Report on Athletics Raises More Questions Than It Answers – but These Questions Won’t Make You a Good Journalist or Good Citizen or Even a Decent Human Being by Elias Howe ‘13

The Personal is Political

My earliest experiences on the Amherst Cross Country team were almost universally terrible. From almost the first minute of the first practice, I got the impression that many of the older runners were unwelcoming, ill-spirited douchebags. But to be perfectly honest, I chose this school because it was at the intersection of the alphabetical list and the rankings list. I didn’t talk to my parents or my siblings about college, and I didn’t accept help choosing a school despite having access to it. I was so fucked that I didn’t even start any applications to other schools in case I didn’t get into Amherst early. I brought with me to campus nearly crippling anxiety, developing depression, and a tendency to, on occasion, drink myself into oblivion and get into trouble (to all the Neds that might be reading, only on weekends), so I mostly blamed myself.

I hated those guys (and for many of them, asshole status later held up to peer review). But despite how little I wanted to be around them, it never really occurred to me to quit. I had never had an accurate enough assessment of my own self-interest, nor the courage to quit anything outright. At best I would just try to slip away unnoticed. In fact, I did take my freshman year winter season off. I rationalized this decision to myself by saying my legs couldn’t handle three seasons in a row of running (to this day I still believe we’d all be faster if there were only two seasons instead of three). But in reality I think part of me just wanted to withdraw, and not have to confront myself or anyone else. But I also loved running. It was part of me. As I stood in Ned’s office that spring with a giant lump in my throat, I understood when he said it’s one of those things, when people leave they usually don’t come back. But I did come back. And despite being a flight risk, Ned let me compete, and gave me only the bare minimum of shit when I vomited on the track halfway through our first easy spring workout.

I’m glad he did, too, because after some people graduated, and I learned to let some things roll off my back, I liked the team a whole lot more. I didn’t always get along with everybody on the team. I still think my running suffered because of untreated depression and anxiety, but I have gained so much for having been a part of Amherst Cross Country and because of Ned. For one I proved to myself that I had it in me to work hard and be disciplined, even during the summer when I was mostly only accountable to myself. I learned that I perform my best when I treat myself like a human being instead of a robot (although Ned might not understand that one because he’s a freak of nature). I got marginally, but crucially, better at time management. I also made lifelong friends. Some people don’t need to be on a team to learn or have these things. Some people might need exactly the opposite. But given how quickly things seemed to spiral out of control as soon as I stepped off the track, I know I benefitted from the structure, and I think my head benefitted from the exercise. One thing I think we can all agree on is that none of us would be where we are today without grace and second chances.

Like many young liberals, I struggle with how to contextualize my own experiences within the broader narrative of campus – not to mention American – life. Why did I feel like I didn’t fit in on the team initially? Was I justified in my distaste and distrust of some of the older members? This individualized narrative of my personal weirdness and childhood trauma is casually intertwined with what I believe to a major reason I didn’t fit in anywhere at Amherst. I simply grew up on another planet – asteroid perhaps – than most people there. Recent data in the New York Times show that more than 20% of students in my year came from families that made over $630,000 a year. That’s about ten times what my family made when I was in college, and those were good, stable years for us. A kid in my dorm once said something like “I don’t understand why anyone would take out a loan to buy a car”. Now, this is an extreme example – you don’t need to be nearly this clueless to be perceptibly different in the way you interact with people and spaces. I remember it occurring to me a few times throughout prep school and college that I was stingier than many of my friends, and I worried about how I would be perceived if I failed to reciprocate their hospitality and generosity. I also regretted that my parents weren’t as familiar with my friends as I was with my friends’ parents. I figured if they had extra money lying around it would occur to them to take us all out for a meal.

There are a lot of reasons I was slow and somewhat apprehensive to articulate these cultural differences in the in-vogue language of identity politics and personal trauma. For one, that’s generally language you pick up in college. And two or three, or whatever number we’re on, my class identity is rather muddled for reasons I won’t get into.  At both Andover and Amherst, it was difficult for me to tell how much money people had. I spent so much time trying not to make assumptions about people that I perhaps neglected to make evidential judgements. I was absolutely shocked, and validated somewhat, to see the data in the New York Times. Money can’t solve all our problems, but I’m sure my feelings of alienation were to at least some degree the result of cultural differences arising from class. More importantly in my experience, the anxiety and depression that made these differences even harder to understand and deal with was almost certainly exacerbated by experiences related to class. Lastly, despite the fact that being poor forms the bedrock of my personality and identity, and often in ways I really appreciate, I’m kinda banking on the idea that it’s not a permanent attribute.

I’m addicted to you. Don’t you know that you’re toxic? 

Before the scandal of the Cross-Country team’s racist, misogynist email chain surfaced, the recent trend of campus exposés had struck me quite neutrally. If bad things are happening, better people know about them, I guessed. But suddenly this became a subject for which I had visceral reactions, ones that didn’t quite match up to my politics as I understood them. This was my team, and I was quite annoyed at finding myself indicted by virtue of having contributed to a “toxic culture”, despite the fact that the emails during my time were pretty tame. Don’t get me wrong, I made mistakes in college. I hurt people in ways I would do anything to take back. But none of these were in my capacity as an athlete, or even related to being on a team. It’s extremely irritating to be told by non-athletes what it’s like to part of a team at Amherst, especially the same people who torpedo any critical discussion with lines like “because you’re Y, you couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to be X”. Or think they understand privilege because they have some friends who aren’t white. The truth is, if you are one to make an argument like this, I could give a fuck what you think. Also, none of this is about is about me, or my team specifically, or even about the individuals that got in trouble. This is about the various ways in which students and professors feel (justly, I might add) that athletes and athletics – through destructive team culture, self-segregation, and unequal utilization of campus spaces – detract from the quality of life and education at Amherst.

