Losing someone you never met

Originally posted to Facebook, December 27, 2016

2016 has been the worst. For reasons I don't have to get into. But I am finding the path out for myself, and I wanted to share. I know I'm long-winded, but I hope that this helps.

The myth of Atlas has given us two wrong impressions of the world. First, that carrying the world is a punishment. Second, that the weight of it is carried on one set of shoulders. The planet may turn without our influence, but the weight of humanity is to be lifted, just a little bit, by each of us.

We lost many arms under the world this year. People who were visible, and an inspiration to us. It hurt. And it felt especially hard when they were taken early.

It is difficult to know how precisely to mourn for those we knew only from their art, and public life. It is a loss, but not the same as family or personal friend.

When I am encountered with this feeling of loss, I endeavor to stand where they stood and take up their cause. I try to take up some small part of the humanity they held above their heads.

So when I miss Robin Williams, I try to make people laugh so hard they can't stop. It doesn't always work, but it didn't always work for him, either.

Three things happen when you shoulder that burden. You, in some small capacity, better understand the person you idolize. You also carry forward a piece of them to someone else, the same piece that was important to you. And finally, as you take up their cause, you’ll find something else: the others who miss the person too.

So if you want to mourn Carrie Fisher, speak out about mental health and take no shit from hypocritical men.

If you want to mourn David Bowie and Prince, make great art, and no apologies for who you are.

If you want to mourn John Glenn, be brave, adventurous and kind all at once.

Whomever you miss, take what was most important about them to you, and give it back to the world. You will honor them. You will find some measure of solace in the act, and you will find some measure of comfort in the friends you meet along the way. And just incidentally, you will make the world a better place.

Because as much as we heap memes on this year, it has no magical powers. We will not see the end of loss in four days. So we have to know where to stand when it comes.

Facing today, and tomorrow

Originally posted to Facebook on the morning of November 9, 2016, when we had all woken up to what felt like a different America.

The nature of American character did not change yesterday. Our ability to deny it was only taken away. Today I remember that truth is cruel, but a gift.

The world of love and kindness that we wanted seems further away; and it seems the simpler path to it is closed. But the simpler path may have always been an illusion. We can not shape America without the consent of half of its citizens.

Mourn as you need. Take the day, week, month or year. When you are done, don't join the battlefield. Join the conversation, willing to listen, understand and compromise. We are not here to wage war on our brothers; they are not going anywhere. We need their hearts, minds and hands to build the world we dream of. Breaking down the barriers is the task now. No matter how it looks and feels, it is not impossible, and even if it were, it is the only dream worth striving for.

Get out of my way

Get out of my way

The news wants to take away that this is our tragedy. But what they fundamentally don't get is that the world is different for us. Fears we had put to rest a decade ago are back.

I'm OK with Superdelegates

For the first time, I imagine that I have an opinion that will be unpopular among my friends. Which is why I think I should say: I’m ok with superdelegates (read

here

if you’ve been living under a rock). If I were in charge of the party, I’m not sure I would design it that way. But I understand why they exist, and I don’t think it needs to change. I hope you’ll hear me out.

First of all, let’s look at the scope of the issue. Superdelegates make up about 715, or 15% of the total delegate pool. Of those, a little over one-third are elected officials -- democratic congressional representatives and governors. The rest, about 460 across the country, are made up of prominent figures in the Democratic party. The full list is

here

, for anyone who is curious.

So, the first thing I want to throw out there is that Superdelegates cannot stop a popular insurgence. True, if a candidate managed to get every single one lined up against them, they would have to get a ⅔ majority. But that’s not how things go down. Hillary was similarly lined up in 2008, but the majority of superdelegates went with the Obama as the more electable candidate. Because ultimately, that’s their job.

It’s distasteful and cliche to say, but electability MUST be the first criteria in the Democratic candidate selection process. Because high ideals, beautiful speeches, and even capability to do the job mean nothing if you don’t actually have it. And electability is complicated.

It takes 270 electoral college votes to win the presidential election. And it is the most complicated count to 270 you’ll ever do. Even with the assistance of

electoral calculators

, you have to be familiar with state-by-state polls and how they translate to actual voter turnout. You have to know what issues will end up mattering, which states will be swing states and which are guaranteed. To truly predict electability, you have to know electoral math like the back of your hand. And nobody reading this has the time, which I know because

this is the link

to the electoral calculator and if you’d clicked the earlier one, you’d have stopped reading.

