How to Write a Personal Profile: Foreign Policy Edition

One of my favourite genres of journalism is the personal profile. And not only, or even primarily, because people are inherently interesting. It’s because the form allows you to do so much, often in unexpected ways. I am thinking of recent classics like Edward Luce’s profile of Charles Murray or Edith Zimmerman’s profile of Chris Evans.

Today we have another extremely strong entrant into that field from David Samuels profiling Obama advisor Ben Rhodes at the New York Times. You think you’re reading a quirky, sympathetic human interest story about a writer-turned-political-staffer. Instead, it’s a brutal critique of Rhodes, the Obama White House, its foreign policy, the Iran deal, and centre-left journalism. I don’t agree with Samuels ideologically. But I can’t deny that he uncovers really unsavoury things, and that he frames them brilliantly.

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Songbook of Days: Cosmonautics Day

Okay, not all holidays are made up holidays. There’s also Cosmonautics Day. You can listen to audio recordings of Gagarin on this day 55 years ago, thanks to Yandex’s homepage today. Then you can listen to an Italian pop number about Gagarin. And then you can listen to some songs about space.

Spiritualized – Ladies and Gentlemen, We Are Floating in Space
Björk – Desired Constellation
Failure – Another Space Song
The Flaming Lips – They Punctured My Yolk
Pelican – Spaceship Broken, Parts Needed
Seu Jorge – Starman
Cynic – The Space for This
Sun Ra – Space is the Place

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Songbook of Days: Sibling Day

So what if it’s a made-up holiday? All holidays are made-up holidays.

Аквариум – Сестра
Sufjan Stevens – Sister Winter
The Organ – Brother
Dire Straits – Brothers In Arms
Belle and Sebastian – I Don’t Love Anyone
Jorge Ben – Take It Easy, My Brother Charles
Leonard Cohen – Sisters of Mercy
The Verve – So Sister
Devotchka – Commerce City Sister
Булат Окуджава – Я вновь повстречался с надеждой

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For Freddie de Boer: what’s effective and what’s permissible?

Freddie de Boer has been hammering away at the idea that the way progressive politics is currently practiced is bad for the goals of progressive politics. The way to succeed as a political coalition is to try to convince people, he says. And he sees media and university progressives not taking up that effort but instead using strategies like (a) making fun of people who disagree with them for not being cool (b) using the administrative apparatus to persecute opposition or (c) engaging in violence and silencing tactics. He thinks these are morally permissible, but ineffective.

I find these strategies to be morally repugnant. So I do want to agree with him that we shouldn’t use them. But I do wonder whether they’re as ineffective as he claims.

Take for instance making fun of people. The idea here is to make progressivism this cool club people want to join, and then police entry into that club. I find the equation of taste with values abhorrent as an idea. It’s a thing I work very hard to avoid in my life. Whenever I’ve started big political arguments with people I generally agree with on politics, it’s usually because I suspect they are doing this. So normatively, I completely agree with de Boer. To the extent that the progressive strategy is to ally progressive politics with being cool it is bad and I wish we stopped doing this.

But unpleasant as I find the tactic, I think it works to advance the political goals of the people engaging in it. I think about how socially liberal policies have advanced in the US, and I think a large part of the advance came from making social conservatism of any kind embarrassingly uncool.

Take gay rights. I think people’s minds on gay rights have genuinely been changed very quickly. And I think a lot of that mind-changing was done through mockery. If you ask what the most effective thing Dan Savage did to advance gay rights is, for example, I’m pretty sure coining santorum was it. Gay rights activists expanded their tent not by moving the stakes farther out, but by mocking everyone who wasn’t already inside. And often though not always, that mockery was on the basis of taste.

