Nope: Protesting someone doesn’t make you anti-free speech or a politically correct snowflake.

There’s an interesting debate going on right now about Milo Yiannopoulis, the far right skeez-ball troll whose speaking engagement was recently canceled at UC-Berkeley after violent riots broke out. There were some reports that he’d planned, to publicly name undocumented students on campus, which he denied (he’d previously outed trans students in the past, so it’s conceivable he would’ve been that much of a douche).

Naturally, people are claiming that his free speech rights were violated. People like the President of the United States, who threatened to pull federal funding from UC Berkeley. And this raises an interesting debate — is protesting repellent speakers inconsistent with a belief in free speech?

The short, easy answer is “no.” I’ll let xkcd’s Randall Munro explain.

The longer answer is just a more extended “no,” but I think I can give a bit more context. Basically, though, you can be done with reading this article, because comics are a much better medium of communication than blogging, and I clearly picked the wrong profession.

Free speech doesn’t mean “everyone gets a megaphone.”

In 2007, my junior year at Penn State, Ann Coulter came to give a speech. I was President of the school’s chapter of Amnesty International at the time, and we, along with a number of other progressive groups, decided to protest her speech.

The speech was heavily attended — both by the college’s many conservatives, and by a lot of locals living in the surrounding rural area. And as they walked into the speech, they saw us. And they were annoyed.

“What a bunch of whiners,” they said. “This is America! Take your PC bullshit to China!”

I am not particularly aware of a political correctness movement in China, but the rebuke to our protest was broadly the same from everyone who engaged with us: “FREEDOM OF SPEECH!”

It was a strange argument to make against us, as it was precisely the reason we were protesting — and it also totally missed the point of the protest.

The reason we were protesting Ann Coulter was not because we thought she did not have a right to speak at Penn State. It was because the school was paying her a lot of money to speak, and the money they were using came from a fund that was partially filled by the student’s tuition. I forget what the exact number was, but I believe it was around $10,000.

Our argument was that, if the school wanted to pay political commentators, then they should. But Ann Coulter is not the type of conservative who has very much of value to say. She’s a demagogue and a bigot and a troll. Penn State’s not exactly a small-time school, and there was no reason to think that, if they’d wanted to, they could’ve gotten a slightly more thoughtful conservative commentator. There’s no shortage of right-wingers who aren’t dumbasses.

Had Ann Coulter wanted to exercise her right to free speech, no one would’ve stopped her — the school had designated “free speech zones,” one of which happened to be the patch of pavement in front of the HUB, which is where she was speaking, and thus was the place we chose for her protest.

She could’ve gone to one of those spots — for free! — and said whatever she wanted. We would’ve argued with her, but we wouldn’t have questioned her right to talk.

But no one sat long enough for us to explain this — in their eyes, we were crybabies who hated freedom of speech.

Tools to shut down a conversation

Phrases like “Free speech” and “Political Correctness” are really good at shutting down what might have otherwise been productive conversations. They’re both misleading. Freedom of speech, as Munro points out, is not freedom from criticism or backlash — it is merely freedom from the government interfering with your right to say what you want.

People with platforms — news outlets, universities, churches, etc. — all have to play a role as the gatekeeper to their platform. With some exceptions (the equal time rule, for example, which only applies to political candidates during elections), they are allowed to give time to whomever they choose. Universities position themselves as a place where ideas can be exchanged, but the universities get to choose which ideas are worth exchanging.

Geologists, for example, would not invite a flat-earther to lecture their students in most cases. Acting programs wouldn’t be questioned for inviting Daniel Day-Lewis to speak instead of Pauly Shore. One of these people is clearly better at what they do than the other, with more to say.

There’s nothing wrong with setting rules of engagement.

Likewise, the matter of “political correctness” often glosses over a major point: every arena of debate has its own rules of engagement, and what is often dismissed as “political correctness” is more often an attempt to better define those rules of debate. Let me provide an example.

When I have disagreements with my wife, we have an understanding that we’re not going to say or do certain things. I used to roll my eyes when I was frustrated — she called it out as arrogant and condescending, and I don’t do it anymore. She would occasionally tease me about certain things that hit a really soft spot — I asked her not to, and now she doesn’t.

We still haven’t totally worked out the exact rules of engagement, nearly five years into our relationship, but we have the understanding that it’s a work in progress, and we know that it’s important that we a) communicate and b) do so respectfully. Otherwise, we’ll spend our time attacking each other rather than working together to get the things we both want.

This is basically what’s happening with what many people are calling “political correctness.” Certain groups of people are saying, “Hey, we’d like you to maybe speak to us in this way — it feels kinda disrespectful, otherwise.” You might feel defensive or embarrassed when they say this: I was mortified when my wife pointed out the eye-rolling thing, so naturally I got angry at her because that was easier than admitting I was being an asshole. But you have to understand that they’re totally allowed to ask for certain things in order to feel respected.

That’s what respect is — it’s treating someone with the dignity that they ask for. And if you’ve ever asked someone not to call you a certain name — a racist, an idiot, a butthead, a moron, a bigot, a douchebag, a fuckstick, a wankstain, a jerkyjerkjerkface, etc. — then you’ve engaged in this exact same behavior.

A new America

The reason we’re having these fiery conversations about what we can and can’t say is because more people are taking part in the conversations now. The academic and political conversation in the US was created by rich, white males, and has been dominated by them for a long time. They wrote the constitution, they created the government, and they populated academia. So they set the rules of engagement. It was understood that threats against their personal safety were not conducive to civil discussion, so threats were taken off the table.

Today, we (fortunately) have more voices in the conversation. This is good — democracy is about getting different people with different interests working together. But now that there are women, LGBT people, and people of color in the conversation, and they’re saying, “Hey, can we go back and discuss these rules of engagement so they take my unique experience into consideration?”

Most people who believe in democracy believe that its lifeblood is civil conversation. If you can talk about an issue civilly, without resorting to ad hominem attacks and cheap rhetorical tricks, then you’re likely to come to some form of agreement or compromise. But for a democracy to work, all parties have to have input on the rules of that conversation. There will never be a perfect agreement, and sometimes people’s feelings will get hurt. But that doesn’t mean that the rules of engagement aren’t worth discussing.

Featured photo by mpancha

Quick Read: What to do with Outrage

Just this morning (Wednesday 2/2), I picked up the following stories:

This, in combination with executive orders regarding refugees, the confirmation of Rex Tillerson to Secretary of State, and a million other things just make my blood boil. But what good is any of it?