The general population (myself included) is voting based on instinct and general likeability -- especially in this race, where their only

differences in policy position

virtually all amount to what they think is achievable. I don’t have the expertise to know which of them is electable. I don’t have the expertise to know which of their policies will succeed. In situations like this, I defer to experts. And if you were reading earlier, you’ll know that’s exactly what the superdelegates are made up of. The primary complaint about superdelegates is that they’re undemocratic. And that’s fair. But you must also acknowledge that we don’t live in a democracy.

Our nation is too big; too complicated for us to run ourselves. In a Democracy, you don’t get to check in on governance once every four years. Governing the US isn’t a full-time job; it’s 2.6 million of them. Democracy would paralyze us. We need a Republic. We need elected officials. But at the level of president, even the process of election is so complicated that we need help figuring out who the best candidate is. Superdelegates don’t tell us, they don’t have the power; they just lightly suggest. And it’s important to remember that on election day, they get the same number of votes as everybody else.

You’re entitled to feel differently. But if you do, you’ve got to stand by the consequences of your opinions and vote based on research on electability and feasibility. Because in the primary, votes based on instinct and emotion lose elections.

Faith in Science

At some point, we have to acknowledge the tremendous amount of faith that science requires, especially to the general public. The public’s exposure to science that it can understand is not much greater than the average Christian’s exposure to theology and religious education.

In both areas, they are taking a lot on faith; on the word of their teachers, and friends, and authority figures that the small example they see is proof of the way the world works. Religion offers up a handful of stories and the faith of billions throughout history as proof. To your average high school or liberal arts grad, science has only offered up a handful of experiments they’ve personally witnessed; fewer when you limit the sample to those they have been taught to a level of understanding.

We see it as absurd when people accept a doctrinal paradigm based on a few miracles; but in some ways, we are asking the same, and offering less. Religion offers a cohesive cosmology. One with a promise of eternal life; of justice for wrongs against us, and meaning to the life we have. Science offers a colder paradigm, incomplete by comparison. And it does not promise to answer any of the big questions; the meaning of life, our place in the world, the nature of self.

We will lose the preaching game. We always will. It’s time to stop playing it. Our morality and ethics have evolved out of reason and evidence. Our highest virtue is that our conclusions about right and wrong, truth and falsehood are self-evident. They are reached by a reasoning, educated mind; they can be reached by any reasoning, educated mind on its own, given the same facts. We can not dictate right and wrong. We can not proclaim morality; each time we do we weaken the distinction between reason and faith.

We have got to play the teaching game, and we have got to play to win. We have to play it with kids, early and often -- teach them the benefits of holding ideas and belief up to experiment. Illustrate the power of reason, and reward its use. We don’t just need another Bill Nye -- we need a hundred.

We have to play the game with adults, because we’re running behind and we’ve got to convince parents of the necessity of comprehensive science education. We have to prove every point, the hard way. We don’t get to have doctrine -- that is a luxury we can not afford. (Though if things do get rough we always have lasers. Everybody loves lasers.)

Ultimately, religion and science both require leaps of faith. Even the experienced scientist extends their paradigm into the unknown to say there will be a rational explanation for every question they encounter. They have faith that the unknowable won’t stay that way forever, even if they never find out the answer themselves. We have faith as a collective that, even though our understanding of the universe gets reformatted a lot (luminiferous aether, anyone?) that we are headed in the right direction; that our methods are sound.

We have to accept the need for faith in our paradigm, if we intend to spread it. And we have to earn that faith with an understanding that it will take time. Religion has millennia on us. And science (that isn’t laughably bad) is only a few generations old.

This Trump is no surprise

The Trump campaign has entertained and angered me; it has confused and delighted me: it has brought dangerous ideas and emotions to the forefront of the public, political sphere in a way that ensures nothing else can be talked about.

But it has yet to surprise me.

The popular water cooler position on Trump has been one of bemused confusion. When you talk to somebody in the milquetoast language of avoiding political controversy, you can't know why someone like Trump could possibly have this kind of support. In the same way that when you show pictures of your glacial boat trip to Iceland, you don't comment on how much it's receded.

But because I haven't had a chance to have the actual discussion, I feel I need to say it: Donald Trump's candidacy is no surprise to me. The Trump candidacy is the natural consequence of spending several decades underfunding education, and spending most of the last one in a war against teachers.

At the moment, its only real force and consequence has been to stifle GOP debate amongst the rest of the candidates. But if his lead continues into the actual primaries, we will see its true danger.