Of course I’m angry that my coach is no longer at Amherst, and all for a cheap publicity stunt by the administration to make it look like they were doing something to solve the problem. Professor Sinos was understandably polite in her language but I need not be. Whether you like Ned personally or as a coach or not – if you think he was in any way responsible for this incident, that his removal will do anything to fix the problem, or that it represents some sort of abstract justice, you are seriously fucking dim. You’re equally dim if you can’t see that the whole exposé, and its outrageous responses and follow-ups, have been little more than attention grabs and virtue signaling. It would be one thing if these kids were exposing some sort of a brush-off or cover-up, but that’s a sad explanation given the way this has all turned out. The article has attracted widespread attention; yet, as they have before, the administration has reacted as a bunch of PR- and donor-obsessed cowards, offering little more than a promise to “think about” the place of athletics on campus.

What troubles me further is that many well-intentioned, and basically correct, young progressives seem to be so blinded by identitarian rage that they don’t even notice this. If all these strong reactions are based upon the understanding that the internal dynamics of athletics teams represent deeply entrenched power structures that lead to violence and misogyny, it would not be the pasty white and affluent kids complaining that the article didn’t include names because these “whitebread fuckbois” need to be “exposed” and “expelled”. We also wouldn’t be focused on a disparity in SAT scores, as if academics were the only criterion for admission or factor in college success, or as if test scores and misogyny are somehow connected. Which sounds pretty fucking arrogant, by the way. I understand this is an emotional issue for many people. It’s hard to look at what is going on around the world and on campus and not feel angry and hurt. I feel that way all the time. I just feel angry and hurt about stuff that’s actually important, not a bunch of fucking emails.

Please don’t misinterpret my frustrations. If there’s one thing that pisses me off more than coddled, deluded liberals, it’s coddled, deluded conservatives talking out their asses about coddled liberals. It is absolutely worth considering how the institutions and groups we are a part of serve to perpetuate the entrenched dynamics of power and privilege. Also, I reject the idea that the left has shot itself in the foot by spurring a reactionary right that defines itself in opposition to some “toxic” new brand of identity politics. The newly-mobilized populist right are getting their take on campus protests from Fox or worse, Rush Limbaugh and Breitbart. These people don’t have a clue what the “death of free speech” might actually look and feel like. They don’t know their asses from a hole in the ground.

But the problem with the vomit-inducing arguments coming from the Sam Harrises and Conor Freidersdorfs of the world is not that this “toxic” brand of identity politics doesn’t exist. (Side note – “toxic” and “problematic” are not in themselves adequately descriptive to constitute a point.) The problem with these guys is that in trying to deconstruct the shortcomings of millennial progressivism, they perpetuate an equally rigid identitarian narrative that places all student activism and resistance thereto into uniform, opposing camps. In Freidersdorf’s description, student activists approach the administration with such fierce anger you’d think they might tear down the halls, but in the end, their demands are not presented in the language of structural injustices and reforms, but of sensitivity and paternalism. He neglects to give offer a hypothesis as to why this might be, or how campus activists stand to lose in framing their complaints this way. Instead, the vague implication of internal inconsistency leaves his right-leaning readers to conclude that students’ grievances are either illegitimate, or else too nebulous to constructively approach.

The language of student protestors is more personal than ever because the prevailing analytical framework for understanding social injustice is focused on how discrete units of culture and interaction arise from these deeply entrenched, unjust power structures. Millennials’ rage does not so often outstrip the seriousness of a given transgression because they are a generation of pansies, but because they believe that every offhandedly racist comment carries with it the combined weight of centuries of violence and injustice. That’s why blame often gets cast wider than it should, and why bloodthirsty progressives seem to think a few innocent people getting thrown on the cross is a small price to pay for “justice”. Because, well, fuck ‘em all anyway. The other reason is that, let’s be honest, it’s fashionable to be angry about stuff. These ways of thinking are absolutely legitimate and useful… to a degree. However, if the underlying dynamics of power and privilege were so deeply entrenched that our transgressors were in effect irredeemable, punishment would be moot because we’d all be fucked anyway. Surely our pasty young liberal isn’t so pessimistic, otherwise he wouldn’t be sending text messages giving his teammate kudos for a contribution to the email chain one day, and writing an article damning him the next.

Just Do It.

The contradiction inherent in the pursuit of progressive values at Amherst is that we choose to attend a school like Amherst because we expect it to give us an advantage that other people won’t get. This advantage is not just built on the quality of education, but on a reputation that has been built through the centuries because of and by profoundly unjust, inequitable power structures. Likewise, the advantage-perpetuating quality of athletics is, to a certain extent, precisely what makes it a worthwhile pursuit. Despite my good/decent grades and high test scores, I don’t know if I would have made it through high school or college without having been part of a team. In my career as a student-athlete, this was an unfair advantage about as much as H2O was a performance-enhancing drug. Also, my Amherst education was most likely paid for by one of these highly-resentable old white dudes. Good chance he was an athlete too. Most people believe, as I do, that at least proportional racial representation at Amherst is absolutely critical. But how could we ever say that about class representation? If I had needed to pay anything out-of-pocket to come to Amherst, I wouldn’t have been able to. The only way people like me can get the financial aid we need is if some people pay full tuition, and then some of those people go on to donate.