There’s a lot to say about this that I want to say here, but I thought I could offer this simple little checklist to help channel that outrage into productive activity. So, next time you read a story that outrages you (just wait three seconds and refresh Twitter), follow these simple steps to be sure your outrage is enough to be dangerous (see what I did there?):

  • Verify – If we give up a belief in the truth, we fight from a position of ignorance and weakness. Double check, see what is actually known, and get the facts from multiple sources.
  • Build a Case – Once you have the facts, take the time to put together a cogent argument. What I mean is, if you can’t explain what you’re angry about to a 10 year old (or without posting a link) you don’t understand enough about why you’re angry yet. Think about things like “why does this matter, who is affected, how are they affected, and how could we do it better or differently.”
  • Take a deep breath – Your anger is good, but lashing out is counterproductive. In…1….2….3…out 3…2…1…..ok….
  • Find the Helpers – in our diverse political world with thousands of factions and interests, any topic you care about probably has experts and advocates who live and breathe this stuff. Get online and seek them out. Who are the experts and the allies? What do they have to say? Are they leading any actions you can get involved in? Do they provide avenues for how to help?
  • Activate yourself – follow those paths you found to join the helpers in their work, or find a way to forge a new path. Volunteer, donate, protest, sign, post, show up, vote, WHATEVER. DO something.
  • Mobilize your friends – I am SO sick of the notion that social media, protests in the street, and conversations at work, at church, or over drinks don’t change anything. Of course they do. Ideas shape our political landscape, and ideas are stronger when more people share them. Sharing ideas, even with people who already agree with you, strengthens that idea and your commitment to it. Find a way to share the idea that jives with you, take a risk and put yourself out there, and see who gets interested. Be civil, and if you fuck up and say something wrong or fly off the handle, be prepared to admit it, but don’t give an inch that isn’t deserved.
  • Celebrate and Recuperate- it is absolutely essential to take a minute to celebrate even the smallest action or most minor victory. Winning “the big fight” is only accomplished by winning a million smaller battles, and we build momentum if we take a second to celebrate being active citizens. Then, give yourself permission to take a break. The world will continue its bullshit without you, and while you always have to care, you don’t always have to care right now. Turn off your devices and do something you love that isn’t remotely political.

5 things you didn’t know about nonviolence

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Mark Kurlansky’s book, Nonviolence: the History of a Dangerous Idea, and discussed the biggest argument typically used against nonviolence as an ideology: that it never would have worked against Hitler. (Hint: It actually probably could have!)

Over the Martin Luther King weekend, our bloviating piss-receptacle of a President-elect attacked the man who is probably our greatest living practitioner of nonviolent resistance, John Lewis. Lewis was the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which did the grassroots organizing work that eventually led to the dismantling of Jim Crow in the South.

In his attack, Trump said Lewis was “All talk, talk, talk, no action or results. Sad!” This is a common attack on nonviolent activists — the idea is that, because they’re not beating or killing a problem into submission, they’re somehow ineffectual. So it’s maybe worth it for us to take a moment to briefly review our world’s legacy of nonviolent activism.

1. Early Christianity was one of the very first nonviolent movements.

The Roman Empire was pretty tolerant of religions, as far as repressive empires go. Their basic attitude was that hey, believe what you want, so long as you don’t fuck with us. Any Christian will know, though, that the Romans hated the Christians. Crucified them all the time. The reason behind this is simple: Early Christians were political AF.

One of Jesus’s primary teachings was nonviolence. He once famously said, “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” One long-term, more pacifist interpretation of this has been, “Accept the blows life rains down on you.” There’s another, infinitely more badass explanation, though. Biblical scholar Walter Wink explains:

You are probably imagining a blow with the right fist. But such a blow would fall on the left cheek. To hit the right cheek with a fist would require the left hand. But the left hand could be used only for unclean tasks; at Qumran, a Jewish religious community of Jesus’ day, to gesture with the left hand meant exclusion from the meeting and penance for ten days. To grasp this you must physically try it: how would you hit the other’s right cheek with your right hand? If you have tried it, you will know: the only feasible blow is a backhand.

The backhand was not a blow to injure, but to insult, humiliate, degrade. It was not administered to an equal, but to an inferior. Masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; Romans, Jews. The whole point of the blow was to force someone who was out of line back into place. Notice Jesus’ audience: “If anyone strikes you.” These are people used to being thus degraded. He is saying to them, “Re-fuse to accept this kind of treatment anymore. If they backhand you, turn the other cheek.” (Now you really need to physically enact this to see the problem.) By turning the cheek, the servant makes it impossible for the master to use the backhand again: his nose is in the way. And anyway, it’s like telling a joke twice; if it didn’t work the first time, it simply won’t work. The left cheek now offers a perfect target for a blow with the right fist; but only equals fought with fists, as we know from Jewish sources, and the last thing the master wishes to do is to establish this underling’s equality.

This act of defiance renders the master incapable of asserting his dominance in this relationship. He can have the slave beaten, but he can no longer cow him. By turning the cheek, then, the “inferior” is saying: “I’m a human being, just like you. I refuse to be humiliated any longer. I am your equal. I am a child of God. I won’t take it anymore.”

Early Christians, then, were forbidden from violence, but not from resistance. And one of the things they did to resist was to convert. And among those they converted were the Roman legions. Roman legions who were now Christians were also forbidden from violence, and could not fight. So the Roman Empire (correctly) saw Christianity as a direct threat to its ability to subdue the masses. Christians weren’t put to death for their religion — they were put to death for their politics.

The Romans only eventually brought the Christians to heel by becoming Christian themselves. Once the Christians were in power, well — then they decided violence wasn’t so bad after all. Power tends to do that.

2. Gandhi preferred violence to pacifism.

Gandhi was intensely political — he believed that nonviolence (what he called satyagraha) was the best way to fight the British Empire. But he also supported the British in WWI, believing they would be more likely to listen to the Indians if they were seen as Allies. He also believed that if you had to choose between being passive to injustice, or acting out in violence against it, that violence was preferable. Kurlansky writes:

Gandhi was first and foremost a political activist, and he had utter contempt for nonactive pacifism… he regarded such a passive stance as cowardly, calling inaction “rank cowardice and unmanly,” and said he would rather see someone incapable of nonviolence resist violently than not resist at all. “Violence is any day preferable to impotence,” he wrote. “There is hope for a violent man to become nonviolent. There is no such hope for the impotent.”

(If you think it’s weird that Gandhi is comparing activism to having a penis, then you should maybe research some of his bizarre attitudes on women and sex. Holy shit, the man was a Freudian nightmare.)

Similarly, MLK, Jr. initially thought violence was more likely to result in change than nonviolent resistance. He didn’t change his mind until he became close with nonviolent labor union and civil rights activist A.J. Muste.

3. Martin Luther King, Jr. was considered a radical in his time.

Today, Martin Luther King is about as close as you get to an American Saint. But in his day, he was viewed much in the same way that Black Lives Matter activists and protestors like Colin Kaepernick are now — he was seen as “un-American,” and as a rabble-rouser. Indeed, he expressed his frustration with “white moderates” in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This radical depiction of him runs counter to the modern tendency to neuter him or paint him as conservative. Towards the end of his life, King believed that defeating racism and poverty wasn’t possible with changing the capitalist system. It’s popular today to try and chastise activists with the specter of a saintly Martin Luther King, who wouldn’t have caused waves. Hell, even this weekend, prominent moron Rob Schneider tweeted the following:

(Just to compare their records: In 1965, John Lewis marched with King at Selma. In 1992, Rob Schneider chased a 10-year-old out of the Trump-owned Plaza Hotel, leaving him to fend for himself while being stalked by criminals and street-people.)

