The Areas of Our Concern

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor

There was a thing I noticed when I absent-mindedly opened Twitter on my phone the other day. I say absent-mindedly because if I’m not using Twitter for work, I’m almost certainly doing it out of habit, not because I have something to say or am experiencing a sudden hunger for tweets. Anyway, the thing I noticed was how my anxiety level went up almost immediately.

Hold on, Paul, I can hear you thinking. That’s not some novel insight. Everyone knows that Twitter makes us all crazy. Yes, yes, but before you so rudely interrupted me, I was going to say that I noticed why I became so much more anxious (compared to my normal slow-boil-anxiety that is ever-present).

Yes, Paul, you’re butting in with again. We know why: because everything is terrible and there’s nothing to be done. You’ve already written this essay, Paul. Well, that’s what you think, know-it-all imaginary reader! I’m still one step ahead of you.

What I noticed—and no more interrupting, please—was that my surge of stress had less to do with the particulars of each individual example of things-being-terrible, and more to do with the dizzying variety of topics of concern to which I was being exposed, and about which I was implicitly expected to feel something. Strongly.

And I just wouldn’t.

Now, I almost typed “couldn’t,” but in fact the whole point of me even telling you about this (assuming you haven’t already left because I made you mad earlier in this piece) was because I realized that I had a kind of agency here. I realized, or at least remembered, that I could choose my areas of concern. I actually don’t have to have Big Feelings about everything.

Think of this. In another era, before the internet was a thing, there was only so much we were likely to be exposed to in our day-to-day lives. Assuming a moderate degree of cultural literacy and interest in affairs beyond oneself, a person might have Big Feelings about things in their own lives, in things going on in their families and communities, and in the broader sweeps of current events (in other words, what was in the newspapers or on the evening news).

In addition to these more universal areas of concern, a person might have particular interests in one or more subject matters of some social relevance; the environment, business, homelessness, racism, naughty words in popular music, whatever. You’d probably have your ways of keeping up with the developments in those areas and have corresponding Big Feelings about things that happened within them.

If you cared a lot about, say, environmentalism to the exclusion of most other things, you might not have any idea what was going on in the fight for racial justice. Or maybe you would! If you did, it was because you sought that information out, proactively. You chose to add that area of concern to your plate. And good for you!

But here’s what wouldn’t happen. You probably wouldn’t be aware of what was happening in, say, evangelical Christianity, or computer programming, or crime and policing. Maybe you did! But it would be because you chose to. Unless you sought out information about those topics, you probably didn’t know a lot about what was happening within those spheres of concern, and therefore were spared having Big Feelings about things that happened within those spheres.

You were also likely spared the expectation of having Big Feelings about them.

Hell, if you were someone whose primary area of concern was environmentalism, it could be that you were really focused on, say, the preservation of forests in New England, and maybe had little idea what air pollution was doing to people in China. You might have no idea how neglected infrastructure caused water to be undrinkable in American minority communities. It’s all environmentalism, but there existed no firehose of information that would force ideas upon you that came from branches of a larger topic (air pollution in China), or interconnected with others (systemic racism leading to the neglect of a community’s water supply).

Today, because of the internet, there is a much better chance that we can be made aware of all these other areas of concern. Far, far too many important issues have gone unaddressed for ages, in large part because most folks simply never encountered them. They didn’t know what was happening outside their existing areas of concern. The fact that those of us who care a lot about climate change are now acutely aware of how global warming will harm the global poor, for example, is really good. In an earlier age, we might not have known that, or not really understood it.

A single human, however, cannot carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. There is a fine line between being well-informed and overwhelmed. The well-intentioned person who cares about those New England forests should also know what smog does to the lungs of people in Beijing, and how a broken system can allow Black people in Flint to be sickened by lead in their water.

But the lava-flow of information from social media makes the implicit demand that our naïve environmentalist also be aware of, concerned over, and have Big Feelings about, say, every crazy thing a Fox News personality says, every shady dealing by business executives, every hint of hurtful cultural stereotyping or appropriation in popular media, every lie told by a politician, every new statistic about job loss and poverty, every wasteful expenditure by the federal government, every idiotic and backward bill introduced in a state legislature, every abuse of authority by police, every example of neglect of military servicemembers, every instance of unfair preferential treatment, every poorly conceived public musing on unfamiliar topics, every foot inserted into every mouth, every head inserted into every ass.

It’s good that we know what’s going on in spheres to which we once did not have had access. It’s good that gross injustices are now being put squarely before the eyes of people who would otherwise have looked away. It is a blessing. We can do more to make more things better because we know more.

An individual, however, can only do so much. They have a finite store of emotion and processing power. Yet the social media universe demands Big Feelings about almost literally everything.

So what I figured out was, hey, I don’t have to do that. I can allocate my anxiety. I can decide how much of my concern will be distributed among a set of issues. I can choose the issues into which I will dive deeply, and which ones I will merely wade into. And I can choose to keep my eyes and mind open to new areas of concern as they cross my awareness, and from those, decide which I will allocate my emotional and intellectual resources, and which ones I will leave to others better suited to do something about them.

