Sunday, April 19, 2015

Hit the Road, Jack

It's a Random Quote From the Internet, but one that resonates with a lot of people.

I've been told, "If you don't like here...leave." Sadly, those that are brainwashed, believe that is the answer.
I'm going to stand up for the idea of leaving places where one doesn't like the system for a moment. I know that this will have people looking for traces of shampoo in my gray matter, but it's like that sometimes. When most people say: "If you don't like here...leave," it comes across as a mean spirited-dismissal, especially when people follow that up with statements like: "Because if don't like Government, Somalia doesn't have one," or "If you want Socialism, North Korea's trying it," or "If you think Christians are bad, go to Iran," or something equally bitter. It is, to be sure, an outgrowth of an American habit of wishing bad things on people who irritate us by failing to parrot or values back at us.

But there is a different perspective to be had, and it's one that I tend to take. I currently live in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington, a bit over two thousand miles from my native Chicago, Illinois, and its suburbs, where I grew up. The reason for this is a simple one - the Puget Sound area was presented as a better place for me than Chicagoland, so I made the switch. Purely by chance, I'd timed it well, and was fairly quickly doing much better for myself here than I was there. So allow me this one question - how long do you think it would have taken me to reshape, say, Batavia into something more like Bothell? Especially if the people living in Batavia were happy with Batavia. The current population of Batavia is about 26,000 people - given the choice between picking a fight with them and simply packing up and moving, moving makes more sense to me.

So why not apply that on a broader scale? We allow our attachment to the places we consider "home," a discomfort with significant change and a level of parentalism to push us into working to reshape the places where we live, in the face of opposition from other people who live there, rather than looking for places that fit our requirements (at least more closely than where we currently live does) and simply moving there.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Bennets in the 'Hood

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a widely-known literary work. Enough so that people who are otherwise unfamiliar with it may still recognize the opening line:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
But, like most tales, it goes on from there, and the second sentence starts to get to heart of the matter.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other or their daughters.
While I have yet to start in on Pride and Prejudice in earnest, I will confess to being somewhat curious about the work's overall themes. According to The Economist, "Jane Austen’s characters took it for granted that men with money made more eligible mates." And as the first two sentences make clear, that eligibility was also viewed as something of an obligation. While the Regency era United Kingdom and the 1990's United States might appear to be worlds apart, I suspect that in certain ways, they are very similar.
Young never-married black women outnumber young never-married black men with jobs by a startling two-to-one. This helps explain why although African-Americans are more likely than other races to say they value marriage, only 26% of black women are actually married, compared with 51% of whites.
"I dither" The Economist
While I don't know what the ratio was in 1990, when I was just entering the "young never-married black man with a job" demographic, I suspect that it was pretty high even then - during my year at an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) it seemed that women outnumbered men on campus by four or five to one. So it wouldn't surprise me if the 2-to-1 figure were true back then. Had I paid any attention to demographics at the time, I wouldn't have been surprised at the ease with which one could have updated Austen's words.
It is a truth commonly understood, that a single Black man in possession of an education, job and, if called for, a car, must be in want of a wife. Regardless of the feelings or views of said Brother about the topic, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the African-American public that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other single, marriage-minded Sister.
I'd come to understand myself as notoriously un-romatic while in high school and college had taught me that I was much better off that way. But it also taught me, as Slate's Jacob Weisberg would note in 2005, that people "find the idea of nonsexuality more bizarre than deviant sexuality," and so my disinterest in being coupled was best kept strictly classified. Which caused trouble of its own. While my parents, and thus other adult members of my extended family, understood (sort of) that I was uninterested in relationships and a family of my own, their friends and co-workers were in the dark, and so they saw me as someone who should be looking for a Black woman to marry. Yesterday, if it could be managed.