This is common, though — by making a saint out of otherwise radical figures, you’re able to strip them of some of their political edge and assimilate them into the mainstream. The same has been done for Jesus, Gandhi, and Mandela. Remember — your heroes were political, and usually were pretty radical. Don’t believe any Deuce Bigalow who says otherwise.

4. The Cold War was ended by nonviolent activism — not by Ronald Reagan.

We in the US like to say that Ronald Reagan ended the Cold War by taking a hard line against the Soviet Union. He didn’t. Americans had been taking a hard line against the Soviets for decades, and Ronald Reagan shouting at a wall changed very little.

What really ended the USSR was a decades-long nonviolent resistance movement in the Soviet Bloc countries like the Czech Republic and Poland. These dissidents would hold protests or demonstrations, the Soviets would respond violently, and then they’d lose more and more public support. The names of these activists are well-known: Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and literally thousands more.

It’s important to remember this: Nuclear catastrophe between the world’s two superpowers has ALREADY been prevented by a scrappy band of artists, activists, writers, and labor unionists. When the USSR fell, Reagan took the credit. He doesn’t deserve much of it. The collapse of the Soviet Union had a little to do with pressures coming from the outside, but had much more to do with the pressures from within.

5. Apartheid was brought down through nonviolence.

When the fight against apartheid stalled in the late 50s, Nelson Mandela, the leader of the African National Congress, created an ANC military wing, saying, “As violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force.”

Mandela famously ended up in prison in 1964, and the crackdown on anti-apartheid activists got even more brutal. It was in the 1970’s that nonviolence got a second wind, in part through the personality of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Tutu preached nonviolent resistance, but was also a staunch supporter of economic and cultural boycotts.

