no, I didn’t get ripped off

A couple people have sent me this AV Club post about a newsletter from David Friedman that has the same basic idea as an old Tumblr post I recently shared on Facebook – that Vanilla Ice’s vanity film Cool As Ice looks incredible thanks to the cinematography of Janusz Kamiński. I think these two people have their antennas up especially because Friedman chose some nearly identical images from the movie that I did.

Well, look – if Cool As Ice comes across your radar, it’s not hard to be blown away by the images, and that’s a short walk to realizing a great cinematographer had worked on this bad movie. (Although I think I have more affection for the movie as a whole than Friedman.) Sure, there are some overlapping images, but again, it’s natural to expect different people to be attracted to the same scenes. Most importantly, nobody reads my Tumblr. I started the thing immediately after my troubles specifically to have a place to write where no one knew me and where there was no connection to my prior life. It’s hard to believe that Friedman would have seen it even despite my sharing the post on Facebook a month or two ago. It’s just parallel thinking.

I appreciate how protective some of you are of me but there’s no plagiarism here.

it’s not complicated

Next Tuesday I will vote in relevant state and local races. (Maybe excluding the judges because the Democrat and Republican slates are the exact same people so truly who cares how I vote.) I will not vote in the presidential election because it is mathematically irrelevant if I do and neither candidate remotely represents my values. In 2016 the entire borough of Brooklyn, the huge Democratic stronghold where I live, could have declined to vote at all and Hillary Clinton still would have comfortably won the state of New York. The idea is not and has never been that the candidates are the same. The point is that the mathematical value of my vote is nil. And at the first debate when Joe Biden was asked about #BlackLivesMatter and the police, after months of unrest and so much racial injustice, after Black Americans called out in anguish for George Floyd and so many others, he said “I want to fund the police more.” That man does not represent my values, so I will not vote for him. That’s how voting is supposed to work.

If I lived in a swing state I’d vote for Biden and not think twice about it. But when I say I wouldn’t think twice about it I don’t just mean that I would do it without hesitation. I also mean that I would do it understanding it not to be some incredibly noble duty that I should be celebrated for performing but as a minor element of political life that is less important than living according to a set of political values. The kind of values we’re commanded to set aside every four years. The commandment right now is not “vote” but rather “just vote,” and that commandment is morally empty. Guess what: a lot of people “just voted” for Donald Trump and elected him president. “Just vote” is how we get here. If you really mean “just vote for my candidate,” then for God’s sakes say that and stop with the disingenuous suggestion that a vote by its very existence brings anything positive to the world.

I work hard to be engaged with local activism and have several groups and coalitions I’m a part of. That work is no doubt insufficient and I could do more of it. But that work is so much more meaningful than a mathematically-irrelevant vote could ever be. There is a whole world of ways to engage politically, and yet the vast majority of people who proudly brandish their “I Voted” stickers will never deign to engage in them. Perhaps they would be, in a different world; everyone, after all, is an activist waiting to be born. We could have a country of vastly more politically engaged people with far more involved in the kind of local political groups and coalitions that can, at their best, make change in real people’s lives that real people can see. But we don’t have that America, in part because people are so myopically and aggressively (even threateningly) fixated on “just vote”-ing that people are made to believe their political duty only comes around every two years, or even every four.

You can come up with your responses about how this attitude is elitist or privileged or sanctimonious or whatever else, I don’t give a shit. I’ve been hearing it for exactly 20 years now and that stuff no longer has any meaning to me.

good Cult of Smart interview

I’ve done more podcasts than I can count at this point and won’t try to round them all up. But I did want to call your attention to this interview in Business Insider, which I think is a good primer on the general themes and ideas in the book, as well as a vehicle for me to clear up my own thinking on an issue or two.

I am also briefly quoted in this Boston Globe piece that reflects many of the broad themes of my book.

Edit: Link fixed.

Edit Two: And here’s a good conversation I had with the EconoTalk podcast.

the wastes

I have recently read a book about depression by the boss. It was transporting. You should read it.

Depression was the first way my brain chemistry got in touch with me. When I was 18, 19, I first got acquainted with it. I had crushing depression, grinding depression when I was a young man. But my family had just disintegrated at that point and I did not have a vocabulary for what I was feeling. I didn’t feel like depression. It just felt like mourning.

