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Profound Words

Wednesday, June 25, 2014
A wonderful piece by Charles Pierce at Esquire reminds me of when I was immature enough to confuse cruelty with strength. Alas that insight is altogether lacking in too many of my fellow citizens.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:38 PM

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Catching Up

Monday, March 10, 2014
Wow it's been a million years since I wrote anything here. Some updates:

1) I've been keeping quite busy, between the research I do as part of my job, my own research projects on the side, learning the piano, writing, and (of course) roller derby.

2) This was originally a blog oriented to commenting on politics, much like the 1000's of other similar political blogs. I never really found my own voice, or much of a large audience, and most successful political bloggers joined up with larger institutions. This was probably inevitable, although I still find it pretty sad. I write a lot less about politics now, obviously, and my personal engagement in is less than it's been in, well, forever. What's interesting is that I probably pay nearly as much attention to political news as I always did. I remain pretty well plugged in to what's going on, with the national and international scene at least. I've fallen out of the habit of blogging about it, but I'm still very much attuned to the events of the world. One odd thing about taking an emotional and professional step back, however, is that I feel that I'm better capable of detached analysis of what I see. When I was all consumed with what was happening, it was very difficult to keep things in perspective. I'd never have thought that doing less of something might help you cultivate better judgment about a sphere of interest.

3) One political tidbit: there's been a series of articles questioning a) why Democrats don't do more to push economic populism, although it's a clear political winner; and b) why Democratic officeholders were suddenly willing to embrace gay rights. To me the answer to both question is essentially the same: the need for fundraising. In the wake of Citizens United, left-leaning candidates for office are under enormous pressure to secure sources of campaign funds. Since even pro-Democratic campaign contributors are suspicious of labor unions and generally opposed to redistribution, it's just too risky to adopt a bold stance against inequality. It is however quite easy to do something about issues like gay rights. If you're wondering why a politician is or isn't doing something logical, always ask yourself - how does her decision affect her ability to raise campaign funds? Suddenly a lot of otherwise counter-intuitive actions will make a great deal more sense.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 11:21 AM

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Mandela and Autonomy

Friday, December 06, 2013
I've spent a lot of time this year trying to figure out how much control we have over our lives. Indulging in Stoic philosophy during times of emotional stress has become something of a habit, and beyond this I've been trying to reconcile my withdrawal from political life with my convictions and my psychological well-being. As far as I can tell, the nub of the problem lies in what sort of life you're living. We're restricted by our native capacities, be they intellectual, emotional, or physical, but of far greater import is the degree to which our immediate social context gives us meaningful opportunities. People from wealthy backgrounds always have considerable flexibility, but in modern middle-class democracies that freedom is extended much further. It seems to me that one of the real consequences of the depressed economy, to say nothing of the generation-long decline of middle class economic security, is the diminishing of those personal opportunities. One doesn't have time to take up the violin if one is working two jobs in order to stay out of poverty.

Parenthetically, I think that this basic realization - that freedom is contextualized by circumstances - has important consequences for how we approach the world. Take the discussion in the wake of Nelson Mandela's death. Joshua Tucker at WaPo argues that we should avoid "great man" theories of history and recognize the degree to which other factors shaped the end of apartheid. To quote:

But of course there are myriad factors that political scientists have identified that contribute to democratization in addition to the actions of particular individuals. These include:
- Broad structural factors such as socio-economic development in the country, especially focusing on GDP per capita
- The extent to which opposition forces in a country are unified and/or connected to or isolate from the broader mass public
- The extent to which the regime itself remains unified in the face of demands to democratize, or splits into different factions (often referred to as “hard liners” vs. “soft liners”)
- Pressure from forces outside the country — including foreign governments, NGOs, intergovernmental organizations like the European Union, and international financial organizations like the IMF or World Bank — to democratize, often as conditions for future aid and/or membership.
- Removal of external forces that had either directly exerted pressure not to democratize in the past (e.g., glasnost in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe), or that had previously restrained from criticizing an authoritarian regime because of geo-strategic considerations (e.g., the end of the Cold War)
What strikes me is that with the exception of the first one, each of these factors were not only exogenous forces. Mandela reacted to these objective circumstances, of course, but he also shaped them. What he did or didn't do had an effect on how unified the regime or its opponents were and the degree of international pressure. We have to recognize that it is precisely how a leader understands and works to change external conditions is precisely what makes that leader "great."

And it's the same thing in our own lives. We have to make decisions about what is feasible, and then choose how much we want to push against the world, to try to shift it just a bit, either for our own sake or for others. Where I'm beginning to part company with the Stoics is that it's not enough to say "the world is outside of my control, I can only choose how to react to it" because we are part of that world. How we behave within the bubble and trouble of life has something to do with what that world looks like. Whether it's choosing to sit on the top of a column and ponder the divine or zoning out in front of the TV are fundamentally unsociable stances towards the world. They are ways to alienate ourselves from life, and the more I consider the question the more I think that this is a terrible mistake.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:56 PM

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The founders didn't believe in sex without procreation?