This is not about assigning absolute value to one issue or another, to say that environmental issue X is more or less important than racial-justice issue Y or corporate-ethics issue Z. It is about deciding, of my own volition, where my particular talents, experience, interests, and skills are best directed. I can care very much about corporate ethics, but good lord I know nothing about business. I can choose to learn more about it, of course, or I can choose to offer my support to those who know what the hell they’re doing. If I were to writhe and churn over every wrongdoing by a CEO, I would merely make myself ill, and do nothing to further the cause of reform. I can support good efforts without accepting a personal emotional stake.

The idea isn’t that we shouldn’t care, or that we care too much, but that we, as individual human animals, can’t live in that feeling, that concern, that outrage for such heightened frequencies, intensities, and durations. We can genuinely and deeply care about a wide array of issues without taking each new infraction, offense, or horror as an emergency for which we are responsible to witness, demand redress, and emotionally digest. We aren’t built for it.

Whatever your bag is, whatever gets you passionate about making the world less shitty than it is, go and dig deeply into it. Take advantage of the many tendrils of the Information Superhighway and expose yourself to the secondary and tertiary issues that overlap with yours. Follow the intellectual paths that speak to you and make it a point to keep learning more. Let your moral circle widen, and as Vonnegut said, let your soul grow.

But a widened moral circle needn’t contain a porous heart. Be intentional about the frequency, volume, and quality of the information you allow into your sphere of concern; resist the expectation that you voluntarily convert each piece of information into shrapnel to be lodged in your chest. You can care without rending yourself asunder. I know it’s possible.

And of course, there’s plenty we can just stop caring so much about altogether. Moments ago, the twitterverse demanded I have Very Strong Feelings about a rude word emblazoned on a ring worn by a U.S. Senator.

I declined.


If you find this newsletter or anything else I produce useful or pleasing, perhaps you’d consider tossing some currency my way.

I’d Like to Speak to the Manager

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Sunlight is the best disinfectant, so they say. Wicked deeds and ideas can be defeated by offering them up to public scrutiny, exposing them as morally unacceptable and shaming them out of the mainstream and out of power.

There are times when this has been true, when the public has been exposed to some gross injustice, rejected it, and appealed to authorities to make a change.

Cable news and social media are fueled by these kinds of appeals. During the Obama years, I had to stop watching cable news because I could no longer stomach the hours of broadcast dedicated to telling me how racism, religious zealotry, and plutocratic criminality were taking over the country. To save my own sanity during the Trump era, I tried to prune my social media feeds of accounts that shared primarily political content, because nearly everything I saw was dedicated to making me angry about every single morally repugnant whim expressed by malicious actors. And it was all terrible and morally repugnant!

But my attempts to lessen the amount of political outrage in my feed were futile, for in the era of Trump, it feels like it’s all there was to talk about. I began the (also futile) practice of replying to or quoting tweets about the latest horror by appending, “So what do we do?” I wanted more than tattling. I wanted marching orders. They never came.

Because it’s not just regular folks tweeting out their outrage. It’s politicians, prominent media personalities, major cultural figures, renowned academics—people in positions of real, genuine power. If all they could do was point to bad things happening to say, “You see???” then what were we of the unwashed masses supposed to do about it?

Other than vote. I get it. And we did, and it mostly worked out for the better, but it wasn’t nearly enough. And the horrors will, and do, just continue. And we will continue to go “you see???

But who are we talking to when we do that? Every time we stoke our collective ire and give attention to the genuinely destructive torrent of moral and ethical horrors, whether they come from presidents, media figures, local politicians, or everyday despicable people, we are pointing it out for a reason. We are asking for someone to do something about it.

We are aggrieved customers in the marketplace of ideas, and we are demanding to speak to the manager. We are all Karens now.

Here’s the problem I think most of us have yet to acknowledge: There is no manager. Our emails to customer support are bouncing back. We are dialing a complaint hotline to nowhere.

There are elections, of course, in which the customers can, in effect, hire and fire the managers of the store’s government and policy department, but this has little to no impact on the store’s other aisles. The racism section is still being stocked, the science-denial section is getting novel new products in every day, and the theocracy department just opened up an outlet store. Business is booming.

It doesn’t matter how much we complain about what are objectively abysmal things being done and the abysmal people doing them. Those managers don’t hear our complaints because we’re not their customers.

One such abysmal human with abysmal ideas is Jordan Peterson, and you may have heard that employees at Penguin Press are disgusted that they are publishing Peterson’s latest book, as I would be if I worked there. Fredrik deBoer, whose post on this subject helped clarify my thinking for this piece, says this is an example of a poor tactic on the part of progressives: appealing to authorities to protect them from people with harmful ideas:

What if there is no authority to which you can appeal to make Jordan Peterson go away? What if Jordan Peterson is a fact of life? Let’s set aside God for a moment. What is the authority that could shut Peterson up? A Canadian citizen with tenure, a large network of conservative admirers, the ability to broadcast directly to his fans, and a talent for encoding reactionary ideas without the out-and-out hateful trappings of many of his contemporaries, he simply does not strike me as someone you can silence even if you wanted to.

