Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Mountain

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began

Mary Oliver

Here’s how it always seemed to me, ever since I was very young:
There was a mountain in the distance, which we could all see.
And the authors were up there, climbing, climbing.
They wrote books.
I loved books.
So I wanted to be on the mountain, too.

And I'd write stories in pencil
Sometimes I'd staple the pages together
If the stories were two pages long

This was entertaining, but it didn't seem to be the mountain.
I could still see the mountain, and the authors climbing it.

Some of them were way up high. Some of them further down.
Sometimes a cloud would break apart and there’d be another one I’d never noticed before.
How they got on the mountain I didn’t know.

…I knew it involved writing a book.
Then something happened.
Then they were on the mountain.
What was this something?

Did they clutch their new pages in their arms,
Take a running start,
Fly through the air, 
Land as high as they could?
If so, I knew I would never make the mountain
Impossible to jump that high.

But, if not jumping, then … what?
I had written stories before, and I wasn’t on the mountain.
What did one do?

Came the day I realized I had a story to tell, based on a story I’d made with my friend Ben
I thought about writing it, but … look how high the mountain is. I can’t jump up there.
I’ll have to walk instead.
Page after page

I started walking toward the mountain.
It wasn’t an easy walk for a while. I stumbled a lot. I got tired quickly.
But other times the walk was pleasant.
I walked on.

Every once in I’d look up and the mountain wouldn’t seem any closer.
Nor did its face seem any more climbable.
But then I’d look back and see how far I’d come.
And I was stumbling less. I was getting tired less.
So, because the walking was pleasant, I walked on.

Came the day the trail ended. That is to say: I’d finished the story. I’d done all the writing I could.
So I read what I’d written.
Ow. Cramps.

Parts were pretty good.
A few parts I liked a lot.
A lot of it was quite bad. It was going to need to be worked on.
There was a thicket between me and the mountain.
I walked into it.

This wasn’t fun at all. It was hot sticky work. There were brambles.
I couldn’t even see the mountain most days.
Some days I was certain I wasn’t even walking toward it anymore.
I learned how to use a hatchet.
I went through the story over and over.
The thicket thinned.

Came the day I finally reached the end of the thicket.  That is to say: I’d made the story as good as I knew how.
I’d arrived at a pile of enormous boulders.
They didn’t seem climbable. But when I tried, I discovered my arms and legs were stronger than I’d imagined.

After a lot of false starts and scrapes and falls, I was atop the boulder.
A realization: I was at the mountain.
I was at the mountain.
I’d made it.
I looked up, and despaired.

Immediately above was an outcropping, jutting out, seamlessly smooth, obscuring my view of the rest of the peak.
There was no way up. It was impossible to climb.

But then I climbed it.
It took a couple years, and a few times I thought I’d fall to my death, but I climbed it.

*How* did I climb it?
With the help of other people.
More people than I could say.
I am very lucky, and very grateful.

Other authors who laid the paths long ago
A friend who helped chart the direction
A publisher who invited to pull me up.
An agent who gave me equipment I never could have gotten on my own.
An editor who led me back into the brambles, handed me a hatchet, showed me a more likely path than straight over

So many of you, letting all of them know I was there in the first place.
And the people around me who saw me start to walk in the first place, and encouraged me.

Turns out if you walk to the mountain, you’ll get to the mountain, and once you're there, you can climb it.

Turns out if you climb it, you’ll be on it

And if you arrive at an unclimbable spot, you can go back into the thicket as long as you want, until you find a more likely spot.

The mountain is patient.

And here’s what happened today:

I’m on the mountain now, thanks to more people than I can say.
Not so high up. That’s fine.
Maybe this is as high up as I ever get. That’s fine.
There’s no bad spot on the mountain, any more than there's a bad path to it.

There are plenty on the mountain who aren’t traditionally published.
And some who really did seem to fly up there.
But nobody got up on the mountain without help.
I sure didn’t.

I believe I'll keep climbing.

I have no idea how far up I can climb, nor does it particularly matter.
But my arms feel rested, and my legs feel strong. And it’s good to climb.
I do believe I’ll try to find out how far I can go.

There’s more people up here with me than I can say. There’s room for billions more.
To be on the mountain you go to the mountain, and you climb.

Turns out going to the mountain was only ever about the walking
Turns out getting on the mountain was only ever about the climbing.
And it turns out being on the mountain isn't about being seen.

It's about the view.

Monday, March 18, 2019

THE REVISIONARIES - Presales Now Open!

My novel—THE REVISIONARIES—will come out on December 3, 2019. It is now available for preorder (preordering is very important and you should do it if you can please). 

Google Books
Barnes & Noble
Penguin Random House Canada 

Any of those links will get the job done, but I confess a love for the independent option. You also should be able to go to your local bookstore and place your preorder through them, and maybe buy more books while you're there, which will make your life better and keep independent bookstores going. The indie bookstore ecology is hugely important to the health of the industry, and your preorder there helps me just as much. Food for thought!

In case you didn't know, preorder is very important. If you want to support an author—if you like what they do, if you'd like them to go on getting a chance to write things—the way you do that is simple: you preorder. There's a very good Twitter thread here that explains why, but in short, it's how bookstores decide to shelve or not, and it's how publishers decide how much publicity to give, and how media decides whether to review a book and interview the author. Etc.

And it's how the publishing industry decides whether a debut novelist (such as ahem me) gets another bite at the biscuit.

So, my friends, and-I-beg-your-indulgence-for-this-but-not-really, I'm going to pitch my book the next six months, and I'm going to pitch hard.

Please preorder my book. Then—if you have time and want to give me a thrill—leave a comment and let me know you did.

Get one for you.

Get one as a gift.

Get an office copy.

Let your friends and family know about it. Tell strangers on the street. Tell everybody! Read it with the cover ostentatiously displayed. Write it across the sky in gossamer teardrops! Proclaim it to the heavens in angelic tongues of fire!

