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


Bubbles 10 - Both Sides

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Imagine you have a friend. Let’s call him Rick Reasonable.

Now imagine you have an enemy. Let’s call your enemy Bart B. Oilingwater.

Bart is a real piece of crap. Whenever he sees you, he throws boiling water at you. Usually you dodge it, but every once in a while, he catches you with a bit. You have some bad scarring on one arm, and a few places on your face and neck. And you have to constantly be on the lookout for Bart, because if you let your guard down, it’s scalding water time!

Rick is a good friend. He thinks it is really bad that Bart throws boiling water on you. He tells you this all the time. He’s written some letters to the newspaper about how bad Bart is for throwing boiling water on you. Sometimes he’ll even go out with you to watch your back. He’s got a popular TV show, and he’s gone on the record a few times that Bart is in the wrong for always trying to hit you in the face with boiling water.

Then one day you turn on the TV at the end of the day, and you see Rick has Bart on as a guest. Rick is arguing with Bart about whether or not it is good to douse you with boiling water at every available opportunity. Rick is … parsing things a little more than you’d like.

He wants to know if the water has to be boiling, if it can’t just be very hot. Bart says, no, no, it really does have to be boiling. But does it have to be water, Rick asks. Could it be something a bit easier to dodge, like molasses or tar? Bart thinks about this, and decides he isn’t sure. He’ll have to get back to Rick on that one—but really, he prefers water.

Rick wants to know if there can’t be days Bart could promise to not throw boiling water at you. Bart doesn’t really want to set that sort of precedent.

Rick would like to know why it needs to be you every time. Bart is shocked that Rick would suggest such a thing. He insists he doesn’t have a throwing-boiling-water-on-you-specifically bone in his body. He just believes in throwing boiling water, and you happen to be the one that’s there every time. He’d like to know why, if you apparently hate being struck with boiling water, you insist on being in areas where you know he will be throwing it. He suggests that Rick is really the one singling him, Bart, out, by being so intolerant of his rich cultural heritage of throwing boiling water on people. He hints that Rick’s constant scolding makes Bart want to seek you out specifically now, to throw boiling water on you, for daring to suppose such a thing of him.

Rick appears to have conceded that Bart absolutely does have a right to walk the streets carrying as much boiling water as he wants, in the long-standing tradition of our country. Bart appreciates Rick’s stance on the matter, and compliments him on his willingness to find common ground.

At the end of the segment, he and Bart agree to disagree on whether or not it is good to attempt to douse you with boiling water every day. Bart still thinks it is very good—though he insists it is not directed at you, but only at spaces that you happen to inhabit. He wonders, again, why you choose to inhabit those spaces. Rick continues to insist that throwing at the space that you inhabit is tantamount to throwing it at you, and that it is quite rude indeed. They shake hands. Then there is a commercial for Pepsi.

The next day, you confront Rick about this and he shrugs. “Man, I hate that bastard Bart,” he says, “but you have to hear both sides.”

You ask: “Can you watch my back today at least?”

Oooh, Rick says, he’d love to, but he’s busy.

How are we feeling about Rick?

Imagine it — the idea of watching your friend have a conversation—one about whether or not you should be allowed to be harmed or maimed or even killed—with the person who is actively trying to do it. Imagine it; the idea that your friend would be more concerned with appearing open-minded in public, than in defending your actual skin from scalding off your actual flesh.

Somewhere an idea took hold that one of the keys to being an open-minded person was engagement with every idea and giving each notion equal consideration. At some point we decided it was of primary importance to remember that every issue had two sides. At some point we decided that the recipe for fostering a civil society was this: to take both sides, and present them as equally valuable and equally worthy, for all to decide which should rise and which should fall. We teach the controversy, and let the conclusions fall where they will.

A marketplace of ideas, we call it. The underlying assumption to the metaphor being, I think, that a market never fails to select quality. Certainly, supposing we live in a society that believes profit is a foundational good, it would make a lot of sense we'd hold such an idea. And a marketplace for ideas might actually work, I think—provided all ideas were presented in good faith, each debater is interested in letting the best ideas rise, provided the customers are knowledgeable and unwilling to buy junk simply because it is convenient, or comfortable, or has a familiar brand, or just tastes right.

But this rarely happens.

Marketplaces are good, when prioritized correctly. Hear me: they are good. They provide significant value to people, and make up part an important foundation to most free societies. But they aren’t the most important thing—justice is. And, without proper metrics and safeguards, a market is always ready for the fleecing by those ruthless enough to fix it to their advantage, or to use it to perform atrocity.