Now, that doesn’t change the fact that Penguin Press could make the moral choice not to be part of the machinery that helps Peterson spread and profit off of his message, even knowing that someone else will gladly do it instead. But the larger point holds: Peterson will get his captive audience regardless of any complaints to the manager.

DeBoer says the only real solution to the problem of Peterson and what he represents is to persuade people he’s wrong and make a convincing case for something better. “I get that this is more complicated, and less emotionally fulfilling, than running to the teacher to get him in trouble,” writes deBoer. “But what’s the alternative? … There is no authority which will simply remove Jordan Peterson from public life for you.”

For public officeholders, usually the best we can do is to know who we’re dealing with and vote accordingly. But at some point we have to acknowledge that all the things that horrify us about politicians like Trump, Louie Gohmert, Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, Matt Gaetz, or any other garbage officeholders and candidates, are the very things that give them their power. For their market, their vileness is their primary selling feature. Pointing it out over and over mostly serves as free advertising.

Instead, we have to be better. We have to build movements, support candidates, make arguments, develop ideas, and produce media that are better than theirs. We have to be more than aggrieved, we must be active. We must do more than point out the bad things, we must, ourselves, be the sources of good things.

No one will do it for us. You see?


I have a newsletter, and you should subscribe to it.

What if We Just Let Them Think They Won?

The United States is politically held hostage by tens of millions of people living in a delusional version of reality. No matter the facts staring them in the face, just a little less than half of the electorate seems to believe in an alternate universe in which Trump won the election, left-wing terrorists are destroying our cities, COVID is a hoax or an exaggerated flu, and white Christians are the most oppressed group in history.

So I had a thought.

Information silos, filter bubbles, and algorithms can obviously make millions of people believe almost anything. So if what the Cult of Trump needs is to live in a fake reality, well, maybe we can just let them. And then the rest of us can carry on with actual reality.

I turned this thought into a bit of speculative fiction.

* * *

After a hard day at work, Rick plops down on the couch and flips through his phone to see what’s new.

He’s a father of three, but two of the kids are grown and out of the house, and the other is out with friends. His wife, Danielle, is making dinner, which she always does unless she’s not feeling well.

Rick scrolls through his social media feeds and gets updated on some of the latest headlines. The border wall had just been completed, and the pictures were stunning. 30-foot high partitions, black as midnight, effectively invisible in the dark, but reflective so that the sun blazed in the eyes of anyone who looked at it from the right angle. Smooth, unscalable, and a true monument to America’s force of will against invaders. President Trump would be there tomorrow afternoon for a ceremony celebrating this achievement.

It’s a good time for this kind of morale boost, as China has made more threats against the United States, promising to choke the American economy while making incursions into our Pacific territory. And who knows when they might release another virus. The president has been undeterred, however, and Rick is reassured when he hears Trump call China’s bluff. You just try it, thinks Rick. See what Donald does.

It is 2023. Joe Biden is embroiled in several lawsuits over his attempt to steal the 2020 election. Hunter Biden is in prison in Moscow. Kamala Harris is still out there, working with AOC, Antifa, and George Soros (now 93 and obviously being kept alive with some kind of secret pharmaceuticals or cybernetic implants) to foment a revolution and take over the country. (No chance, thinks Rick.) Black rioters have nearly destroyed several major Democrat-run cities, so they are now being occupied by federal agents who are arresting criminals, guarding property, and saving the lives of innocent Americans. The president has forced Twitter to shut down for censoring conservatives, which is against the Constitution. Facebook has learned its lesson and now treats conservative voices fairly.

As he scrolls through his feed, Rick almost skips past a headline that said something about someone on Fox News saying something about Joe Biden. He reverses the direction of his thumb swiping to find the item. And there it is. The post reads, “Fox News Guest Says Joe Biden is Currently President!” Rick chuckles out loud.

“What’s so funny?” Danielle asks from the kitchen.

“Something really stupid,” says Rick. “Not important.”

It is stupid. Everyone knows that Fox News went off the rails back in 2020, and really couldn’t be trusted anymore, except for a few hosts like Hannity and Tucker. But what kind of delusional nonsense was this? Why would anyone say that Joe Biden was actually president right now? Some kind of hangover from the 2020 election debacle? The facts are the facts! Trump won the election, even though Democrats tried to steal it with loads of fake votes. But President Trump refused to concede, vowed to keep fighting, and eventually (and inevitably) triumphed in the courts. Thank you, Justice Barrett!

Some say that Trump is thinking about running for a third term. That would be just fine with Rick.

Danielle coughs from the kitchen. And then again, and emits a little bit of a groan.

Rick calls out, “You okay, honey?” Danielle had been under the weather ever since they went to that basketball game Danielle’s nephew was playing in. It was actually a really good game, and the place was packed! She probably picked up some bug going around.