Ahem. Anyway, that's what I'll be doing.

Whatever you're able to do, know that I will appreciate you with my whole heart, and love you with my whole brain, and maybe if we meet up somewhere (on book tour, which I've been sent on because of all the preorders, of course) I'll sign your copy with my whole hand, if that's what you'd like.

I can't wait for you to read this book.

And the next one.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

The Compass and the Navigation

There’s a magic trick that’s going to get played on us every day during the 2020 election cycle. It’s a fairly simple trick, once you see it.

I’d like to talk about what leadership is and what governance is.

I’d like to talk about the compass, the navigation, the travel, and the corrections.

Let me begin by proposing ‘movement’ as a metaphor for coordinated human activity.
Sometimes the metaphor actually involves movement: Humanity moved from the earth to the moon.
Sometimes the metaphor is figurative: The United States moved from legal slavery to abolition.

When people decide to leave the place they are and move to a different place, there’s an observable order to it.

The order is very important.

So, in movement, there is the moment of arrival at the destination.
But before that moment, there is the actual trip.
We began here. We moved until we got there. We put one foot in front of the other. We set sail and kept going until we arrived. The aircraft cut its way across the sky.
The travel.

But before that, there was a plan.
We are here. We will go there. Here, after study and research and consultation and testing and training, is how we’ll do it.
The navigation.

But before that, there was a determination to move in the first place.
We are here. We should be there. We will go there, in that direction, as opposed to all other directions.
The compass.

Coordinated movement begins with a determination to move in one direction over all other directions.
Then comes the plan.
Then comes the actual trip.
But the trip may turn out to be something quite different than the plan.

Sometimes the trip is smooth and easy, and goes exactly to plan.
More often, especially if the destination is an ambitious one, or the path is long, there are challenges and setbacks and unforeseen difficulties.
The route went off-plan, requiring delays and divergences and detours.

We thought we would be here. But we are still going there.
A successful correction requires the same tools that motivated the original trip: the determination to arrive at the destination, then the plan to do it, then the actual travel.
In that order.

The compass determines direction.
The navigation determines the route.
The route leads to the destination.
In that order.
The order is key.

As long as you’re determined to end at your destination, and know the direction, and have the ability to chart your course, and the ability to actually move from one place to another, your original plan can absorb any number of corrections.
You may even learn of a better destination on the way.
But first you have to actually decide to move.

You wouldn’t make a plan before you knew where you were going.
You wouldn’t begin travel before you’d figured out how to get there.
It wouldn’t work.
So now let’s talk about leadership and governance, and the magic trick that gets played on us over the difference.

Say we humans have a problem.
It could be anything.
Like 50% of the wealth in the hands of a few hundred people among billions.
Or a medical system that only cares for those who can pay.
Or millions of people without homes in the world’s richest country.
It could be anything.

But I don’t want to be controversial, so let me make up a more sci-fi premise.
Let’s pretend there was a climate disaster that threatens extinction of life on the planet.
Say the evidence was incontrovertible.
Say the early effects were present and observable.
Try to imagine this.

Now, let’s say the remedies were known, but very challenging.
Let’s say they would require a major restructuring of the political and economic and social order, globally.
And let’s say as a result, there were a lot of people who didn’t want to do it.
Again, try to imagine.

Let’s pretend that the people most resistant to changing the world order were the people who had gained the most power and wealth within that world order.
Let’s pretend the next election would actually be about whether or not to even respond to the threat.
Again, try to imagine.

Let me locate us in this scenario.
We’re not yet at the point to start enacting a plan we haven’t yet decided to make.
We’re not at the point to argue about the specifics of the plan—though we need a plan!
What we need is the determination to move.
We need the compass.

Leadership is the compass. Leadership is the thing that says, “even though it is controversial, even though it is disruptive, even though it is hard, we are going to move from here to there.”
Leadership statements are compass statements.

Once we’ve determined we are going to move in a direction, we will need a plan, and a good one.
The nuts and bolts of how it’s going to happen—the navigation.
The actual logistics of doing it—the travel.
That’s governance. It’s very important.
It doesn’t come first.

“The Green New Deal” is a leadership statement. It’s a compass statement. It’s a declaration about coordinated human movement.
You might disagree with this statement. If so, you have some options regarding how you might respond.

You might claim that there is no reason to move. You’d say something like, “this is a hoax.”
You might claim that it’s too early to move. You’d say, “the science is uncertain.”
You might claim it’s too late to move. You’d say, “human activity isn’t causing it.”
Those are the direct responses.
But remember there’s a magic trick.

Some might realize that the danger is real, and the moral call of movement is absolutely uncontestable. They might decide the best way to oppose is to perform some slight-of-hand.
They’d say things like “The Green New Deal is unrealistic.”


That’s a matter for navigation. We’re not there.
We’re making compass statements.

“The Green New Deal is unrealistic *sounds* like a governance statement.
It’s not. It’s a leadership statement. It’s a compass statement.
It says “actually, we will stay where we are” just as much as “climate change is a hoax” does.
It says it with more subtlety, but it still says it.

I want to be careful, because even as we talk compass, we want an eye on navigation.
It’s OK to point out that the navigation is off.
But when one does so to close off or delay questions of coordinated movement, then it’s the magic trick. Leadership disguised as governance. A compass statement disguised as navigation.

If one wants to critique The Green New Deal’s policy, it needs to be within the larger context of a firm commitment to a robust and prioritized response to climate change, and a willingness to engage in the significant disruption that will cause. Otherwise it’s just using the challenge of the problem as a reason not to start.

It’s one of the slyest tricks of opposition there is, to deny a clearly needed solution to an obvious problem, not because the need for a solution is great, but because the route hasn’t been charted thoroughly enough, because all of the potential problems haven’t been identified, because every last correction hasn’t been made.

But leadership comes BEFORE governance.

The compass determines the direction.
The direction determines the navigation.
The navigation determines the travel.
And corrections can be made on the way.