Remember, there was a time in this country, not so very long ago, when you could buy a slave in a marketplace.

More recently, there was a time when those at the controls of our marketplace made a wager that they had grown powerful enough to rob the rest of us blind without consequence; that, once caught out, our system was too committed to profit as a first priority to allow them to have to pay for their crime.

They won that bet.

Remember, we have been captured by a spirit that has convinced us of terrible foundational lies. Our society believes that profit is the highest moral value. It believes that people must earn life. It believes we don't belong to each other. These assumptions inform all other aspects of our daily life, including our markets.

And with the marketplace of ideas.

It is going to become necessary, therefore, if we are serious about justice, to discern a person’s intentions before determining whether it is appropriate to engage with them in this marketplace of ideas—even before determining if the marketplace itself is appropriate.

Some people’s ideas are genocide and slavery. They don’t want to win a debate, they just want to be listed on the exchange. They don’t have ideas, as such. They have intentions. The idea is a seat at the table. They have an instrumental view of debate, not a philosophical one. You can tell this, because they will effortlessly change from one statement to a contradictory one, if it is useful in the moment to take a contradictory position in order to further that intention.

Lies are no longer lies. Facts are no longer facts. Lies and facts are just tools toward a desired intention.

You might even start to hear about alternate facts.

You might even start to hear that there are no facts any more.

Well, great. So if they’re all liars, we should be able to beat them easily, right? Why are we afraid to engage their ideas, if our ideas are better?

That seems like a perfectly reasonable question. The problem is, it’s entirely the wrong question. It’s a category error, because while you are debating, your opponent is merely using debate. The fact that you are engaging means he’s already succeeded.

Once you are willing to debate whether one group of people or another should be abused, then abusing and expelling people from society is something that is up for debate. It's on the table. It's listed on the exchange.

If we are debating whether there ought to be laws preventing trans people from bathrooms, then we’re already debating the wrong thing, and as a result, we have lost.

If we are debating whether there should be a Muslim ban, or whether or not health care should be kept from the poor, or whether gay people should be banned from marriage, or black people killed by cops, or if women should be paid the same or not, or if Native Americans and descendents of slaves deserve reparation for systemic and ongoing theft, or if hungry people should have food, or if thirsty people should have water, or if disabled people should have access to buildings, we have already lost.

Those things don’t go on the table. Because once they are on they are on the table, they have entered the realm of the things we consider. Then they enter the realm of the possible.

Debate them? OK, why not? They’re lying. They're wrong. You’ll win. Easy. Now debate again.

Again. Again.




Again. The idea of the lie is entering the public consciousness.

Again. The idea of lying is entering the public consciousness. The idea is taking hold, that debate is a thing where people argue by lying. They’re lying, you’re lying, but it’s all lies anyway, right? Both sides.

Again. The lies are getting thicker, but more hidden by their ubiquity. Again. The lies are getting better, more convincing. Again. They’re being focus-tested in the marketplace of ideas. Again. There are bumper stickers and signs. Debate again. You have to win every time, but why are you afraid to engage an idea? You’re in the marketplace. The best ideas always rise to the top. Right?

Again. There are protests in favor of direct and shocking action, premised upon the lie. Again. There are hats, red hats, a sea of them. Again. Again. Here are refugees stranded. Again. Here are raids tearing families apart. Again. Here is a mosque defaced. Again. A man in a turban attacked. Again. An elderly woman being run down by storm troopers in the streets. Again. More raids. Again.

Unthinkable. Except it isn’t. We’ve been thinking about the unthinkable, like very open-minded and reasonable people, for years.

Read 'em all.
Lies have been given the same weight and consideration as the truth. They have been for years. The marketplace is unbiased, it doesn’t judge, it doesn’t distinguish.

And really, don’t both sides just tell their perspective?

Both sides spin. Both sides debate.

Both sides. Those who want to exterminate masses of people, and those that don’t. Both argue and bicker. They’re just the same. Right?

We’ll report. You decide.

The implicit idea is this: whatever decision you make is a good one. After all, in a marketplace, the customer is always right. If enough of you exist who want to believe something untrue and unjust, then a supply will arise to fill the demand.

