this issue about himself, but he's largely failed. This conversation was started by a single soft-spoken person.

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Last year, the only NFL player to take a knee was Colin Kaepernick. When they asked him why, he said, "I'm going to continue to stand with the people that are being oppressed. To me, this is something that has to change. When there's significant change and I feel that flag represents what it's supposed to represent, and this country is representing people the way that it's supposed to, I'll stand."

It did not go well for him. He was ridiculed, he was booed, and it may have contributed to him losing his job. But a year later, after Trump threw his little tantrum about Kaepernick, he forced people to choose: are you with me, or with Kaepernick?

The two have very different records over the past year: Trump has spent months attacking the most vulnerable people in our society and serving the mega-rich (a kind of anti-Robin Hood), while Kaepernick has spent the past year giving money to oppressed communities. He's given to the Coalition for the Homeless and United We DREAM, an organization that helps undocumented immigrants. He's given nearly $1 million, all told, to charities over the past year, in spite of losing his job. He's also held "Know Your Rights" camps for kids. And he's tried, for the most part, to stay out of the press. The two could not be more different.

The NFL picked its side. Huge swaths of the league knelt during the anthem. The tide on the issue may well have turned, and all because a single man quietly took a knee in honor of the many people who have needlessly, unjustly been killed by the law enforcement that is supposed to be serving us.

A Guardian headline on September 24th read: "Colin Kaepernick has won. He wanted a conversation and Trump started it."

Quiet dignity defeats rage.

Fighting the right fight

We get to choose the our enemies, and we get to choose our allies. There are 7 billion people on this struggling little planet, and there are so many people and so many things more deserving of our attention than a sad little manchild sending out early morning Tweets on his toilet. We could be fighting against poverty, climate change, racism, sexism, loneliness, ignorance, and war. We could be fighting for justice, dignity, freedom, equality, and humanity.

If it's what we despise that defines us, then it's time for us to find worthier things to despise.

Hemingway, Orwell, and Casablanca on Spain and fighting fascism

Ask the average American when fascism was defeated, and they will tell you 1945. Fascism, they say, died with Hitler and Mussolini. When did America start fighting fascism? December, 1941. Four years and we had the thing licked. Bing bang boom.

But a small group of Americans started fighting fascism earlier that, and the fight continued long after. 3,000 Americans, known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, went to Spain starting in 1936 to fight Francisco Franco, the general who was attempting to overthrow Spain's democratically elected republic. These Americans were largely working class men. Many of them were immigrants. Many of them were left-wing radicals. They fought Franco -- who had the fury of the German and Italian military behind him -- with zero support from the government of the United States, which had decided to stay neutral. 

About a third of them died. Those who returned were considered heroes for a few brief years until the Red Scares of the 50's started up, and they were labeled as "premature antifascists." And the man they were fighting, Francisco Franco, went on to rule Spain until his death in 1975 -- 30 years after we so often imagine fascism's end.

This past week, Catalonia, an autonomous region in northeastern Spain containing Barcelona, attempted to hold a referendum to secede from the country as a whole. The referendum was declared illegal by the Spanish government, which sent in police to drag people out of the polling places.

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The Catalonian independence movement, unlike other prominent separatist movements like, say, Brexit, is one that largely comes from the left wing. Catalonia has been a bastion of leftist politics for decades, and was the heart of the struggle against fascism in the 1930's. While the Republicans (the broad name for the anti-fascist side in the war) eventually lost to Franco, the fight itself has left a massive impression on American culture since. Some of the greatest works of art in the past century have been centered around or have referenced the war. Hemingway's For Whom the Bell TollsGeorge Orwell's Homage to Catalonia (not to mention Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four)Picasso's Guernica, the 1942 classic Casablanca, the 2006 classic Pan's Labyrinth, and Carlos Ruiz Zafon's beautiful gothic novel The Shadow of the Windall revolve around "the good fight."

In a time when Spanish politics are back in the news, in a time when "antifascist" is again considered a slur, and in a time when it seems as if something dark and terrible may be just over the horizon, it makes sense to ask: what can we learn from Spain?

For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway was a reporter in Spain during the Civil War. He was one of the last journalists to leave the country after the fall of the Republicans, and he used his experiences to write his masterpiece For Whom The Bell Tolls. The title comes from a meditation written by the English poet John Donne

"No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the SeaEurope is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."

While in Spain, one of the people Hemingway met was Robert Hale Merriman, the young Californian leftist who commanded the Abraham Lincoln Battalion during the war. Hemingway was impressed with the young man, and likely based his principled, loner hero Robert Jordan off of him.