Trump is the politics of personality and sound bytes carried to its natural conclusion. For someone upset at the way government is run, who vaguely agrees with his positions but has no interest in whether they are feasible, Trump is the ultimate candidate.

It's not hard to trace his popularity back to its source, and it would be easy to blame reality TV; immoral popular culture is one of our most convenient villains. But the existence and even popularity of reality TV isn't the problem. It's the public's inability to distinguish substance and ephemera, between a leader and a hairdo. And THAT is a problem of education.

That is what happens when you hobble people who set out to enrich minds and grow a generation of children into thinkers and doers and citizens. When you tell them that they must teach facts instead of wonder, rote instead of imagination, and obedience instead of drive.

And to top it off, you tell them they must continually do it without resources.

So I'll admit that I've been entertained by Trump's presence and angered by his insults; I've been confused by his policies and delighted by his incidental push of immigration, women's rights and the economy to the front of this debate. But the only way he'll surprise me is if we get to talk about what allows him to exist in the first place: a failure in American education.

Political Decisions, Personal Impact

There's a concept in the psychology of decision making called minimax regret, that's often applied to economics and sociology, and by extension to political science. The basic principle is that in following this principle, you make the choice that has the least chance (or amount) of regret afterwards. In economic mimics and finance, this is easily measured by a return on investment. In politics, the evaluation is much more nebulous and instinctual. Regret is no longer measured by financial loss, but guilt and the ability to escape it.

Amongst Millennials and Xers, this could easily be dubbed the "don't blame me, I voted for Kodos" phenomenon. Given the choice between Candidate A and Candidate B, where neither is particularly exciting, you'll vote for whomever will do the least damage. Further than that, actually: you'll vote only if you're concerned that the less preferable candidate will win. Because your ultimate concern isn't who wins, but whether you can relieve yourself of responsibility to future regret. The table below illustrates the decision faced by a voter, with deeper greens representing stronger positive feelings, and deeper reds representing stronger negative ones.


Outcomes
Action
A wins, does a good job
A wins, does a bad job
B wins, does a good job
B wins, does a bad job
Voted for A
(“Good” Candidate)
I am part of the solution
This is my fault
My vote didn’t matter
It’s not my fault
Voted for B
(“Bad” Candidate)
I stood in the way
It’s not my fault
I am part of the solution
This is my fault
Didn’t Vote
I didn’t need to vote
I made the right call
I would have stood in the way
This is my fault

Their decision depends on the likelihood of each of the scenarios. If you have either a strong feeling that Candidate A will do a good job or that Candidate B will do a bad one, then you are more likely to vote because the middle two outcomes seem unlikely, pushing your personal outcomes to a choice between “I am part of the solution” or “This is my fault.” This desire will fall if Candidate A is polling with a strong lead, because it introduces the third personal outcome of “I didn’t need to vote.”


This theory is used to explain low voter turnout. I believe it extends deeper into our decision making process, and applies as readily to our choices in support or against particular issues. It begins to explain why meeting a gay person is so effective at persuading for gay rights, and why it’s moved faster than other civil rights debates. Voters are suddenly faced with the guilt they had been trying to avoid: that they were, in fact, denying the rights of someone based on their personal beliefs. And ultimately, unless their social circle feels strongly against gay rights, the potential regret from supporting it is comparatively less.


Outcomes
Position
Talk to a gay person
Talk to a gay marriage opponent
Support
Support them
Tell them you disagree
Oppose
Tell them you feel they don’t deserve the rights
Support them


It can also begin to explain those who identify as socially liberal, but fiscally conservative. Most social issues replicate some level of the gay rights debate. They don’t affect you personally, so there’s little personal cost, but you’re either faced with telling a member of the group they don’t have rights or telling an opponent that you disagree. Your decision ends up boiling down to whether it’s more difficult to tell your friends you disagree or that a specific person you meet doesn’t deserve the rights.


Economic and fiscal issues function a little differently on the personal level. Take for example welfare. The benefits of opposition become more real because they’re paid for by taxes -- an amount of money that feels like it’s being taken from you each month. You are also much less likely to have a difficult conversation with someone who benefits from welfare, both because they are less likely to advertise this and because you tend to work, live around and befriend people from your own socioeconomic circle. This makes it easier to have the feeling that people on welfare are lazy, or getting more than they should, because you never meet them in person. The chart shifts a little, as the likelihood that someone on welfare will walk up to you and defend welfare will almost never happen. And if it does, you are able to say that it’s just someone asking for your money.