As long as American society as a whole remains so strikingly unequal, I find it unlikely that we will be able to assuage all the tensions of campus life. Furthermore, greater diversity within the different classes of an inequitable society doesn’t fix the inequality, in fact if we’re not careful it can moralize it. So why should we bother to fight for greater diversity at Amherst and within the groups it sanctions? One reason is that an Amherst education, despite itself being a manifestation of inequality, remains one of the best tools for impacting the change we want to see in the world (or so I’m told). There is also the simple fact that diversity makes Amherst a better, more open place to live and learn. I really believe that the reason I chose to stake out my identity and friendships among so many different groups – my team, my J4 crew, ACOC – is that I didn’t feel like I fit perfectly (not even close) into the mould of any given one. And this is the only reason I could serve as a bridge between people in those different groups.

Reconciling the apparent inconsistencies of fighting for justice within an unjust system goes a long way in helping us understand how the language of student activists can be co-opted and diluted by what is, despite its veneer of progressive values, a fundamentally conservative institution. And why, both on campus and within society as a whole, change is always slower than we hope it to be (I mean, who knew that healthcare could be so complicated?) It does not, however, explain why the administration has time and time again failed to engage in honest conversation, and exhibited selective attention, poor judgement, and weak leadership on issues of class and race at Amherst, sexual violence, and the place of athletics. These failures are evident in the absolute train wrecks of decisions they have made in the wake each controversy. A wholly-unqualified and dodgy appointment to Title IX coordinator. The newly-established sinecure of Chief Student Affairs Officer (is this woman blackmailing you or something!?) Dumping millions of dollars into facilities that avail themselves only to athletes. Removing Ned, and then promising little more than to ponder the role athletics and its associated procedures. And, despite the fact that I have nothing positive to say about fraternities, banning them outright seems to have done little more than stir resentment amongst our petty statesmen-in-training.

If the college truly wishes to bridge the athlete/non-athlete divide, and if it gives any credence to its stated goal of being a transformative force in society, the disparate racial and class makeup of athletics teams is simply unacceptable. Despite the erstwhile athletic director’s insistence to the contrary, it’s painfully obvious that the patterns of destructive behavior we have witnessed find occasion and venue more often amongst uniform groups such as (but not limited to) teams, and that these uniform groups are necessarily more insular. While athletics provides an important means of alumni involvement with the college, and stimulates donation that we all depend on, perhaps a greater proportion of donation would come from non-athlete alumni if a greater proportion of the school’s wealthy students were non-athletes. And while race and class quotas for athletic recruitment sound ridiculous on their face, the current system of recruitment, which matriculates athletes who are disproportionately wealthy and white, is effectively a class and race quota system in the opposite direction from what we want. The administration should not think we are so naïve as to believe that these disparate outcomes simply happen by chance, or are else unavoidable. They should find a solution so that athletes are more representative of the larger student body. And I don’t mean in terms of SAT scores.

The pessimist in me sometimes wonders why I should even care what happens to a place that is simply not mine anymore, and never felt much like it was in the first place. A place that shows me again and again that I can’t be proud of what it stands for. But if I let this way of thinking move me, I’d have moved to Canada by now. For all its shortcomings, this place was my home. These people my family. So I hold out for any sign of hope.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About This and Start Worrying About That

In an interview by Lisa Raskin in the most recent edition of Amherst magazine, David Kessler ’73 hypothesizes a common psychological mechanism for addiction, anxiety, depression, obsessive thoughts and violent anger. He describes the affected individual as “captured” by a behavioral feedback loop, in which a harmful behavior rewires one’s neural circuitry to all but guarantee that behavior’s continuation.

The illuminating aspect of Kessler’s work is his connection between addiction and other mental illnesses such as depression or obsessive behaviors. As someone who has struggled/struggles with depression, I can tell you that there are concrete things one can do to make oneself feel better. Regular exercise, healthy eating, emotional openness and social interaction, abstinence from addictive chemicals, to name a few. I can also tell you that one of the main symptoms of depression is that it’s almost fucking impossible to stick to those habits. This is the essence of the feedback loop mechanism Kessler proposes. Just as nicotine rewires one’s neural circuitry to create a perception of need that did not exist before, and suppress judgments that might lead to abstinence; depressed thoughts rewire one’s neural circuitry to preclude alternate ways of interpreting or interacting with the world. We are in a sense addicted to our negative outlook.

Such behaviors of course lie across a broad spectrum. Every choice we make, every stimulus, recursively shapes us and all of our future decisions. But some behaviors have more power than others to diminish our agency. Chocolate and nicotine are both habit forming, but by no means equally so. What strikes me as just as insidious as the chemicals themselves, however, is the infinite cascade of associations that tag along with addictive behavior. Besides the chemical relief a smoker gets from a cigarette, there’s a definite comfort in the ritual of it: the break from work to stand out on the street and people-watch, the visibly impressed look on other smokers’ faces when they watch you roll your own, exchanging pleasantries with the lady behind the counter of the gas station, et cetera. Not to mention the things you wouldn’t think of even if you were asked, and can hardly remember anyway, but would hold onto forever if you could: riding around in the back seat of dad’s jalopy, eyes squinted against the midday sun, smelling smoke despite the cool breeze through the open windows. I would become a smoker myself if it meant I got to hold onto memories of who my dad was back then. How could I possibly separate my nostalgia from the chemical effects secondhand nicotine had on me? The two are inextricable.

Despite the persistent disadvantages of class status and genetic predisposition, at least we all know we shouldn’t start smoking in the first place. Even by the time I was big enough to have my first secondhand cigarette, America had begun to erect a cultural bulwark against the evils of tobacco, thanks in part, I’m sure, to Mr. Kessler. Perhaps you could argue a negative side of that stigma, but it’s clear that fewer people smoke today than thirty years ago. What makes depression and other obsessive behaviors so difficult to tackle is that they often come on gradually and are easily concealed. By the time I first experienced debilitating physical pain because of anxiety and depression, I was pretty well up Shit Creek as far as harmful patterns of thought and behavior are concerned. To right the ship takes reaching way back… as far as you can remember and farther.