It's a very typical Hemingway book, which is to say there's a lot of machismo, a lot of short, declarative sentences about courage and bravery, and a lot of (let's call it what it is) dick-swinging.

But it is a great book. Hemingway's politics were a weird brand of testosterone-fueled leftism, but he came down firmly against fascism. There's a telling passage from the book where Jordan explains fascism in America to two Spanish guerrillas.

"But there are not great estates that must be broken up?"

"Yes. But there are those who believe that taxes will break them up."

"How?"

Robert Jordan, wiping out the stew bowl with bread, explained how the income tax and inheritance tax worked. "But the big estates remain. Also there are taxes on the land," he said.

"But surely the big proprietors and the rich will make a revolution against such taxes. Such taxes appear to me to be revolutionary. They will revolt against the government when they see that they are threatened, exactly as the fascists have done here," Primitivo said.

"It is possible."

"Then you will have to fight in your country as we fight here."

"Yes, we will have to fight."

"But are there not many fascists in your country?"

"There are many who do not know they are fascists but will find it out when the time comes."

"But you cannot destroy them until they rebel?"

"No," Robert Jordan said. "We cannot destroy them. But we can educate the people so that they will fear fascism and recognize it as it appears and combat it."

Picasso's masterpiece  Guernica  is based on the Nazi and Italian fascist bombing of the Basque village of Guernica.

Picasso's masterpiece Guernica is based on the Nazi and Italian fascist bombing of the Basque village of Guernica.

Interestingly, For Whom the Bell Tolls was not particularly loved by the actual Americans who fought for the Republicans during the war -- they did not think that Jordan's independent, lonely, all-American male was super representative of the actual men who fought in Spain. Most of them were working class. Most of them had minority or immigrant backgrounds. Most of them were believers in left-wing ideologies. 

Casablanca and Pan's Labyrinth

On their face, Casablanca and Pan's Labyrinth are not very similar movies. In Casablanca, this dude is the villain:

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And in Pan's Labyrinth, this dude is the villain:

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They are united, though, by a common thread: their heroes cut their teeth in the Spanish Civil War. Ofelia, the heroine of Pan's Labyrinth is young girl struggling to survive in a fascist military camp at the tail end of the war. And Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogarts hero in Casablanca is wanted by the Nazi's because he fought with the Abraham Lincoln Brigades against Franco's fascists in Spain.

Both stories also look directly into the eyes of nihilism and despair. It is hard, in retrospect, to not see Spain as a cautionary tale. Spain gives us a glimpse of what the world would've looked like if World War II had been lost. Franco's Spain was isolated for a decade or so after the end of World War II, but in the 50's, the United States had new enemies, and could no longer resist allying itself with anti-communist forces in mainland Europe. In part, this is why the fascists were able to stay in power for decades. When democracy was finally restored to Spain in the 70's, Franco's men were granted amnesty, and many continued to work in the government. The Basque and Catalonian separatist movements, still very much in the news today, got their start as leftist separatist movements during the Franco era.

Spain, then, is a country that we failed. And this hurt was still fresh in the early 40's: Casablanca's Rick is depicted, when we meet him, as a wounded idealist who has lost wars and the love of his life, and has sunk into a sort of self-centered nihilism. 

"I stick my neck out for nobody," he says. But as the other characters point out to him, this was not always the case pointing out that he has bona fides as a selfless freedom fighter.

Captain Renault:
In 1935, you ran guns to Ethiopia. In 1936, you fought in Spain, on the Loyalist side.

Rick:
I got well paid for it on both occasions.

Captain Renault:
The winning side would have paid you much better.

His nihilism, over the course of the movie, is revealed to be a façade that Rick adopted out of necessity after the heartbreak of losing so much. The movie itself, released in 1942, was something of a call to arms for Americans in the early days of the war, long before it was clear that the Allies would triumph. Many Americans had, until just recently, been broadly in support of the European fascists (their non-interventionist motto, "America First," has since been reused in the 45th American President's inauguration speech).

At the end (this is a spoiler, but honest to god, if you haven't seen Casablanca yet, what the fuck are you doing with your life?), Rick forgoes his own personal happiness in the cause of fighting back against the Nazis. Selfishness, in 1942, was a luxury the world could no longer afford.

Pan's Labyrinth is somehow even darker. Ofelia is the daughter of a fascist Captain's new wife. The Captain is tasked with rooting out and murdering the last surviving members of the Republican resistance. Ofelia's mother is pregnant and can't take care of her, so she's surrounded at all times by soldiers and truly horrific brutality. She also happens to be surrounded by some genuinely horrifying actual monsters, and finds that she has to overcome a set of fairy tale-like tasks to survive.