“I’ve been better,” she responds. “I’ll lay down after dinner.”

Rick makes a mental note to check her temperature, and maybe his own. He’s not feeling so great either, but he’s never been one to admit when he’s sick.

Then he remembers what he was looking at. Right, that dumb Fox News person who said Biden’s the president. Rick taps on the item.

The post had been deleted.

That’s weird. Fake news never really goes away, does it? You just have to keep vigilant, and only trust the sources that you know for sure are giving it to you straight.

Rick thinks back to the border wall, and he smiles. Yeah, he thinks, Trump is doing a fantastic job in his second term. A third term would be just fine by him.


I have a newsletter, and you should subscribe to it.

Marching Orders

As of about 10pm Eastern on June 3, 2020, here are a few things I think need to happen to push things in the right direction, in no particular order:

Mark Zuckerberg should resign from Facebook. The United States is in its worst moment of crisis in generations and Facebook, the most powerful outlet of information in the world, is complicit in bringing us to this point. Zuckerberg has proven time and again that he is incapable of either grasping the damage Facebook’s business model has done to society, nor of developing the conscience or empathy required to do something about it. I have no illusions about “shutting down Facebook,” as it is too much like a public utility, for better or worse. Rather, the wretched man who has enriched himself by giving growth hormones to misinformation and incitements to violence needs to walk away. He is a cancer on democracy.

The New York Times editorial board, every single member thereof, should resign in shame over the publication of Sen. Tom Cotton’s celebration of fascism, itself an incitement to additional violence against black Americans. From propping up the phony justifications for the Iraq war to treating the Hillary Clinton email controversy as the defining scandal of the 2016 election, this group of quislings has utterly failed this country. Let this be the last time.

Speaking of the catastrophe that was the Iraq war, President George W. Bush has made some kind noises about unity and ending racism, and that’s all well and good. But the only truly useful thing he can do at this moment in history is to go in front of the cameras and endorse Joe Biden for president. If he’s not going to do that, there’s literally nothing he has to say that is of any value whatsoever.

The above also goes for Mitt Romney and any other Republicans of national prominence who have any shred of conscience or patriotism left in their tattered souls.

Democratic leaders in Congress should…do…something. Anything. Fucking christ, something.

The vice president and the cabinet should invoke the Twenty-Fifth Amendment and remove Trump from power. I know, I know, but I had to at least say it.

This list may be updated as things occur to me.

Surround Yourself with Books, Save Humanity


Although I certainly have little patience for the fetishization of books as decorative status symbols, I have a deep affection for the physical, dead-tree book as a medium. Unlike an electronic device, to see and hold a single volume is for me to feel the thoughts and ideas it contains seething within its closed pages, like there is a flow of energy that is eager for a conduit through which it can propagate. I love that. And I feel it both before and after having read a meaningful book.

As a consumer of books, however, I also find ebooks almost miraculous in their convenience and utility. In a single device I can have literally thousands of books at the ready, which expands to millions if my device is connected to the Internet. I can infinitely annotate these books, entirely nondestructively. The device even provides its own damn reading light. Books feel great, I adore them, but to dismiss the ebook and particularly ebook readers like the Kindle is absurd.

But in one crucial way, ebooks’ greatest strength also is their greatest weakness. And I mean weakness, not flaw, as I’ll explain.

I’m thinking about this because of Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny, a book that is all at once easy, enriching, and gut-wrenching to read. Among Snyder’s 20 lessons for avoiding life under some kind of Trumpian Reich are his recommendations that we a) support print journalism and b) read more books. Now, it’s fairly obvious why good journalism needs to be bolstered in times such as these, for it may very well be the last layer of defense we have from a media entirely made up of propaganda. He writes:

The better print journalists allow us to consider the meaning, for ourselves and our country, of what might otherwise seem to be isolated bits of information. But while anyone can repost an article, researching and writing is hard work that requires time and money.

That’s very clear. But by print journalism, does he merely mean deeply researched, sourced, and fact-checked reporting regardless of medium, or does he also mean that this quality journalism must be, by necessity, literally printed on paper? I’ll return to that in a bit.

Back to books. Right now, my 7-year-old son is enamored with a series of kids’ nature books in which one animal is pitted against another in a “who would win” scenario (like crab vs. lobster or wolverine vs. Tasmanian devil, for example). He’s collected eight or so of these slim little books, and he loves them so much, he’s taken to carrying them – all of them – around with him wherever he can.

“Daddy, I don’t know what it is,” he says, “but these books have just made me, well, love books!”

I’m delighted that he’s so attached to these books, that he has this affection for them. I know that wouldn’t be possible if he only had access to their contents on a tablet. The value of the content is no different, but he can show his enthusiasm in a real, physical way that a digital version wouldn’t allow. The objects, being self-contained with the words and pictures he loves, take on more meaning. And by assigning so much meaning to the objects, he imbues the content itself more meaning too.