Outcomes
Position
Talk to a welfare supporter
Talk to a gay marriage opponent
Support
Support them
Tell them you disagree
Oppose
Tell them you disagree
Support them


The options are now much more balanced. And opposition carries the benefit of getting to keep your money. In truth, the real minimax regret solution is a little more complicated, provided that the indiviual can handle the cognitive dissonance: express support for welfare, but don’t act when it’s threatened. As a supporter, you can hold yourself blameless for the poor not having the money they need -- but you’ll still take the tax break. (See the Bradley effect for the racial equivalent.)


It should be said -- not everyone follows this model. And almost nobody does it consciously, because being conscious of the fact that you’re making decisions just to avoid feeling guilty is just going to make you feel incredibly guilty. You can also hear another side of this coin as it applied to Gamergate and feminism here.

This isn’t meant to be a recipe to change people’s minds -- and since I’m already at almost 1000 words, I’m not going to launch into one here -- but it can help inform the conversation and why sometimes, when arguing politics, you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall. So maybe now you can stop doing that, and re-orient your strategy.

I’ve heard some talk lately that gay rights will be the defining movement of our generation. And, in the immediate wake of 6/26, it’s easy to see why people say that. The moment was strong for me. It was a turning point that made me sure we were living in a world where “It gets better” videos will someday no longer be necessary, because it never got bad for gay kids in the first place. But ultimately, 6/26 was a foregone conclusion, 10 years ago. In The New Gay Teenager, Ritch C Savin-Williams writes about a generation of teens who view sexual orientation from a fundamentally different standpoint than any previous generation -- in a way that says, not only are gay or bisexual rights non-negotiable, but that those definitions are falling away, and the new standard of sexual behavior and attitudes toward orientation is: “If it doesn’t hurt anyone, then who cares.”
The teens he interviewed in his 2005 book we now call millenials. And they are voting, entering the workforce, and revolutionizing the cultural and economic marketplace with every field they enter. Saying that gay rights is the defining movement of their generation is silly, because for them, gay rights is over. Once the Greatest Generation passes and the boomers firmly take their place as the senior voting block, we’re going to have some debates about the other major equality landmarks (employment discrimination, trans rights, etc.) but in any area where millenials have the power? There won’t be a debate. We’re in a lockstep path to equality in gay rights that will only be slowed down as we try to mop up the messes of racism and sexism left to us by prior generations.
The defining movement of our generation will be global human rights. We have inherited a world with fundamental inequalities based on nationality. We have inherited a nation with national economic debt beyond comprehension, and a moral debt that may be beyond our ability to repay. Within our generation, those debtors will come collect. So we are in a race to outrun them. Civilization has always been unstable. Nothing about that really ever changed, until Hiroshima and the ensuing two decades. World War now has extinction-level consequences, and the proliferation of intercontinental nuclear missiles into the hands of world-power governments threatens to calcify the status quo, while the proliferation of nimbler dirty bombs and bio-weapons threatens to destroy all order as we know it.
We have also inherited a world rich with technology that strives to put it in the hands of people who can do the most with it. More easily than ever before, ideas from anywhere can become real in a fraction of a second. And those ideas are turned more and more to the future. We were born into the information age, where science and technology are lauded, and virtually all of human knowledge is at our fingertips. We seem odd to prior generations, because we are faced with extending human empathy beyond the scope and complexity of any generation before us. It has caused some weird things to happen. We have to turn that empathy and innovative drive towards global human rights because if we don’t, the consequences have been laid bare for us in a hundred literal apocalypse scenarios.
Our generation will face the end of readily available petroleum. Our generation will face scarcity of water, and the first real impacts of global warming. Our generation will face the consequences of harvesting labor from sweatshops for our products. Our generation will face a world community with a justifiable anger towards America for our part in all of these problems. And so we are in a race against time, against the consequences of the past towards a future where the measure of a human is by the content of their character.
We are racing in defiance of history, because the cycle says that we’re headed to another dark age. Versions of gay rights have been on the table before -- and then Athens fell, and Rome shortly after. Civilization has trended towards human rights before -- and then totally collapsed. And that honestly keeps me up some nights. Like this one, writing this column. Because to me, gay rights isn’t the defining issue of our generation. If we don’t accomplish gay rights it will be because our entire civilization collapsed. That’s what it would take to counter this fundamental shift in understanding of sexual orientation: the visigoths (or whatever their equivalent is, in 2025). Gay rights will be a side effect of our success, universal human rights will be the measure of it.