The ‘marketplace of ideas,’ unregulated, does not elevate the best ideas to the top. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

And all that suffering occurs, not only because there are those who intend that suffering, but because others, not wanting to seem irrational or close-minded, allow the debate in the first place, and thereby elevate it into the realm of the possible.

Oh look, he's funny now.
Let's state the obvious: People who intend to deliberately harm others lie to do so. They do so instrumentally, because lies are a useful tool. They debate instrumentally, for the same reason. They equivocate their lies as equal to the truth for the same reason.

Saying ‘both sides are the same,’ when one side is a lie and the other the truth, always promotes the lie and degrades the truth. Thus, attempts to create contexts in which both sides are essentially just opposite views of entirely equal value should always be understood as attempts to disguise a lie.

Put it another way: A ‘both sides are the same’ argument is never a neutral position. It is a false front disguising itself as a neutral position, and is intended, either with conscious intentionality or unconscious desire for comfortable ignorance, to elevate a lie.

Putting a lie in a headline without calling it a lie elevates the lie to the level of truth. It is proper and fitting to protest such elevation. It is completely improper for those of us who will not be harmed by the lie to entertain it in the name of open-mindedness.

Putting a liar on the TV with someone who is not lying elevates lies to the level of truth. It is proper and fitting to protest such elevation. It is completely improper for those of us who are not one of those the liar intends to harm to provide him with a platform in the name of open-mindedness.

Putting a charlatan on a stage with an expert elevates the charlatan to the level of the expert. It is proper and fitting to protest such elevation. It is our duty, if we think humans deserve to be educated with truth and not lies.

Interviewing a conspiracy theorist on a forum intended for facts elevates chicanery to the level of fact. It is proper and fitting to protest such elevation. It is our duty, if we care for the dignity and worth of those harmed by the lie.

Profiling a prominent white supremacist as if he were a sexy new pundit elevates him to that position. It is proper and fitting to protest such elevation. It is our duty, if we oppose genocide and slavery.

People do not have a right to a platform for their ideas. People do not have the right to a debate. However, people do have a right to not have to hear that their worth as human beings, their very existence in society, is something that is up for debate.

Do you see the difference?  Do you see how degrading it is for the person who is the subject of the debate to watch this debate? Do you see how much time that person now must waste in their lives, how much energy they need to squander, how much of their mental space they must now furnish their own oppressor, simply to prove, day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day after day, that they deserve to live equal lives, that they deserve to live at all?

Do you see how, by allowing the debate, which does not affect you, you are forcing them to have the debate, which for them is literally life and death?

Let us not suppose we are safe if we are not the target of the immediate lie. Any lie is a scorpion; it will invariably bite anyone it can. If we allow a lie to live, if we entertain it in the public sphere as one of two sides, the consequence will invariably affect us all.

But how to regulate a marketplace of ideas?

At this point you must be concerned that I’m advocating curbing free speech in some way.

I am not advocating that at all.

I am advocating that we use our own free speech to protest any of these horribly mistaken uses of free speech, wherever we see it, as a matter of civic duty—as a matter of justice, as a matter of love. We must recognize atrocious ideas that are gravid with vile intent, which are violence itself, and we must pitch our voices loud enough to make such ideas toxic upon the marketplace. We must drown out those lying and ignorant voices with our own. We must protest to those who own stages and microphones and cameras and printing presses, that these lies, while protected from legal consequence, will not be tolerated, and will be met with consequence should they be given platform. We must walk out of venues where they are celebrated. This is entirely appropriate and right. Human beings, after all, have the right to not hear their right to exist debated. Rather, they have the right to hear any suggestion they should not exist drowned out by a deafening chorus of boos and jeers.

And anybody who says that those boos and jeers are in some way harming free speech, or in some way degrading the debate, can go pound sand. Those boos and jeers are free speech. They are the only response a pack of toxic lies deserves, the only debate they should ever receive. We don't debate whether people are allowed to live as themselves. That doesn't go on the table.

There was a time when we could largely trust our journalistic channels to regulate the marketplace. Perhaps they would reflect the bad assumptions of the day, but they wouldn’t knowingly allow or promote an untruth, knowing that such a breach in integrity would ruin the reputation that was their very foundation. That time is gone. Our privately-held media has discovered a market for untruth, and, afraid to upset the profits that result from servicing this market (and profits are our foundational measure of morality), has become quite timid about reporting lies as such.