What does a kids’ book with a tarantula fighting a scorpion have to do with resistance to tyranny? Let’s see what Snyder has to say about the contrast between books and digital/social media:

The effort [of propagandists] to define the shape and significance of events requires words and concepts that elude us when we are entranced by visual stimuli. Watching televised news is sometimes little more than looking at someone who is also looking at a picture. We take this collective trance to be normal. We have slowly fallen into it.

Snyder cites examples from dystopian literature in which the fascist state bans books and, as in 1984, the consumption of pre-approved electronic media is monitored in real time, and in which the public is constantly fed the state’s distortion and reduction of language, all “to starve the public of the concepts needed to think about the present, remember the past, and consider the future.“

What we need to do, what we owe it to ourselves to do, is to actively seek information and perspectives from well outside official channels, to fortify our consciousness from being co-opted and anesthetized, and to expand our understanding of the world beyond the daily feed. Snyder says:

When we repeat the same words and phrases that appear in the daily media, we accept the absence of a larger framework. To have such a framework requires more concepts, and having more concepts requires reading. So get the screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

But what if the screen is displaying the same concepts as those books? “Staring at a screen” when one is reading an ebook is a very different practice than staring at it for Facebook-feed-induced dopamine squirts. Even more so if the screen with the ebook is on a dedicated e-reader like a Kindle, which intentionally withholds many of the distractions immediately available on a phone or tablet. Heck, I read Snyder’s book on my Kindle.

You won’t see me arguing that ebooks are inferior to physical books when we’re talking about the usual day-to-day reading of books, hell no. But in the context of this discussion, think about how we get ebooks onto our devices. They exist digitally, of course, and in the vast majority of cases they come from a given corporation’s servers with the ebook files themselves armed with some kind of digital rights management in order to prevent anyone from accessing those files on a competitor’s device. (Not all ebook sales are done this way, but they are very much the exception.) When we buy an ebook, in most cases, we’re not really “buying” it, we’re licensing it to display on a selection of devices approved by the vendor. And so it is with most music and video purchases.

Those ebooks are then transmitted over wires and/or wireless frequencies that are owned by another corporation, access to which we are once again leasing. So even if you are getting DRM-free, public domain ebooks in an open format like ePub that is readable on a wide variety of devices, you probably can’t acquire it unless you use a means of digital transfer that someone else controls.

You see what I’m getting at. Ebooks come with several points of failure, points at which one’s access to them can be cut off for any number of reasons. Remember a few years back when, because of a copyright dispute over the ebook version of 1984 (of all things), Amazon zapped purchased copies of the book from many of its customers’ Kindles. It didn’t just halt new sales, or even just cut off access to the files it had stored on its cloud servers. It went into its customers’ physical devices and deleted the ebooks – again, ebooks they had paid for. Customers had no say in the matter.

This was more or less a benign screwup on Amazon’s part. Presumably it had no authoritarian motives, but it makes plain how astoundingly easy it is for a company to determine the fate of the digital media we pretend we own.

This is about permanence. A physical book, once produced, cannot be remotely zapped out of existence. While some fascist regime could indeed close all the libraries, shut down all the book stores, and even go house to house rounding up books and setting them ablaze, physical books remain corporeal objects that can be held, passed along, hidden, smuggled, and even copied with pen and paper by candlelight. If the bad guys can’t get their actual hands on it, they can’t destroy it. And it can still be read.

But for ebooks, all it would take would be a little bit of acquiescence from the vendor (or the network service provider, or the device manufacturer) and your choice to read what you want could be revoked in an instant. Obviously, the same goes for video, music and other audio, and of course, journalism. The ones and zeroes that our screens and speakers convert to media can be erased, altered, or replaced and we wouldn’t even know it was happening until it was too late.

Physical books, along with print journalism (literal print), come with real limitations and inconveniences that electronic media obviate. But those same limitations also make them more immutable. It fortifies them and the ideas contained within them. Though constrained by their physical properties, they also offer the surest path to an expanded, enriched, and unrestricted consciousness. One that, say, an authoritarian state can’t touch.

Here’s an example of what I mean, once again from Snyder, with my emphasis added:

A brilliant mind like Victor Klemperer, much admired today, is remembered only because he stubbornly kept a hidden diary under Nazi rule. For him it was sustenance: “My diary was my balancing pole, without which I would have fallen down a thousand times.” Václav Havel, the most important thinker among the communist dissidents of the 1970s, dedicated his most important essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” to a philosopher who died shortly after interrogation by the Czechoslovak communist secret police. In communist Czechoslovakia, this pamphlet had to be circulated illegally, in a few copies, as what east Europeans at the time, following the Russian dissidents, called “samizdat.”

If those had been the equivalent of online articles, they’d have been deleted before they ever reached anyone else’s screens.

There’s one additional step to this, one more layer of intellectual “fortification.” It’s about the act of reading as something more than a diversion, more than pleasure. Because if we only read the digital content that’s been algorithmically determined to hold our attention, or even if it’s one of our treasured print books that we read for sheer amusement, we’re still missing something.