So please, please, please take action. Think about big ideas to save the world. Or find someone who does and throw your weight behind them. Or educate someone who needs it. Or get informed about issues so the politics of soundbites can come to an end. Volunteer or donate, vote or innovate, teach or listen, participate. This race is a marathon, but it’s also a relay, and it’s going to take a lot more of us going full speed to win it.

How long should we wait?

There’ve been a lot of opinions, measured and not, about the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich. Some measured (Forbes) and some not (TPNN), some making light (Dan Savage) and some being dry as bones (NYTimes). Some claim that we’ve become our enemies (slate) and others that this was correcting a bad decision (New Yorker). Some say this is a chilling precedent (Sullivan) while others say Mozilla is unique (Guardian).
Much has been said about the process, about OkCupid and the public’s role, about whether it was fair or right, and I’m sure that’s important. But to me, I’m wondering -- how long until this becomes the way we always do things? As far as I can see, it’s inevitable.

Gay rights advocates, myself included, have centered the strength of our argument in favor of gay marriage and LGBT discrimination laws on the premise that without these laws, we are effectively second-class citizens. And by extension, those who oppose the laws see and treat us as such. We can hardly be surprised when Mozilla employees and their company take us at our word and remove a leader we’ve categorically identified as mistreating us.

Like James Suriowecki of the New Yorker, I don’t see this as significantly different than a company refusing to hire a leader who donated money in favor of segregation or opposed to interracial marriage in the 1970s. Companies want the most out of their employees no matter their background, and nobody gives their best work or chooses to work for someone who feels they or their family are second-class citizens.

If Eich had tweeted racist remarks, or made a blog post with an argument against interracial marriage, this still would have been a national story -- but it would have been as the butt of jokes on late night TV, and his firing would surprise nobody. No donation would have been required. Over the last 40 years, not being racist, or more accurately, not publicly supporting racism have become a litmus test for leadership in America.

I know the act of gay sex was only decriminalized nationally 11 years ago. And that less than 20 states have legally recognized gay marriage. But psychologists removed homosexuality as a disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual in 1973. To be honest, I laid out my timeline on the national progress of marriage equality two years ago, before President Obama’s second inaugural, and we are way ahead of my schedule.

So for me, the question is, when is opposition to marriage equality going to be equal to support of segregation? When are gay men and women no longer going to have to accept working for those who believe their citizenship is second class, that families are a sham? I’m honestly asking.

Sit

At this moment I'm overcoming an instinctual desire and finding it difficult. Something inside me demands that I go, but isn't specific about where. And now, barely able to contain it, I wonder how many times I haven't contained it before.

How many of my major life decisions have been sponsored by an escape instinct?

I can remember other times like this. It only makes the push stronger. Fighting instinct like this is hard, like stopping a compulsion or ignoring intense hunger. It's disagreeing with yourself, with something you intensely feel and believe. It makes you feel crazy to stop yourself, even though that's exactly what's keeping you sane. I have to breathe, and control my breathing. I have to focus, carefully and it's hard to sit still.

I have to think if I ever felt this at full strength at a train station, I'd get on the next one going anywhere. I'd have crossed three state lines before I realized it was a bad idea. And I think I should never be given a credit card. Thinking back it's probably the real reason I used to carry my passport with me wherever I went. Why I always sit next to the door or window and sometimes clutch the sill. Why I used to take incredibly long, purposeless walks in the dead of night and middle of winter, back in college.

I'm just restless.

Beyond EM

Lately I've been wondering if there's something big we're all missing. I mean, really big. Science, as amazingly far as we've come, understands pretty much all experiential energy along the electromagnetic spectrum. Visible light is a miniscule section of the spectrum including radio, microwave, infrared, ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma ray radiation. We've developed ways to harness, manipulate and in some cases protect against waves all the way along it.

We might keep looking for new frequencies at either end, and we’ll probably find some, but that’s small compared to what we’re due to find. It’s been too long since our last paradigm overhaul. Provided we’re not headed into another dark age, I’m excited about the complete reformatting of everything I have known, know or will know. Plus, the scientific method has been getting on my nerves since middle school.

I think we’re going to encounter a spectrum of energy that is inextricably integrated with our lives, but completely alien to the western scientific understanding with which we have become so comfortable. I certainly hope so. I’d love to see the most brilliant scientific minds bow to find out what Buddhist monks have known for millennia. Or for them to study the energies of empaths and psychics.

I don’t know what’s coming, obviously. If anyone did know, it would already be here; that’s how discovery works. I just have a feeling that it’s beyond me.