Wednesday, September 04, 2013
Really? Well, I suppose there's an argument as long as you exclude Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin from the list of founding fathers.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:08 AM

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Why Care About Inequality

Thursday, August 15, 2013
Over at Ezra Klein's blog, Dylan Matthews suggests that inequality in the United States isn't as big a deal as we might think. Yes the gap between rich and poor in the US is growing, but even the poor in America are relatively wealthy by international standards. If we take a cosmopolitan perspective, then global inequality is decreasing, not increasing. At the end of his piece, Matthews says the following:
"Humans have an unfortunate tendency to care more about those physically and/or socially proximate to them and to severely discount the well-being of those whose pain they don’t see. Milanovic’s data is an important reminder of just how dangerous a blinder that is."
Matthews data is all very interesting, and entirely besides the point.  Many thinkers of the cosmopolitan persuasion disagree with me, but I don't find global inequality terribly relevant. What we should mainly be concerned with is the very "local" inequality - if one can consider a nation-state with 300 million people "local" - Matthews is downplaying. I won't bore you all with an involved analysis, so let me boil it down into two propositions:

1. Empirically speaking, most economic activity happens within a country, and is regulated by the government within that country. Therefore if we are concerned about exploitation and the very distribution of rewards, then the nation-state is the right frame of reference. Any contribution by some middle class citizen in Madison, Wisconsin towards the poverty of somebody Bogata is pretty tenuous. National legal and economic structures are far more salient than global ones.

2. My main interest is in the preservation and extension of democracy, which is permanently menaced by the specter of oligarchy. In every country there is a group of rich people trying to skim off the social surplus and subordinate every economic, social, and political institution. When a democratic nation's wealthy elite grows too powerful, there is a very real risk that the democracy will be overthrown so they can protect (and extend) their privileges. Inequalities in India don't threaten the American republic - it's the home-grown ones you have to worry about.

So from my point of view, whether we are talking about moral questions of social justice or empirical questions of democratic stability, Matthews has it precisely wrong. For Americans, inequality in the United States is a  problem second only to climate change.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 12:43 PM

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Is It Better To Be Intensely Ambitious Or Incredibly Lazy?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013
I've always been an incredibly competitive person. Whatever I'm doing - politics, writing, roller derby, hell, even board games  - I want to excel. There's a desire, an almost physical compulsion, to be not just good at something, but great at it. Screw having fun, the point is to win.

Like all ambitious people, I've  been all about the comparisons: to my peers, to my friends, to myself, to history. When I get involved in something new, if I find that I have a knack for it, the desire to master something for its own sake very quickly gets replaced by the desire to be the best, if possible the best ever. If you can't be the best, then why bother, right?

Growing up, I thought this was the only way to be. I idolized people like Alexander the Great and was fascinated by the "almosts" of history - the Alexander Hamiltons and Bobby Kennedys. I wanted to match myself against them. It was vainglorious and self-destructive, but I couldn't imagine being any other way.

I could put some of the blame on my upbringing, and some more on living in America, the self-conceived land of Winners!, and okay, I admit it, a healthy dose of good old-fashioned narcissism.

But here's the thing. For all my ambition, and the unpleasantness it created in my life, I never really acted on it. I always wanted to be totally, earth-shakingly awesome at something, but I never did very much to make it happen. I was like one of those people who only like the beginning of relationships, the ones who bail the second there's any real work or sacrifice involved. I'd find something new, get interested in it, let it take over my life, and finally get to the stage where I'd have to make a real decision. The fact of it is that no matter how talented you are (or aren't) at something, being The Greatest Ever means that you have to devote the whole of your life to it. There are always a million other talented people out there trying to do the same thing you are, and willing to sacrifice every other thing in their life to it. I never was. I've never been willing to do that, to have anything become the only thing.

Politics has been something of a special case. It was always the thing I cared most about, what I kept coming back to. And several times in my life I came very close to making that choice, of truly dedicating my life to it. I used to think I drew back out of laziness. I enjoy my screwing around time, thank you very much. There were a couple of unique circumstances that cropped up to give me an excuse to step back, and lately there's the sheer weariness with what passes for contemporary campaigning - people who don't know what they're doing and Will Not Listen.

There's more to it though. The reality is that I've never loved anything enough - not even politics - to let it swallow up my life. There was a time when I could have chosen public life with a reasonable chance of success, and the main reason I decided otherwise was because it would have cost me my marriage. Does that mean that I have chosen the most important thing, and that's my relationship with DBH? No. I try to be a good husband, and I love my wife very much, but I don't have a burning desire to the Greatest Spouse in History, whatever that is. I'm not that selfless.

In the last couple of years, as I've given up on the ambitions I had as a young man (ouch), I've come to recognize that the whole idea of ambition, of being "great", is just juvenile. It's self-destructive in a very explicit way. To sound like Kant for a second, it makes you a thing rather than a person. To draw on Epictetus, basing your sense of self-worth on worldly success, or how you compare with others, is to divest yourself of any real control of your life. The only thing you can really control is you, and then only sometimes.