I don't want to spoil the movie (because it is literally the best movie I've ever seen and I still cry like a goddamn child every time I watch it), but it is through Ofelia, the weakest, most marginalized person on that military compound, that some form of hope is able to arise. It is perhaps best summed up by the modern writer Rebecca Solnit, in her book Hope in the Dark:

"The grounds for hope are in the shadows, in the people who are inventing the world while no one looks, who themselves don’t know yet whether they will have any effect, in the people you have not yet heard of who will be the next Cesar Chavez, the next Noam Chomsky, the next Cindy Sheehan, or become something you cannot yet imagine. In this epic struggle between light and dark, it’s the dark side — that of the anonymous, the unseen, the officially powerless, the visionaries and subversives in the shadows — that we must hope for."

Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

George Orwell is best known for his books Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-FourWhen I was in school, the books were taught as if they were cautionary tales about the dangers of communism. But in reality, Orwell himself was a socialist. In the late 30's, while working as a reporter, he decided to go to Spain to try and write a few articles about the Good Fight. When he got there, he changed his mind, and enlisted in the POUM, a communist sect within the Republican army. 

During the fighting, Orwell was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper. "No one I met at this time," he wrote, "doctors, nurses, practicantes, or fellow-patients — failed to assure me that a man who is hit through the neck and survives it is the luckiest creature alive. I could not help thinking that it would be even luckier not to be hit at all." His throat injury meant he had to be moved back from the front to Barcelona. 

In any war, there are uncomfortable unions. Groups of people in allied forces who do not particularly agree with each other, but whom are committed to fighting a common enemy. In Spain, the Republican side was a wildly diverse hodgepodge of leftist and liberal ideologies. There were the people who wanted to create autonomous democratic governments for their home regions (Basques, Catalonians, Galicians), there were democrats, there were anarchists, and there were communists. The communists alone had a handful of splinter groups: Stalinists, Trotskyists, democratic socialists, trade unions.

For the likes of Orwell, the splintering of ideologies seemed silly.

If you had asked me why I had joined the militia I should have answered: 'To fight against Fascism,' and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: "Common decency.' I had accepted the News Chronicle-New Statesman version of the war as the defence of civilization against a maniacal outbreak by an army of Colonel Blimps in the pay of Hitler. The revolutionary atmosphere of Barcelone had attracted me deeply, but I had made no attempt to understand it. 

As for the kaleidoscope of political parties and trade unions, with their tiresome names -- P.S.U.C., P.O.U.M., F.A.I., C.N.T., U.G.T., J.C.I., J.S.U., A.I.T. -- they merely exasperated me. It looked at first sight as though Spain were suffering from a plague of initials. I knew that I was serving in something called the P.O.U.M. (I had only joined the P.O.U.M. militia rather than any other because I happened to arrive in Barcelona with [Independent Labour Party] papers), but I did not realize that there were serious differences between the political parties.

At Monte Pocero, when they pointed to the position on our left and said: 'Those are the Socialists' (meaning the P.S.U.C.), I was puzzled and said: 'Aren't we all Socialists?' I thought it idiotic that people fighting for their lives should have separate parties; my attitude always was, 'Why can't we drop all this political nonsense and get on with the war?'

The splintering would end up being the downfall of the resistance. Since the United States and other democratic countries didn't pitch in with the Republican efforts (with, incidentally, the exception of Mexico), most of the shots were called by the USSR under Joseph Stalin.

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Over the course of the previous decade Stalin had been brutally consolidating power in the Soviet Union. His biggest rival -- a man who had escaped the USSR and continued to be a global figurehead, a man who Stalin was insanely jealous of -- was the revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Stalin, in consolidating his power, had encouraged the idea in the USSR that there were subversive capitalist enemies everywhere, and that Trotsky was their ring-leader, that all of his revolutionary achievements were actually part of a sinister plot (it helped Stalin, no doubt, that Trotsky was Jewish, and people were already prone to believe this strain of anti-Semitic thoughts about Jews). His paranoid approach to politics did not, unfortunately, remain in the USSR. It spilled into Spain, where the Stalinists began to target the main Trotskyist sect: the POUM, where Orwell, so coincidentally, had found himself fighting.

To recover from the throat wound, Orwell returned to Barcelona right around the time that the Stalinists started accusing his militia of sedition. This meant Orwell was now an enemy of the people. He and his compatriots were accused of actually working with the fascists, and Orwell found that it was impossible to find any honest reporting back home in England on what was actually happening in Barcelona. "The Daily Mail," he wrote of the infamous right-wing shitrag, "amid the cheers of the Catholic clergy, was able to represent Franco as a patriot delivering his country from a horde of fiendish 'Reds.'" But the left wing papers were just as willing to lie. The New Statesman, Orwell mentions, "was treating us to tales of Fascist barricades made of the bodies of living children (a most unhandy thing to make barricades with)." 