This is the reason that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (for example) has so many people who oppose her obsessed and frightened, by the way.

Whenever someone arrives who actually makes bold and needed compass statements, people respond.

And, it reveals all the people who have been refusing to make them.

She’s showing us the magic trick.

Once you know the trick, you can see it everywhere.

Who’s going to PAY for Medicare for All?
Magic trick. “Medicare for All” is a compass statement. We WILL care for everybody’s medical needs, because that is what a civilized society does.

The country won’t accept gun control, it can’t happen here.
Magic trick. We WILL minimize gun violence. Letting our schools become war zones is unacceptable.

A 70% marginal tax rate is socialism run amok!
Magic trick. We ARE going to address the scourge of wealth disparity, hording and corrupt billionaire welfare.

The Green New Deal is flawed!
Magic trick. We ARE going to drop literally everything else to address a potential extinction-level crisis, because of course we are, my god, what the hell is wrong with you?

This is going to matter in 2020. Remember that leadership is the compass, governance is the navigation. Both are important, but one comes ahead of the other, and you can make adjustments on the way.

And watch everyone’s hands closely.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Castle On The Hill

When you fell asleep, the castle on the hill was firing their customary rockets down onto the villages in celebration of the king; when you woke, your village was already in flames.
There was no time to save anything, except your only child.
There hadn’t been much food in the village. The castle atop the hill gathered most of the food for itself. Your uncle had found his way into the castle atop the hill; he wrote of the mountains of food to be found there.
“I’m hungry,” said your only child.
You began to climb.
You brought your child along. Your only child: hungry.
The castle guards had been given telescopes, and saw you coming from a distance. They raised the alarm.
The people in the castle shook with outrage. We’re being invaded, they fretted. We’re being invaded for our food.
The king ordered the drawbridge raised. He put archers on the parapets. “DON’T CLIMB” he bellowed.
You were still at the bottom of the hill, in the next village up.
“I’m thirsty,” your child said.
The castle puts our water in bottles, the villagers said.
You climbed.
DON’T CLIMB the king bellowed.
You barely heard. You thought of mountains of food. You thought of rooms full of water.
You climbed. You brought your child with you, your only child: hungry, thirsty.
An invasion is coming, the people in the castle moaned, a great invasion.
When you reached a higher village, you saw the easy paths had been barricaded. Only the harder paths remained.
“I’m sick,” your only child said.
The castle has the best medicine, the villagers said.
You took the harder path. You brought your only child: hungry, thirsty, sick
ITS AN INVASION, bellowed the king.
It's an invasion, the people mourned, from their baths in the castle atop the hill. They worried as they gathered their excess food in sacks for disposal.
A great invasion for our food and water and medicine, which is the greatest.
When you reached the castle wall, well-fed guards seized you.
They seized your child, sick, hungry, thirsty.
Whose child is this, asked the guards.
Mine, you replied.
Where is your proof, asked the guards.
It burned, you said. It burned, it all burned.
They took your child away, hungry, thirsty, sick
When you saw her next, she had died
She had died in a cage: unfed, thirsty, sick
The people in the castle heard of this
Yes it's a tragedy, they said. A tragedy, that this woman chose to bring her child on the journey to the top of the hill
Such a dangerous trip
Why would she put her child in such danger
Just to invade us
Just to invade
How selfish
Why didn’t she stay in her own village
Why didn’t she take the easier path
Why did she come when she knew the path was hard
You tried to tell them why, but they couldn't hear a word
They were firing their customary rockets into the villages to celebrate the king

Friday, September 28, 2018

Down By The River

The woman had come forward, and it was all most untoward and disturbing.

Something had to be done.

The men, being men of action, did something.

“Oh well,” they sighed, tying heavy weights to her legs. “Time to carry her down to the river and see if she’s telling the truth. It would have been easier if she’d come to us right away, when the water was warmer. Such a shame, such a shame.”
“I’ll tell you my theory,” the eldest one said. “I believe she made a clay statue to look just like him, then bewitched it into life.”
“A sensible explanation,” the rest murmured. “If only she hadn’t, it would never have attacked her.”
“Women must be careful,” the eldest said.

“Take off the weights before you threw me in the river,” she said. “If you don’t, I won’t be able to swim.”
The man looked grave and stern. “Why these demands before swimming?” they asked. “Wouldn’t a truthful woman be *eager* to swim?”
“This isn’t fair,” yelled the onlookers. “It isn’t right!”
“To be sure, to be sure,” the men replied. “But you must admit, we are doing it.”

"If only you had evidence," the men mourned. "But you have none."
"I named a man who saw it," she said. "He's at his home now."
"Yes," the men agreed. "But unfortunately he is there, and we are here."
"You *carried* me here," the woman said.
"No time for questions," said the men.

Some women were watching from a distance.
"It happened to me, too," one called.
"And me," said another. "It was just like she said."
"And me," whispered a third.
"If only those women were not watching from such a distance," the men said, sadly. "We might hear them. Alas."

"How dare you," screamed the accused man. "How dare you say such things about me."
"You've been through so much," murmured the other men. "So much."
"But is it true?" asked a woman.
"How dangerous," the men warned, "If we asked that, we'd have to ask all the other men that, too."

The woman struggled for a while as she sank.
"Did sinking mean she was lying or that she was telling the truth?" asked a young man.
"Who cares?" said the eldest.
They all laughed. They laughed and laughed.
Some women were there, watching from a distance.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Bubbles 12 - Everything is Permitted


I find it helpful to end with story.

Yes, but what do I propose? What policy do I suggest?

You know, I’ve always wanted a movie about what happened to Jules Winnfield after he left that diner. Still hoping I’ll get one.

Yes, fine-fine-fine, but what’s my answer? I've been pointing fingers—what's my big solution?

But I never said I was looking for a solution. I’m looking for a way to exist in a world I'd failed to recognize. I’m trying to understand the appropriate posture to take in a world that is different than I thought it was.