Today I happened to see Maria Popova of Brain Pickings share a snippet from a letter written by Franz Kafka to a friend, in which he explains what he thinks reading books is for (emphasis mine):

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

We don’t need books to achieve mere happiness. To expand our intellectual and moral horizons; to give our minds the armor they need to withstand the assaults of misinformation and stupification; to be made wiser, more empathetic, and more creative than we are, we need to read those books that affect us, “like a disaster” or otherwise.

To fully ensure that we have those books, that they can be seen and held and smelled and shared and recited and experienced outside the authority of a state or corporation, they need to be present, corporeal objects. They need to exist in the real world.

So, please, do use that Kindle for all it’s worth; use it to read all the books that wake you up, blow your mind, and change your life.

But also, if you can, surround yourself with books. In a very real way, they might just save us all.

Quirky: Adapting for Asperger’s at the Expense of Sincerity

sand_maurice_masques_et_bouffons_11
No really, I’m like this all the time.

Coming to terms with being a 38-year-old man with Asperger’s, having only been diagnosed a few weeks ago, has naturally lead to reexaminations of my behavior. The first things I’ve focused on have been those aspects of my personality that put me blatantly at odds with the rest of the species, such as my extreme introversion, my inability to read others’ signals or intentions, and my aversion to overstimulation.

But as some of this has begun to settle, I also find myself going a few layers deeper, and I realize just how much of my identity is wrapped up in how I’ve compensated for the hindrances of Asperger’s. Some of the more interesting exploration is not about my differences, but my adaptations — the behaviors I’ve adopted to mitigate those differences. Successful adaptations, even.

As I’ve noted before, some people have trouble accepting my Asperger’s diagnosis as a valid one, because all they see are the adaptations. They see me as someone who’s generally smart and funny and well spoken, someone who is obviously not “the average guy,” but someone a little different, just a little odd, and harmlessly so. A bit nerdy, a little geeky, and humorously self-effacing about all of it. Maybe a little too self-effacing, but oh, that’s just Paul. One of his many quirks.

That’s me. I’m quirky.

Paul says some weird things sometimes, or Paul gets oddly quiet and distant, or Paul seems to find everything funny, but also every once in a while he takes something too seriously, and talks a little too much, too fast, and too loud. But that’s just his quirkiness.

If anyone comes away with that impression of me, as “quirky,” then I have successfully adapted as best I could. Once it became clear to me, probably around my mid-teens, that I was never going to be considered “normal,” and not even in the same universe as “cool,” I decided (partly consciously, partly unconsciously) that I would adopt a quirky identity. I’d be the funny sidekick, the sarcastic friend, vaguely-artsy oddball, just minimally different enough to cover up just how utterly alien I actually felt. My quirkiness was like a white noise machine to help muffle and distract from the sound of the train line running right next to the house.

Decades of this practice led me to believe that the act was who I really was. In a new social setting, I’m harmless-quirky, making little jokes when it seems safe to do so. With bosses, I’m grinning-idiot-quirky, engaged and overly eager to agree. With closer friends, I’m wry-quirky, able to vent a little of my misanthropic steam, but in a safe and humorous way. And so on.

It even extends into my online persona, where the facepalming-Paul avatar has become my unofficial insignia. I have a quirky logo.

Some of it is natural, some of it is very much forced. But over the years I think I may have gotten so good at it that I don’t know when I’m “working” and when I’m just “being.”

But without this adaptive behavior, I don’t know how I would have navigated the real world. Maybe if I had known I had Asperger’s, and accepted the things that made me different, I wouldn’t have bothered to try so hard to please and to pass. What would I have been like? What happens if I decide to drop the quirk now? What will I be?

I think the scary answer to that is: sincere. I’d be sincere.

I am not an insincere person, per se, not in the way we usually think of that term. I’m not two-faced or deceptive or phony. What I mean by sincerity is a dropping of unnecessary pretenses and performances, allowing whatever person was behind those masks to come out and breathe.

That’s terrifying!

I can’t say with any exactness, but I suspect this hypothetical sincere version of me would be less expressive when in the company of others. Even in conversation, I might look distant or even severe, even if my actual feelings were entirely benign. I would interject less often, and save my words for when they might contribute to something. That might make me appear disinterested or “shy,” even if I felt neither. A more sincere version of me might excuse himself entirely earlier and more often in order to recover from the stresses of stimuli.

A sincere version of me would be less concerned with a projected personality, online and off. He would not think so much about cultivating a “brand” for himself, and simply let his work and his words speak for themselves. It would likely have no impact on the number of Twitter followers I could boast, and this version of me (again, hypothetical) wouldn’t concern himself with that anyway, because why bother.

This sincere-me would relieve himself of the stress engendered by worrying over what people thought of his various interests and obsessions. Contemporary geek culture has made the world a safe place for folks to proudly parade their allegiance to various fiction franchises, but that’s not quite what I mean, because what that really adds up to is a new in-group that happens to be made up of people who once languished in out-groups. That’s good and fine, but not what I mean.

