Miles in his dotage

Old man.

Dusty clawed, waddle-walker, tail kinked like the corner of a page in a book. Ears rimmed with white, eyes a little red, belly a little big. You can still trot, when you really want to, but mostly you amble along like a kid on his way to school, moving as if the purpose of moving was not to move. You can’t get onto the bed on your own anymore, but you can pull me right over in pursuit of a chicken bone. You look like you, in my head, and then I find old pictures of you in your prime and I’m taken aback. Memory is funny when you’ve been with somebody constantly for over a decade. I can’t remember what life was like before you and I have no intention of knowing what it’s like after you. You will not let me cut your nails. You grunt and groan like the old man you are. You are tired.

In time, after your stroke, when you had learned to walk again and the skin on your head wasn’t pulled so tight and your belly wasn’t so distended, when you went off the steroids and the hair the vet had shaved finally came back, when I was no longer carrying you around like a briefcase or holding napkins to your nose as it bled and bled and bled – afterwards, many people told me how good you looked, how you were good as new, how you seemed just the same. And it was true that you got better, in a way I never thought you would.

But I also knew and know that something has been broken in you ever since, that there is some deep quality inside of you that was changed, as if life itself insisted that your illness be written permanently on the record of your life. As an animal your body is your legacy, and the illness – and your brave recovery – are part of that legacy. And when you struggle to get up the stairs, or when your body shakes faintly in its quiet sad way, or when you lie in my arms as I scratch your belly and I can feel how you shudder inside, I feel again that feeling I felt when I picked up your contorting body and put you in the car.

A little brokenness isn’t the worst thing in someone of your age. You carry it well. You have gotten so much better; I can’t believe you were once on 9 medications. I guess the tables have turned. You have been there through more than a decade of mine – a decade of growth, a decade of experience, but mostly a decade of regret. Every mistake in a life of mistakes, a witness to my failures without judgement. When we lived in Rhode Island and I couldn’t afford to run the heat at night I’d put on two hoodies and you’d curl up in my arms on a tiny twin bed. Now you never want to sleep next to me, and it makes me a little sad. But I get it. It’s a little statement of your independence. You are, after all, your own, before you are mine.

Old man. You still hunt rabbits in your sleep. Squirrel chaser, bone chewer, baying hound of Lefferts Gardens, I know that you will never die.

archives: the Night the State Killed Michael Ross

Some people have asked me to dig up old posts and for lack of a better place I’m putting them here.

Originally published July 16 2015

Michael Ross decided he wanted to die, to begin with.

Ross was a horrific serial killer, a man who in the early 1980s raped and murdered 8 women, most of them teenagers. He had been on death row for two decades when he decided he would like the state to end it; he had converted to Catholicism while in prison and wanted to go meet the good lordy. The state of Connecticut, for some reason, decided to give him what he wanted. And since the death penalty is an abomination, there was to be a protest.

I was sent to observe. I was asked by Peter Goselin, a man I had known from Connecticut United for Peace, affectionately known as CutUp, and years of local activism. Peter was a great guy and activist, a local NLG lawyer. Big and gregarious, he was the kind of pragmatic radical I’ve always liked. He’s still doing his thing in Hartford. Anyway I had been trained to provide legal observation by the NLG years back; they hold these inservices that essentially teach you how to testify against abusive cops at protests. I went to one, at one of the endless activist conferences I was attending in those days. I had videotaped the local Vets for Peace on a Memorial Day parade for Peter once; this was in 2004, so you can imagine the abuse they received. Peter emailed me and asked me if I would go to the prison for Ross’s execution. There had not been an execution in the state in a generation and no one was sure how the cops would react. I said sure. He dug around in his office and found one of the ridiculous ball caps that the NLG uses to identify legal observers at protests.

“It’s really important to wear the hat!” he said.

I ditched the hat. I mean, it was bright neon green.

The execution was set for not long after midnight on a clear May night. We were meeting in a church, first, somewhere up in the quiet north of the state, a place that would be sleepy even if it wasn’t close to midnight. On the way there I got pulled over at a DUI checkpoint. The cop seemed  impossibly young. It’s funny, how many of them I met, in those protest days. He was surprised when I told him that I was heading to the execution. “I thought that was tomorrow night!” he said as he handed me back my ID. I told him that, because the actual event would take place after midnight, the date of the execution was misleading; it would indeed happen in just a few short  hours. This confusion with the date was, I was fairly sure, by design. They probably hoped it would help keep down the fuss.

At the church, I noticed a different crowd than the ones I had become used to. There were some of the usual socialists milling around, but mostly the crowd was older and more overtly religious than what I was used to. This was at a time when I had been organizing maybe 20, maybe 30 hours a week. It was only a couple of months after we had finally pulled off an antiwar march through the center of Hartford, then as now the hardest thing I had ever been a part of. It was a rousing success. A couple thousand people showed up. I had come to realize, in the weeks that followed,  that I was more exhausted than energized, and though I would not know it at the time, that night at the prison ended up being something like an ending for me.

An older activist, clutching a placard that read “Don’t Kill in My Name,” addressed the group, describing the march, talked a bit about the cops, the timeline. My recollection is that we loaded into some school buses after that, but I’m not 100% sure. One way or another, we ended up at the outskirts of the prison. It was a lot of people, more than I expected, hundreds, but quiet. The protest took the form of a procession. Some people carried candles. Every once in a while I heard people singing, but for the most part people just walked, as I remember. It was an odd but moving sight, to see the long line of people, snaking around the grounds, carrying candles, singing hymns. Not my type of protest, really, but then you go to peace with the army you have, not the army you want. In any event, it was clear that my services that day would be unneeded, hat or no hat. I’m not sure I saw more than a couple cops that entire somber night, and besides, I doubt they’d get too rough with a bunch of old hippies and Quakers.