Now, the ANC mostly recognizes that it was the nonviolent tactics — specifically the sanctions and boycotts — that made the difference, and not the violence. When Mandela was released, he (along with Tutu, the last apartheid leader de Klerk, and the ANC) kept the transition from apartheid from becoming a bloodbath by emphasizing peace, truth, and reconciliation.

~~~

Nonviolence is a creative force. Violence is dumb and brutal — it is at best a blunt weapon that creates a lot of collateral damage. But nonviolence is creative and ever-changing, and draws less on the meaner side of our nature, and more on our ability to outthink our opponents. In the Trump era, our best defense is our creativity and our intelligence. Lord knows he doesn’t have much of either.

Take heart — life in Soviet Russia, Apartheid South Africa, the Roman Empire, and the 1960’s South was far worse than what we’re facing. There’s already peaceful roadmap to winning these struggles, and we can pull out of this.

Featured photo by CyberMagik.

Is there anything you can do about Syria?

Jesse: I have to be honest with you: as I write this, I have no idea where I’m going with this Syria thing. I know you’ve seen the pictures and heard the reports coming out of Syria lately and going all the way back to 2011, and it’s a crisis. Their leader, Assad, is a soft-spoken psychopathic ophthalmologist who inherited his daddy’s iron throne and legacy of an iron fist, so when the “Arab Spring” reaches Syria and protests break out, he attacks, bombs, and gasses peaceful protesters. Rather than crush the rebellion though, he just lights a spark he cannot put out, which flares up into “civil war” that quickly escalates into complete chaos.

Now Russia is involved somehow in propping this dude up, the US and other allies considered getting involved for a time but ultimately decided it was too risky to do much more than arm a few groups they trusted. Meanwhile, rebel sides range from moderate pro-democracy fighters to ISIS and continue to fracture and trade territory with the government. Civilians are caught in the middle,  and now we’re left with nothing short of a daily horror show.

On top of all of this, it’s not like Syria is even in the only massive global crisis right now. Setting aside terrorist attacks (like in Germany and Turkey) because that’s more than I can handle right now, just off the top of my head we’ve got: violent political conflict in South Sudan, a comic-if-it-weren’t-tragic, actual-self-confessed multiple murderer Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines actively killing and advocating for the killing of anyone who has ever heard of drugs, and a refugee crisis continuing in Europe.

It leaves a person feeling pretty small, helpless, and confused about the state of the world. I will readily admit I have no idea what to do here. It feels like foreign policy is made by far away people in dark, smokey rooms and I don’t know how a person like me can even begin to think about this, let alone do something. You have a degree in human rights. Fix this for us, Matt. Give me like, 2-3 steps to just clean this whole mess right up. We need to sing songs in a circle or something, right? That’s gotta be one of the steps…

Step 1: Go back in time.

Matt: Okay, here’s my four step plan:

  1. Go back in time, murder baby Hitler.
  2. Go back in time, murder colonialism and, if possible, the entire concept of hierarchical power.
  3. ?????
  4. World peace.

Not helpful? Okay, let me answer your question as if you asked something totally different. Remember the Haiti earthquake back in 2010? It killed around 160,000 people. What you may not remember is that a month and a half after the Haiti earthquake, there was an earthquake in Chile. This earthquake only killed 525 people. Which is still a lot, but not when you take into account the fact that the Chilean earthquake was the 5th largest ever recorded, way bigger than the Haitian earthquake.

Why the difference?

The answer is, largely, that Chile is a developed Pacific Rim country that experiences earthquakes on the reg. Haiti is an extremely poor country where earthquake-resistant architecture is not really a thing, and which hasn’t been able to develop a disaster-proof infrastructure as a nation thanks to a string of kleptocratic or incompetent leaders, and also thanks to over two centuries of unfavorable trade policies and violent foreign intervention dating back to the successful Haitian slave uprising of the late 1700’s.

The lesson of Haiti and Chile is that disasters, whether natural or man-made, have a historical context that either limits or exacerbates the amount of damage they do. As a result, the best time to prevent disasters is before they happen. Once the disaster has started, all we can do is damage control. But if we do the less sexy, less obvious work ahead of time, we can either prevent the disaster altogether, or limit the scale of the destruction when it comes.

The truth is, we could’ve seen Syria — or something like Syria coming. And we actually contributed to it, with our constant destabilizing interference within the region. But we’ve allowed ourselves to be blinded to the larger issues in the region — poverty, neocolonialism, totalitarianism, sectarianism — by focusing on terrorism, which is less a cause of these problems, and more a symptom of them.

Part of the reason we spend too much time on the symptom and not enough time on the disease is because of our daily news cycle, which focuses on anecdotes instead of trends. It makes us more responsive than proactive, and it hobbles us from doing the long-term work that we need to do to keep Haitis and Syrias from happening. We can look to the impoverished places, the places more quietly troubled, and start doing the real disaster prevention work now.

What if I don’t have the time?

Jesse: Almost like how an apple a day, when strategically coupled with a national commitment to affordable preventative health care, keeps the emergency room doctor away, right? Are we doing Obamacare jokes here? Is there going to be an Obamacare blog? What avenues can you create for more Obamacare-based humor?

Ok, so I get it: international crises are really tough to do anything about once they really get going, and so if we want to prevent these atrocities from happening, we have to act sooner. Without getting too political here, I think maybe you’re suggesting that a general indifference to massive poverty and inequality are not recipes for a world full of happy healthy societies? Are you further suggesting that a little bit of awareness of world events might help us recognize a bad situation before its a catastrophic situation? And finally, are you suggesting that other people, despite being not in this room with me right now, have their well-being intertwined with mine in this giant interconnected world? I’m dubious, but for the sake of argument, I’ll take these radical suggestions at face value.

Three questions emerge out of this for me, but because you continue to refuse to explain what love is to me, I’ll just ask two:

  1. What does that preventative work look like? I’m busy enough as it is, do I have to be doing homework on the whole world all the time?
  2. Obviously, there’s some big news happening at home which seems to demand most of my time. Like everyone else, I work, I look at cool memes on the internet, I vision board, I eat, pray, and love, etc… to be blunt, like everyone, I only have so many fucks to give. Can you give me any kind of useful way to think about how I can balance paying attention to problems at home with crises and tragedy abroad?

Matt: I’ll accept Obamacare jokes for like, one more week. After that, you’ll have to repeal them and replace them with a more expensive joke that does irreversible harm to poor people.

To answer your questions (the latter two, as I’ve told you a hundred times, you’ll know what love is when you buy your first fleshlight):

First: the world is, as you say, indeed an interconnected place. And while that immense complexity makes it impossible to fully comprehend, it also means that small acts of your own can have huge ripples. So while you, one person, can’t do everything, it’s important to recognize that you can do something, and you can choose what you want to do specifically. My suggestion is to look at the current conflict, and identify what we in the US could’ve done to prevent it:

  1. If we hadn’t invaded Iraq in 2003, that wouldn’t have destabilized the region, and that would’ve helped.
  2. If we had done a better job historically of supporting democracy and human rights in the region for all people instead of undermining any leader or country whose economic interests clashed with our own, we would have a) probably a more stable situation in the Middle East right now, and b) more moral clout when it came to working against violence.
  3. Considering climate change has been a factor in both the Syrian and Sudanese conflicts, it’s safe to say that swifter action on correcting our carbon emissions may have helped lower the possibility of full-on civil war.

Those are by no means all of the factors that contributed to the Syrian civil war, but it gives you three causes right there to support in the future:

  1. Work for peace and oppose war.
  2. Work for democracy and human rights.
  3. Fight climate change.

There are already hundreds of institutions that work for these causes. Take your pick and start donating or volunteering.

To answer your second question, the flip side of interconnectedness is that you are always complicit in injustice. An interconnected world leaves no one pure. So whenever you get the chance to stand up against an injustice, you should. And yes, a part of this is educating yourself. This doesn’t have to be boring, but I get that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

The thing is, citizenship of any kind carries duties as well as perks. And understanding the world you live in so that you can be an optimal citizen is one of those duties. Your time is limited, but you could always listen to news podcasts during your commute, or start your day by reading a newspaper. You don’t need to know everything, but you do have a basic human responsibility to try and learn about the world around you, and to act to make it a better place.