And I most certainly felt the pressure. The Black adults of my parents' generation tended to regard the fact that I was unmarried with impatience, resentment or both. While the idea that there was something inherently selfish about remaining single struck me as fairly common, when speaking to African-Americans of my parents' generation especially, I would sometimes pick up a vibe that with so many Sisters looking for good husbands, I was being derelict in my duty by not marrying one. I joked to friends that I should have had a sweatshirt made up that read: "Property of the African-American Community," but there was a genuine feeling of being seen as owned behind it. Being unwilling to share the fact that I'd rather be watching animé or reading a book than out on a date, I simply allowed people to assume that I was seeing someone, and that led them, I think, to see me as either something of a cad or only interested in White women. I don't know which people felt was worse. (Once I took a housemate, who was white, out to dinner. We wound up seated near an older black couple, and if looks could kill, poor Diane would have spontaneously combusted. Fortunately, she had her back to them.) Moving away from Chicago, and the community of people that my family knew, removed most of the pressure, although there were still a few isolated incidents. Being in the technology industry and living in the suburbs of Seattle meant that interactions with Black people a generation older than myself were rare to non-existent, and even when they happened, they tended not to be in circumstances in which my relationship status was a topic of conversation.

Being more informed in my middle-age than I had been at the beginning of my adulthood, I understand the demographics and the identity politics; and it all makes sense to me, for all that I still have no intention of playing the game. Given, as The Economist noted, that things haven't much changed in past nearly 30 years, I suspect that there's a satirical novel of manners lurking in the African-American community, waiting for a new Jane Austen to set it to paper. I'm pretty sure I'd enjoy reading it.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Because what good is forgiveness if it requires you to forgo feeling superior?
A better form of forgiveness comes from the recognition that people are free to make whatever choices they will and that in doing so, they don't owe us anything. But that's unsatisfying, perhaps because it feels weak and small. And so, instead we buy our own self-regard by seeking to put others down. And we tell ourselves that they deserve it.

When I talk to people, and I tell them that I haven't done anything such that anyone owes me anything in return, I am often accused of despair. Because, the reasoning goes, I should want to see myself as powerful, important and worthy. But these are not real things. Were a physicist to examine an atom from my body, they wouldn't describe it in terms of its importance, or worth, just as they wouldn't see it as privileged or marginalized. These are labels that we created, and we attach them to ourselves because they serve our purposes to do so. Usually.
The world owes you nothing. It was here first.
Mark Twain
One day, it dawned on me that the world was not the only thing that was here first. That was also true of everyone in it. Everyone I've ever met has, despite any differences between them, one thing in common - they had an understanding of themselves before they had an understanding of me. Simply, they were there first. And therefore, they have no debts to me. As a result, every bit of consideration, politeness, friendship or love that another person chooses to give to me is a gift, not an entitlement. If inconsideration, impoliteness, disdain or indifference better suit their purposes at that moment, then the gift is withheld. Such is the way of things. It is not the obligation of others to look out for my needs or wants. It's mine. If I can satisfy those things, wonderful. If not, then without a gift, I do without. Beggars cannot be choosers.

It can make for a life that is difficult and frightening. Or simply short. But I am already living on borrowed time. Death knows who I am and where to find me. She may be kicking it at Starbucks over a tall cup of something that I can't pronounce, but the clock is counting down. Eventually it will reach zero, and the world, as I understand it, will cease. And then, after a time, it will forget me, and it will go on as if I was never here. No-one has an obligation to change that.

And so I forgive. And forgiveness, too, is a gift. But not to others - to myself. Forgiveness may matter to someone who cares about what I think of them, but for a great majority of the world, that isn't the case. If I fume and stew in my own anger and impotence, they will never notice. So why wallow in something that does me no good? Better to brush it off, and go on.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

All Together

Yesterday evening, I spent some time on the Internet reading about divorce. "Christian" attitudes on divorce, to be specific. I place "Christian" in quotes because Christians are not a single, monolithic group - Roman Catholicism is different from Easter Orthodoxy is different from Southern Baptist is different from Seventh-Day Adventist et cetera, et cetera. And just as the dizzying number of Christian denominations in the United States have different liturgies, congregational structures and the like, they also have different understandings of their god, and, accordingly, different dogmas. And so there are different understandings of the appropriateness of divorce.

Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, ever the optimistic bridge-builder between conservative and liberal elements of American society, made the point that conservatives should be happy with the way that the current debate over marriage equality is shaping up. Even if conservatives are unhappy that the liberal wing of American culture is pushing for same-sex couples to have access to the institution of marriage, Friedersdorf feels that the very fact that "marriage equality" means "marriage for all couples" rather than "civil unions for all" represents a victory. He reasons:

[The glass-half-full traditionalist] might reflect on the fact that attacks on "traditional marriage" date back to Plato; that there were 19th Century feminists who'd have loved to abolish the institution; that a long line of socialists has sought to undermine it; that the Free Love movement and other parts of 1960s counterculture saw no need for anyone to marry; and that gay-rights radicals of the 1990s had no use for marriage either. And recalling all that, they might imagine the many trajectories under which secularists would've abandoned marriage entirely by now.
Had that happened, it would be harder for the traditionalists who stuck with marriage to live out their vocation in a society organized around different arrangements.
This makes sense. But I think that it's also beside the point.