I wound up walking along these three kids. They were young, probably teenagers, maybe early 20s at the oldest. Two men and a woman. They were grumbling kind of strangely and eventually I realized that they were counter protesters, though I doubt they had thought it through enough to really consider themselves that. I’m sure states that execute people more often have a real smooth system, sorting out your protesters from your counter protesters, this line leads to that holding pen, etc, but this was the first execution in all of New England since 1960. I’m guessing these kids just showed up and kind of got packed in with the rest of us. They kept coming up with slogans that they would have put on signs, if only they had thought them up in advance. “That would be awesome” one of the dudes kept saying anytime they came up with an idea. I admit it was kind of endearing.

I tried, at times, to think about Ross’s victims. The death penalty is an ironic horror; the punishment multiplies the original sin, staining the mechanism of justice with the same blood that set it wheezing into motion. I thought of those terrified women, and I thought of his meaty hands as he strangled them, his pathetic power fantasies animating his sweaty fat frame as he choked the young life out of his defenseless victims, leaving mangled bodies in a ditch, obscenity piled on obscenity. I thought of his sense of satisfaction, however momentary it might have been, and how it rendered the notion of retributive justice so useless and absurd. I tried and failed to put myself in the position of those who thought that there would be some sort of cosmic retribution in strapping Ross to a chair and injecting him with chemicals until he was dead. He was weak and he was frightened and so he crushed young lives and when it was over, we were left with his human garbage in a cell. We then made the choice to climb in there with him.

At some point there was a ripple, a false alarm that it was over and he was dead. There was some sort of delay or complication; practical or legal, to this day I don’t know. A thin old peacenik standing on an embankment, grey beard glinting in artificial light, called out softly to me: “Is it true? Is it over?” I told him I didn’t know. Minutes later, just as vaguely, the word murmured across the procession: he was still alive.

It was long after midnight but physically I felt alert; mentally, I was exhausted. For over three years, I had labored against wars that were, in their own fashion, a kind of death penalty. I was spent, not only by the effort, but by my tangled, dysfunctional attitudes towards that effort, towards the things I knew about my work and could not say. Left-wing organizing is a matter of the greatest moral and political need; it is also, in the main, an object lesson in the worst forms of organizational psychology, a never-ending litany of corrosive and paranoid social practices. There was the splinter groups and the affinity pledges and the secret meetings and the loyalty oaths and the purity tests and…. I witnessed every type of dysfunction you can imagine in those years. One campus group I was in decided to institute a consensus-based decision making policy; they felt democracy was bourgeois and that voting failed to respect minority voices. So they advocated for a system based on universal assent. No decision could be made without perfect unanimity. I argued that this was a mistake. I felt that consensus could never work in groups with true diversity and that this was a tactic for richie liberal arts colleges where everybody was pretty much the same, not a working class commuter campus like ours. But I found myself outvoted, which would have been fine. Unfortunately, they wanted to adopt a consensus decision making process only through consensus itself, which didn’t really make any sense. Since I thought it was a bad idea, I did not consent. After two meetings of a standstill, I was quietly informed I had to leave the group. A change designed explicitly to defend the rights of minority voices had resulted in my expulsion for refusing to conform. Things were like that back then.

But it was the denial of leadership that was worst. Activism is work. It’s other things too, but first it’s work. And work was never remotely evenly shared. Some people took on a lot, spending hours on unglamorous, tiring legwork. Some people came to meetings and sounded off and then never did any of the actual business of organizing. And while I felt and feel that all should have a voice, I found myself increasingly exhausted by the prospect of being lectured to in meetings by people who were doing nothing besides wearing lefty t-shirts in coffee shops. For the big march we had pulled off that March, I had spent endless hours shuffling back and forth from the Hartford Department of Licenses and Inspections to the police department to the mayor’s office, getting Form 21-J signed and then notarized and taking it to some functionary to be told that I first had to get Permit 45 stamped, only that office was only staffed every other Tuesday…. I learned that winter and spring that when state power wants to stop you, it doesn’t always need to send in the thugs. It just smothers you in paperwork. In the end, it took getting the ACLU to shake the tree before the city relented and gave us our permit. I still have it framed in my office. They changed the name of our antiwar march to a “peace rally” on the permit, just one last little fuck you from the system to let us know who was in charge, even in naming our own events. I never blamed the individual bureaucrats, personally. They were caught in it, too.

Throughout all of that, and all of the organizing and bridge building and planning, there had been some who did a lot more and some who did a lot less, and all coming to the meetings. Dozens of people contributed to the effort, and work was not split remotely evenly between them. That would have been fine, if these differences in effort could have been addressed and acknowledged openly. But in those spaces, in that political context, no such recognition was possible.

There was no way to express it in many of the activist spaces I worked within. To assert that some were more responsible for organizing success than others would be seen as to assert ownership, and to assert ownership would be seen as to attempt to dominate and take authoritarian control. Leadership, in so many of these contexts, was perceived as control, and control as the hand of reactionary power, hegemony, colonialism. I once sat in a meeting and had a guy screaming at me, screaming, because I had told the plain truth that he was a leader in our organization. He did lots of work; his voice was listened to and respected; he was inspiring. In every positive sense of the term, he was a leader. But in that context, he took it as a terrible insult. Meanwhile, all around me the antiwar movement seemed to atrophy and rot, precisely because it lacked leaders, because there was no accountability, because anyone could come to any meeting and start to preach, and no one knew what to say when they were disruptive, or undermining, or just useless.