In the advanced stages of addiction and depression, the disease pervades every aspect of one’s being. It is impossible for the sufferer to be an impartial judge as to which thoughts and behaviors arise from/perpetuate the destructive cycle. That’s why it seems like relief is only possible after some sort of unquestionably horrible bottom, some floor of desperation that rises up to meet you, when your most lizard-brain instinct of self-preservation finally kicks in. Only when you can embrace change wholesale. When you Give Up and Come In. But even after the catharsis of acting on your desperation, you must continually face who you are. Who you still are runs unimaginably deeper than your recent realization of how fucked you are.

Confronting my depression reminds me of when I first went away to boarding school and I finally got consistent health coverage. My dad reminded me that I could probably get free surgery to correct the scar on my upper lip that I got from a corrective surgery as a baby. I considered it, but how could I decide to change my face, even for a deformity, if that deformity is so deeply a part of who I am? Perhaps I would be happier with myself if my lip looked more like other peoples’ lips. Perhaps I’d be happier still if while I was under they went and made my jawline look more like Douglass Booth’s… maybe made my dick a little bigger too. How do I decide in which ways I should try to change myself, and which things I must accept that changing could never satisfy me or make me better off? By that same token, how much of myself – my dry humor, my political conviction, my perceptiveness (at least of social dynamics of which I am not a party) – must I sacrifice in order to survive and prosper?


It’s really interesting to me that one of Mr. Kessler’s prime examples of depression is David Foster Wallace. Honestly I’d believe you if you told me he stole the whole idea from DFW’s work, which itself draws parallels between obsessive behavior, depression, and chemical addiction. But another aspect of DFW’s work that I think is equally important is idea that certain (novel) elements of mass culture either inadvertently lead us to the unchecked indulgence of our most base desires and destructive tendencies, or worse, are deliberately designed to do so. Take for example the bit about the TP videophone in Infinite Jest, in which callers become so obsessed with their self-presentation that they invest heavily – first in dental whitening and cosmetics, and then flattering facial masks and false backgrounds, and finally entire tableaux of idealized home environments.

You don’t need to think long to come up with real-world examples of how we are held hostage by pervasive technology, against our desire to more carefully curate or limit which parts of ourselves we bare to the world. To say “held hostage” is hardly hyperbole. Even to opt out of certain modes of self-expression or consumption, such as social media, is a declaration of values with pointed social implications. In some circles this is a fashionable iconoclasm, if not a calculated budgeting of one’s time and energy.

One related aspect of contemporary mass culture that neither DFW nor Kessler address (as) directly is consumption of goods. I’ve been told DFW talks about consumerism in some interviews that are available on youtube, and given his writing about televisual entertainment in the novel Infinite Jest and in the essay E Unibus Pluram, I’m sure he has made any connections I am about to. I’m glad he didn’t address it more directly in Infinite Jest. Fuck. Eleven hundred pages is long enough. But considering Kessler’s work hinges on extending an existing paradigm on addiction to include several related behaviors, I think this is a useful exercise.

Having grown up poor (although to be fair to my hardworking parents and my good luck, never wanting for food or shelter), I became accustomed at an early age to longing for things without ever experiencing how not-that-great it is to actually have them. Gameboy color, N64, Eminem CDs, Pokemon cards, you name it. I’ve spent countless hours dreaming I could have them and sometimes even obsessively scheming as to how to get them. Of course I longed not for the items themselves but for a feeling I supposed would come with them.

Pokemon Cards? Right from the get go I thought those things were fucking stupid, yet somehow over time I came to want them because my friends had them. This is my first memory of a second-order desire giving way to first-order desire, and it stands out to me all these years later because of how gradual and begrudging a transformation it was. But who’s to say that other desires I had perceived as first-order, direct desires for a particular item were not actually thinly-veiled desires to feel connected to other people? I find it highly likely that in other instances my social and personal-emotional motivations were simply subsumed by more readily rationalized inputs.

So I never got any Pokemon cards or a gaming system. Only once Napster came along did I get my Eminem tracks. Big freaking whoop, is how I think of it now. But the problem is not in getting or not getting the things I wanted. For someone with an addictive/depressed personality like me, the problem lies in becoming so attached to the ritual of desire – becoming enamored with an idealized and impossible notion of what the fulfillment of my desires will feel like. Just like opiates or alcohol, consumer goods and the marketing thereof imply a promise that neither they, nor anything else, could possibly keep. A feeling a transcendent inclusion and warmth. It’s a momentary release that quickly gives way to a downward spiral of all-consuming desire and pain. It’s a giant, cosmically fucked up bait-and-switch. (For all those reading this who care about me, you should know I don’t do opiates or anything like that, they are just a major subject matter of Infinite Jest, and a constant battle amongst people I know and care about deeply).

But just as I admit difficulty in separating the aspects of my thinking that define me, make me the person I want to keep around for a while, and the aspects I have thought at times might kill me; it’s difficult to separate the toxic aspects of consumerism from the material benefits our culture has produced. Take for example my old iPod nano, before I accidentally put it through the wash junior year in high school. That was my main means of listening to music and This American Life back then. It would not be an exaggeration to say music and This American Life podcasts are what made getting through high school possible for me. So in that sense, the iPod made my life better.