There was a time when we could trust politicians to regulate the marketplace, to a certain extent. Perhaps they would spin and dodge, but they wouldn’t tell a provable lie, because they would be immediately exposed and disgraced and driven from their power. That time is gone. Our politicians have drawn very specific boundaries for very specific voters, and have selected with a connoisseur’s precision the exact voters they know will accept any lie without question, provided the candidate establishes and demonstrates all the recognizable tribal shibboleths.

So, it's up to us. Let's get it done.

We must refuse, personally, each of us, to engage with arguments made in bad faith. We must recognize them where we see them, and decline them, as firmly as possible, and as politely as we feel the situation warrants.

How do we recognize them?  By remembering that we are framed upon justice.

Look for the argument that fails to recognize that every human being is a unique and irreplaceable work of art carrying unsurpassable worth. Listen to that argument, as much as you can stomach, then reject it on those precise grounds.

Look for the argument that says we do not all belong to each other. Listen to that argument, as much as you can stomach, then reject it on those precise grounds.

Look for the argument that says that life is something you earn. Listen to that argument, as much as you can stomach, then reject it on those precise grounds.

Look for the argument that says that violence redeems. Listen to that argument, as much as you can stomach, then reject it on those precise grounds.

Look for the argument that says that humans must be profitable. Listen to that argument, as much as you can stomach, then reject it on those precise grounds.

And then remind them: Every human being is a unique and irreplaceable work of art carrying unsurpassable worth. Let them argue against that, and in so doing let them reveal the un-artfulness of their positions. They'll try to dodge, and distract, and change the subject, but you know the subject is justice. Don't forget it. Stay in it. Hedge them into it. They won't want to go there. If they join you there, so much the better. If they won't, abandon it and them. People will notice the geography they refuse to vacate, merely by the contrast you provide, and you will have saved valuable time and energy.

A debate must be in good faith. Sometimes it is inappropriate to have a debate against someone who's intentions are not in good faith. Sometimes you have to change the locks. Sometimes it becomes necessary to simply say, “What you believe is that some people have less worth than other people, and I think that is an indecent position to take. As a result, there are no details you can present within that framework that interest me in the slightest, and I don’t see any point in any debate about those details.”

Will you convince them? It’s important to be open to the possibility, even if it seems unlikely. If they are convincible, the conversation can continue along much different lines. You will be listened to, you will listen. Ultimately, however, convincing them isn’t the point. The point was to decline a debate within an inappropriate framework. And it is likely they were never there to be convinced in the first place. They were there to put something grotesque on the table, so that your consideration of it might shine it up for them. They were there to waste your time, or to use your moral authority to force someone else to waste their time defending themselves. They were there to use you as leverage to cause harm and degradation to another.

And, there's this … you might convince and encourage others, who are paying attention without your noticing, to rise, to speak, to act. You might galvanize others, fatigued from the endless struggle of fighting for themselves, who thought there were none willing any more to fight for them.

There are those who believe that life is something you earn, that people must be profitable to hold worth, that violence redeems, that we do not belong to each other. There are those who believe that humans are trash, not art. These propositions are completely non-negotiable to such people. They’ve taken extraordinary power in recent days by being willing to fight, with all the energy they have, in service of them.

The opposite must—must—be non-negotiable to you, if you are serious about justice. You must be willing to fight for your framework. You must insist on it. You must not budge. Insist on your frame. Insist on it!

There are two sides to every issue? Yes. Right and Wrong are two sides. So are True and False.

I think it’s appropriate to point that out, as politely as it is within your power to do. (But remember, politeness is not  your frame—justice is.)

Is there no room, then, to convince and persuade? Is this all there is—just a big tug-of-war over the frame of the debate? I hope not. As I said much earlier, I don’t think debate is the vehicle for persuasion. I think persuasion is a matter of spirit. I think changing a nation’s spirit will require something like a miracle.

Or, perhaps, a story.

I think there are new stories we can tell to those with whom we disagree, to hopefully kindle a new spirit.

We can tell a new story, about who 'we' are.

We can tell them a new story, about who 'they' are.

And we can tell them a new story, about those who 'they' propose to harm.

We can reject, again and again, with all our soul and all our mind and all our strength, any status quo that falls short of that new story's purpose.

Remember, we're fighting the lie 'they' have believed. We're not fighting them. We're trying to change the orientation, the compass, the framework, the spirit. It’s not likely that we can merely change our destination to a justice-framed society through rules and laws until we change our spirit.

We need a new story.

As you probably expected, it’s now time to talk about Pulp Fiction.