In short: you cannot do everything. But you must do something.

Going beyond “awareness raising”

Jesse: Reminds me very much of “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” a story of how we all bear responsibility for the part of our world we choose not to see. Also of this wonderful article from Vox, which stresses how important it is to just “bear witness” to what’s happening.

It’s not really the same thing, but I work in a domestic violence organization, and one of the things we fight against all the time is what we call the “culture of silence” around domestic violence. We learn from a young age when we see signs of a bad or scary relationship, we tend to look away, excuse, whisper a quick word of concern, and then move on. This is how domestic violence is allowed to grow: this culture of silence gets normalized, and very soon we can be surrounded by violence (1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will experience physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from an intimate partner in their lifetimes) but not even realize it. So it seems to be with humanitarian crisis.

As someone who is generally impatient, and who is writing on a blog about how people can take action, I don’t usually hold with “awareness raising”, but it seems to me from what you’re saying that one of the more important things we can do is force ourselves to look: force ourselves to pay attention, even if the images are disturbing and make us feel helpless. It sounds like you’re arguing that at the least, we owe these victims of horrible global tragedy our attention. Maybe if we do that, in some way we acknowledge our share of their pain and our share of their attackers’ culpability. We have to see it, and speak about what we’ve seen, because our global culture of silence cannot continue if we’re going to be proactive in preventing these human rights crises.

Of course, that’s all well and good, but we can only raise so much awareness — there has to be a step where there’s some practical action to be taken, right? What are the practical steps people can take beyond flogging themselves with news reports, Hotel Rwanda, and Holocaust movies?

Matt: Yeah, and don’t get me wrong — awareness raising is a good thing. But it’s predicated on the idea that if you see something terrible happening, you’ll do something about it. The fallacy behind raising awareness is that we assume humans are naturally good, active creatures, and thus will work to stop an injustice if we’re confronted with it. But, as we’ve learned from every Holocaust bystander down to every woke person who has ever let his racist uncle rail against blacks and gays at the Thanksgiving dinner table, humans can be insanely conflict avoidant.


So what I’m saying, that there’s not a ton you can do, isn’t to say you’re excused from doing something. If you follow the Night Vale maxim, “If you see something, say nothing, and drink to forget,” you’re complicit, to some extent, in what’s going on.

Now, what can you actually do?

  • Find out if there are refugees in your area. Find out who is hosting them, and find out how you can help. How do you do this? Simple!
  • Donate your time or money to an organization helping Syrians on the ground in Syria.
    • The International Red Cross helps people in need pretty much everywhere in the world, including Syria.
    • Doctor’s Without Borders is pretty much always helping out in an emergency, and has been on the ground in Aleppo.
    • The White Helmets are on the ground in Syria helping out people in need. They are literally in harm’s way saving people.
    • Mercy Corps offers direct assistant to refugees.
    • Shelterbox offers supplies and disaster relief wherever they’re needed.
    • UNICEF helps children everywhere, including Syria. And make no mistake — there are a lot of kids being harmed in this fight.
    • Oxfam is another dependably excellent charity that serves people and Syria and elsewhere. Oxfam is doubly excellent because they’re also advocates for anti-poverty global policy.
  • Get political.
    • One concrete way to show support is to call your Senator and ask them to support the Caesar bill, which would allow the US to institute no-fly zones in Syria and sanction the Assad regime.
    • Call your representative and ask them to support the resettlement of Syrian refugees in the US.
  • Also, pray, I guess, but only after you’ve done literally everything else on this list.

This list is obviously incomplete, and we’d welcome any additional suggestions (or quibbles) both in the comments of this page, and in the comments on Facebook. We’ll try to add stuff as we go.

There’s a final point worth making: a lot of the destabilization in Europe and the United States, as well as the rise of right-wing nationalists all over the world, has been fueled by Islamophobia, fear of refugees, fear of terrorism, and the perception (both by western conservatives and Islamic extremists) that we’re undergoing some sort of ridiculous, crusade-like “clash of civilizations.” So it’s not too huge of a stretch to say that Syria’s nightmare has also very much become our nightmare. If you’re the type of person who needs a self-interested reason to do something charitable, then there it is — mass violence in one part of a globalized world means destabilization and upheaval in other parts.

This also means there’s no such thing as an apolitical solution — you can’t divorce charity from the politics that have led to a situation where charity is required. So instead of wringing your hands in despair, just do something.

Featured photo by David Holt — picture shows the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria

Can you truly be nonviolent in the face of someone like Hitler?

This is the first in a series on the ideas behind nonviolence. It’s also our first semi-book review. We’re going to do this from time to time, just to give you a bit of an inspirational reading list. We’re not paid to review these things, but if you buy the book (or whatever we recommend) through the link we provide on the page, we get a small kickback from Amazon. Every little bit helps!

WE, AS AMERICANS, KNOW that there were only two things that could have defeated the Nazis:

  1. The ghosts inside the Ark of the Covenant.
  2. Good ol’ fashioned American military might.

A possible third option, nonviolent resistance, is discarded out of hand. How on earth could a hypermilitarized, megaviolent nationalist movement ever have been stopped by kum-bi-yahs? In fact, World War II is used as our ultimate justification for the existence of what we call a “just war.” What was more just than this?

“Just war” is a concept that dates back millennia, and it’s been used to justify pretty much every war ever — the idea is, “We are right, they are wrong, and we are justified in fixing their wrongness by force.” This rationale is not concerned with ideology — it was used by the Allies and the Axis Powers in World War II, it was used by the Soviets in Afghanistan, by the Americans in Vietnam, and by everyone ever telling themselves they have a right to hurt someone.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that sometimes, violence is necessary. But in his 2006 book, “Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea,” Mark Kurlansky argues that this simply isn’t the case, and that nonviolence is pretty much always the better route to justice. He backs it up with thousands of years of history.

Nonviolent resistance is going to be an important tool in your utility belt during the Age of Trump (also, if you don’t have an activist utility belt yet, you’re doing it wrong). But a lot of people don’t really understand nonviolence. They usually confuse it with pacifism, and these two things are not one and the same. Nonviolence is not passive — it’s aggressive. But it’s an aggressive tactic used by a weaker force.

Say you’re a 10 year old on a playground, and a big kid is trying to get you to fight him. He’s goading you into taking a swing, which will give him the justification for punching the shit out of your scrawny ass. You know that you’ll get whupped if you fight him, so instead, you choose to make fun of him. Friends and classmates laugh, and now, if he takes a swing out of anger, he’ll just look like an asshole. You’ve won, and you’ve won by being creative. Nonviolence is a creative and and aggressive force.

But when you’re faced against something like the immense violence of Nazi Germany, you’re faced with a problem: how do you fight against it without using everything you’ve got? There’s an old cliche that any time you bring Hitler into an argument, you end it. But seeing as Hitler and the Nazis are the go-to argument against nonviolence, we need to address it.

Did we have to violence the bejesus out of Europe?

So the question is: Did we have to Inglourious Basterds our way out of World War II? Kurlansky thinks that in the case of World War II, violence is misrepresented as being just, and appeasement is incorrectly equated with pacifism. Here’s why:

Why we fought

First off, when people today talk about our involvement in WWII, they focus on the evils of the Nazis and fascism, and how we had to fight it. But at the time, our reason for fighting the Nazis had relatively little to do with fighting fascism, as many Americans viewed fascism as preferable to communism. It also had little to do with protecting the European Jews, as the United States was pretty antisemitic — when Roosevelt accepted 300,000 Jewish refugees in 1936, he was accused of being “too close to the Jews.” (If this sounds familiar to today’s outcry around Syrian refugees, then, well, duh.)