If you were around for the second-gen iPod nano, you might remember that the cheapest 2GB one was always silver, the 4GB one had a few color options, and the 8GB one was only available in black. You could always tell exactly how much money someone had spent by looking at it for second. These weren’t merely aesthetic choices by Apple, they were part of a carefully-crafted strategy to engender a symbol economic power and societal worth, a desire and its fulfillment, in a purchasable item. This ability to engineer such a powerful cultural icon is really quite remarkable, but everybody should be as afraid of it as they are of the needle.

Over time a cynical attitude toward these modes consumption, ones that are clearly designed to communicate membership in a group, has become as American as Miley Cyrus doing the Twerk. Was it the first guy I saw walking around in a $900 Canada Goose jacket that I thought looked like a total dick, or was it the 1,001st? Yet consumption-as-self-expression has grown, only the fashionable statements have changed. Fashionable Millennials value “authentic” experiences more than material possessions. Travel, adventure sports, gourmet food. Just as it has always been, the most successful products of our day are the accoutrements of a fashionable lifestyle, and the instruments with which we can broadcast our participation in that lifestyle to the world. Gopro. Mountain bikes. Red Bull. Skis. Fancy SLRs or mirrorless cameras.

Heroin, as toxic as it is, was contrived to alleviate pain. Ironically it was developed in an effort to mitigate the addictive properties of morphine. But for how much suffering those and other chemicals have caused, they were not designed to do so. It was an unintended consequence of nature – one that has since been exploited by man for a profit. Contrived systems of exploitation have been around since the dawn of man, perhaps longer. What makes our current day (perhaps what was at the time IJ’s near-future?) culture of consumerism so scary is that the science of pushing peoples’ evolutionary buttons for profit is so damn refined that we are often defenseless whether we notice it or not. Consumer goods and the marketing thereof are literally engineered to rob you of your agency.

I think part of what is so troubling about confronting the problems of consumer culture is that it seems so antithetical to our ideals of individual agency and rational self-government. One aspect of the rage in certain political circles against “socialism” is the assumption that a centralization of power or resources in the hands of government will necessarily undermine the interests of common people. But how much better is it if a number of corporations or other institutions have enough influence over culture, over our minds, to all but force people to act against their own self-interest? Consumer marketing is one example of an effort to do exactly that. Moreover, and DFW’s major insight with respect to addiction and consumption, is that we seem to have reached some sort of turning point as a society, past which we actually prefer it to be this way – to remain susceptible to having our wills subverted, to relinquishing agency – as long as the methods evolve quickly enough to keep us reliably entertained. As long as we can hop to the leading edge of each successive bell curve of fashionability.


But how could this happen, and how could we possibly rise up from our compromised state to fix it? The pros and cons of consumerism are highly debatable. To look at the other side of the metaphor, however, drug addiction, it is clear our society is amidst a crisis. A crisis of culture, if you accept that one exists, elicits some of the same hard questions that a drug epidemic does. What makes us susceptible? Who or what deserves the blame? How do we correct the problem and prevent it in the future?

I think it’s pretty clear to everyone at this point that you can’t effectively fight an drug epidemic by trying to cut off the supply of drugs. It also seems clearer every day that criminalizing users doesn’t help much either. Yet the war, and the stigma, persist.

It’s easy to look at those people that still think a Reaganesque war on drugs is worth the cost, and those that would shun or lock up users, and see them only as retrograde. To say they lack a nuanced understanding of the issue. But should we really expect everyone to have a nuanced understanding of every dilemma we face as a society? That would of course be impossible. No matter how smart or well-informed we are, we will always be forced to make tradeoffs as individuals as to our level of engagement with a particular issue. When we don’t have all the facts, we make decisions or form opinions based on culturally-endowed biases. But here’s the thing: we never really have all the facts. Even our most rational judgments are on some level exactly that: judgments.

Stigmas are just one way culture has evolved to inform individual decision-making. And despite the fact they carry very unfashionable connotations – retrograde conservatism, victim-blaming – they have at times served a useful purpose. Ironically, the thing that makes them a useful tool in the first place is also what can make them so harmful: they adapt much more slowly than real-world circumstances.

America has been confronted by a widening rift between the politics of the “elite” and “non-elite”. If we accept these opposing identities as largely falling along lines of education and economic power, it’s easy to see why an individual would arrive at a particular way of thinking depending on which side of that class divide they fall. This is to say stigma-embracing versus stigma-rejecting. If you belong to a capital-scarce social group (and I mean capital in all senses of the word) whose most pressing material interest is in preventing certain behaviors within the group, then a stigma or moralistic judgment is an attractive tool. If however you belong to capital-rich social group, not only are you more likely to take a macro-scale approach to a threat, you are also more likely to perceive and be able to articulate the pitfalls of moralism.

Of course individuals need to be held accountable for their actions. But it’s easy to forget that the purpose of individual responsibility, the utility of free will in a deterministic world, is to shape the future, not merely to interpret the past. So the idea of moral decay is mostly useless bullshit. To borrow an analogy from my brother Sam; it’s not like we have an obesity problem because people got worse at restraining themselves. We are just exposed to a lot more shitty food. By that same token, we have not as a society come to prefer giving ourselves away – to chemicals, entertainment, the false promises of consumption – because we decided to. We simply live in a time in which the institutions that bid to capture us have more power than ever to engineer objects of desire and shape the conditions that make complete capture possible.

I think it would be naive to think we could ever shed the dynamics of power and exploitation that drive our capitalist society. It’s unclear to me that we should if we could. What I think is important to realize is that the “invisible hand” we worship is merely a sum of parts. In any dynamic of exploitation, the equilibrium position is that the exploiting party will extract as much and as often as possible before the exploited party opts out. Before they Hit Bottom and Come In. Before they rebel against terrible master. Before they decide that what they really want is freedom from want. It’s up to us – every one of us – to decide where that equilibrium position will lie. To relinquish that choice to the invisible hand is to give ourselves to the grave.