I did not need to be a leader or to be called a leader. I did not want credit. I just wanted it to be acknowledged that there was a difference between a lack of formal hierarchy and equality of commitment; I wanted to speak plainly about the fact that somebody actually has to print the fucking flyers and so somebody has to raise the money to do it and somebody has to be individually responsible, and that as long as the pretense of purely horizontal organizations persisted, there was no way to actually spread the word that  desperately needed to be spread. I wanted to say that the myth of pure organizational equality just made us all vulnerable to the worst who showed up. I wanted to say these things and didn’t know how. I knew how it would go over.

It was that condition – knowing from experience that trouble was coming, group-killing, movement-neutering trouble, and knowing at the same time that there was no way to warn others about that trouble without being accused of ideological impurity – that sapped my strength. The resistance to anything resembling leadership or hierarchy turns experience from a strength to a weakness. It makes for a movement perpetually having the same fights and the same setbacks. I was not tired from organizing and failing, given that left-wing organizing will result in failure most of the time. I was tired from watching groups and people I loved fail again and again in the same ways.

On that night at the prison I had ample time to observe the people around me. They struck me, in large majorities, as the kind to spend their time campaigning against nukes and for dolphin-safe tuna – worthwhile endeavors, sure, but not my speed, not my preference. I’m sure there was a hundred things I disagreed with most of them about. But I also had to admire their focus, the directness of their action, their organization. I realized, in the years to come, that behind the scenes of whatever groups had organized these several hundred people, there was most likely roiling dissent of the type that was perpetually tearing up my own groups from the inside. But on that night, all I could see was sober focus. I thought of the fact that it was the Quakers and their American Friends Service Committee that had brought so many of the local events to fruition. That’s not an endorsement of moderation; many of the Quakers were more radical than I was. It’s an endorsement of their willingness to build an organization, to have a hierarchy and call it for what it was. I envied it; I wanted it for all of us. But what kind of voices were quieted, if not silenced, in building the protest that night? In building the organization? The question, then as now, is how to build the organizations without becoming the Department of Licenses and Inspections. How do you make a movement that works to challenge the state without taking on the state’s form? They say you can’t tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools. But then, without the master’s tools, we aren’t exactly tearing anything down these days, either.

Now, many years after I have thought of myself as an activist, I look around at the world of left online politics, and everything seems so familiar to me. I see so many of the same destructive patterns, all of the old problems bubbling up, so dispiriting, so crushing in their inevitability. I see young people, younger than I was that night, making all of the same old mistakes, and all so proud, as they speed themselves towards their own certain burnout and collapse. I find myself more and more playing the role of left scold, pigeonholing myself as a tongue clucking moralist, forever telling younger people that they’re doing activism wrong. But what else am I going to do, when I see so many of the same old problems, when I can tell what’s coming? The perpetual cycle of outrage, incrimination, exhaustion, and surrender does no favors for the left. It takes our best and brightest and runs them through a meat grinder that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. The carnage is then celebrated as some sort of rebuke to establishment power, while actual establishment power can barely contain its laughter. The fact is: this way is not working. I know plenty of people who will defend this tactic or that Twitter storm or this public shaming. I know no one who looks at all of it and thinks it’s healthy, thinks that we stand any chance of winning.

None of this is about moving right or giving up. I’m still a communist. Maybe now more than ever. I just think there are much better ways to be a liberation movement. I want to pull these young people aside, share a little of my own experience. I don’t want to scold them. I just want them to know that some of us have seen this all before, and that it only goes the one way, and that what’s left looks nothing like social justice. I know how people will think that sounds: like I’m trying to be the master, the teacher, the boss. But that’s the last thing I want. I just want to spare them from so many of the ugly moments I went through myself, that I witnessed in others. I don’t want to lecture to them or criticize them or undermine them. I want to save them from a little unnecessary pain. I was changed, by so many things, those days. Everything became so intense. People don’t remember what it was like on September 12th. I felt it changing me, I felt all of those days changing me. It\’s left me a stranger to myself.

“You know what would have been the best?” one of the teenage dudes said. “If we had a sign that said ‘We’re not killing in your name. We’re killing in the name of  justice.” I laughed out loud. OK, you idiots, OK. That was a good one.

There was another ripple, and this time it came with finality: Ross was dead. He was off to meet his maker, whoever that might be, and in lonely graves the bodies of his victims laid as inert and uncaring as the day they died. Maybe the world got a little more just. Or maybe the state tied a man to a gurney and poisoned him to death. You will view such things as your conscience dictates. For our part, the night was over. Without fanfare, the whole long line of people turned to their cars and went home.