The old stories aren’t working for me. I’m looking for a new story. I'm almost done now.

What a cop out!

Really? I don’t think so.

It’s one thing to make a compelling argument. It’s another to be compelling. The former might win an argument, but the latter might—maybe—change a mind.

Put it another way. We can resift order's soil if we like, and it looks like we should. But I think we’d do better to fix justice's bedrock. And fixing the bedrock is more a matter of spirit than law. It's more a matter of desire than ideas. It's the heart, not the mind; the vision, not the spreadsheet. It's a matter of orientation. It's the compass.

It may well be appropriate and useful to make policy proposals that are more just than the current ones, and useful to pass more just laws, and our lawmakers should certainly make that attempt, and certainly I hope to see laws passed that increase justice, but policy will not move us, and laws will not save us, unless we choose to discard the spirit that has captured us, and become oriented toward a justice founded in love.

Policy may improve people’s lives, but they can’t make us believe people's lives matter. Laws can enforce justice, but they can’t make us enforce them justly. Justice’s underlying bedrock can’t be smoothed without a change of ideology, of worldview, without a recapitulation of underlying assumption, without a renewal of spirit.

The only thing that will save us from the merciless consequence of believing our foundational lies is the changing of our national soul. A reorientation toward justice, toward recognizing the fact that people are art. Something close enough to a miracle as to be indistinguishable from it.

Let me try to demonstrate what I mean.

One of the great stories of the past 10 million years or so is this: humans have had to engage in labor to stay alive.

One of the stories of the past 10 thousand years or so is this: humans have innovated technologies, which have allowed them to create enough surplus to form increasingly large societies, which have allowed them to exchange their labor in exchange for wages of goods or services. Meanwhile, organizations have harnessed this labor to form industries, which coordinate this labor toward projects of increasingly larger scale.

One of the stories of the past 200 years or so of human history is this: thanks to increasingly large jumps in innovation and technology, industry, which seeks above all else to increase profit, has developed a preference for technology over humans, when it comes to labor.

As a result, increasing numbers of people have had their labor replaced by technology.

Let’s repeat the problem: There has been an advance in technology, and as a result, industry no longer thinks humans are desirable for labor. As a result, many have been replaced and have no way of proving their worth to a society that views profitability as the metric of worth, and many others have found themselves herded into meaningless occupations in order to survive. If it hasn’t yet happened to what you do: just wait another decade. I doubt you’re safe if you’re a doctor, or an attorney, or an actor, or a writer. Industry seeks to cut expense. Humans labor is very expensive. Technology solves complex problems.

Let me ask you this: Is this a problem?

It’s here where framework is crucial.

If we live in a culture where life is something that must be earned, and the way you earn life is by making yourself profitable, this is a huge problem. You can argue pros and cons of solutions within the framework, but you’re still stuck within that framework, and increasingly people will fail to provide sufficient profit, and increasingly people will not deserve life, and so, increasingly, in various ways, we will allow people to die.

And, not to go future-shock on you, but … our technology is getting exponentially more sophisticated, more intelligent, more and more able to replicate something like thought. The more our technology replaces human labor, the more it will be making decisions on our behalf. Which means we’ll need to ‘teach’ it, but soon enough, it will be learning things from us we did not intend to teach. We can try to teach it that all human life is valuable, but unless we actually believe it, that’s not what our technology will learn. It will learn our lies from us instead. It will learn that we don’t belong to each other. It will learn that life must be earned. It will learn that being profitable is how life is earned. It will learn that humans are not preferable for this goal. And it will learn that violence redeems.

We've seen that movie. We keep making it. It's almost as if we know.

That's a pretty huge problem.

If, on the other hand, if you believe life is something you deserve simply through your being, then the fact that industry no longer desires human labor is simply an extraordinary challenge.

The challenge is this: Since industry would like to replace human labor to increase efficiency and profit, and since industry is already doing this, how do we, as a primary responsibility, make the necessary adjustments to our understanding of how human labor (a good thing) is going to function within our society in order to preserve and protect basic human physical and spiritual need, and, as a secondary responsibility, identify everything good about this trend so that we can preserve the innovation, the benefit, the increases in knowledge and ability?

Do you see what's changed? We still want to preserve industry. We still want to preserve innovation. We still want to preserve free markets. They just aren't any longer the first thing we want to preserve, or the only things.

Industry and innovation and technology and labor and efficiency aren’t bad things. They’re good things. Robotics and artificial intelligence aren’t bad things; they’re tools—amazing  tools, incredibly useful ones. It’s just none of them are more important than the idea that all humans are unique and irreplaceable works of art carrying intrinsic and unsurpassable worth. If any of them is failing in that regard, we can either make adjustments to what we have, or we can come up with something else.

You’re telling me we can’t innovate some system, if we so desire, that allows people to engage in whatever labor they find meaningful, but which stands untethered to the coercive elements of a profit-oriented system? I don’t believe you. We have a rover taking pictures of Mars. We split atoms. We attack cancer with radiation. We can hit any specific spot on the planet with a missile that will devastate a city, and we can do it until we’ve exterminated ourselves. We can do whatever we want.

Which means the question is…what do we want to do?

Human beings have basic physical needs. Human beings also have an innate desire for meaning and significance, which leads them to a vast spectrum of meaningful work and achievement and expression. We can make sure we are providing for these things as a primary objective, or we can make profit and growth of industry a primary objective. If we can have both, that's wonderful—and, because we are innovative and smart and industrious, we probably can—but if the one has decided to cast off the other, then we must meet the challenge of that reality.

Oh. My. God. Am I talking about … socialism???

My answer is: I don’t know. And who cares? It’d not an important question, it's really not. It's the question somebody would ask whose first priority is preserving capitalism rather than human life. I’m suggesting merely we meet the challenge presented by a new reality. And I’m suggesting that toward that endeavor, everything is permitted … except the destruction or subjugation or abuse of human beings, who are art.