 

So what I’m saying is we need strong labor unions and free healthcare and better public schools.

 

Searching for a Quiet Place

It has been several weeks since I last posted here. Among the many reasons for that is the physical toll those entries took on me. To turn my thoughts feelings into words is like squeezing blood from a stone. My brain is one recalcitrant bitch. I pulled two all-nighters in the making of my first two posts because I knew if I stopped writing I would never start again.

It’s not like I don’t have things to write about. I have memories – stories from my past, frustrations that are begging to take written form so that they can be neglected no longer. I have long been accused of not talking about these things when I should. Perhaps at some point I will even get around to contemplating and relating the joys as well.

I have been so closed off from those around me for so long that it seems the only way I can feel connected is through writing. I’m suddenly struct by Matt Damon’s the line from The Departed: “I’m fucking Irish. I’ll deal with something being wrong for the rest of my life.” I’m only a little bit Irish – although I know a thing or two about alcohol – but this line describes me EXACTLY. How strange that the only way I can talk to anybody is to talk to everybody.

Writing gives me a chance look into the mirror, and also out the window. If I really dig, if I really tear my hair out, I can have thoughts. I can have opinions that are based on values and beliefs. Even, perhaps, beliefs that are based on facts. Ones that I can explain to myself clearly, if not to others. I can even be proud, for a moment, that the things I think and say appear to be coherent. But it takes a lot out of me. In the intervening weeks, my brain activity will return to its normal buzz of unrealistic hopes and expectations, which are rendered such by tangential efforts, which are anesthetized by petty distractions, which give way to frustration, hopeless, self-loathing, resignation, and boredom.

To be more accurate, the boredom is generalized throughout the entire cycle. It’s easy to get bored if you simply don’t have the discipline to see anything through to the point where it might benefit you. It’s also hard to know how to start again from scratch when your whole life feels like one giant corner cut.

If you’ve read this far, you know by now that I am an extremely anxious, wound-up, and at times self-conscious person. I visualize my manner of navigating social interactions as running through a gymnasium while batting away a volley of dodgeballs. I can’t keep my mind in one place for very long because I need to be ready for the next onslaught. Perhaps this is why I feel as though I have not been able to, as of yet, “grab life by the ball”. Thankfully I am particularly self-conscious about alcohol and drugs and their effect on my already-compromised brain, otherwise I would live out my impulse to drink or smoke myself into a coma far more often than I actually do.

It seems so juvenile to be writing about how I can’t focus for long enough to write. Writing isn’t supposed to be easy. But that’s not what this is about. I’ve tried just about everything to find something that I could do that would make me believe I could do something, anything, without balking, half-assing, or just plain hating myself. I got into mountain biking, skiing, hiking, traveling. I fucked off and played video games and watched TV. I worked a low-level job for two years, I started my own small business, I even graduated college. It was a disaster (college – everything else was aight). So why am I here again, at five in the morning, not having slept, when most go-getters are about ready to wake up and start their day? Where would the tempestuous soul not seek respite?

The Shortcoming of Cultural Relativism

Like the lever or the wheel, morality is a human invention with a practical purpose. It is a tool that shapes our interpretation of events, and impacts our actions such that they will be consistent with our own interests, or with the interests of a group to which we belong. Thus certain specific formulations of morality must arise through a subjective and local assessment of expediency.

But cultural relativism seems to offer group affiliation as the only tie that could bind human beings within a given moral code. If we are near enough to observe a behavior we deem immoral, are we not sufficiently related by our humanity to deem our moral standards as the ones by which this behavior should be judged?

Morality does not arise solely and completely from cultural affiliation and locality. Rather, some values arise more directly from corporeal necessity. Perhaps this is why existential threats seemingly give rise to moral contradictions. Thou shalt not kill – but even a strict adherent to the Commandments would likely choose to kill rather than be killed.

This is also the reason compassion has the power to transcend cultural boundaries. Indeed the practices we find most objectionable, such as female genital mutilation or widow burning, are precisely the ones that pose an existential threat to individuals. It is dangerous and inaccurate to compare such torturous practices to something so innocuous as varying views on filial piety.

Perhaps the purest and most absolute of moral values is that of equality: the belief that a system of values should apply to and benefit all human beings equally. Because of this ideal, I refuse to believe that female genital mutilation or widow burning are ever right, no matter what the cultural context. But the conditions which give rise to my own idealistic vision of equality must also be relative – indeed the existential threats to me and my society are quite minimal.

None of my claims should be seen as a call to specific action. To assume that we, as a society or as individuals, have the power to re-make a whole culture at will would be pure hubris. But this does not necessarily point to the nonexistence of universal good, rather that our actions must be as pragmatic as our system of beliefs. Too often our “moral” battles are retrograde, retributive, or just plain hypocritical. Often the most effective way to fight a perceived injustice is not to attack the perpetrator head-on, but to take responsibility for those circumstances under which human nature necessarily leads him to commit it.

Stacking the Deck Full of Queens:  Hillary Clinton in the Second Democratic Debate

In the second democratic debate at Drake University in Iowa, Hillary Clinton criticized Senator Bernie Sander’s plan for free tuition at public universities. She said, “I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.” It’s hard to disagree with that statement for its face-value. But Sanders’ proposed plan would be funded entirely by Wall Street speculation fees. Even if we imagine a modified version of the plan, in which individual taxpayers would foot the bill, Trump’s tax contribution would likely more than subsidize his own children’s education – it would also subsidize the tuition of those students whose families could not otherwise afford to pay.