I did not have an epiphany that evening. My frustration and exhaustion seeped in quietly in the night. My father once told me that I was born with fire in my belly. I can’t say that it went out, exactly, but by that point there was more smoke than fire. I did not plan to stop being an activist that night; I never really planned it, at all. But that was the end for me. The green ball cap sat in the trunk of my car until one day it got stained with oil and thrown out. Within a couple of months, I would move to Chicago, where I would sink into a pleasant haze of meaningless work, numb apoliticism, and alcohol. Connecticut would eventually ban the death penalty, though not without grandfathering in two more lives that the state felt compelled to end. On the other side of the globe, the war continued. Day after day, shaming me with their dedication, the real activists pressed on.\r\n\r\nPerhaps they press on still; today, the people are in the streets again, demanding justice from a racist and violent police state. I hope they can avoid the terrible infighting that tears such movements apart. I hope they build a movement that endures forever. I hope they get free. One way or another, the future belongs to them, and not to me.

significantly more than you wanted to know

They would not admit me, first of all, at RUMC. The more-or-less explicit reason was that I was unwilling to say that I was a physical danger to myself. This was not so much a matter of pride on my part as a matter of honesty; I was in rough, rough shape, but I was not in danger of self-harm. So I left with my brother, who had come up from DC to take care of me, sedatives in hand, and proceeded to look for outpatient care. I remember walking out onto a Staten Island street and just thinking, what the fuck do I do now?

It was a wearying ordeal to get into treatment. Maybe I’ll write about it someday. But I am in treatment, now, and have been for four months. I am blessed with a great prescribing psychiatrist, thanks to help from my friend Katie Halper. Finding a working therapy solution has been much harder, but I have done some short-term CBT and I’ve Skyped with a psychoanalyst.

I am on a comprehensive meds regimen. I am on the largest dosage of lithium I’ve ever been on. I’m on olanzapine, an antipsychotic. Accepting that I need to be on an antipsychotic medication has been a key step, for me, and one of many ways in which this time has been different than the past. I am on fluoxetine (Prozac). I’m on Wellbutrin. I was on Lamictal but I had an allergic reaction and we had to drop it. I have prescriptions for Xanax for anxiety and Ambien for sleep. (Don’t worry, I consider avoiding benzo addiction to be one of my hobbies these days.)

One thing you learn: there’s no such thing as just the right level of concern. Like, you tell people you’re bipolar, and they think you’re kind of a moody fellow. You tell them you’re on antipsychotics and they think you belong in Arkham Asylum.

The side effects are what they are. I have tolerated olanzapine in a way I have never tolerated Seroquel or risperdal and for that I’m grateful. But, god, the hunger. The olanzapine causes hunger pangs, omnipresent and gnawing, all day, every day. If I’m not careful I could just write about the hunger for hundreds of words. Hunger in the morning and at night. Hunger right after I eat. Hunger that dominates my mental life. I went to a meeting at my union hall and they had pizzas laid out on a table. I took three slices and went and sat down and while I was eating one – while pizza was literally in my mouth – I began to stress about when I could go back up to get more, when it would be socially acceptable to get seconds. I Googled around about olanzapine hunger and I felt so validated to read other people, talking about 50 pound weight gain, about being forced off the drug by the hunger. One person wrote that it’s like having a hole in your stomach and that sounds about right. I have all sorts of little tricks to try and deal with it; I drink coffee and seltzer by the gallon. (No joke, I average 5 liters of seltzer a day.) Still I’m up 20 pounds since August. It feels like a war of attrition I’m bound to lose.

Other than that, the side effects are alright. I go to bed absurdly early unless I really fight to stay up. Some acne. My hands shake sometimes. I have to pee a dozen times a day. At first I had some verbal dysfunction but it faded, thank god. Mostly at first there was just the permanent sense of being altered, the familiar sense that I was a few degrees off from everybody else, a haziness. I no longer feel that way, usually. The question I guess is if it went away or if I simply got used to it, if I have a new normal. All I can really perceive is just enough of an increase in mental effort to do everyday things, just enough to notice. Writing. Writing is so much harder than it was.

There have been some other annoyances. The logistics, the travel, the time off work, the expense. I struggled with agoraphobia for months after, scared to be seen, scared of people. They tell me it’s pretty common with people who go inpatient and so I feel like it wouldn’t be unusual for someone in my situation. Anyhow, it’s much easier now, although I’m still frightened of being seen in a way I can’t quite express. I mostly keep my world small.

I’m sober. Occasionally I go to AA meetings but I am not really doing the steps; it’s partly the god and partly the submission and partly I’ve read the research. But it is profoundly comforting to know that the meetings are out there, so many meetings. You have to give credit to the 12 Step people on this: I can look on a website and find a dozen meetings in a dozen neighborhoods at many different times of the day. The whole thing is set up to make attending meetings as easy as possible. The contrast with finding a therapist is really stark. Anyway: sobriety’s fine. It’s been easy. I mean it sucks, but it hasn’t been difficult. I’ve been to bars with friends and not had any temptation. I just miss beer. I made a pot roast while it was snowing the other night and it felt criminal to not drink a nice stout. But I’m committed to sobriety and it has clear and direct rewards.

Everything with me is rituals and rules now.

Getting off of social media was easy too, although I’m sure it would have been harder had it not come with such dramatic upheaval. There’s this unusual feeling that no one is selling anything to you, off of social media. In this era we’re all constantly trying to sell visions of ourselves to those around us, electronically, and cutting that out of my life has left me with relationships that seem at once more natural and more deliberate. Do I miss it sometimes? Sure. I hate to give Facebook any credit at all, but without it things do seem a bit more lonely. There are people I miss. I have this permanent sense of not knowing what’s happening, partly by design; I am not really reading the news lately and tend to avoid takes like the plague. But socially, it’s tough. I have no idea what’s going on in people’s lives. And people are in touch and then they stop being in touch, and I never know why. Probably because of something I’ve done.