Instead, America’s involvement was a geopolitical one that was primarily directed at the Japanese Empire, and you couldn’t really fight Japan without fighting Germany. Roosevelt decided to put more force in the fight against Germany first, but this wasn’t because of antifascism or the Holocaust. It was because Germany already controlled most of Europe, by extension, the Atlantic. This made Germany a more immediate threat than Japan, which still did not have total control of the Pacific. He also was more nervous about the Germans because their weapons program was extremely advanced, and he wanted to fight them before they developed worse weapons (which turned out to be the right choice — they managed to develop the V-2 by the end of the war, but not the atomic bomb). There was also the matter of loyalty to the British, who were our number one allies.

So it’s important to recognize that we didn’t enter WWII for humanitarian reasons — meaning it’s a little dishonest to defend our involvement after the fact with them.

What about appeasement?

Ever since WWII, we’ve been using the word “appeasement” as justification for going to war. And while Chamberlain’s appeasement was indeed appalling, and let him get away with more than he should have, this argument misses one big thing:

Appeasement isn’t the only alternative to war.

At the time of Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement with Hitler, nonviolent activists were furious. They recognized that the pro-war hawks in Parliament (led by Churchill) would use the appeasement deal as an excuse to go to war, when other, more hardline diplomatic and economic tactics could’ve been used against Hitler.

In the US, this could’ve taken the form of economic sanctions, and by not allowing any of our companies to operate there. In the 30’s, Germany was home to factories of a number of US companies, including Ford, GM, Coca Cola, and ITT. The fact is, we were supporting and appeasing fascism and those that profited from it for a decade before the Munich Agreements were ever signed. It never had to get that far, and the evils of Hitler’s Germany were apparent long before 1938, when the agreement was signed. It’s silly to look back at that moment, when things had already progressed so far, and say, “that was the moment the war could’ve been prevented.”

The best time to oppose a dictatorship or a corrupt regime is at the very beginning, before it has a chance to get entrenched. But let’s assume, for the moment, that the moment a real, concerted nonviolent opposition would’ve started in Europe would’ve been post 1938, as the Nazis started annexing more and more of Europe. What’s the next argument?

Nonviolence never would’ve worked in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Except it happened, and it did work. The most shining example, which Kurlansky points out in his book, was the Danish. The Danish knew they couldn’t fight the Nazis, so rather than allow their soldiers to die, they surrendered. Their neutrality, however, did not become Swiss-style collaboration: as a nation, they actively undermined the Nazi war effort, by striking, sabotaging trains and infrastructure, and working as slowly as possible.

When the Nazis insisted that they deport Denmark’s Jews, the country resisted by hiding nearly all of the Jews (including some refugees from other countries) and smuggling them away to neutral Sweden (you’ll remember this if you read Number the Stars in grade school). Of the 6,500 Jews in Denmark, only 400 were ever deported, and Danish officials insisted on constantly visiting these 400 to make sure they weren’t mistreated. 51 Danish Jews died in the Holocaust. This is still tragic, but it compares to 300,000 in France and millions in Poland.

The “Final Solution” may have actually been caused by the war.

One of the more brutal ironies of the war is that we excuse it using the Holocaust, when the war itself may have made the Holocaust infinitely worse. Kurlansky points out that Allies knew about the gas chambers at Auschwitz but refused to bomb them, and that no real action was made to target the concentration camps (in part because Roosevelt knew that, even now, making the war about saving the Jews would be unpopular in America), which, again, makes the use of the Holocaust as an excuse for things like the firebombing of Dresden a bit dishonest after-the-fact.

But he also mentions that the Nazi plans for the dissidents and the Jews were not set in stone early on. One possible plan was to have them deported to Madagascar, which would have required bargaining with the British and the French. This possibility would have come off the table as the war started. The “Final Solution” itself wasn’t planned until January 1942, in the middle of the war. Kurlansky suggests that it was the brutality of war that escalated the brutality of the Holocaust*.

This is, of course, tricky — it’s hard to see how historical events would have played out if things had gone differently. But it’s reasonable to think that if no war had happened, if the international community had made a serious effort (like Denmark did), that more Jews and dissidents could have been smuggled out of Europe to safety.

Nonviolence against Hitler

The big problem with violence is that it takes other methods off the table. You can’t tease the bully while he’s punching you. I mean, you can, but it’s not remotely as effective. Denmark showed that resistance was possible in WWII, (mostly) without getting violent. And when you’re one of the people who will be in harms way when the violence starts — i.e. the civilian, the low-level infantryman, the political dissident — it almost always pays to try and keep violence from ever starting.

Hitler probably could’ve been stopped, and not by going back in time and killing him as a baby. He could’ve been stopped by a local and global effort that didn’t equate conflict avoidance with peace. He could have been stopped — or at least slowed to a less destructive speed — with constant nonviolent pressure from within and without Germany.

Peace is not the state of being like, totally chill and not arguing or whatever. It’s a proactive attempt at managing conflict so it doesn’t degenerate into violence. It’s a constant act of subduing those who may be subject to violence, and getting those who may be victims out of harm’s way. Peace is nuanced, tricky, creative, and kinda badass.

Featured photo (and the video embedded in the piece) are from the Chaplin movie The Great Dictator, which is awesome, and which you should watch.

* To be clear, the suggestion is not that a lot of people still wouldn’t have died — nonviolent resistance never guarantees that violence will not be used against the resistors, or even innocents — it’s that war may have enabled an escalated level of brutality.

How to fight Donald Trump’s dumpster fire of a cabinet

Matt and Jesse are sad about Donald Trump’s cabinet. It is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad cabinet. But instead of turning to the sweet release of alcohol and/or internet butt porn, they are going to talk about what the fuck is going on, how we got here, and how we can fight for our right to an inclusive, egalitarian, liberated party.

Matt: TODAY, JANUARY 3RD, 2017 — assuming the Good Lord doesn’t mercifully end it all by casting our wretched mass of humanity into sweet, sweet oblivion — the new Senate will begin hearings on President-elect Donald Trump’s new Cabinet members. They will presumably start confirming them the godforsaken minute he takes office.

My doctor has told me that my “Drink to Forget” attitude towards the Trump Presidency is going to do a number on my liver of the next four years, so I’ve decided to try and take action instead. But, like most Americans, I’m coming out of an 8-year haze where I assumed I could trust the President to make the right picks in his appointments, and as a result, I totally forget how this shit works. So I need to brush up a bit to resist the nightmare that is Donald Trump’s Team of Deplorables, and hopefully keep the Great Orange Menace from destroying the world.


So I’m going to talk with my good friend, Jesse Steele, who also happens to be an incredibly intelligent left-wing activist and policy wonk. Jesse: How the fuck did we get here?

Jesse: A long time ago your mom met your dad, and they totally banged. Same with me. Yada yada yada, Donald Trump is president and the world is gonna end. Caught up? Awesome.

Okay, so how we got here in terms of cabinet appointments is a long history going all the way back to Ol’ Wooden Teeth himself, George Washington. Washington took office in 1789, only a year after the constitution was ratified, but “cabinet” never really appears in the constitution at all. At a few points in Article II of the constitution (coincidentally, the same article that sets up the electoral college), the phrases “principal officer in each of the Executive departments” and “the heads of departments” are used, but it’s never super clear exactly how those departments should be shaped. All we get is this paragraph:

[The President] by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law: but the Congress may by Law vest the Appointment of such inferior Officers, as they think proper, in the President alone, in the Courts of Law, or in the Heads of Departments.

Basically: The constitution anticipates that there will be departments that require officers and ministers to run them, and that the Senate should have some say so in who those people are. Also, that there will probably also be less important jobs (inferior officers) that the President can just pick without anyone else’s input. We don’t get a lot about how those departments should be structured, what their relationship to the president should be, how many departments there should be, or even a clear definition of any of the terms.

You have to remember that it was still very much in doubt whether or not this whole “United States of America” thing could actually work, and it was really up to Washington to set precedent, and so he did what he knew by basically mimicking the English systems. He picked 4 close advisers with the aim of getting smart people to help him out, but perhaps more importantly, with the aim of picking people from different regions of the very new nation in order to promote unity.