Clinton’s quip about taxpayers footing the bill for Donald Trump’s kids is typical of criticism of democratic-socialist policies from her GOP counterparts. It panders to the lower and middle classes’ common misconception that they are largely the benefactors, not the beneficiaries, of any redistribution or investment of tax revenue. It is language that belies the fact that at their cores, both of these plans are redistributive. Clinton, rather than try to convince the right-leaning electorate of the merits of her left-leaning plan, instead attempts to manufacture the perception that her opponent’s plan is much further left than it actually is.

The promise of a “debt free” college education is also misleading. Although my college had claimed to have replaced all loans with grants in financial aid packages, I still had to borrow the maximum amount in federal unsubsidized student loans to pay the portion the college wrongly supposed my parents could put up in cash. And my school had great financial aid. My family and I made it out easy. I have relatively little debt, and my parents did not need to borrow against the value of their house or use credit cards to cover expenses in other areas. Precise language is key if we wish to understand just how far each candidate’s plan would go to lessen the burden on real families struggling to afford college.

Clinton’s rhetorical tactic in this exchange is similar to the one she employs when Sanders questions why we should trust she will fight to rein in Wall Street excess when they have been “the major campaign contributor” all along. Sanders said, “Now maybe they’re dumb, and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so.” Clinton then leads off her response by scolding Senator Sanders for impugning her integrity. She then explains that the majority of her small donors are women, and then claims that Wall Street supports her because she did so much to help rebuilt the city in the wake of 9/11. The crowd roars their approval. When prodded by moderators and audience as to the relevance of 9/11 to millions in campaign contributions, she insists that while her “tough”  and “comprehensive” plan might not sit well with Wall Street, they nevertheless support her because her actions after 9/11 prove the honesty and righteousness of her cause. The crowd once again roars their approval.

Not a single word of this response addresses Senator Sanders’ original premise that corporations don’t act altruistically. So why don’t the other candidates do more to challenge her? For one, to nit-pick the opposition’s language takes away valuable time a candidate could use to discuss the issues. Secondly, to explicitly attack this style of rhetoric might come across too much like using it oneself. Perhaps most importantly, an underdog candidate such as Sanders must be much more measured and subdued than an establishment favorite such as Clinton. It is clear that he is in the sights not just of Clinton, but of her entire behemoth political machine. He must consider his every word and action taken completely out of context, lest he suffer the same fate as other promising liberal Vermont Democrats before him.

Clinton’s language goes beyond willful self-representation, seemingly into the realm of deliberate exploitation of the science of pushing people’s emotional buttons. It has a polarizing rather than an equilibrating effect. For us rural folk, it’s not unlike capturing sheep to take their wool – it’s much easier if you corral them first. Granted, she is nowhere near as egregious as her fear-mongering Republican counterparts. Nevertheless, her usage represents a similar attempt to stack the deck of political agency.

To believe that the precise ideological effect of these Orwellian quips and non-answers is lost on Clinton and her team is naive. Still, they inevitably dig her into a hole from time to time.  But what makes her strategy so pernicious is that to get herself out of that hole, it seems she can simply dig straight through to the other side.

In Response to ‘Illiberal Demands’

In the Atlantic article “The Illiberal Demands of the Amherst Uprising”, Conor Friedersdorf criticizes a list of demands published by student demonstrators at Amherst College. He also attempts to refute the suggestion that negative public reactions to the demonstration, or to its specific aims, can be construed as an effort to silence the voices of its participants. Not only are his arguments unrealistic characterizations of the demands and their real-life implications; they also illustrate a broader failure to contextualize both the words of the student demonstrators and analysis thereof.

I agree with the author that if a statement is coerced, its meaning inherently changes. However, to describe the students’ demands and the leverage behind them as coercion is overblown. Coercion implies the use or threat of physical force to demand the action of someone otherwise unwilling. Anyone familiar with the Amherst community would assume that an “escalation” would entail little more than further or more widespread occupation of student spaces. While it may be enough to elicit a response, it can hardly be called a threat of violence.

Even if one believes that the students’ demands lie somewhere on a spectrum of coercion, it’s hard to argue that any resultant action would lose its impact entirely. If it did, what would be the point of any protest? If there is truth in the spirit of the demands, they will retain their impact even if they do not come to pass spontaneously.

In any case, the author seems to put little stock in these “threats”. But If he really interprets the students’ ultimatum as “campus-activist hyperbole”, it seems contradictory that he would point to the exact opposite interpretation of it as proof of its inevitable self-defeat. It bets against the tact and professionalism of the school’s administration and law enforcement. More importantly, it places blame for this yet-to-be-perpetrated excessive force squarely on the shoulders of its victims. Lest we forget, one of the many injustices this and other movements are fighting against is the fact that people of color are the victims of excessive force by police extremely disproportionately to white people, no matter what they do or say.

While I agree with the author that the students should demand more autonomy and power to shape the institution themselves, I don’t think that calls for authority to take action are necessarily impractical or contradictory to their underlying goals. “Shouldn’t the activists demand the ability to send their own emails? They seem to believe that taking action entails demanding that authority figures take action.” This is as if to say: to fight the injustice of institutionalized white male heterosexual supremacy, students should not demand that authority change, but change themselves and hope that authority transforms in turn. Even if we generously interpret the author’s point to be that the emails would be more effective coming from the students themselves, it still seems off base. If either of these suggestions were a realistic paradigm for social change, I don’t think that in the year 2015 we would be having this discussion at all.

Calling for an authority to take action is itself taking action, and often it is the most powerful option. It’s worth noting that in the list of demands from the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which the author proffers as the paragon of reasonable tactics; not most, but all of the demands were for the action of some authority. In the context of a college campus, administrators and faculty are responsible for most operations – everything from selecting and shaping the student body to designing policies and curricula. Their place in correcting institutional injustices cannot be overlooked.