I thank god for my union. My strong health insurance, that’s thanks to the NYC public sector unions and how they’ve fought. My prescription drug benefit comes directly from my union. My generous sick leave days are thanks to my union. Had I exhausted them, I would have been able to draw from a pool of shared sicked days that others have donated, thanks to my union. My boss has been great about everything, very supportive, but if that had not been the case, I would have been able to rely on the muscle of my union, on the grievance system. I thank god for my union.

I’ve thrown myself into activism work with my housing rights group. It’s a wonderful radical, deeply pragmatic organization. Housing is such a primal need, and the people who work for housing justice in this city are some of the best I’ve met. My group is a great opportunity to be a rank and file activist, to just be a foot soldier. I do phone banking; I hand out leaflets; I get signatures. I do all the mundane brick and mortar political work, and it’s a blessing. I’ve also been working with my union whenever we have a meeting or an event. Our contract’s up; it’s going to be a hard fight.

I am lonely. I see people and they treat me differently now, and my heart rebels. But my head knows that it’s natural. I am different, after all. Still, when I interact with someone I’ve known and they’re just completely the same, when they treat me the same, it’s such a wonderful feeling.

I get emails, lots of lovely emails from sweet people who reach out to me. I sometimes have a hard time writing back. I often don’t know what to say. I suppose thanks will have to do. I do get other kinds of emails, occasionally. It’s still the internet. On the internet, all truths are crowd sourced, even the most personal and intimate. And so I get people who patiently explain to me what my condition means and doesn’t. I get accused of faking it. I’m told what my disorder can and cannot explain, I am lectured to about what I am accountable for and am not. I am told that my illness renders my political opinions illegitimate. It’s amazing, not only how many experts in bipolar disorder there are out there, but how many experts there are in my bipolar disorder. The question of my culpability for my actions when I am cycling is one that I will continue to turn over in my head for the rest of my life. And I have the advantage of being me. I will keep my own counsel on the nature of my illness. I don’t need any volunteer parole officers for my mental health.

Is the question whether I’m sorry? All I am is sorry. I am so sorry. I have such bone-deep regret. I live in guilt. And I am paying for my mistakes. I have once again set friendships on fire, driven off good people who trusted and cared for me. Not with one big thing but with a long, drawn out series of minor betrayals, my constant accusation and demands, all drawn from a frantic paranoia, my deep-seated fear that people who care for me are withdrawing their affection and, when it gets bad, my belief that they are actively plotting to harm me. I mistreated people who were unfortunate enough to be close to me. You chip away at people’s trust, a chisel here and a chisel there, and then they make the rational decision to cut you out of their lives. And then you have to live without them. Yes, I am sorry. I am so sorry. I’ve changed my life in every way I know how. I should know better than to say that this time is different. But this time it has to be different. I can’t go off meds again. I can’t do this anymore.

And so I’m more sure than ever that I need to stay away. Long experience tells me that, sometimes, that’s the only way to make amends, to make yourself scarce. There are projects I want to work on, longform stuff, if I am permitted. But there will be no comeback tour. I have lost my having-opinions-on-the-internet privileges. I enjoy being off social media; I’m deeply uninformed about the news cycle and couldn’t comment intelligently; I have lost the pathological compulsion to always be writing and sharing. But most importantly, I have to remain offline as a penance to the people who I have mistreated with my words. I have to give up something to show people I understand that my behavior was not acceptable, to sacrifice something in the name of accountability. Are all of the things people got mad at me about legitimate? No. There has been irrational hatred of me along with rational dislike. But I have lost my right to argue about that distinction. I have to be accountable, and the best way to do so is to permanently remove myself from online life. It’s not much but it’s what I have to offer at this time. Besides I was online for 9 years. Better to let other people talk, to let other kinds of people talk.

Sometimes I dream of another life, or really another me, a me who wasn’t at war with myself, and the things I would have written then. But I’m too old for that now. I can only move forward. If there is any virtue to getting to a place where you say, to another human being, “I cannot go on like this, and I need help,” it’s that the part of you that cares for the opinions of other people dies, and however briefly, you live unmediated. I would like to think I can access it again, in times of better fortune.

I’ll be alright. I have become acquainted with the quiet. Time for books, time for snow, time for the library, time for campus. Time, like the man wrote, to burrow deep for a deep winter.

standardized tests are tools of inequality, not equality

Consider this fairly recent NYT piece, titled “A Simple Way to Help Low-Income Students: Make Everyone Take SAT or ACT.” The essay talks about research that shows that making these tests mandatory in high schools raises the participation rate (duh) and in so doing identifies high-achieving students who ordinarily would not have taken the test. See, typically those who are screened out of taking a college entrance exam through self-selection are those who are less college ready and perform less well. But this is far from universal, and there are many potential high-scoring testers who are screened out through fees, lack of parental guidance, or a lack of information about when and how to sign up. The research discussed showed that low-income but high performing students are less likely to take these tests than high-income, high-performing students, and that making the tests mandatory will thus lower the relative disadvantage of those students. Mandating the test is thus a tool for equality – it increases the opportunity for students who are typically systematically excluded from college.

Let’s think about things for a second. First, and to be clear, the research does not show that low-income students are more likely to perform well. The opposite is the case:

(Data’s a bit old, but this is a durable outcome.) So having more low-income students taking the SAT will likely mean finding that many low-income students are in fact not prepared for college, to go along with finding those high-performing kids who we wouldn’t otherwise. Still, obviously I think it’s a noble and necessary goal to help identify talented students from poor families. The point is that it’s odd to think of this as a project for increasing equality as such. We’re simply looking for more “diamonds in the rough,” and hopefully helping to pull them out from their peers – who are thus left even further behind.