The first ever was hip-hop star Alexander Hamilton, who was approved unanimously as Secretary of the Treasury by the senate, presumably while dropping sick rhymes. The group was rounded out by a cast of other war buddies including Henry Knox (War), Thomas Jefferson (State), and the lesser-known Edmund Randolph who served as the first Attorney General. It was James Madison who came to refer to the group as the President’s “cabinet” because apparently James Madison had never heard the term “Brain Trust” and really liked furniture, and the name just sort of stuck. (Historical interesting fact: John Adams didn’t get invited to cabinet meetings at first and was SOOOOO salty about it, eventually causing the VP to become an official member of the cabinet, which didn’t stop Adams from basically spending 8 years muttering to himself about how VP was the most useless job in the world.)

Cabinet members, like their “inferior officer” counterparts are all “executive officers,” meaning they “serve at the pleasure of the president”. It gets a bit complicated, but the short version is that, unlike run-of-the-mill federal employees, executive officers can be fired by the president at any time. If you’ve ever known anyone who works in government, you might know that it is very, very, very hard to fire a federal employee. There are a lot of reasons for that which aren’t super interesting to us right now, but the most important reason is that your constitutional rights actually apply to your relationship with your employer when you’re a government employee. For example, your boss at UPS does not give a shit that you have a right to free speech — your First Amendment rights only apply to the government suppressing your free speech, but when the government is your boss, your constitutional rights are an integral part of the employee handbook. The end result is that you can’t just haul off and fire government employees for no reason, and generally, unless an employee is a huge pain in the ass, it’s usually more trouble to fire them than its worth.

Over the years, the courts have settled battles about who is and is not an “inferior officer” and what exactly “by and with the advice and consent of the senate” actually means, and where we’ve landed is the system we have today: the President appoints and the Senate approves by majority vote the heads of the 15 executive departments, and add the VP to make 16. All cabinet heads serve “at the pleasure of the President,” meaning that once the senate confirms, the president can fire cabinet department heads at will, which we all known Donald Trump is going to take particular pleasure in doing.

James Comey’s terrible penis

Matt: Okay, so that explains why we can’t do a goddamn thing about Steve Bannon being Trump’s lead belly-tickler or whatever… it’s because he’s inferior. It’s kinda crazy, though, there are some really high positions that aren’t subject to confirmation, so long as they’re called “advisor” in the title instead of “Secretary” or “Deputy Secretary.” Steve Bannon’s the Lead Advisor on Ticklin’ Bellies, but if they called him the Secretary of Belly Ticklin’, we could stop his appointment.

I mean, this isn’t a nothing distinction — advisors don’t oversee the budget over a major federal department, and secretaries do — but it does have the weird side effect where people like the National Security Advisor doesn’t require confirmation, but the Director of the FBI, CIA, and NSA do. Which is weird, because I was sure FBI Director James Comey was an inferior officer. Just look at him. Look at that inferior, dumb face.

So inferior. And I’ll bet his penis is just terrible.

I guess my next question, after “Can we all agree James Comey is inferior, especially in the penile department?” is this: What does it matter? Do Department heads actually do anything other than just rubber-stamp the policies of our stupid fucking President-elect?

What the cabinets actually do

Jesse: This gets a little messy to explain, so I’m going to have to do something I hate: talk about government as a business. Anyone who says “government should be run more like a business” understands neither government nor business, but people tend to be more familiar with corporate structures than with crazy sounding government departments, so we’ll use this metaphor just to make sense of it all.

Ok — so in USA GOV CORP, let’s imagine all US citizens are the shareholders, Congress is the Board of Directors, and the President is the CEO (we’re leaving out the entire judicial branch here because it doesn’t fit my convenient metaphor). A good way to think about what these departments are and how they work is that Congress decided over the years that it thought USA GOV CORP should start a new line of business. For instance — housing: around 1934 the Federal Government decided housing was probably an important business to be in, so they passed something called the National Housing Act which helped people get affordable housing loans.


Of course, just like Nancy Pelosi doesn’t process your passport application, whoever was in Congress in 1934 — I’m assuming generic white people smoking cigars — wasn’t about to be in charge of processing loans as they were too busy smoking cigars and being white. So, they passed this National Housing Act, which didn’t just say “Hey, we should give housing loans and here are the rules,” but also mandated that a new department called the Federal Housing Administration should be created to actually run this.

They tell this new department “Look, we’ve worked out the broad strokes of what you’re supposed to do, and we’ll give you X amount of money, but we give you authority to figure out the rest.” Think about it: when Congress says “Give fair loans to people for homes” there’s a shitload of ways you could do that, and believe it or not, those details usually aren’t hashed out in the law itself, but are left to the professionals in the departments and agencies to create in a process not super creatively named “rulemaking.” Most of the “laws” we follow in this country are actually administrative rules.

Side note: when you hear about Obama using “executive authority”, what he’s doing is saying ‘look, this agency has the authority to make certain rules about stuff without going to all the trouble of having congress make a new law, so I’ll just directly order the people in that agency to do a certain thing, and they’ll do it because I’m their boss’s boss’s boss’s boss.

Anyway, back to the housing thing — by 1965, merging with a few other “businesses”, the department of Housing and Urban Development was created as a cabinet level position with TONS of little companies within it: the Federal Housing Administration, the Office of Public and Indian Housing, the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, etc…

So, Congress creates a new “business” by making a law, the “CEO” agrees by signing the law, and the “business”, called HUD, is created. The CEO chooses the manager of that business, and Congress approves, and now that business can go about its merry way doing whatever it wants, right? Well, kind of. So to stick with HUD, Ben Carson will, in a sense, have 4 “bosses” to report to:

  • The President is his direct boss because he can fire Carson at any time, and so the president can be as involved as he pleases in any given department. Over the years, various presidents have tended to involve themselves a bit more with the departments close to their hearts, so Trump will likely spend a lot of his time meddling in the Department of Yuge Deals. The managers under Carson are those “inferior officers” from before and the president may decide to make hiring decisions directly, or he might let Carson hire them, or he might keep the previous people (unlikely — they usually resign with the administration change instead of getting fired). Everyone underneath these political appointees are the pros who do this for a living and likely actually know what they’re doing (and consequently is the field I got my degree in, public administration and policy, but that’s another blog for another time).
  • The constitution is, in a way, everyone’s boss. Whether or not Ben Carson runs HUD according to the constitution will be enforced by the courts, but like I said, they don’t fit nicely into this metaphor, so we’re moving on.
  • The two other bosses Carson have are the oversight committees in the Senate and House. As we said earlier, Congress is the board of directors, and because there are a lot of things to manage, Congress creates committees so that legislators can specialize in certain areas. Each of these committees has oversight responsibilities for different agencies to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to.

As we said before, congressional authority over personnel ends with approving the President’s pick or not, and as we also said before, Congress doesn’t really make the detailed rules about how things actually get done, so how do these committees actually oversee anything? Congressional committees have 4 ways they can exercise control.

  1. Even though Congress doesn’t really make laws about process, they will if they feel like they have to. So, let’s say Congress creates this housing business and tells it to give people housing loans however they see fit. The housing loan business says “Okay, great, everyone who can climb this tree gets a housing loan.” Well, Congress decides that’s bullshit because they hate climbing trees, so they get involved and make a new law saying, “No tree climbing to get loans.”
  2. Congress can go back and amend the original law that created that agency. So, they could go back and change the “Give people loans” company of USA GOV CORP and make it the “Give only certain people some loans” company.
  3. They can decide not to fund the business. The business now has less money to hire people or do anything (This is the most common form of control).
  4.  They can haul people up to the hill and publicly embarrass them. Without the authority to fire someone (unless a serious crime is committed), Congress will have that person come up to a brightly lit room with lots of cameras and just fucking yell at them for several hours, hoping the public embarrassment will chastise them into quitting or changing something.

