News, and other vices

The lens the news media trains on the world is so narrow, that it invariably illuminates one small slice of it while distorting the rest of the picture. The media thus not only reports on reality, but helps shape it. For what we read in the news colors our perception of life — our beliefs about the state of our country and fellow human beings. The result is a perspective that is grimly pessimistic and cynical. Though a lot of things in our family and little community seem to be going just fine, the world as a whole appears to be going to pot.

Source: Why Do We Follow the News?

The above-quoted article takes a good hard look at why people actually read the news. I definitely see myself in some of the descriptions.

Over the past year I’ve become very deliberate about how I consume news. I never  really wrote out a set of guidelines, but if I had I guess they would have looked like this:

  • No news without context. E.g., no stories about how some congressional representative introduced a horrifying piece of legislation, without also including context about how it will definitely die in subcommittee, just like the last six bills that politician proposed. This rule alone pretty much rules out getting news from Facebook, Twitter, or other other social media. But just to make it explicit…
  • No news from Social Media. News on social media is generally more about spreading outrage than anything else. “Radical politician known for appalling statements makes appalling statement” is not news. I’ve drastically pared-down who I follow, and on Facebook I’ve aggressively blocked outrage-mongering “news” sources that friends sometimes link to. At this point I only see occasional news stories in my feeds, and they are usually from “mainline” sites like the Washington Post that I haven’t blocked.
  • No news apps or sites. In other words, no news from sources that I can endlessly refresh for an endless stream of pasteurized process news-like product.

Instead, I now get 90% of my world news from a set of carefully selected email newsletters. Why email? Because when I’m done with an email, I’m done. There’s no refreshing an email for yet another non-story, and another, and another…

I’ve tried a number of these newsletters, and winnowed my subscriptions down to a set with the following qualities:

  • They are curated and tell a story. None of my subscriptions are auto-generated lists of story links. Yes, they all link to further reading. But they are all letters written by real human beings, in a conversational tone meant for other human beings.
  • They include the essentials in the email itself. I’ve dropped any subscriptions that consisted only of tantalizing headlines.
  • They make a point of including context. Either in the summary itself, or with links to solid backgrounder pieces that put current developments in perspective.

At present, my subscriptions include:

  • The NYT Now Daily Briefing
  • Vox Sentences (sign-up field is at the bottom of the page)
  • NextDraft
  • I’ve recently added the Washington Posts’s Daily 202. This one is exceptionally well-written, but also exceptionally long and focused on detailed US political wokery. It’s still in its probationary period.

It is true that none of these sources expose me to the latest breaking unconfirmed viral shaky cell-phone video of an outrageous thing happening that I should be outraged about and tell all my friends so they can be outraged as well. It also means I don’t get to read a lot of filler pieces on how the sun is expected to once again rise, complete with “balance” from an anti-sunlight spokesman.

Somehow, I get by.

Those people

It wasn’t Americans, it was those people.

It wasn’t people from our generation, it was those people who never learned our values.

It wasn’t people who look like you and me, it was those people from the inner city.

It wasn’t people from our neighborhoods, it was those people who live in trailers.

It wasn’t people who sound like us, it those people with accents.

It wasn’t good people like us, it was those people who made bad choices in their lives.

It wasn’t healthy people like us, it was those people who are mentally sick.

It wasn’t our political group, it was those people who have taken it to an extreme.

It wasn’t our church, it was those people who interpret a passage slightly differently than we do.

It wasn’t our gun culture, it was those people, with the slightly different gun culture.

It wasn’t people like you and I who always make good choices when we are desperate. It was those people who make bad choices when they are desperate.

Read the headlines today. See if you can find all the those peoples hiding out in them.

What would happen if you ran out of those people?

What if you couldn’t find a distinction, no matter how hair-thin?

This is rhetorical, of course. There is always a distinction to be made. That guy was a little too quiet. We were never sure about that side of the family.

But pretend for a second, that you couldn’t find a line to draw.  What would you have to do, if it wasn’t about dealing with those people, who are obviously,  qualitatively different from us people? What would have to change if you looked into the future and saw the gun, the club, the bomb warm in your hands? Or your parent’s hands, or your child’s hands, or your lovers’?

What would you want people to know? What would you fight for? What would you wish you could go back and change?


This present darkness

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.

Ephesians 6:12 (New American Standard Bible)

For many Christians, this verse serves to situate and orient believers in a context of a hidden, larger world: an ever-present spiritual power-struggle.  It hints at meta-physical hierarchies and malevolent entities. Some Christian denominations hold that it opens a window onto a plane of spiritual warfare between very literal angels and demons. This view even spawned a series of fiction books that I read with rapt attention as a youth.