I mean that when I have a driving obsession with something that holds no obvious value to anyone but the satisfaction of my own brain, that’s not a failing. It’s not something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of. I can just pursue that interest (within reason and feasibility) without regard to the opinions of others.

And I – I mean this hypothetically sincere version of me – wouldn’t have to make excuses for any of it. He wouldn’t have to apologize, and qualify himself with “I know this is weird” or “this probably seems silly, but…” He…I…would just follow the string of curiosity where it leads, and allow my brain its squirts of dopamine whenever they can be safely had.

The last bit of this is the hope that sincere-me would not indulge his autism and oddness at the expense of his responsibilities to those he loves. I don’t see that as a problem, because one thing that even quirky-me can be sincere about is my love and devotion to my wife and kids. I don’t need to “act” that, no“passing” required. Come to think of it, I’m very lucky for that.

The adaptations of Asperger’s have been enormously expensive in countless ways. They have eaten up time, energy, and my valuation of myself. Maybe over time, as I truly come to terms with this condition and its implications, I can begin to turn down the dials, divert power away from the quirk-generators, and recoup some of what I’ve lost. I would sincerely like that.

If you like my work, please consider supporting it through Patreon.

Madame Defarge’s Memes

madamedefarge_2119297bAt Wired, Issie Lapowsky summarizes some research that tells us something that is not surprising, that more or less no one is ever persuaded to change their mind about a political position because of a post they saw on Facebook.

I suppose people do actually think that their social media posts are badly-needed ammunition in the political war of ideas, and that their fierce, impassioned, and ironclad arguments will surely win over the misguided. I assume they really do think that. Intellectually.

But the truth, which I believe they at least feel at a gut level, is that these political social media posts are social tokens, signifiers of belonging to a particular group, earning good will and social capital by reaffirming that which they all already believe. That’s largely why I write political tweets, usually because I think I can do so in a funny way and get some positive validation that might begin to fill the abyss that is my self-esteem. My zinger about Trump or my spirited defense of Hillary isn’t going to move the needle one teeny tiny little bit in anyone’s mind, and I have no expectation that it will.

At this level it’s harmless (other than those perilous moments when my tweets are not affirmed and I fail to achieve validation). The problem arises when the posts and tweets and memes go from social tokens to something more like Madame Defarge’s knitting. Outside of the more black-and-white world of election-year D vs. R posts, social media posts involving politics and heated social issues are designed to affirm via othering, by striking clear delineations between the good people and everyone else who is irredeemably bad for failing to check every ideological box, whether they know those boxes exist or not.

And it’s not just reactions to one’s own posts that do this work. It’s the posts of others. Lapowsky writes:

The majority of both Republicans and Democrats say they judge their friends based on what they write on social media about politics. What’s more, 12 percent of Republicans, 18 percent of Democrats, and 9 percent of independents who responded say they’ve unfriended someone because of those posts.

So it’s not political persuasion, as we might like to believe, it’s shaking the trees for villains to fall out of, it’s political partitioning.

In the film Bananas, the Castro-like ruler Esposito delivers his first speech to his people, and tells them, “All citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.”

The kind of social media I’m talking about is that underwear you just changed, and you’re pretty damned proud that you did it after only 29 minutes.

Trump is Exactly What We Wanted

Photo credit: Tony Webster via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
I was not a Trump skeptic when he entered the race. I didn’t know how far he’d get, but I knew he’d be a big factor, and as he plowed ahead and stayed on top, I was also not one of those who thought he’d implode. His support, I believed, was rock solid, with a floor that other candidates couldn’t match. But I don’t think I could ever really articulate why he would do, and has done, so well.

Then I read this interview with historian Doris Kearns Goodwin at Huffington Post by Howard Fineman, and it all made sense. Fineman writes:

Trump deploys fame for fame’s sake; taps into populist expressions of fear, hatred and resentment and shows a knack for picking fights and a braggart’s focus on the horse race. All of which allow him to play into — and exploit — every media weakness and bad habit in a chase for audience and numbers.

And Goodwin tells him:

Do we know, at this point, about his modus operandi in business? Do we know how he treated his staff? Do we know what kind of leader he was when he was building his business? I mean, I don’t know the answers to these things.

All I know is that, when I see him now, it’s like his past is not being used by the media to tell us who the guy really is.

This all rings more truthfully to me than the idea that Trump is some kind of political savant. I do think he’s probably smarter than his competition in a number of meaningful ways, but a better and broader explanation of his success is that his shtick happens to align perfectly with the way the news media produces content today.

The media and Trump are equally obsessed with horse race poll numbers. The current news paradigm is to churn out content with every tiny, potentially interesting development, and Trump practically gives off spores of content fodder. The news media delights in conflict, especially personal conflict, and the potential for controversy or the possibility of offenses given. Again, Trump provides and provides. And I assume that this is half because he’s playing all of us, and half because it’s just what he is. We the audience demand vapid, garbage content, and Trump gives us exactly what we want.