I had moved into my own apartment and found myself frequently curled up in the center of the carpet, tensing my muscles on and off. I had a little red car and would drive for hours at night, I mean hundreds and hundreds of miles. The idea was to stave off being alone with my thoughts, and usually the road and the radio helped. I found with depression that there was a kind of perpetual disbelief, one that I think made its way into my interactions with other people and made me seem weird, or weirder – what is this thing, inside of me? And I think I looked to other people for answers even as I said nothing coherent about having depression at all. I would hang out with people to avoid the depression and tell them nothing about my struggles and would leave disappointed that no one had diagnosed me even as I never really interrogated what was going on inside of me myself.

People are really down about the brain chemistry explanation of mental illness, and perhaps with good reason. I do see where they’re coming from. There isn’t too much evidence to support the serotonergic theory of depression. But I would not personally be onboard with those who reject any physical or biochemical visions or whatever of depression. Because depression is a feeling. It is profoundly physical. It expresses itself with your whole body. Just like mania.

Speaking of which, that was the turn – not in my condition, not for a long time, but in my mindset. I ended up in the hospital in 2002 and they asked me questions that I could not wriggle out of. Did I experience feelings of worthlessness and guilt? Yes. Did I experience feelings of extreme fatigue? Yes. Did I sleep too much? I did. Had I experienced a loss of interest in things that used to interest me? I had. And so it came to pass that conversations I would never have initiated in a million years had been initiated by my emergency, and that was the beginning of my first brief period of being medicated for depression. The depression had seemed like a sideshow at the time, as it was not the depression that had gotten me there in the first place. But one way or the other I was on my first round of SSRIS. That lasted maybe three months, and then I was in the wind again, untreated and seesawing back and forth again. You’re probably bored of this story.

And then, somehow, the depression began to get better. Sometime in my late twenties and early thirties things got easier. I had never noticed the cyclicality of my moods before I was diagnosed, but afterwards, with the frequency of my manic periods, it was had to miss. But as I grew older, wandering in and out of treatment, I found the depressions came less intensely if not less frequently. I tend to find that people assume that those of us with bipolar have more intuitive tracking of our mood cycles than we do. The whole problem is that you can’t tell what’s your mind and what’s your brain, right? But I found myself expecting to pass into deep depressions that didn’t come. And the best I can make out, I just aged out of it.

Don’t misunderstand me: I still get depressed. I still have depressive cycles. And I am on two antidepressants right now. But I don’t lie in the center of room in the fetal position anymore. I don’t live with that kind of fear, fear of coming into contact once again with the basic question of whether it was worth carrying on. For that I’m incredibly grateful.

But I do miss the clarity of depression. As vulgar as it is to say that I miss any of it, I do. Maybe others who suffer would get offended by that, I don’t know. But there’s something clarifying about depression, something singular. It focuses the mind to an impossible extent – focuses it, that is, on the darkest and the deepest hole in the human condition.

immigration rhetoric and the Cult of Smart

If you doubt my contention that the Cult of Smart exists, consider immigration. Immigration discussions are where the Cult of Smart is often most direct and explicit, as supporters typically defend immigration as a way to get more smart and talented people into our country. This pro-immigration rhetoric is well-meaning, and as I am a Marxist I am necessarily an internationalist and believe everyone who wants to come should come. 1 But it’s a bad argument that hurts more than it helps.

Take this piece from August from Alfred Chuang, who himself immigrated to the United States on an H1-B visa. He lays the case out starkly:

Many notable founders and executives in Silicon Valley followed a similar path as me. This includes Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and others who worked in the United States as part of the H1-B visa program. If these restrictions existed at the time, we could have been living in a world where many of these companies either would not exist, would not have been founded in America, or in the case of Zoom and Microsoft, would have lacked the leadership of these great CEOs…. America needs to embrace the role of visas in bringing brilliant people to our country…. We must support the visa programs and strive to keep all of the incredibly talented individuals here.