However trite this insight might sound to you, for me it's been pretty momentous. My entire life has been oriented around the idea of external success, and approaching 40 I really haven't accomplished anything "important" and am unlikely to do so. This sounds like a recipe for a classic mid-life crisis, right? Instead I find myself struggling to accept that I am not the person that I thought I was, that I don't want the things I thought I wanted. It's not a failure that I haven't devoted myself exclusively to politics, or that I'm "the best" at, well, nothing at all. I'm pretty good at lots of different things, and I've had some very worthwhile experiences, and that's a good thing. In retrospect my inability to commit to anything saved me. Maybe it wasn't laziness - maybe it was an unconscious recognition that being that dedicated is just crazy. Or if it was laziness, than thank god for laziness.

There's this debate going back at least to the ancient Greeks about whether it's nobler to pursue greatness or goodness, which I interpret as whether we should try to accomplish great things or build a rich, diverse life for ourselves. If you'd asked me twenty years ago, or even five, I would have answered "greatness" without hesitation. To be honest I still fight those yearnings. It's hard to fully escape such well-ingrained patterns of thinking and feeling. Yet in the main, looking at what will hopefully be the second half of my life, I find myself trying to figure out how to be just okay at lots of things. It really is okay to not end up in the history books.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 10:19 AM

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Do Not Make Friends With the Rock Stars

Tuesday, July 23, 2013
(Yes, I lied about the next title. Sue me.)

There's a contradiction at the heart of officiating. Those of us who volunteer our time to help officiate a sport - and I suspect those who get paid to do it - do so because we love the sport. We invest countless hours and huge sums of money because we think roller derby is the most awesome competitive event in the universe. And yet the only way to be good at officiating, to really serve the sport, is to remain emotionally detached from the game itself.

When you're the one keeping score, you can't be jumping up and down screaming during a come-from-behind power jam in the final minute. When you're a penalty box timer, you can't comfort the skater sitting in front of  you even though you've seen her 2-3 times a week for a year. When you're tracking penalties, you can't scream at frustration because the coach (with whom you've consumed gallons of beer) does something really, really stupid. If you were still just a fan, you could express every emotion you wanted. But you're an official, so you can't say a word. You just stand there trying to put on your calm face when all you want to do is cheer/cry/hug.

I'm not a referee. I'm an NSO, a Non-Skating Official. From my perspective, the actual in-game job of a referee is much more difficult than being an NSO. You have to be a great skater so that you can call penalties & count points without thinking about skating. And your brain has to be quick enough to see the action, absorb it, and then (if necessary) make the appropriate hand signal, verbal cue, and whistle - all in about a second. However, the fact that reffing is so challenging probably has a silver lining. When you're a ref, you always have something to do.

When you're an NSO, there's lots of time just waiting for something to happen. And this is very dangerous, because you can get caught up in the game. You know, the game you love? The reason you're spending every Saturday night hours from home wearing a stupid pink shirt in a loud, sweaty skating rink? Yeah, if you start watching it, being a fan again, you're going to loose concentration and screw things up. Sometimes those mistakes can even effect the outcome of the game.

Trying to not care about something you care very much about so you can do the job - that's the simple way that being an official is hard. It gets worse than that, however, and in a way which likely effects refs and nso's equally. In Roller Derby, unlike professional sports, the officials are affiliated with a particular league. You go to their scrimmages, you attend their practices, sometimes you get involved in meetings. You spend time with skaters and coaches and volunteers, and one day you realize that every one you spend time with is in roller derby. You've found a home, one big (mostly) happy family, all working together, and it's great.

Except it's all wrong. The day will come, sooner or later, when you realize that you're not one of them, never will be, no how matter it might feel now. One day you realize that your league is really their league. You're just a volunteer.  It's a sad moment, heartbreaking even. I suspect every roller derby official has felt it.

Imagine this: you decide to become a roller derby referee. So you take the fresh meat class right along with the newbie skaters. Every week you sweat, fall, and hurt yourself together. You keep each other going, encouraging and cheering and consoling, all of it together. And then the day comes when you're and official and they're a skater, and suddenly you're not friends anymore? You don't care when they go to their first scrimmage? You don't eagerly anticipate the day they make roster the first time? You spend countless hours with a team and you don't want them to win games, to go to tournaments, to excel? What are you, a sociopath?

There's this great scene in the movie Almost Famous, where the young writer calls his mentor  for advice. The protagonist is sad and confused and suffering from conflicted loyalties. The mentor recognizes the problem at once: that the aspiring reporter has made friends with the rock stars. That's not what they need though - rock stars have lots of friends, or at least "friends." You're not doing the music (sport) or the musicians (skaters) and favors by getting that close to them.

And here's where it gets better: we officials do have a family in roller derby, one that doesn't include the skaters or the fans. Eventually you learn that the people you really care about, the ones that understand you and are happy to see you every weekend - they're the other officials! There's about 20 of them at every bout, more at big events. Although you'll probably always have a soft spot for your team, and feel a bit saddened by the distance from those you once cared so much about, it's the other nso's and refs that make the sport worth it. At least for me. 

Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:24 PM

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