Be very skeptical of the person whose reaction to a problem is merely the preservation of the system causing the problem, rather than meeting the challenge of solving the problem.

Consider capitalism and socialism. They’re oppositional forces, right?

Wrong. They are tools. Two among many. Perhaps one has more appropriate applications than the other, and perhaps one is more useful more often than the other, and perhaps one is more dangerous than the other—and we could argue which is which, if we were the types of people who enjoy boredom.

Capitalism and socialism aren’t oppositional forces any more than your screwdriver is an oppositional force in contention with your wrench.

Unless, that is, either is improperly elevated to the most important thing.

If either is made the most important thing, then the most important thing will be to always use them for every task. And, when inappropriate use creates harmful results, the most important thing will not be the redress of the harm, but the preservation of the inappropriate use.

Capitalism has been for many years an imperfect but largely successful way of organizing human labor to the benefit of both. It is starting to decide it doesn’t need humans. Are we really going to live as if capitalism is more important than humans?

Hell, no. Let's do better.

And still there are those who will think I'm attacking capitalism, because they are in a bubble that says that capitalism, not a justice rooted in love, is the most important thing.

This is just one illustration, just one challenge to meet. The point of the illustration is, policy and law are good if they are just, but they will not save us if our frame is still unjust.

Preserve what is good. Change what isn’t. Use any tool available, provided you put it to a use appropriate to your orientation toward justice. When you find no appropriate use, put the tool back in its place.

We can change anything.

Which means we can use any thing.

Which means we can do anything.


The frame of justice is so large, it turns out it is the entire canvas. If you can manage to frame yourself there, you'll wonder why you hemmed yourself into such a small corner of it.

Everything is permitted.


So, again. What do we want to do?

Right now we want to go to war and war and war and war. Right now we want to profit off of suffering, and increase suffering if it will increase profit. Right now we want to imprison more and more people, and to profit from their imprisonment. Right now we want to blame the victim. Right now we want a Muslim ban and a holy war. Right now we want a police force that will destroy the bodies of those who are considered presumed theft. Right now we want to presume that people of color are presumed theft. Right now we want people whose labor has been replaced by technology to die. Right now we want to protect rapists if they had a bright white future. Right now we want people, who are too sick or too poor or too unskilled or too old or too disabled to be able to turn a profit, to die. Right now we want people who remind us of the responsibilities we've inherited because of our country's unresolved genocides to die.

Right now we want to try to stay comfortable through all that.

If that's not what we want to do, then why are we doing it?

If where we are wasn't where our compass was pointing, then why are we here?

Suppose you are like me. Suppose you are an idiot. In that case, you won't understand every policy proposal. In that case, you won't have a detailed understanding, or even a functional one, of every industry and every technological advance and every law. And, if  you're like me, perhaps you've begun to suspect that it won't be possible for you, all by yourself, to gain such godlike understanding. After all, you're like me. You're an idiot.

But I might understand one small part of it. And, together, we might understand it all. And, if we believe we all belong to each other, then we might move together in whatever direction we choose. And, if, together, our compass is pointed toward justice, we'll eventually arrive at justice. We'd make mistakes, but we'd correct them. Because the compass sets the course, and the course informs the navigation. If the navigation is unskilled at first, we need only refer to the compass and adjust. If the compass is true, we'll get there in time. It will be hard and costly and humbling and worth it.

Demanding to know exactly how we'll get there before deciding to do so is the real cop-out. This is why asking someone for their policy solution is usually my way of distracting from the fact that I don't want to do the right thing. It's usually my way of changing the frame away from justice, back to the more precise details of how we might justify doing something unjust.

Or put another way: Usually, before people embark upon some difficult task, they first see the necessity or the desirability, which leads them to want to do it. It's only after wanting to do it that they actually make the plan.

Which is kind of obvious, if you think about it.

The good news is this: You don’t have to win the debate over policy. The attempt to win the debate is usually a loss in itself. A debate within an unjust framework benefits the unjust by accepting the framework as a foundational premise.

Lose the debate. Not in the sense of defeat. In the sense of casting it off.

Lose the debate. Move the frame.

You move the frame by telling a story.

Let me tell you a story.

* * *

Once upon a time, a tyrant became aware of his own tyranny, and left his kingdom behind to walk the earth, trying, real hard, to become a shepherd.

You know: like Kane in “Kung Fu.”

He was a bad motha-shutyomouth. (But I’m just talkin’ about Jules. So can you dig it?)

Before long, the new shepherd ran into trouble. In every town, it seemed, there were people suffering, and others who held sway over them, benefiting from the imbalance. Sometimes there was a rich industrialist, who had bought up most of the land in the county. Sometimes it was a local tough and his gang, who rode through town each night to terrorize those less imposing and ruthless than he. Sometimes there was a poison in the ground, or the water. Sometimes an abusive patriarch. There was always a tyrant.

The shepherd confronted each tyrant. Reactions varied. Some, recognizing his innate authority, offered him opportunity in exchange for his allegiance. Others, trusting to their superior familiarity with the local territory, simply lied, attempting to confuse him with conflicting narratives, attempting to cast his intended victims as the true villains and himself the misunderstood hero. Others, casually confident, simply explained the legal and physical forces against which the shepherd sought to cast himself, hoping to quell him into submissive apathy. Others simply raged and threatened him with an undue and targeted measure of the abuse they already distributed generally.

The shepherd insisted on siding with justice, and refused complicity. He refused to believe lies, repeating the truth he saw. He refused apathy, setting himself in contention with tyranny even when defeat seemed unavoidable. He absorbed the abuse with which he was threatened, knowing it had been intended for others.

Occasionally the shepherd found it necessary to bring out the tool of his old trade, his weapon, the instrument of his tyranny—yet he never used it, and he was always the first to put it down. He came to realize that he would only bring it out in order to be able to be the first to put it down. In time he brought it out less. By the end he never brought it out anymore. Some suspect he lost it.