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"One of the dreariest effects of this war," he wrote, "has been to teach me that the Left-wing press is every bit as spurious and dishonest as that of the Right." He'd noticed, while at the front lines, that he never seemed to be able to find the reporters who were writing about all of these atrocities. "Perhaps when the next great war comes" he said, "we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet-hole in him."

This lack of commitment to truth meant that when Stalin turned his sights on all of the other left-wing militias, the mere concept of "truth" had been so diluted that it was impossible to reliably refute a false claim. The only newspaper that reliably told the truth in his home country, Orwell found, was The Manchester Guardian, which is still in print today at The Guardian. But how could everyone else know that? They hadn't been at the front. It was easier (and more comfortable) to just believe the conspiracies.

In a final, horrific act of self-destruction, the Stalinists attacked all of "disloyal" members of the coalition, and effectively destroyed any final chance of resistance against Franco and the fascists. Orwell himself fled the country. A year after the Civil War ended in 1939, Stalin signed the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact, effectively letting the Nazi's turn their eyes from Russia towards the rest of Europe.

Orwell maintained his leftism for the rest of his life (he actually says in Homage that he personally liked the anarchists more than the Trotskyists), but his later books were echoes of Catalonia, of what happens when lies are given the same value as truth, and what horrible hellscape awaits us when people, who all broadly have the same interests at heart, allow themselves to be divided.

All of the books and movies in this article are linked to Amazon Associates, which means if you think they sound neat, you can click through from my page and buy them. If you do that, I'll get a tiny kickback, which would be a nice way to support this blog. No one paid me to talk about them. They're genuinely really good. I promise.

Featured photo: Communist fighter Marina Ginèsta in anarchist Barcelona.

When is it okay to wear the local garb?

What are the ethics of dressing appropriately according to the country that you’re visiting? (Whether it’s covering your shoulders or head when entering a mosque or not wearing culturally appropriative accessories or styles — like Native American headdresses or getting dreadlocks in Jamaica.)

Sincerely,
Dress Appropriately, People

I reeeeallly tried to put off answering this question, DAP, because I’ve never felt fully comfortable with the concept of cultural appropriation, and I think there are sometimes people are a little too quick to pull the cultural appropriation card. I’ll get to that. Let’s start with the easy stuff, though.

You should always try to wear the appropriate garb at religious ceremonies.

If you’re going to a local church, mosque, or temple, you should always make yourself aware of and conform to the institution’s dress code. This is simply a sign of respect. I grew up in the Catholic Church, and there wasn’t a strict dress code, but I know plenty of people who would’ve been annoyed if a newcomer came in wearing a t-shirt and short shorts. I personally would’ve enjoyed it, young heathen that I was, because I liked watching people in our Parish squirm, but there’s a big difference between rebelling from the outside and rebelling from the inside.

Unless you’re trying to make an open display of disrespect for some political reason (which, you know... don't do), conform to the local dress code (and check out my article on the ethics of being a feminist and wearing head coverings).

Okay, now into the harder stuff.

When am I being culturally appropriative?

There are times when wearing the local garb is culturally appropriative, which is a tricky concept that can be confused with cultural exchange.

The best breakdown of the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation I’ve read is by Jarune Uwujaren over at Everyday Feminism. If you want to better understand the issue, give that a read. In short though, cultural appropriation is when one culture adopts an element of another culture. This in itself sounds harmless — and it often is — but it gets tricky when the culture doing the borrowing dominates the culture being borrowed from, because you as the borrower might not understand the full history and implications of the thing you’re borrowing.

The Native American headdress provides a good example: in Native American Plains cultures, headdresses can’t be worn by just anyone. You could equate it to holding a qualified position like Doctor or military General: it’s something that must be earned.

The thing to remember is that the culture you are visiting may have been oppressed by a western culture, and they may have a long, painful history behind them. In the case of the Plains nations, it’s a history of brutal repression, cultural destruction, and genocide. For you to come in, play with their sacred symbols without having any knowledge of their meaning, and then toss them aside as you would any other costume, could be reasonably seen as insensitive.

Most cases aren’t this cut-and-dry, though, and a lot of what makes up modern Western culture could be considered cultural appropriation, from “ethnic” foods, to world music, to spiritual practices. Western culture brutally dominated India for centuries, for example. Is practicing yoga culturally appropriative? The short answer is yes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice itRather than refusing to ever participate in cultural appropriation (Goodbye, Taco Tuesday! Goodbye Stir Fryday!) you can simply educate yourself on the roots of the things you’re appropriating, and show them some amount of respect. You are already in a position of privilege. You can’t escape that. It’s okay. Just be willing to accept criticism and to listen and learn.