Here’s a point to stress: the very purpose of educational testing is to identify inequality. That is, we develop and administer tests precisely to better understand how students are not the same. In fact, the most precisely that tests are, the more unequal we understand the tested population to be. A 10 question test likely has less discriminatory power than a 100 question test, and thus the 100 question test is more likely to differentiate between closely-grouped students – that is, to identify how they are unequal. Progress in educational testing stems from designing instruments that are more sensitive to underlying inequality. That’s the very name of the game.

As I’ve said before, we talk about education as fulfilling two functions that are not just in tension with each other but directly contradictory: education is discussed as a tool for creating greater socioeconomic equality, and as a system for identifying excellence and rewarding it with status and economic opportunity. The problems here should be obvious.There’s a much larger conversation about summative equality and equality of opportunity here, which is too directly political to get into in this space. (I will say that I think equality of opportunity is not really a coherent idea when you pull at it a bit.)

But from the standpoint of educational policy, it’s not clear to me that we really know what we want to be doing. Some people tell me that our goal should just be to move everyone up in terms of absolute achievement, raising averages without necessarily changing relative performance. That might have lots of good effects, but it’s by definition not something that could help with inequality, as what’s rewarded by the labor market is relative educational achievement, not absolute. If everyone who ever went to an Ivy League school was sent to the moon, they’d simply look for the next rung down and hire accordingly. If the purpose is instead to shrink the variance, to narrow the range between the top and bottom of the achievement scale, we’d want to talk about limiting resources to the top-performing kids, and we’d still be looking for differences in what individuals can do. And we have no good reason to think that we can achieve either at scale, because while some interventions have helped different groups at different times, the general bell-shaped distribution of overall achievement on any identifiable quantitative metric of academic success has been persistent and unchanging over time.

As long as we use education as a system for sorting students into different tranches of ability, and as long as that sorting system is a key mechanism for placing people into different levels of income and joblessness, we can’t conceive of our system as being an engine of socioeconomic equality. We might sometimes use testing to identify areas where more resources are needed and distribute them accordingly. But 15 years since No Child Left Behind and the testing-heavy era it augured, we have seen almost nothing in the way of convincing proof that testing is a reliable tool for raising standards and increasing either equality or opportunity. Tests are powerful things, and modern test-development can produce exams of extraordinary precision. But they can’t be useful until we have a clear and coherent vision of what we’re testing for. To get that understanding, we have to begin to pull apart our basic assumptions about education and our economy, to ask ourselves if the system can do what we imagine it can do.

recalibrating your sites

Not too long ago, I felt the need to change the stream of personalities and attitudes that were pouring into my head, and it’s been remarkable.

This was really the product of idiosyncratic personal conditions, but it’s ended up being a good intellectual exercise too. I had to rearrange a few things in my digital social life. And concurrently I had realized that my sense of the world was being distorted by the flow of information that was being deposited into my brain via the internet. I hadn’t really lost a sense of what the “other side” thinks politically; I’m still one of those geezers who forces himself to read Reason and the Wall Street Journal op/ed page and, god help me, National Review. But I had definitely lost a sense of the mental lives of people who did not occupy my various weird interests.

What were other people thinking about, at least as far as could be gleaned by what they shared online? What appeared to be a big deal to them and what didn’t? I had lost my sense of social proportion. I couldn’t tell if the things my friends were obsessing about were things that the rest of the world was obsessing about. Talking to IRL friends that don’t post much or at all online helped give me a sense that I was missing something. But I didn’t know what.

No, I had to use the tools available to me to dramatically change the opinions and ideas and attitudes that were coming flowing into my mental life. And it had become clear that, though I have an RSS feed and I peruse certain websites and publications regularly, though I still read lots of books and physical journals and magazines, the opinions I was receiving were coming overwhelmingly through social media. People shared things and commented on what they shared on Facebook and Twitter, they made clear what ideas were permissible and what weren’t on Facebook and Twitter, they defined the shared mental world on Facebook and Twitter. They created a language that, if you weren’t paying attention, looked like the lingua franca. I’m sure there are people out there who can take all of this in with the proper perspective and not allow it to subtly shape your perception of social attitudes writ large. But I can’t.

It’s all particularly disturbing because a lot of what you see and don’t online is the product of algorithms that are blunt instruments at best.

So I set about disconnecting, temporarily, from certain people, groups, publications, and conversations. I found voices that popped up in my feeds a lot and muted them. I unfollowed groups and pages. I looked out for certain markers of status and social belonging and used them as guides for what to avoid. I was less interested in avoiding certain subjects than I was in avoiding certain perspectives, the social frames that we all use to understand the world. The news cycle was what it was; I could not avoid Trump, as wonderful as that sounds. But I could avoid a certain way of looking at Trump, and at the broader world. In particular I wanted to look past what we once called ideology: I wanted to see the ways in which my internet-mediated intellectual life was dominated by assumptions that did not recognize themselves as assumptions, to understand how the perspective that did not understand itself to be a perspective had distorted my vision of the world. I wanted to better see the water in which my school of fish swims.

Now this can be touchy – mutually connecting with people on social media has become a loaded thing in IRL relationships, for better or worse. Luckily both Facebook and Twitter give you ways to not see someone’s posts without them knowing and without severing the connection. Just make a list of people, pages, and publications that you want to take a diet from, and after a month or two of seeing how different things look, go back to following them. (Alternatively: don’t.) Really do it! The tools are there, and you can always revert back. Just keep a record of what you’re doing.