Here’s a subject that Fineman and Kearns don’t cover: the electorate to which Trump is appealing. It’s hard to imagine a Democrat-Trump, some leftward counterpart that has Trump’s bravado but fights for social and economic justice. No, Political Trump is a product custom made for an electorate stoked into rage and fear and happy ignorance by the very party that now fears the Trump takeover. The GOP primary electorate has been primed for a candidate like Trump, whether the party knew it or not. They’ve been fomenting paranoia about Obama, minorities, women, “religious freedom,” Iran, Muslims, and whatever else you can think of, and they’re shocked that perhaps some chest-thumping candidate might swoop in and, confidently and joyously, embody those paranoias.

Trump is a man of our times. Goodwin in the interview with Fineman says that deeply researched print journalism is what could have better exposed and explained someone like Trump, “because [of] the way sentences work.” There’s something kind of perfect for that. In an age of clumsy tweets and Facebook memes, the antithesis of whatever it is Trump is, might be “the sentence.”

Righteous Irritation and the License to Bully

Yesterday, I tweeted:

Get really mad. Together.

Twitter.

Ha ha I’m so witty. Anyway, it’s an expression of my feeling of alienation from the mob-attacks that pass for “debate” on Twitter and other online outlets. Last year I put it this way:

There is plenty of argument online. But actually relatively little open disagreement. [It’s] really just agreement on the position that those other people (or that one poor dumb bastard) on the other side are wrong.

It’s people, astride very tall horses, agreeing at other people.

At Big Think, Jason Gots traces this phenomenon to annoyance, the power that being irritated by a person or an idea can have on us emotionally. And where do we go to vent our emotions? Twitter! Gots writes:

Irritation is a powerful force. It has the whiff of righteousness.

Think about how you feel when (if) you’re annoyed at a smoker, or the way someone drives, or how they dress, or how they parent. Admit it, you feel bothered by their wrongness, that a moral principle has been broken. Ugh, look at that person just lighting up like it doesn’t even matter. Ugh, look at that mother letting her kid behave that way. Most of the time, these things don’t even effect you. You just feel like they’ve violated something sacred rule even though it has nothing to do with you.

More Gots:

[Irritation] inspires dread in the meek. If you read old accounts of any society that eventually erupted in some form of ethnic cleansing or witch-hunting, you’ll hear people gossiping and commiserating about the annoying habits of the marginalized group, nodding their heads in agreement about the ways in which these people obviously don’t “get” the rules of society that are perfectly obvious to anyone with common sense.

Have you ever known that a romantic relationship was more or less over, as far as you were concerned, but couldn’t really justify a breakup with any ironclad offenses? They haven’t wronged you or cheated on you, you’re just done. So (and I know I’ve done this in my stupider days) you unconsciously begin to invent things that bother you about them, or the small annoyances that never mattered before suddenly become deal-breakers. Now apply that to one cultural, ethnic, political, religious, or any other identity group’s feelings toward another. (Android people can’t stand how snooty Apple people are. Apple people can’t stand how crass and tasteless Android people are. They are so annoying.)

Gots doesn’t just shrug it off, though. He wants us to stop it. And it’s harder than it seems to stop.

Words have power, and the line between opinion and fact is not nearly so clearly demarcated as it once was. So when your rhetoric suggests that something you’re saying should be completely obvious to anyone who isn’t an idiot, you’re basically bullying people into agreeing with you.

Remember bullies in the classic middle and high school sense? Well I sure do! And they were always so annoyed by my existence. The fact that I was, well, the way I was, way over there, away from them, really irritated them. That feeling justified their ruining several years of my life. What I looked like, what I was into, the way I stood or sat or walked, it wasn’t right, so I had it coming.

This happens all the easier if you, the hearer of a given annoyance, don’t know any better. If I’m an Apple fan, and I hear all this irritation with Android people, I’ll be pretty likely to share that opinion and that annoyance, even if I have no experience with Android or its users. If I know nothing about feminism, and a bunch of dudebros I follow go on about how annoying they are, what with their always asking for equality and whatnot, I will likely share this opinion of them whether I intend to or not.

Because you see I probably don’t know any better, and I certainly don’t want to be on the outs of my group, right? I can’t be sticking up for Android or feminism or whatever, because then I’m the one my group gets annoyed at. Then it’s open season on me.

Oh hey, it’s open season on Rachel Dolezal, isn’t it? We’re so annoyed and irritated that she thought it would be okay to just pretend to be black. She’s fair game. It doesn’t matter that we don’t know why she does it, or what might have happened to her, or been done to her, to make her want to escape her identity, to turn away from her other life. Let’s make her feel even worse because we’re annoyed.

Arthur Cohen had an op-ed in the Times a few days ago about political hating, but it applies to all of these things. His advice:

Declare your independence by not consuming, celebrating or sharing the overheated outrage and negative punditry — even if it comes from those with whom you agree. Avoid indulging in snarky, contemptuous dismissals of Americans on the other side. And always own up to your views.

Imagine that.