Just be respectful.

When I was in India, I went to a Hindu religious celebration with some of my classmates. We were invited to wear traditional garb, and the women had bindis put on their heads and were given henna tattoos. We ate with our hands, and we watched a ceremonial dance.

There was nothing wrong with this, because we were invited to participate by the Indian families that were hosting us. And that’s perhaps the main lesson I want to impart here: don’t let a fear of cultural appropriation keep you from cultural exchange. Participate in whatever you’re invited to participate in, and try and learn about it.

Culture can’t easily be siloed, and what feels like personal expression to you might feel like a misappropriation to someone else. My suggestion is to express yourself however you wish, but be respectful, sensitive, and curious when borrowing from other cultures (In regards to dreadlocks, I’d say don’t get dreadlocks, but that’s mostly because white people look terrible in them. There are arguments that they’re culturally appropriative, but dreadlocks have been around for millennia across many cultures, and not just in African and Caribbean cultures — they have a history in Asia and even Europe as well). If someone calls you out for cultural appropriation, don’t get defensive — talk to them. Try to learn what they mean. And then continue from there.

“Shut that kid up!”: How should you treat traveling parents?

Last week, I took a fourteen-hour train down to Charleston for the weekend. About five minutes after I took my seat, a woman sat in the seat across from me, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw her lay a portable seat on the floor as she put her luggage overhead.  From inside the seat, a cute, chubby 6-month-old smiled back at me.

Fuck, I thought. Then, at the next stop, another baby got on.

Fucccccckkkkkk, I thought.

If you’ve traveled, you know why I was pissed: Babies cry. Over a fourteen hour trip, it would be unreasonable to expect the baby not to cry. And for people such as myself, who were hoping that the trip would involve 8 hours or so of sleep, the presence of babies was upsetting. It would mean a slightly less restful sleep, and train sleeps are already not great.

“Who brings a fucking baby on a fourteen hour train trip?” I texted my wife.

This isn’t an unusual sentiment: according to a poll by FiveThirtyEight, 83% of airline passengers think it’s rude to knowingly bring unruly kids onto a plane. It’s the highest ranked item on their poll, ahead of the dreaded seat recline, ahead of waking someone up to get out of your seat, and ahead of being chatty with a seatmate.

People such as myself, the kidless, are not patient with the kidful. It struck me, while I was feeling sorry for myself, that maybe parents — even parents with grumpy kids — have a right to get from Point A to Point B. And that maybe that right superseded my right to travel in total silence.

So I talked to a few traveling moms about what the kidless need to know about the kidful.

Kids aren’t little adults. They’re kids.

My older sister Laura has a 5-year-old named Alejandro, or Ali, as we call him. Laura, like myself is a traveler, and usually travels to El Salvador (the country where she met my brother-in-law, and the country where Ali was born) once a year. This, she says, can be stressful, especially when your kid starts behaving like a kid. If Ali starts acting up, though, many people (read: not parents) will be openly annoyed. Which she says is the first problem:

“People who don’t have kids don’t have much of an understanding of what it’s like. They’ll say ‘Oh when I’m a parent, my kid won’t talk to me that way.’ Your kid will talk to you that way sometimes, and it doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent… you can’t expect a kid to behave like an adult.”

And the fact that he’s a kid shouldn’t mean he’s homebound:

“I like to take him places, but he’s going to act different when he’s there because he’s a kid.”

She said, “It’s embarrassing for a parent when your kid throws a tantrum,” and adds that showing sympathy for the parent can mean a lot, because sometimes parenting supersedes the desire to make everyone around her feel at peace:

“Sometimes, I’ll give him a screen. But I don’t necessarily want him to be on a screen the whole time. So having an expectation that they’re going to be zoned out and quiet and behaving isn’t reasonable.”

Chelle King agrees. Chelle travels regularly with her 3-year-old Clara, and has been in a similar situation:

“Clara had an awful, awful flight to Seattle once, partially because of some flight delays. I made the mistake of telling her she was finished watching movies and stood my ground, even as the nightmare swirled around me. I knew that it was going to be miserable for everyone, but I had already stepped in it. She finally passed out and someone in a nearby row bought me a glass of wine. I nearly cried I was so grateful, both for the wine and knowing that there was at least one person on the flight who didn’t think I was Satan.”

She adds:

“As a parent, I try really hard to avoid waking the monster, but sometimes it doesn’t work.”