OK. But what about all the non-brilliant people? The thing about “incredibly talented” people are that they are by definition low in number. What about the average Joe or Jane? Forget for a moment about the smokescreen of people with criminal records, which is typically a talking point to derail the broader argument. Why should the American people welcome only those who have the skills, mindset, and motivation to become tech company CEOs? Unlike many progressive people, I don’t think everyone has that potential. But I do think that all people have human potential, the ability to flourish as kind, deserving, fulfilled people. To think of a person’s potential as being synonymous with their intellectual prowess – and intellectual prowess being defined in the incredibly limited sense as prescribed by neoliberal capitalism – is, well, it’s the Cult of Smart. It’s a blinkered and myopic perspective on human flourishing.

As long as we flog the argument that we’re increasing immigration specifically to get more techies into Silicon Valley, or more smarties generally, we’re hamstringing ourselves when we fight for mass immigration. (And will forever favor the interests of the already-affluent among potential immigrants.) The masses cannot be exceptional, by definition. What they are is human, and our argument should be that this is enough – that it’s enough for someone to want to come and try and flourish here. Let them in.

Incidentally: when tech companies cry out for more visas for highly-skilled workers, they claim it’s because of a dearth of good candidates here. It’s far more likely that they’re simply trying to import more workers to drive down the cost of wages, which they’d prefer not to pay. After all, they already engaged in an illegal conspiracy to do so.

my piece in the Post

Today I have a piece in the Washington Post up about Trump’s attacks on Biden’s intelligence at the debate, and how they are emblematic of the Cult of Smart. I am happy with how it turned out and proud of it.

Should Twitter discover it (and they may well not) they are liable to get very upset that I am being published by a major publication, a privilege they seem to think I lost during my troubles (my bad behavior) three years ago. I don’t think getting upset would be constructive. People in the industry should know better. Publishing me is not a comment on my character. It’s just the business of media.

To clear something up: you are entitled to get mad at the Post for publishing me if you wish, but you can’t do so under the theory that they have broken some sort of otherwise-intact embargo. It’s simply not the case that they extended an invitation no one else would have. I get asked to publish or pitch all the time, including by prominent places. I have consistently turned these opportunities down because I have wanted to avoid tapping into all the negativity that surrounds my writing at this point. Why did I accept the Post‘s offer? Because I have an obligation to St. Martin’s, and this was too big of a promotional opportunity to turn down; and because I’m unemployed and struggling to pay the rent, and could not turn down the money. That’s it.

Look, the goal now is the same as it’s been since January: promote this book to satisfy my responsibility to St. Martin’s and to myself, get a job in the normie world, and disappear. I don’t know if this is possible at this point. As I’ve said in this space before, with each rejection on the job market it becomes more likely that I will be forced to start a Patreon or a Substack simply to pay the rent. I would prefer to avoid getting back into “the conversation” but I’m kind of running out of options here. In any event: I am grateful to the Post and hope that this piece finds an audience.

my biggest regret about the book

I am not, despite requests, going to write a blow-by-blow response to Nathan Robinson‘s review of my book. I don’t think those kind of things are very productive, and besides, the book is its own argument, one I’m proud of. You want my response, read the book. I will say that I think very often he is imagining a book that mine might have become in the hands of another writer and attacking that book, rather than responding to a charitable reading of my book, itself, as it actually exists. We can leave it there. (See this Reddit thread for some interesting reactions.)

That review has had the effect of picking an old scab, though. St. Martin’s treated me very well and I’m forever grateful for them taking a chance on me when many people certainly would not. That said, it’s also the case that I lost every argument with them, and this was the biggest.

As you can see from the above image, the first major note, and one that would prove to be the biggest sticking point, was that the section on gene science was far too long in the eyes of the publisher. They felt the general audience reader would not tolerate reading as much as I put in. I pushed back at first, but ultimately some four pages were cut from that section. And so of course the first impression of many people is “he didn’t engage enough with the science.” I wish I had fought harder but when you’re the first time author and they’re the publisher, it’s hard to be brave in that way. I deeply regret it. Of course I am, in the end, responsible for the contents of the book. I haven’t easily been able to find the missing pages in an earlier draft in my files yet, but if I ever do find them I may publish them here.

As I have said before: the only things that you need to understand in order to go along with my claims about how our education system functions are, one, that every time we have observed education, in the history of the world, we have found a distribution of ability, and two, that this is not going to change. If you reject every claim about genes, but understand that there will always be differences in ability, then every objection of the book’s critics falls away.