Wherever the shepherd stayed, he lived with those the tyrant intended to hurt. At first he attempted to impart his wisdom to them, but soon he discovered that most spaces needed his ears more than his words. Soon he learned that people already understood the particulars of their own territory better than he did. Soon he realized that they were far more the heroes of the story than an interloper like he could ever be. Soon he realized that even the tactics he disagreed with were the ones that had allowed these people to survive within the abuse of their situation. The shepherd would not participate in these tactics if his conscience disallowed their use, but he was slow to criticize any perceived failing, and quick to name any perceived goodness.

Always the day would come the shepherd realized there was nothing more he could do. The shepherd never stayed long after that. The shepherd always said good-bye.

Sometimes the shepherd left having found some measure of success, with people less threatened than before, or more empowered, or refortified with resolve or provision. Sometimes the people had managed to wrest some concession, large or small, from their tyrant. In rare instances their tyrant had even been turned from abusive ways by a better example, repented, and joined humanity.

Sometimes the shepherd failed entirely. Sometimes he left having made no discernable impact, because he had been forced out, either beaten and bleeding and defeated by a stronger hand, or else shunned by those who feared a disruption of their order more than life lived under threat of a tyrant.

Even in hard times, the shepherd did his best not to forget to laugh with his friends, and to spend time in their company. In time, the shepherd came to realize that this had been the point more than had been the struggle.

The shepherd died in the end, of course. Everybody does. By the end, the shepherd had stopped fearing it. Nobody’s sure how the shepherd met his end. Some say the shepherd ran afoul of some thug. Some say he met with accident on the road. Some say he just got old.

They found his wallet, but not his body. The wallet was empty, and full of tiny holes on one side, as if at some point, long ago, stitching had been removed from the leather.

Nobody knows where the shepherd’s grave is.

But in every place the shepherd had stayed, without quite knowing why, someone put up some marker beside the road he'd traveled, a sign of a spot he'd stayed for a season.

And, in ever place the shepherd had stayed, there were those who had observed the shepherd closely, and remembered him well, and decided to become shepherds themselves. Each of them, having been at some early point in their lives a tyrant, and having recognized what kind of story they had been living, would come to one of the shepherd's markers, carrying a weapon they found they no longer needed, and would leave it behind.

Some shepherds followed in the footsteps of their old friend, and walked the earth. Some stayed where they were. They had different skills and abilities and weaknesses than the shepherd. But each of them somewhat resembled the shepherd, and each refused complicity, insisted on the truth, eschewed despair and apathy, and absorbed the abuse meant for others.

And others observed these new shepherds, and remembered them well.

And they decided to become shepherds, too.

* * *

If you’re still reading, I think I can consider you a friend.

My friends, a new name for you, whoever you are:  You were tyrants. Now you are shepherds.

We all have areas, with very few exceptions, in which we hold privilege. In a society captured by a spirit of genocide and slavery, geared toward default settings, we have all been tyrants. Some of us more than others. Some of us much more than others.

Recognize your tyranny.

Become shepherds.

We move the frame by telling a better story than the one being told.

The best way for us to tell the story is to be the story.

Let’s go be good stories.

Let’s go be art.

May we pop every bubble.

We hold these truths to be self-evident

-The Declaration of Independence

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

-Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail


If you want to find a Granfalooon, remove the skin from a toy balloon.

-Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle 


Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?

Monday, September 18, 2017

Bubbles 11 - I'm Trying, Ringo

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WARNING: Spoilers for a 23-year-old movie follow.

This fellow with the big brain is Brett.

Flock of Seagulls haircut here is Roger.

Brett and Roger have made the exceedingly unwise decision to steal a briefcase that belongs to an LA crime lord named Marcellus Wallace. Here's Marcellus.

This is Brett and Roger’s friend. His name is Marvin.

Marvin has recognized what a bad idea it was to cross Marcellus, so, in exchange for his life, Marvin has agreed to open the door when Jules Winnfield knocks.

And this is Jules Winnfield.

Jules kills people for Marcellus, his boss, accompanied by his partner, Vincent. Vincent considers himself a man of the world, well-attuned to the little differences. Here’s Vincent.

Jules has killed many, many, many people in his life. Jules is a bad motherfucker. Don’t take my word for it. Just ask his wallet.

Jules just had a close shave. He had just finished eating the last Big Kahuna burgers of Brad and Roger's recently shortened lives, had just finished drinking the last of their refreshing Sprite, when Fourth Guy showed up. This is Fourth Guy.

Jules and Vincent weren’t expecting Fourth Guy.

Fourth Guy is a friend of the other three: Brett, Roger, and Marvin. When Jules and Vincent murdered his friends, you might say it made him afraid that his streak of days lived was about to come to an end. Which filled him with an irresistible desire to shoot them with his enormous gun.

Fourth Guy made a big mistake, though. He missed.

So now he’s dead.

But logically speaking, Fourth shouldn’t have missed, and Jules knows it. Fourth shot at a range of mere feet, and his gun was enormous. For him to have missed is not just unlikely, it’s so close to impossible that it is either a miracle, or it may as well be one. Jules can’t ignore the fact that, while he is alive, he should be dead.

It’s popped his bubble.

As a result, Jules can’t live in the same way he has previously. He’s decided this close call is his divine warning, is, in fact, God’s commentary about the life he’s living. Furthermore, he’s already experienced another close call, immediately on the heels of the first. You see, as the survivors were all driving away, Vincent accidentally shot Marvin in the face. Disposing of the body turned into a very ticklish operation. Here’s just a taste:

Luckily, Jules and Vincent got the car cleaned and disposed of. Now they're having breakfast and arguing some more. First, they disagree about whether or not it is right to eat pig (a filthy animal that roots in shit); and, next, about Jules’s perspective on the morning’s events. Jules has determined he will retire from the criminal life. What will he do next? He doesn’t know. He’ll ‘walk the earth.’ He’ll help people.