How to treat parents traveling with kids

Cathy Brown is the most badass travel mom I know — she’s a fellow writer over at the Matador Network, and she’s a single mom of three. She travels with her kids a lot (her daughter Stella is already an excellent travel writer herself), and has some advice for how the kidless should treat the kidful:

“I’d say that when it comes to being on a plane or in a restaurant with someone who has a kid in the middle of a meltdown, don’t be so quick to get pissed off. Don’t take it personally, like the parent is just doing WHATEVER they can to ruin your vacation.  That moment sucks for the parent even more than it sucks for you, because they know damn well how annoying their kid is being.  A kind look or some kind words can put the parent at ease, which will ultimately help the kid calm down.”

Laura agrees: “I appreciate when people are thoughtful and sympathetic, and not mean and judgmental.” She also notes that not all places are as judgmental about noisy kids as others: people on a bus in El Salvador will generally try to be helpful with a noisy kid, while people in the US are going to be a bit more likely to grumble. So not getting a silent plane ride may be a quintessential “First World Problem.”

This doesn’t mean, she says, that parents are off the hook for disciplining their kids. “If a kid does something rude or in your face, you have a right to expect a parent to say something.”

Chelle says to just be cool*:

“The immediate look from single (especially business) travelers in the security line that says ‘oh, no, look at these assholes with kids’ is a little annoying, but we’re super fast, so it’s also totally unwarranted.”

In short: You aren’t entitled to a family-free flight, and certainly not to a family-free airport.

**Literally a day after I talked to her, Chelle sent me a message: “It finally happened! Some young guy in security actually asked if he could ‘cut’ in front of me. I was flummoxed and said yes. Also, he only had a backpack, so I figured he had his shit together. Nope. This guy in such a mad hurry didn’t know where his phone was allowed to go, or how to unpack and of his stuff. (And there was a lot.) In the end, even though he went in front of us, we breezed past him while he was fumbling with his shoes. He was a dick! Your readers should not be like that guy!”

How to help people with kids

On the flip side of that coin, if you want to try and help or talk to a kid, Laura cautions against crossing any lines inadvertently:

“If you’re engaging a child, it’s respectful to ask a parent before offering anything to the kid.”

This isn’t to say, though, that helping is discouraged. Laura remembers being caught in the airport alone with Ali. She had to carry all the luggage, so she couldn’t carry him, and he started falling to pieces. “Especially when you’re traveling alone, it’s harder, and it’s scarier.” She says she didn’t expect anyone to help that time, but would have been incredibly grateful if help had been offered.

Cathy’s kids are older than Laura’s and Chelle’s, and she says it’s important to recognize the differences in age:

“My kids hate it when they are treated like 2 year olds. A hotel or a restaurant always wants to offer them some gender specific toy or activity that is geared for someone much younger. The intention is good, the offer is nice, but it annoys my teenagers to be treated like babies.  Ask if they prefer the kids menu or the regular menu.  Ask if they prefer the Barbie toothpaste and bubble bath or the regular.”

In short, don’t treat kids like they’re stupid (or toddlers, if they aren’t toddlers), and don’t be totally impatient with parents. A little kindness goes a long way. It’s likely you don’t have a full idea of what’s going on with the parent or with the kid, so instead of being cruel, maybe put in some noise-canceling headphones and deal with it.

Cathy also pushed back on the idea that traveling with kids is terrible:

“Traveling with kids, for me, is awesome.  My kids are my favorite travel partners by far.  They are spontaneous, engaged, and they keep it real.  They are curious, ask questions, and don’t get uptight when things go awry. To  them, everything is just part of the adventure.”

Finally, some advice from a kid.

I’m giving the final word to Cathy’s daughter Stella:

“Stella’s advice was for other people to not make a massive deal about a kid traveling.  Don’t baby them — she can’t stand when people treat her like she’s incapable of finding her gate at the airport, etc.  She says there’s a difference between being helpful and acting like a kid can’t do something just because they happen to be away from home.

“She also says people should always offer up the window seat to a kid if the poor kid seems like he/she really wanted one and didn’t get one.”

Seriously, guys. You aren’t going to use the window as much as a kid would anyway.

Featured photo by Eduardo Merille

How can I be a good traveler?

So obviously the blog is called “Don’t Be a Dick” so it is going to have an avoidance or prevention focus as compared with an approach or promotion focus, but reading about all the things not to do can be overwhelming. Can you write a post focusing on concrete actions we can take to be a good citizen traveler, not just how to avoid being a shitty one?

Sincerely,
More than “Not A Dick”

That’s fair, MoNAD. This blog is going to, generally speaking, focus on the “don’t’s” of travel over the “do’s.” This may sound like I’m laying down a lot of prohibitions, but the real reason for it is that there’s actually a pretty low bar to being a good traveler. As long as you’re thoughtful and respectful, you’re basically good to go.