And yes, these struggles are sometimes internecine. The cool trying to put distance between them and the slightly-less-cool. If that was where it stopped, this would be politically useless. But I think in political opinions as elsewhere, there are domino effects. People who are into shitty coffee at diners make fun of their less cool periphery that are into pour-over. People into pour-over make fun of those drinking americanos. We americano-drinkers mock ugg-wearing aficionados of the pumpkin-spice-latte. And they in turn mock those who get their coffee at dunkin donuts. And over time, the attitude of one set of people expands onto the next. In politics it is much the same.

Pop quiz: who said “Americanos are for Frasier Crane!” – my coffee snob co-worker at the university, or my anti-coffee-snob co-worker at the lumber yard?

My internal Freddie de Boer counters that even where it looks like progressives are winning, we aren’t at all. Wages are stagnating for everyone but the super-rich, inequality is growing, police brutality isn’t disappearing to say the least, and Trump is cruising to the Republican nomination by out-insulting everyone.

And yes, maybe the gay rights example isn’t much. But I think it’s at least an example of this strategy working. Whereas I struggle to think of a recent example where trying to convince people worked. For de Boer’s strategy to work, there needs to be a large group of people that are engaged politically, but not engaged socially and not aware of pop culture. I find it hard to believe that this group is bigger than its opposite.

This has been about making fun of non-progressive people for their taste, but I think the same way about violence and fighting against speech you disagree with: often morally repugnant, but potentially more effective at advancing your goals than trying to convince people. So I guess my question to de Boer is: what is your evidence that these strategies work less well than others?

The stakes for figuring out a working strategy are high. It sounds fucking stupid to say it about political movements because this is about how peoples lives and livelihoods, of fucking course the stakes are high. But what I mean is: what if Jennifer Victor is right, and the major political parties in the US are realigning in such a way that economic progressivism will no longer be represented to any extent by either major party? Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court seems to suggest this kind of development. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But if it is, then it becomes really important to answer what we should do to effectively fight back. I hope the answer is to try to convince people. But I wonder if maybe it’s just to make fun of them instead.

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Tim Lee blames Trump on the internet

At Vox, Timothy B. Lee (I sometimes wonder if he only keeps the “B.” so that people think he invented the internet) has a theory for why Trump and Sanders are so successful: cable news and social media. The article is titled “How the Internet is Disrupting Politics” and I think it’s quite good.

That said, I find the idea that the internet is to blame for Trump somewhat of a stretch, since I doubt that Trump voters are the most tech savvy lot. Nevertheless, Lee makes the good point that decreased reliance on establishment gatekeepers and increasing content “filter bubbles” seem to have a lot to do with Trump’s rise. And both of those are very intimately related with the internet.

There’s also another way the internet makes people support extreme candidates that I think is underappreciated. And that is by making people think that everything is terrible.

It’s a well-established piece of polling trivia that hate congress but like their representative. Similarly, Americans feel much better about how they’re doing than how the nation is doing. We generally think things are terrible somewhere else. I think this kind of thing is made worse by the internet because we constantly see how bad things can be in some cases, and it reinforces our view of everything being awful.

Noah Smith brings this up in talking about what he calls “the Haan theory of history.” He says that a friend’s counterargument to the world getting better is murders caused by trans panic. I think Smith is correct in noting that this is terrible, but not widespread, and it’s probably only because there isn’t a giant amount of other terrible things that we even hear about it at all.

By increasing the scope of negative news we receive, the internet can work us into a panic where it seems everything is terrible, even if our own lives do not indicate it at all. This is part of the reason the internet is “making us less happy.

I don’t want to act like I can see through this tendency. I remember when I was in India, I took a newspaper, and was amazed: an armed insurgency here, dozens committing ritual suicide due to the death of a popular politician there, a whole elementary school class accidentally killed by eating poisoned laddoo, an old couple beaten up by vigilantes for going for a walk holding hands. And reading that, doesn’t it seem like India is uniquely awful? But maybe it isn’t, and it’s just huge. There’s just a lot of people, about whom we can now easily learn if something bad happens.