You know. Like Kane in Kung Fu.

Vincent thinks Jules is foolish. He thinks Jules is giving up power and wealth and a favorable position and even his worth as a person. From Vincent’s point of view, Jules, by opting out of the system in which he finds himself, is choosing to become a bum.

The way I would put it is this: Jules has decided to become art, and Vincent, who still believes that life is something you must earn, is incapable of appreciating this decision.

It’s not hard to understand Vincent’s bemusement. For a hitman to choose to become art would make little sense to another hitman. There is likely no more pure expression of the idea that we do not all belong to each other, or that life is something that must be earned, or that violence redeems, or that profit is moral virtue, than to become a hitman. Killing people for money is a natural end point of these lies, when aggregated.

Incidentally, because PULP FICTION is a story presented out of chronological order, we already know something about what is going to happen to Vincent after breakfast. Tonight, Vincent will experience yet another close shave, this time because Marcellus’s wife, Mia, while in Vincent’s company, will nearly die of a heroin overdose. Thereafter, Vincent will continue to work for Marcellus, and, as a result, he’ll still be around to meet Butch. Here’s Butch.

Butch, unlike Fourth Man, will not miss.

That might have been Jules. But Jules won’t be around by then to catch the bullet. Thus, the movie has already provided commentary on whether Vincent was right, or Jules was.

And now we come to the great climax of the movie. The movie’s final scene begins, as its opening scene suddenly interrupts Jules and Vincent’s breakfast. Some setup is needed, in order to explain.

Here are Pumpkin and Honey Bunny.

Ugh. Pet names. Let's call them by their real ones. She's Yolanda. We don't know his real name. Let's just call him what Jules will call him, given he's British. Let's call him Ringo.

Ringo and Yolanda are in love. They’re also small-time criminals. In the movie’s very first scene, we see them decided to rob the diner’s patrons of their purses and wallets. We haven’t seen them since, but now, as they reappear, we now realize that, unluckily for them, one of those patrons is noted bad motherfucker Jules Winnfield. Jules doesn’t make trouble, until Ringo makes the exceedingly unwise decision to try to divest Jules of Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase. Jules easily overpowers Ringo, and…

Well hell. Let’s watch:

There are stories of heroism, stories of overcoming overwhelming adversity through struggle. It's a story about whether or not the hero is going to beat the villain.

And then there are tales of repentance and redemption, stories of realization that your cause is not just. Stories of redemption are stories where the hero's struggle is the attempt to reconcile dreams of a better self with the realized reality of a worse self. It's a story about whether the villain is going to become a hero or not.

Jules has realized which story is his story. He thought it was the first, but it’s the second. As a result, he knows many things that had previously been hidden from him.

He knows he has to change. He has to give life to those who have, by the strictures of his own memorized Biblical words, earned death.

He knows it has to cost him something. So he empties his Bad Mother Fucker wallet and gives Ringo the cash.

He knows he has to manage his partner, who is so offended at the idea of those who have clearly earned death instead being given wealth (which is, for a hit man, moral virtue), that he promises to kill them simply for the breach of his value system. And so Jules insists—rather impolitely—that his partner do no harm.

Jules knows he needs to tell the truth. He can’t lie to Ringo about who either of them are anymore, even if it might make them both feel better.

He knows that, in order to preserve life, he needs to endanger himself. (Keep the gun on me, Yolanda, let’s all be Fonzies.) And he knows that the moment will come when somebody will have to put down the gun. And he knows that, because he is the one with the advantage, because he is strong and they are not, because they are frightened and he is brave, that 'somebody' will need to be him.

Finally, he lets them go. He has purchased for them the opportunity to do as he has done, and has given them a different story about themselves. They, too, have been the tyranny of evil men. They were certainly that to the rest of the diner’s patrons. It is only in the presence of Jules that they became the weak.

“I’m giving it to you so I don’t have to kill you,” says Jules. In a hitman’s world (much as in an everyday American’s) money is interchangeable with moral virtue. Jules is giving Ringo and Yolanda his moral virtue, and, in so doing, divesting himself of that particular lie, while giving them a chance to try to be the shepherd themselves. Will they take that chance? We don’t know. That’s not up to Jules, and it’s not up to us. It’s up to them.

Incidentally, this is why PULP FICTION’s anti-chronological narrative structure works as more than just a clever puzzle, and why the film remains a classic while most of the pretenders that followed, which aped its style but not its substance, are forgotten. Writer/director Quentin Tarantino situates as its climax the precise moment that one of its characters decides, through direct action, to change. It’s at this moment that the movie coalesces into something thematically coherent, and then, immediately, it ends.

PULP FICTION is about a universe in which people are trapped in our old familiar lies. Believing the lies puts them in situations, again and again, which might be taken as warnings for those with eyes to see it. Again and again, its characters fail to heed those warnings, until finally, at last, one of them does. He’s a man who, though irreligious, memorizes scripture and doesn’t respect an animal that eats its own shit. Or, as the Bible puts it in a verse Jules never memorized, “as a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.”

Jules is going to change. He's going to give up the rewards and power of his position, because sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie, but he’ll never eat the filthy motherfucker again.

Jules has been one thing, and it was an evil thing, an unbecoming identity for human art. He was the tyranny of evil men, telling himself a story about how he was the shepherd.

Now he’s a new thing. He’s a man who’s wants to be the shepherd, telling himself a story about how he has been the tyranny of evil men but can become something better, by divesting himself of his own advantage and by speaking the truth about himself and others.

The miracle isn’t that God stopped the bullets. The miracle is that something changed in Jules’s heart.

Jules believed in the priority of order. Now he believes in the priority of justice.