I currently live in a town on the Jersey Shore. Our economy is primarily driven by tourism. Residents of the Shore have a few negative words for our tourist visitors: “Benny’s,” meaning someone from Bayonne Elizabeth, Newark or New York, and “Shoobies,” meaning people who wear their shoes on the beach (don't wear shoes on the beach) Bennies and Shoobies are the type of people you see on the show Jersey Shore, and they are terrible. They come into town, they get hammered, they get into fights, they puke on people’s lawns, they leave their garbage everywhere, and they make our favorite bars insufferable for the entire summer. This is a common bumper sticker/piece of graffiti:

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That said, tourism is the primary driver of our local economy, so it’s a love-hate relationship. But here’s the thing: I don’t know who everyone in town is. There’s no clear-cut way of identifying a local vs. a Benny, as long as you’re not wearing shoes on the beach, and as long as you’re not shouting “GYM TAN LAUNDRY!” before projectile vomiting onto a child on the boardwalk.

The truth is, plenty of tourists are delightful. They’re excited to be here, they’re curious about life here, and they don’t leave their cigarette butts on the beach. The overarching rule is really very simple: just don’t be a dick. 

That said, I will try and provide more concrete suggestions. I have one really effective metaphor that I try (and sometimes fail) to apply when I visit places.

Tip 1: Behave like a guest, not like a customer.

My biggest recommendation is to treat your visit like a visit to a friends house, not like a stay at a hotel. At a friends house, you would clean up after yourself, you would try to be quiet at normal sleeping hours, and if you went out partying, you would try your best not to vomit on their belongings. You would also engage with your host. You would talk to her, you’d ask her about herself, and you’d share about yourself. You wouldn’t criticize her way of doing things, you’d only ask about it to try and understand her way better.

Thinking of yourself as a customer when you visit a town, city, or country, creates a whole new dynamic. It creates a mindset where you think of the people living there as your employees, as people whose services you have purchased. You have not. They have their own lives, and those lives don’t revolve around you.

This metaphor goes surprisingly far, and it allows for faux pas and occasional misunderstandings without you having to be too hard on yourself. As long as your interactions are based in mutual respect, you can be forgiven for any mistakes.

Tip 2: Support the local businesses.

This is one of the easiest ways to do more good than harm: skip chain stores and restaurants in favor of local joints; go to B&B’s/AirBnB’s/local hotels instead of Hilton’s or Ramada’s; and stop at local bodegas and shops if you’re looking for a souvenir. Not only will this help the local economy, but it will also add a more distinct personality to your experience.

This is especially important when you go to a resort in a developing nation — resorts are typically owned internationally, and a lot of the money you spend at them doesn’t stay in the country. Even if you dodecide to go to an all-inclusive resort owned by an international chain, try and pop out occasionally to spend some time and money in smaller local places.

Tip 3: Do some advance research before going outdoors.

The place you can do the most unintentional harm is in your interactions with the local ecosystem. So if you’re planning a trek, a hike, a swim, or anything of the outdoor variety, just do a bit of research ahead of time to make sure nothing you are doing is bad for the local environment (You should research all of the excursions you plan on doing ahead of time anyway. I mention environmental excursions here specifically because they’re the place where it’s easiest to do unintended harm.).

Some other solid outdoor-travel tips:

  • If you’re planning on swimming in the ocean, buy the right sunscreen. Some sunscreens contain chemicals like oxybenzone, which is a chemical that can disrupt the growth of coral and do serious harm to the local coastal ecosystems. The Environmental Working Group offers a guide to safer sunscreens, as well as a list of approved sunscreens.

  • Choose an “ecolodge” that prioritizes sustainability instead of a regular hotel.

  • Follow the “take only pictures, leave only footprints” rule while trekking.

  • Bring a reusable water bottle.

  • Don’t leave the trail.

The main takeaway here is that being a good traveler is actually pretty intuitive. Just be cool. Don’t be a dick.

Featured photo Cinty Ionescu

Should you recline your seat on the airplane?

One of the more trendy controversies in the travel world is the fight over whether you should recline your seat on an airplane. An article in Slate (which was, in proper Slate fashion, hyperbolically titled “The Recline and Fall of Western Civilization”) decried seat-recliners as “evil,” and went on to say, “People who recline middle seats are history’s greatest monsters.” People who recline have also been referred to as “psychopaths,” and one particularly irritating company created something called the “Knee Defender,” a device that you can insert into the seat in front of you which makes it impossible for the person in front of you to lean their chair back. Knee defenders have been known to start fights on airplanes.