Recently, this verse acquired new poignancy for me. This quote from an account of an ex-Westboro Baptist member illustrates why:

When David Abitbol learned that the sisters had left Westboro, he invited them to speak at the next Jewlicious festival in Long Beach. They agreed, hoping that the experience might help them to find their way, and to finally understand a community that they had vilified for so long. “It was like we were just reaching out and grabbing on to whatever was around,” Megan said. Abitbol said, “People, before they met them, were, like, ‘So, now they’re not batshit-crazy gay haters and we’re supposed to love them? Fuck that.’ ” He added, “And then they heard them speak, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.”

Daily I see people speak cruel, hateful, venomous words. I witness bigotry, hatred, and disdain for the least fortunate members of society. I watch people take on ugly, judgemental, callous attitudes.

Paul the Apostle himself was no stranger to judgmental views. But intentionally or not, his letter to the Ephesians reminds me that my struggle is not against flesh and blood. It is not against people.

It is against the “principalities and powers”, as some translations put it, which possess and rule people’s minds. The belief systems that worm their way in where fear provides an entrance. The oversimplified memes. The biases. The stereotypes, false formalisms, and persistent misconceptions that hold human minds in bondage.

This verse reminds me that I am not here to do battle with individuals. I am here to reach out, to retrieve, to rescue. Not to defeat, but to save

Someone’s angry on the Internet

I hate conflict. I avoid it. I can’t watch those YouTube videos people post of other people screaming at each other at protests or what not. I mostly try to avoid rancorous debates online, and when I do get sucked in I try to exit early. On Facebook, I have friends but I don’t actually follow many people, and a big reason is that I don’t want to be tempted by debate.

Because I don’t like conflict, because I avoid debate, I have often wanted to claim this trait of mine as making me somehow superior and more enlightened. I have urged others to “lighten up”.

But the truth is, I avoid conflict partly just because I can. Because there is no aspect of my life in which I am legitimately threatened. Oh, I could pretend I was, but it would be trumped-up. I have never been in real danger of losing a job or social standing, let alone liberty or health, because of my race, creed, politics, sexuality, gender, gender expression, body type, or any other reason.

Today I live in a literal house on a hill, where I can look out over a peaceful valley every morning and contemplate the problems of the world from a comfortable remove. I have the respect of my peers, and my children are safe and healthy around me.

Being above the fray is easy for me. I’m like a conflict helium balloon: I don’t have to do anything to rise above it; all I have to do is choose not to engage. And for a long time I really thought of this ease as universal: anyone could make the same choice as me, and the people who didn’t—the people who chose to metaphorically sink their teeth in and scream and yell and argue—were in a way inferior or misled.

But the thing is, there are a lot of people who are very dear to me who don’t get to make that easy choice. They are engaged whether they want to be or not. Their bodies, lives, liberties, and opportunities—or the lives, liberties, and bodies of their children, husbands, wives, parents—are legitimately under threat, just because of who they are.

I get angry enough sometimes, just thinking of the senseless threats to these people I love. I can’t imagine how I’d deal with actually living in their skin. I think constant rage is a good start at describing how I’d react to having that kind of shitty hand dealt to me by society; and I’m honestly impressed how much joy, love, and empathy my more marginalized friends & family are able to generate.

I have friends who are angry on the internet. So angry they scare me sometimes. But you know what? Their anger comes from fear, and from love, and from caring, and from the fierce human need to create a fairer world from chaos. And praise the good lord, we live in an age when being angry on the internet can sometimes actually effect change, and we don’t always have to resort to shooting people.

So, here’s what I hope you’ll think about. If you find yourself in a position where it is easy to say “lighten up”, consider that you may not be so much enlightened as lucky. I have cake, and you have cake, but us saying “let them eat cake” may be a bit insulting to the person who is having trouble finding bread. (Where “cake” = “equanimity”).

Me, I still don’t want to want to engage in conflict. But I’m trying really hard not to begrudge my friends and family who do. Whether you scream aloud in a song or on Facebook, I need to respect the place that scream comes from.

Can we ban mis-use of the word “ban”?

Fresh off a Facebook conversation in which one participant insisted the fact that the fact he can’t buy a confederate flag at Wal-Mart or at a state-run gift shop in California constitutes a “ban”, I ran into this. Critic Lou Lumenick says of “Gone with the Wind”:

If the Confederate flag is finally going to be consigned to museums as an ugly symbol of racism, what about the beloved film offering the most iconic glimpse of that flag in American culture? […]  I have a feeling the movie’s days as a cash cow are numbered. It’s showing on July 4 at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the museum’s salute to the 100th anniversary of Technicolor — and maybe that’s where this much-loved but undeniably racist artifact really belongs.