Jules Winnfield was a hitman. Acting on the orders of a man more wealthy and ruthless and powerful than himself, he killed people in exchange for money. Professionally, he represented the most perfect embodiment of our nation’s great lies as you can imagine. Now, he has realized that the order under which he has chosen to live leads only to death—death not only for others, but for himself. Jules is going to try to be the shepherd. He doesn’t know what that might mean, or what modifications will be demanded to his life or his wealth, or what any the other consequences of that might be. He only knows he intends to try. The trying is what matters. The geographical destination is literally uninteresting to him, because he already know the destination he is seeking for his spirit.

His compass will set his course. His course will determine his destination. He'll know he's arrived, because once he's there, there he will be.

But it’s impossible to even try to be the shepherd without first recognizing you have been the tyranny of evil men.

And you can’t recognize that you are the tyranny of evil men until you stop looking into a mirror that won’t let you see yourself.

You have to realize which story is your story. You'd thought it was the first, but it's the second.

You have to pop your bubble, get out of it, and stay out.

You have to tell a new story about yourself.

You’ll have to impart your moral virtue on those who seem to have earned death according to whatever scriptures you've memorized from whatever book. It’s going to cost you something. You're going to have to manage the offense of your partners still doomed to their own bubbles. And it may even involve endangering yourself.

If you can’t do that, you’ll remain in the lie. Remaining in the lie will have dire consequences eventually. When you live in a world where life is something you have to earn, eventually, you’ll earn death. Eventually, you’ll meet Butch.

Please allow me to stretch the metaphor past OSHA-approved safety protocols.

I think the election of Donald Trump is the moment that America collectively shot Marvin in the face. Now some of us are in the backseat, listening to Vincent complain about being scolded for the mess he made, wondering how the fuck we got put on brain detail.

We aren’t being very polite to our nation's Vincents about it right now. We are some mushroom-cloud laying motherfuckers. This is putting Vincent’s in the red, and he’s warning us about it. It's dangerous to run a race car in the red, the Vincents tell us. They seems to think that the very fact that they are angry should afford them some sort of special consideration.

But the Vincents aren't right. And we aren’t wrong. And the car is still an absolute mess. We’re trying to clean it before it ends in inescapable consequence. Eventually, if we survive, we are going to take back control of our government from those would fill our national automobile with gore.

Or, perhaps I should tell it this way. Someday, if we're lucky, we'll be Jules, and they will be Yolanda and Ringo.

At some point, we're going to to have to take back control of a government that would rob America's diner. At that point, we will reach a moment where we are facing them again. Some will be friends and peers, still clinging to a comforting lie and a self-defeating power, still ready to argue in favor of an unjust order that will eventually inevitably consume them. Others will be desperate people who have only known thievery of whoever they can find weaker than themselves, who have recently threatened us with pain and death, over whom we will once again be holding power.

We will need to have a new story to tell them, as politely as it is appropriate, with as much civility as we have power and privilege to demonstrate.

It will involve giving life to those who might have seemed, under old lies, to have earned death.

It’s going to cost us something.

It may involve personal physical endangerment.

It will involve managing the offense of our partners.

It’s absolutely going to involve insisting on the truth.

And somebody is going to have to put down some kind of 'gun' in order to end it. And, it seems clear, that somebody is going to have to be whichever of us possess strength and bravery enough to not shoot.

And before we can do any of this, we will need to find the beginning of our new story, which is one of repentance. We must understand and admit that those of us who worked for injustice are the weak. And we, who made ourselves comfortable with that injustice, are the tyranny of evil men.

By ‘we’ I mean the United States generally; and specifically I mean that all the things I happen to be—white, Christian, male, straight, cis-gendered, married with children, able-bodied, employed and employable, property-owning, government-issued ID having, well-traveled, upwardly mobile—have been the tyranny of evil men.

This will sound to many as if white Christian het-cis married able-bodied etc. males are being attacked. As if we were being singled out for special condemnation. The truth is, we have already long been singled out—but for preference. Are we bad? Not a bit. We’re good. We’re art. But in the great ethical competition between various good things, we’ve been inappropriately elevated to a station far above justice, and have, as a result, become tyranny. Now we have to descend to our proper place, with all the other art.

Listen to me, my fellow people of privilege. This isn't an attack. It’s salvation.

If the answers frighten you, fellow Vincents, you might ask why the questions are scary.

Being tyranny is bad even for the tyrant, for the very simple reason that it is unhealthy to live in a tyrannical system. It is damaging for me to profit from a tyrannical system that denies that humans are art, because it traps me in a world that denies that I myself am a unique and irreplaceable expression of something that would not otherwise exist, carrying unsurpassable worth for no other reason than that I am.

If I’m a tyrant, I’ll have to find my worth some other way.

I have not been the tyranny of evil men because I inhabit the categories I inhabit, but because our society has decided that these categories are not only good, but best, that these categories should be the default things, the most important things, even the only things. Because other categories that people might inhabit have, as a result, been deemed presumed theft, or presumed moral deficiency, as having not earned life, as having earned death instead.

As a result of that, life has been made invisibly and inevitably much easier for me than for others (which is not the same as saying my life is easy), and much more difficult for others. Over the years, justice has changed that metric somewhat. Not perfectly, but somewhat. Those of us who fit these preferred categories are now subject to criticism, we are occasionally subject to protest, we are even, ever so occasionally, subject to consequence. As I've put it before, we used to have the only voice; now we merely have the only microphone. We used to have the train all to ourselves, and now we have to content ourselves with merely being able to sit in the first class car without having our ticket checked at every stop.

There are many who resent these modifications toward justice, resent these corrections that have been made in our nation’s founding imbalances.

It has to be said, in decades and centuries past, the imbalance was far greater.

There are those who want to make that imbalance great again. As great as they can make it.

You can even buy the hat.

This imbalance, this preference, this prioritization, this default setting, is tyranny. We must be honest. It is the tyranny of evil men.

We are the tyranny of evil men.



I am the tyranny of evil men. I have supported a status quo captured by a spirit that intends genocide and slavery.

But I’m trying, Ringo.

I’m trying, real hard, to be the shepherd.

0. ART