I was prepared for this to result in a markedly different online experience for me, and for it to somewhat change my perception of what “everyone” thinks, of what people are reading, watching, and listening to, etc. But even so, I’ve been floored by how dramatically different the online world looks with a little manipulation of the feeds. A few subjects dropped out entirely; the Twin Peaks reboot went from being everywhere to being nowhere, for example. But what really changed was the affect through which the world was presenting itself to me.

You would not be surprised by what my lenses appear to have been (and still largely to be): very college educated, very left-leaing, very New York, very media-savvy, very middlebrow, and for lack of a better word, very “cool.” That is, the perspective that I had tried to wean myself off of was made up of people whose online self-presentation is ostentatiously ironic, in-joke heavy, filled with cultural references that are designed to hit just the right level of obscurity, and generally oriented towards impressing people through being performatively not impressed by anything. It was made up of people who are passionately invested in not appearing to be passionately invested in anything. It’s a sensibility that you can trace back to Gawker and Spy magazine and much, much further back than that, if you care to.

Perhaps most dramatic was the changes to what – and who – was perceived as a Big Deal. By cutting out a hundred voices or fewer, things and people that everybody talks about became things and people that nobody talks about. The internet is a technology for creating small ponds for us to all be big fish in. But you change your perspective just slightly, move over just an inch, and suddenly you get a sense of just how few people know about you or could possibly care. It’s oddly comforting, to be reminded that even if you enjoy a little internet notoriety, the average person on the street could not care less who you are or what you do. I recommend it.

Of course, there are profound limits to this. My feeds are still dominantly coming from a few overlapping social cultures. Trimming who I’m following hasn’t meant that I’m suddenly connected to more high school dropouts, orthodox Jews, senior citizens, or people who don’t speak English. I would never pretend that this little exercise has given me a truly broad perspective. The point has just been to see how dramatically a few changes to my digital life could alter my perception of “the conversation.” And it’s done that. More than ever, I worry that our sense of shared political assumptions and the perceived immorality of the status quo is the result of systems that exclude a large mass of people, whose opinions will surely matter in the political wars ahead.

I am now adding some of what I cut back in to my digital life. The point was never really to avoid particular publications or people. I like some of what and who I had cut out very much. The point is to remain alive to how arbitrary and idiosyncratic changes in the constant flow of information can alter our perception of the human race. It’s something I intend to do once a year or so, to jolt myself back into understanding how limiting my perspective really is.

Everyone knows, these days, that we’re living in digitally-enabled bubbles. The trouble is that our instincts are naturally to believe that everyone else is in a bubble, or at least that their bubbles are smaller and with thicker walls. But people like me – college educated, living in an urban enclave, at least socially liberal, tuned in to arts and culture news and criticism, possessed of the vocabulary of media and the academy, “savvy” – you face unique temptations in this regard. No, I don’t think that this kind of bubble is the same as someone who only gets their news from InfoWars and Breitbart. But the fact that so many people like me write the professional internet, the fact that the creators of the idioms and attitudes of our newsmedia and cultural industry almost universally come from a very thin slice of the American populace, is genuinely dangerous.

To regain perspective takes effort, and I encourage you all to expend that effort, particularly if you are an academic or journalist. Your world is small, and our world is big.

transitioning out of freelancing

Hey gang, I’m back from vacation and excited to get back to work here on this project. Lots of cool stuff in the works for here, including hopefully some audio and video content soonish. (Not a podcast, don’t worry. The world has enough podcasts already.)

I wanted to take a moment and explain why I’m going to be moving away from freelance writing. I’ve had a pretty good run lately; I was in the print Los Angeles Times a couple weeks back and the print Washington Post last week. (You can always check out my published writing by clicking the My Work tab above.) I know we’re all supposed to be too cool to care about print these days but, well, I do care. And I have a couple of heavily-researched pieces coming out in some longer form journals in the next several months, and it looks like I might have a regular column-type thing to indulge my political side. But beyond that, I’m not really interested in freelancing anymore. The truth is that I just find the process so aggravating and dispiriting at this point, and the money so bad, that it’s simply not worth it to me.

I just find, at this point, that the process of pitching, composing, shepherding through edits, promoting, and trying to get paid sucks the life out of me. The commercial interests of publications require editors to ask for things that are tied to the news cycle in the most facile way imaginable. I get it, and I don’t blame them personally. But I’m opting out. And it’s increasingly hard for me to explain to editors what I want a piece to do and say without writing the piece. I’m just really not interested in the “beats” of a piece of nonfiction anymore; the argument, in the sense that people traditionally mean, is just about the least interesting aspect of nonfiction writing. So when asked to reduce my own prospective writing to a series of explicit moves, I’m forced to fixate on the parts that I find least interesting or valuable. What I want is to write in a way that is free of precisely the kind of paint-by-numbers literalism that editors require. Again, not a knock on them. It’s just not in my interests anymore.

Meanwhile, the money generally sucks. I am very grateful for the LAT publishing me in their print edition, for example, and I knew what the rate was going in. But writing and editing a thousand-plus word piece for one of the biggest newspapers in the country got me $200. So many younger writers I know think that the higher profile, more established places are where the money is, but often that’s not true. Not anymore. And if I don’t enjoy it and the money’s not good, what’s the point?

I also don’t have a lot of hills to climb anymore in terms of places I want to be published. At this point even my (many) dogged critics can’t really claim that I can’t get published in major magazines or newspapers. And it’s not like they changed their tune once I did, anyway. I started writing for big pubs in part as a way to prove to my detractors that, contrary to what they said, I could get published in respectable places. When I did, they didn’t retract their old insults. They just switched to new ones. So there’s little appeal there, at this point.