A statement from an administrator also serves a different purpose entirely than a statement from the students would. The duty of an administrator is not only to make decisions regarding policies and their implementation, but also to stand as a living embodiment of the spirit and values of the institution. The President’s public condemnation of racially and culturally insensitive behavior has deep practical and symbolic significance. It lends a powerful voice to the real stories of suffering that have gone unheard. It helps to elucidate the more subtle and insidious forms of prejudice alive and well at a purportedly liberal institution. It explicitly defines not only the college’s policies regarding acts of discrimination and hate, but also its moral imperative to end the harmful legacy thereof. These statements don’t just serve as a validation; they constitute concrete promises that can, when necessary, be held up for future scrutiny.

Too many of these criticisms seem to be aimed somewhere other than the students’ proposed course of action. The author tells us that the students’ demand to be excused from class made him “laugh out loud”. This seems to be more of a jab at the legitimacy the students’ anger than a practical assessment of the demand. The implication is that real activists should be willing to face punishment. If things really were so bad, they should have no problem sacrificing everything for their cause.

What is the real purpose of infantilizing these students for their alleged dependence on and deference to authority? Rather than to suggest a more practical course of action, these interpretations seem to impose a set of standards for real activism that real students could not possibly meet. If the demands are too radical or seemingly inconsistent, then the protesters are illogical and self-defeating. However, if the students show anything less than 100% personal commitment to those demands, then they are merely “posing as activists”, which undermines the integrity of their ideas.

These arguments seem to belie a weak understanding of what motivates this movement, and the difficult judgments its leaders and participants face. Is it really so incoherent for these students to see their school’s administration simultaneously as part of the problem and part of its solution? Is it so incoherent that they would be willing to disobey authority on behalf of their cause, and at the same time fear potential personal repercussions? It seems to me that to claim these things as irreconcilably incoherent, and at the same time to claim that you believe in “vestiges of institutional racism” on college campuses, is itself insidiously, toxically incoherent. I choose to believe, however, that this incoherence is reconcilable.


 

Criticisms of the recent movements at Mizzou, Amherst, and Yale have largely centered around the protection of individual rights. No cause, no matter how great, should be advanced at the expense of the inalienable freedoms granted by our Constitution. I agree that to punish those responsible for the “All Lives Matter” and “Free Speech” posters would constitute a suppression of free speech. However, despite widespread indignation, these infringements remain for the most part hypothetical. Calling for someone to be punished for something they said does not equate to actually punishing them.

And while these individual rights are immensely important, they are by no means absolute. They are applicable only so far as they do not infringe upon the rights of others. Profanity, pornography, defamation, and hate speech are all examples of ways in which free speech is limited.

What exactly constitutes punishable hate speech? For the most part these interpretations are made adequately at the individual or community level, without the need for mobilization by armchair ideologues. Take for example President Martin’s response to the students’ demands, or the Missouri protestors’ eventual reversal of their decision to bar journalists from their camp.

It seems that the majority of instances in which individual rights are not adequately protected happen when the victim is a member of an underprivileged group. This makes it all the more ironic when indignant cries for protection come from the powerful majority against the alleged transgressions of an oppressed minority, precisely at the moment that minority is fighting for equal protection.

If you believe as I do that one group’s perspective can be said to be “mainstream”, particularly as it is informed by the race, class, and sexual orientation of that group, it is easy to see how an inflated sense of the importance of the free speech issue vis-à-vis the student movements might follow directly from membership in said group. From the perspective of a member of an oppressed demographic, it’s conceivable that the point about free speech might not seem so important relative to the points about institutionalized racism. But not only are mainstream views more widely represented, they are also commonly accepted as more legitimate because of the status of those who hold them. Thus voicing one’s mainstream opinion in response to an alternative perspective inherently contributes to drowning out that voice. This is the same point President Martin makes about the timing of these reactions. If one self-identifies as a representative of mainstream culture, and also believes in the existence of profound social inequality, it will sometimes be most constructive for one to hold one’s tongue so that quieter voices can be heard.

If instead you believe that these criticisms come from objective analysis rather than a subjective, mainstream perspective, just look at the author’s response to President Martin’s suggestion. “…the timing of the criticism is neither coincidental or ironic; it is offered now, because they just issued their illiberal demands.” Nowhere is it indicated that the “accusations” to which President Martin refers (most likely the posters) were posted after the students’ demands were published. By conflating his criticisms with those of others, the author unwittingly frames the movement and the reactions thereto as a debate between two opposing camps. Furthermore, his suggestion that there could be such a thing as “dispassionate analysis” when discussing a legacy that began on this continent with the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of people is proof that his camp is overwhelmingly informed by privilege. Fair and constructive criticisms are going to a lot more work than this.

One thing I’m sure we can all agree on is that we can look to history for guidance. I was not present at the 1963 march, but based on what I know about the backlash suffered by many of its leaders and participants, I suppose that not everyone back then thought those demands to be as reasonable or necessary as most of us do today. Granted, not all points of view currently deemed “radical” will necessarily be considered mainstream in time. Nevertheless, amongst a diverse group of people, opinions as to which issues deserve attention, and how to attend to them, will vary enormously. The 1963 march organizers seem to have accounted for these differences in part with a disclaimer at the bottom of their list of demands, as if didn’t go without saying; “support of the march does not necessarily indicate endorsement of every demand listed.”

I think this is a deeply important lesson. It opens to door to fighting for the success of a movement for what it stands for, even if one does not support its every word.

Surely the value in this idea is not lost on us today.