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Cultural Appropriation

“Cultural appropriation, cultural appropriation, cultural appropriation. Some is good, some is bad…” OK, maybe shoehorning this song as an intro for every issue was a bad idea…

I am going to make a couple of political posts. I know this stuff is not my strong suit and is not particularly interesting, but please bear with me.

I’m a linguistic descriptivist, so I believe that words have the meanings that they are commonly understood to have by the society that uses them. I have often had semantic arguments where when I say “this means X” and mean “it is generally accepted to mean X”. Then the other person says “this means Y” when they mean “it should mean Y”, and we both get frustrated because I think the other person is factually mistaken and they think my value system is irredeemably wrong.

Now, however, I am starting to understand how my interlocutors feel. Or like the people in the social justice movement feel when they want to define the meaning of racism in general society differently than is commonly understood. And it has to do with cultural appropriation.

Or not with cultural appropriation, but with the term “cultural appropriation”.

Because “cultural appropriation” could be a useful term for a certain negative action that should be avoided (e.g. blackface). Instead, it has come to mean the use of minority cultural artifacts by people of a different (usually dominant) culture. But this isn’t a particularly useful category of event, nor is it something that should be avoided.

This leads to confusion. It leads to cancelling yoga classes at U Ottawa and protesting Chinese-American food in the Oberlin cafeteria. And then this leads other people to write that cultural appropriation is great. But having yoga classes and Chinese-American food is not bad. And there is a type of cultural appropriation that is decidedly not great.

Using elements of other cultures is, as the “pro-cultural appropriation” crowd have it, actually really good. It avoids insularity, and, as Timothy Burke pointed out during the Halloween costume debate, arguing against it involves enforcing a creepy cultural “purity”. “If you’re white, don’t rap, because that’s black culture and you’re white”: who said that – a white supremacist who thinks black culture is inferior, or a radical who thinks it would be cultural appropriation? If your proposed solution is identical to the solution of a person who thinks the underlying problem is diametrically opposite, it doesn’t mean you’re wrong, but it should at least give you pause. It reminds me of the KSP tradition never to play Vysotsky (as a demonstrative show of respect), and also to never play Rozenbaum (as a demonstrative show of contempt).

Moreover, cultural exchange is going to happen, because we do not live in closed-off bubbles. But whereas members of a dominant culture can choose to participate in only dominant-culture events, this same regimen is not possible for those in a minority culture. Enforcing cultural non-appropriation, you are enforcing that cultural exchange only happens in one direction, i.e., in the direction of assimilation. If the majority has to avoid minority cultures out of scruples about cultural appropriation, this actually becomes a strong pro-hegemony force.

So when is cultural appropriation bad? It seems to me there are three concepts which have a special way of presenting themselves when cultural artefacts are involved: (i) ignorance (ii) mockery, and (iii) fraud. Ignorance in many cases is not malicious, but it’s worth it to point out and ask for better. Mockery can be a useful tool, but in dealing with minority culture, you often have mockery combined with ignorance. Making fun of the way Chinese sounds by going “ching chang chong,” or doing blackface isn’t serving a useful purpose as mockery. It is just bad. Cultural fraud is where a KKK member pretends to be Cherokee and writes about growing up as a Cherokee for who knows what reason and it becomes The Education of Little Tree. That book is intentionally deceiving its audience about culture, and that is bad. It would be useful to have a shorthand for why these are bad things. I think the phrase “cultural appropriation” could be a good one. Too bad it has come to mean something different.

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You should bike (if you want to)

For someone who has spent a bunch of time on the internet talking about bicycles, I don’t bike all that much. Sure, I usually bike to work, but then my work is a 15 minute bike ride away. That, and the occasional errand, and that’s that. I am certainly no Eddy Merckx. So what gives me the authority to talk about biking or be advocacy at all? Well, for one thing, nothing, but I don’t have to have any: this is how the internet works. For another, though, I think there is a benefit if some people who discuss biking and bike advocacy are not hardcore bikers. 