I personally find this all to be a little overblown, but as this is a site on ethical travel, I feel the need to address it.

What should I do regarding reclining seats?

Full disclosure: I am 6’3”, 225 lbs, and I have always applied a Golden Rule standard to airline travel. I find flying miserable, and don’t want to make it more miserable for anyone. That said, when the person in front of me reclines, it doesn’t bother me at all. My long legs aren’t more cramped, and I generally don’t feel I was using the four inches or so that I lost near their head. If I do feel cramped, I’ll lean back myself, but mostly, I just accept that life is suffering — especially life on an airplane — and that what really matters is how we respond to that suffering.

Which is why I was surprised to find out that this was a thing. I’m theoretically one of the most wronged people when it comes to reclining seats, but it never bothered me. That’s the difficulty of the Golden Rule: some people have higher standards for what they’d want done unto them than I do. (There is, by the way, one argument in favor of reclining your seats that I think is atrocious: “I bought the seat, so I can do what I want with it.” Purchasing a product does not give you any moral right to put someone else into intense discomfort. That’s actually psychopathic.)

And this is fair: The polling geniuses over at FiveThirtyEight did a poll on what people think of seat reclining, and they found that 41% of flyers think reclining is rude. The rest don’t mind. Far more people (73%) thought it was rude to wake someone up to go for a walk around the cabin — which, by the way, strikes me as even more justifiable than the recline, as not moving in an airplane can lead to sometimes-deadly deep vein thrombosis. The highest number of people (82%) said it was rude to “knowingly bring unruly children” onto the plane. Which strikes me as most justifiable — what, unruly kids shouldn’t be allowed to move from point A to point B?

This proves, if anything, that people on airplanes are just furious all the time, and are desperately seeking something to hate. So the Golden Rule doesn’t work here, because you don’t know the mind of the person behind you — they may just be a slow-cooking pot of rage.

I think the answer is simple. The nicest thing to do if you want to recline is to simply ask the person behind you if they’d mind. Lean back slowly so you don’t fuck up their laptop or jolt any liquid on their tray into their lap. All of the taller people that I spoke to said they usually don’t mind if someone leans back (tall people have already accepted discomfort on airplanes), with the understanding that they will be leaning back as well. One mother I spoke to, however, says this: “On little planes with sub-two hour travel times, [reclining your seat is] unnecessary and extra cramped. Add a kid in a carseat and it’s just a no-go. My baby carseat wouldn’t allow for the seat in front to recline; the toddler seat does, but barely.” So maybe be cool to traveling moms and don’t lean back.

If you don’t like it when someone in front of you reclines, just ask them politely if they wouldn’t. Some people may refuse. That’s okay. Comfort yourself with the fact that at least they are slightly more comfortable, and that they are just as human as you. And you don’t know what their deal is: they may have back problems. Their discomfort from not reclining may outweigh your discomfort when they do.

I think there’s something we should note here, though:

The seat recliners are not the problem.

Some have rightfully pointed out that this shouldn’t be a passenger-versus-passenger issue, but rather a passenger-versus-airline issue. It’s actually kind of a perfect microcosm for modern America: set up the system so that it’s a little bit uncomfortable for everyone, and when one person tries to make things better for themselves at the expense of someone else (whether it’s through a criminal act or through a selfish vote), a conflict arises not between the participants and the system, but between the participants itself, when at its core, the system is to blame. The airlines could easily provide more seat space, or simply make more comfortable seats.

But it would be too simplistic to say that airlines are evil companies that are trying to distract us from their flaws by making us fight amongst ourselves. Airlines are notoriously difficult to make profitable, so it makes sense to cut costs and increase profits wherever possible (It would also make sense to acknowledge that airlines are public services that should maybe be publicly subsidized, but let’s not get into that). And adding a few extra seats to every plane makes a big difference.

It’s also worthwhile to note that our discomfort is the environment’s gain: as I noted a few weeks ago in my article on low-carbon emissions travel, the more seats the airlines cram onto planes, the more ways a flight splits its carbon emissions. Fewer flights means less emissions, less emissions means a lower chance of truly horrific climate catastrophe over the next couple hundred years.

All of which is to say that airline discomfort may be a good thing. It gives you an excuse to travel by train. Train seats have lower emissions than airline seats, and they’re also significantly more comfortable — a person who leans back on a train doesn’t invade the space of the passenger behind them at all. Also, you can bring your own food and booze onto Amtrak, which is neat.

My call is this: lean or don’t lean, just be courteous and ask the people around you. If they’re mean to you, just let it slide. Don’t assume they’re evil assholes. Just assume they fucking hate airplanes.

Featured photo by Ronald Sarayudej