Which takes me back to ideas about divorce. Friedersdorf makes the point that "heterosexuals long ago changed the meaning of marriage to encompass (for example) a thrice-married, post-vasectomy male and a post-menopausal female joining together in a union that excludes, via prenuptial agreement, most of their assets." Or, to borrow a line from a Southern Baptist perspective that I came across yesterday: "Then, a (not so) funny thing happened.  Divorce swept through our nation and churches were filled with people who had been divorced.  As so often happens, the doctrines and convictions of the church conveniently changed to reflect the new culture of divorce."

While it's a convenient narrative, I'm not all that convinced of it's accuracy. Of course, I'm not a scholar on the practice of religion in the United States, and this prevents me from speaking to the issue with any real authority. But while it makes sense that churches, being made up of individuals, would reflect the opinions of their members (and thus would change over time as their membership changed) it also explains why there is such a wide range of difference between various churches in their attitudes concerning marriage and divorce. It wouldn't surprise me to find that is holding the line against the imagined "secular culture" of homosexual people and their various allies, there isn't an attempt to forge a common Christian identity. Evangelicals may consider even conservative Roman Catholics to be Christians in name only, but a shared stand against an understanding of marriage as something that exclusively serves the interests of the adults in question allows them to be allies in adversity.

Take away the various civil legal benefits that accrue to married couples, and what you're left with is mainly symbolism. It's fairly important symbolism, which is why so many people want it, but it's symbolism nevertheless. The fact that it's possible to become married in less time than it takes to eat a casual restaurant meal does a fairly good job of demonstrating that. But I suspect that it will never be a symbol of a singular "Christian" United States.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

All Around the World

"Mexican manufacturing doesn't harm US workers"

It's a simple enough statement; designed to be a debunking of a common myth that Americans hold about Mexico. It's been a bone of contention for some time, generally split down ideological lines, as part of the growing tension over globalism. I found it in a BBC "Viewpoint" piece penned by the Council on Foreign Relations' Shannon O'Neil. In the end, though, it was unconvincing, mainly because in the end, the defense of it that Ms. O'Neil puts forward somewhat misstates the concerns that people have.

It isn't that globalization doesn't lead some jobs to foreign lands. It does. But by expanding abroad, companies become more competitive, supporting and creating jobs at home.
A study by two Harvard business professors and a University of Michigan colleague shows that for every 10 people hired overseas by American corporations, two new jobs are created in the United States.
I don't think that Americans are so uncharitable or paranoid as to feel that the very fact that someone in Mexico has a job is a threat to them. They're concerned because they don't understand American companies to be expanding operations into Mexico - they understand companies to be moving operations, and the work that makes them possible, to Mexico. If a corporation creates 10 new jobs overseas, which in turn creates two new jobs here, you could make the case that one of the Americans who didn't get a job because it was created in Mexico was harmed by that fact, but it will be a somewhat tenuous argument for many, as the understanding of harm has to become fairly broad. But when 10 jobs move from the United States to Mexico, while two replacements are created here, it's a net loss of 8 jobs, and people are likely to see the persons who jobs have been moved as having been directly harmed in the bargain. And this doesn't account for the fact that two new domestic jobs are likely to require different skills than those that moved.

In my own experience, what many Americans are concerned about is being caught in a race to the bottom with the world's poor, where the cost of being unwilling to work for third-world poverty wages is having no wages at all. Casting them as fearing harm from globalization leading some jobs to foreign lands rather than to their doorstep mischaracterizes both their worries and themselves.

Generally speaking, it's difficult to make the point that changes in the employment market driven by globalization are a good thing for the "high-wage" workers who find themselves being undercut by workers in nations with favorable exchange rates, lower standards of living, or both. (Note however that globalization being driven by the employment market can be viewed as a cause for celebration.)