So here’s the thing. Many people who might benefit from biking don’t do it. And I think one possible reason why is that it’s seen as something with a steep learning curve, which it isn’t. But another reason why is that it’s seen as this moral obligation, that you should bike “to do your part” or “to be a good person”. I know that motivates some people, but it turns other people, like me, off, because we don’t like sanctimony or moralizing. So I want to point out that people should also be biking for totally self-interested reasons. Not all the time, not exclusively, but I have found that adding biking to the modes of transportation available to me has been very helpful. Consider:

1. Biking saves you time

This seems counterintuitive because a bicycle is usually slower than a car. And it’s obviously not always true. If you live 50 km on a highway from where you’re going, then biking will not save you time*. But if you’re in the city, your trip is under 10 km, taken during normal hours, and you would otherwise have to search for parking, it does. And most trips are like that. Consider: you are never stuck in traffic. In however many years, I have never been stuck in traffic on a bicycle. That means that you can usually plan the amount of time to get somewhere without giving yourself a lot of extra “but what if there’s a stall” leeway. You don’t have to look, or pay, for parking. You don’t have to waste time standing and waiting for the bus. You can take the most direct route from point A to point B.

2. Biking saves you money

Biking is a cheap form of transportation. In terms of maintenance, a bicycle is much cheaper than a car, or even a monthly transit pass. Of course, you might want to have all three. But the money you save on car maintenance and gasoline by driving less will more than make up for bike maintenance money, even if oil prices continue to drop, because bike maintenance is really cheap. Also central to this point is that you don’t particularly need to be outfitted in all lycra, spandex and biker’s cap. In the same way that driving clothes are clothes you drive in, so biking clothes.

3. Biking is enjoyable

The feeling of biking is fun. This is of course, subjective. I know lots of people who think driving is fun, for example, even if I’m not one of them. If every time you go somewhere on a bicycle feels like excruciating torture, then (a) adjust your saddle! and (b) maybe biking really isn’t for you. But many people do enjoy it under the right circumstances, and the trick is to figure out what those circumstances are, and bike when they apply. Don’t be dogmatic about it: if biking in the pouring rain is not your cup of tea, then bike when it’s sunny and pleasant. That way you’ll be doing something enjoyable, which should make you a happier person.

4. Biking is not a deathsport

A lot of people will happily agree to points 1-3 above, but never ever bike as a means of transportation, because they think that biking in an urban setting, you’re liable to get run over and killed. Part of that is that the media often aims to make everything sound scary and dangerous, and biking is no exception. But part of it may just be a natural response. I understand that kind of panic, because I feel the same way about driving – it never seems safe to me, total disaster always milliseconds and centimeters away. But that’s not something that a rational person should base their decisions on. So let’s take a look at the stats. In this case, stats provided in this article by Kay Teschke at momentum mag. Obviously, the source is biased pro-cycling, and you should probably just ignore the infographic at the top. However, the article itself seems to me to be sensible and to include actually relevant statistics. And this is what it says: per trip, bicycling is about as safe as driving or walking. Per unit distance it is more dangerous than driving. But walking is even more dangerous by that metric, yet I never heard of anyone totally disavow walking because it’s unsafe. I’ve also never heard anyone object to me walking without a helmet.

5. (Optional) Biking saves you from guilt

And if you really want to, you can use biking to feel good about yourself – how much exercise you’re getting, how you’re helping the planet, whatever. That’s great – it’s important to feel good about yourself, and to get exercise, and to help the planet. But if you don’t want to, you don’t have to regard biking as this cod liver oil pill that you have to swallow to better yourself. It’s just something that’s often a good idea.

*However, if you’re frequently in a position that you have to drive 50 km along a highway, you might want to arrange your life differently so as to be happier, biking or no. I currently do this twice a week, and it’s definitely making me significantly less happy.

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