And, finally, I’m just exhausted by people not reading. I’m just exhausted. The WaPo piece is an expression of 100% straightforward left-wing values; it’s a critique of corporations and an endorsement of the idea that only the left can guarantee true freedom. I do write my fair share of left-on-left critiques, but this piece really is not that. It’s simply an articulation of basic left principles in a frame designed to make them more appealing to the unconvinced. But the piece has predictably attracted criticism from the left, people insisting that I’m a reactionary even though I’m making a standard left critique of corporate power. Some have claimed that it’s a defense of the Google memo writer, when in fact I explicitly justify Google’s actions in the very first paragraph. The great bulk of the piece was written six weeks ago, before that memo existed, and that situation is tangential to my larger point. Meanwhile, others saw the headline and immediately assumed that this was a defense of the Charlottesville protesters – which would have been remarkable, given that the piece had come out on Friday, before the event. Either of these misconceptions could have been cleared up simply by reading the piece. But this is, increasingly, a bar that many refuse to clear.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I’m happy to have this outlet, where my audience is small and sympathetic and where I can avoid so many of the headaches involved in professional freelancing. Never say never, obviously, and I’ll pop up here and there. But what was always a bad bet has only gotten worse since I started doing this and I just don’t really have it in me to continue the slog. I need to focus on academic writing, book projects, and this website. Thanks for coming along.

throwing out the individual differences baby with the group differences bathwater

Group-level differences in cognitive ability are in the news again, thanks to the quickly-notorious Google memo on the company’s diversity efforts. You can find a lot of stuff written about these differences from qualified people already and I’m not gonna add to the pile, other than to say that from where I’m sitting, if there are any sex differences in intelligence or math ability, they seem not to exist in early childhood and there are plausible cultural and social reasons that they would appear by high school. The science on personality trait differences seems less clear to me but then those constructs are also less concrete. In all of this I’m pretty much in keeping with the liberal mainstream.

But I do want to voice a caution, here, because there’s a natural but unfortunate tendency to make an unjustifiable corollary to arguments of these kind. Regular readers will know that I reject the idea of biological or genetic explanations for academic differences between races. Instead I follow most progressive people in thinking that the differences are socioeconomic and environmental in origin. There, too, I’ve often seen people make the same bad leaps: they tend to reject the idea of innate or genetic differences in individual academic ability or intelligence too. It’s not hard to understand why; talking about genetic differences in intelligence at all may seem like fruit from a poisoned tree, and why not just reject the whole idea altogether? But understanding the difference in group-level claims and individual-level claims is hugely important, both analytically and morally. It’s the difference between contributing to stereotypes that have contributed to marginalization and injustice of vulnerable groups, and accepting the reality that not all individual people are equally gifted in all areas.

And the data here is really, really clear: there are profound differences in individuals in academic or intellectual ability; these differences are generally quite durable over the course of one’s life, although of course there is some variability, as there is in any measurable psychological trait; and there is very strong evidence that a major portion of this difference comes from genetics. I don’t think that boys are smarter than girls or that black kids are less intelligent than white. I do think, and think both the empirical record and common sense shows, that not all people are equally talented in different intellectual domains, and that if you believe that the brain is the product of evolution, we should expect a significant amount of that difference to be genetic in origin, which is in fact what twin studies, adoption studies, and GWAS data show. I’ve written about all this in this space many times before.

You can think about this clearly if you just eliminate the comparison between groups that are supposedly different and look only at within-group distribution. So, for the purposes of this debate, look at women and their various metrics for intelligence and academic success, whether generally or in math/STEM/computer science. Forget about comparisons to men for a moment: within that group, on any properly validated intelligence metric, we find a normal distribution of ability. That is, there’s a mean, and there’s a distribution of about two thirds of the data points within a standard deviation from that mean, and about 95% of the data points within two standard deviations, and the distribution is just about symmetrical. Some women are better than other women on the SATs, IQ tests, quantitative reasoning tests, etc., and in predictable ways. The same exact condition applies when looking at distributions of black students, Asian students, students from Turkey, students who attend public schools, students who are left-handed, students who play Little League, etc. – real, persistent, and predictable differences of ability between individuals.

Now these individual differences don’t have much to tell us about diversity efforts like those at Google, which for the record I support, other than to say that Google is probably looking for those in the very top reaches of these distributions no matter what. But they say a hell of a lot about how we should approach education from a policy level. Policy has to reflect our empirical understandings of reality, and right now, ours doesn’t, as it is based on the false notion that all students can be brought to meet arbitrary performance standards, that there are no intrinsic limits to how well any individual student can perform, and that the purpose of schooling should train every student to be a Stanford-education Silicon Valley superstar. That’s the kind of cheery, optimistic, utterly-unachievable policy goal that comes from thinking that, because there aren’t genetic differences in intelligence between men and women or between races, there are no such differences between individual people either. That’s wrong and destructive and we can’t allow our necessary efforts to oppose bigotry to lead us in that direction.

For a lot of great thoughts on how to ethically consider genetic influences on individual intelligence, I recommend the work of the brilliant Paige Harden.

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on vacation!

Hey gang, I am officially on vacation for the first time since I started my job last September. Posting this coming week will be light, though I expect to have at least a couple pieces up. Thank you for your continued support of the ANOVA. I’m having lots of fun and hope you all are too.