At no point in the opinion does Lumenick suggest the film be banned in any way shape or form. The most he seems to be suggesting is that a) it belongs in museums as an artifact of its time; and b) maybe Warner Brothers should (and will) stop milking it for money sometime soon.

This did not stop the Guardian from breathlessly reporting:

US critic: ‘undeniably racist’ Gone with the Wind should be banned from cinemas

…which then spawned more Facebook discussion of the virtue (or not) of bans.

Look, I know words are all ultimately subjective, but the word “ban” means something, and it’s not what some of y’all seem to think it means.

This is what a ban looks like:

Whoever domestically disseminates or produces, stocks, imports or exports or makes publicly accessible through data storage media for dissemination domestically or abroad, means of propaganda […] which are intended to further the aims of a former National Socialist organization, shall be punished with imprisonment for not more than three years or a fine.

I thought about including the dictionary definition of “ban” here, but let’s be honest: you could look that up yourself, and you already know exactly what it will say. Now can we please tone down the hyperventilation a notch? Maybe have some sweet tea, sit on a wraparound porch, and contemplate the glory of living in a country where we emphatically do not ban political symbols, no matter how negatively-charged they may be.

The delicate flower of internet masculinity

Made from ingredients like cocoa butter, peppermint oil, and beeswax, it serves the same function as any other natural lip balm. The key difference is that it’s tactical as shit.

Source: Dude Stick, the manly chapstick for manly men, raises so many questions

This is hilarious. Both the product and the article.

The Modern Internet Manly Man is in a precarious position. On the one hand, his masculinity must be unimpeachable. On the other hand, he wants to have it all.

I’ll be frank: this kind of marketing totally works on me. I love things that are stainless steel or matte black. I like Mag-Lites. I adore my skeletool. It is the most beautiful piece of hardware I’ve ever owned. Sometimes I take it out of my pocket and fiddle with it just because it makes such a satisfying “chunk” when it’s closed.

I also like hand moisturizing lotion. Because my hands dry out really easily. Lately I use an organic handmade lotion from an incredibly talented soapmaker in Pennsylvania. It has a scent derived from leather and tobacco leaves. It is literally the best-smelling hand lotion I have ever used.

Super manly, right? Heh. Let’s be honest here. Would a lumberjack even use moisturizing hand lotion? Doubtful. Or if he did, it would probably be a quick spritz of WD-40 (they say it’s good for arthritis!)

Does the Stereotypical Manly Man (you may insert a mental picture of Nick Offerman here, if that helps) carry a knife everywhere he goes? Of course he does. Does he write pictorial blog posts where his knife is tastefully posed with other “everyday carry” tools? Hell no he doesn’t. He just carries the thing, uses it when he needs to, and doesn’t say a goddamn word about it. Maybe one day he gives it to his kid.

Me, I enjoy a lot of this “manly”-marketed stuff. But I’m under no illusion that buying it makes the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt smile down on me from moose-back in heaven. It just makes me a happy, perhaps slightly effete, consumer.

Happily for me, I don’t feel the need to justify my love of gunmetal gewgaws and yes-I-swear-it’s-manly unguents as something other than what it is. Because I know a secret: manliness is a great big tent. (A canvas, olive-drab tent, naturally. A vintage staff tent, if you can find one.) I don’t need to live up to a stereotype. I’m comfortable with being somewhere in between backwoods loner and giddy gadget-fancier.

And being comfortable in your skin is pretty damn manly. [1] [1] Also, womanly, person-ly, and just generally awesome for anyone who can manage it.

It’s a compliment!

So here’s a fun experiment you can try:

  1. First, be male
  2. Be short, slim, and have good hair and a nice butt
  3. Get catcalled
  4. Turn around
  5. Wait for the inevitable “oh, sorry man”
  6. Reflect on whether it was really “just a compliment”, given that it is instantly retracted when you turn out to be incompatible with their sexual orientation.

OK, maybe you can’t try this. So maybe just take it from someone who has.

For the record, I get a ton of compliments from women, almost always about my hair. And I genuinely appreciate it. But here’s the thing: I know from observing women that it is very likely to be a legitimate compliment. Because women say “OMG I love your hair!!!” to other women all the damn time. On the other hand, the fact that hetero men reliably retract their appreciation when I turn out to be a dude tells me that their compliments… aren’t.

Also for the record, I remain firmly in the “I wish we could all compliment each other all the time” camp. My dream is not of a perpetual New York in Spring.

But there is some serious baggage here, and as a result we can’t have nice things. Yet.