So — the President is the CEO who hires top managers (his cabinet), and the top managers have to be approved by Congress. After that, between the President and the top managers, they hire the middle “inferior” managers and just go about doing government stuff, while Congressional committees and the courts keep tabs on the whole thing.

To answer your original question: as you can probably see, there are so, so, so many layers between the President and the person you deal with when you call the school loan people on the phone, so there are a lot of layers for people to deviate from exactly what the president might want. The closer you get to the top, the harder it is to openly defy the president without getting fired, but we as “shareholders” can still pressure the congresspeople that serve us to take action on the committee level if we want to fight against Presidential decrees.

The dumpster fire up close

Matt: Wow, it’s almost like people who don’t believe in government could get other people to think that way by going into government and just completely fucking the job in the nosehole (which, as we all know, is the least pleasant hole to get fucked in). Then, once the government’s on fire, they can just point at the government and be like, “Man, look at how on fire that government is. Maybe we should just not use the government anymore, and instead leave it all to big businesses.”


Which means this all has pretty terrifying implications for a Trump Cabinet. Here’s just a smattering of the people he’s appointed, and what that could mean for our the running of the government.

  • As Shaun King recently pointed out, Obama’s picks for the Energy Secretary were Steven Chu, a Nobel-Prize Winning Physicist, followed by Ernest Moniz, a theoretical physicist who served as the head of the physics department at MIT. Trump’s pick is Rick Perry, a man who literally failed college chemistry and wants to abolish the Department of Energy entirely, if he remembers to. Oh, also, he doesn’t believe in climate change and is on the Board of Directors for the Energy Transfer Partners, i.e. the people in charge of building the Dakota Access Pipeline.
  • Trump’s head diplomat, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, has literally no experience as a diplomat, other than being buds with Vlad the Imputiner. Considering Trump’s approach to the global balance of power is “hey, wouldn’t it be funny if I jumped off the seesaw while the nerd on the other side is way up off the ground?” now might be a good time to have a deft, experienced diplomatic hand in this position. But hey, whatever, the world’s just Trump’s Playground.
  • Trump’s pick for the EPA is Scott Pruitt, the Attorney General of Oklahoma, who has made a hobby out of suing the EPA. The Sierra Club even said, “having Scott Pruitt in charge of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is like putting an arsonist in charge of fighting fires.” I won’t say he’ll be the worst EPA employee of all time, but that’s because only other contender unleashed Slimer and Zuul and the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man on downtown Manhattan.
  • Trump’s pick for Attorney General is Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a man whose name and outlook on the world belong back in 1865. Sessions once said he thought the KKK was “okay, until he learned that they smoked marijuana.” In 1986, he was denied a federal judgeship for being too racist. This is troubling because the Attorney General makes policy on how to charge certain criminal offenders. What most people don’t realize is that prosecutors get to choose which laws they charge you with breaking — often, there’s a range of choices. Some of those laws have mandatory minimums for certain sentences, some of them don’t. Mandatory minimums a) don’t allow the judge any leeway in terms of sentencing — so even if your crime was relatively mild, you may spend a looong time in jail, and b) they are often fundamentally racist in terms of the people they target (i.e., there are broadly “black” crimes and “white” crimes). Considering imprisonment is one of the ways in which we’re systematically disenfranchising black voters, it’s a little alarming that we’re appointing a racist to this position.
  • I don’t really have the time or the space to go into the other disturbing things about how it’s cabinet’s shaping up. He’s apparently exclusively surrounding himself with with generals, insanely rich people, white people, climate deniers and Goldman Sachs Bankers. And just… wow. Dumpster fire is not even adequate for this line-up.

So I guess that brings us to our final point. Jesse, what can we do to stop this clown car from hell from lighting the world on fire?

Jesse:
It’s actually really easy to prevent some of the worst cabinet appointments out there:

  1. Slip and hit your head on a toilet seat, and in doing so develop the concept for the Flux Capacitor.
  2. Acquire some plutonium from Libyan militants.
  3. Take the Delorean up to 88.
  4. Do the historical equivalent of preventing Biff from getting the fucking Sports Almanac and go back in time to prevent prolonged global inequality from amplifying underlying racial and class tensions exacerbated by decades of real and imagined mistreatment from an indifferent political class, stop the further fueling of the flames from the direct and extensive meddling of malicious foreign powers, stop the DNC from running the least popular candidate in its recent history when it needed most to have a sure thing, and teach goddam John “What the Fuck is 2 Stage Authentication” Podesta how to spot a phishing e-mail from “Google” asking him to change his password.

Failing all of that, a few suggestions: you can and should:

  1. Get involved with the already-existing advocacy organizations collecting signatures and pressuring the government on behalf of causes that matter to you,
  2. Join protests, sit-ins, conversation groups, and community meetings if you can, and
  3. Get yourself plenty informed and involved ahead of the midterm elections coming up in 2018 so you know who to vote and campaign for. Of course, not a lot of that will make a huge difference for the confirmation hearings rapidly approaching, so my number one piece of advice is to pickup a goddam telephone:

Why? We already mentioned about the control of Congressional committees over federal agencies. The Senate specifically (as opposed to Congress as a whole) is given authority to approve or deny nominations, and while the entire senate will ultimately vote, all of the main action takes place within the committees that will ultimately oversee whatever cabinet post we’re talking about. That committee will run hearings and provide a recommendation to the rest of the Senate on how to vote about each nominee.

You can and should always contact your legislator if you want to have your voice heard, but in particular here, you should see about the Senate Committee Assignment of the wealthy liars and bastards (“sen-a-tors”) who represent you in the Senate. For instance, if you live in Nashville and you think it might be a bad idea for the many-direct-and-explicit-conflict-of-interest-having CEO of a mutli-national oil conglomerate to be the chief representative of US interests abroad (Secretary of State), you’d make a difference by calling Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) who happens to be the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Even if your Senator does not serve on one of the committees in question, your senator will still cast a vote on that nomination, so it’s still worth a phone call. Remember that both Senators from your state represent you, regardless of where you live or whom you voted for, so even if you’re a lifelong democrat living in a red part of a red state with 2 Republican senators, it’s still their job to represent you and still very much your right to call them up and demand that your senator represent your interests. Matt, you know a bit more about this than me, but I believe the most effective way to make this call is to violently and moistly sputter all the curse words you know as fast as you can into the phone as soon as someone picks up?

Say it loud: “I live in a representative democracy and I’m proud!”

Matt: Yeah, you know, when I call my Senator, I usually just make velociraptor sounds until they hang up.

No, it’s actually super simple. My wife has worked for legislators for most of her professional life, and has taken a trillion of these calls. I’ve been deep undercover as a reporter for five years, slowly convincing her to fall in love with me in spite of my predilection for butt jokes, so I could bring you all this information.

Here’s what I’ve gleaned during my time as a spy:

  • You are not likely to be dealing directly with the Congressperson or Senator. You are likely to be dealing with their staffers. This is a good thing — staffers are the ones doing the real grunt work of legislation. The Congressperson is torn a billion different ways, has to attend hearings, has to network, and has to fundraise. The Staffer is doing the real policy work. So don’t get grumpy about not talking to the Boss. The Boss in this case is totally dependent on the employee.
  • There are ways that are effective at making yourself heard, and ways that are not effective.
    • Not effective:
      • Facebook.
      • Twitter.
      • Email.
      • Internet comments.
    • Effective
      • Writing a hand-written letter.
      • Going to town hall meetings.
      • Calling the offices of your Senator and Congressperson.
    • Why are some of these ways effective while other’s aren’t? Well, anything that’s done online is easy to a) ignore, and b) respond to with something formulaic or algorithm-based. Your greatest power over a Congressional office is your ability to take up their time. Actually, I don’t think bold is enough to get this across. So I’m going for an obnoxiously big font:

      Your greatest power over a Congressional office is your ability to take up their time.

      This means:

      • The methods that take up the most time are the ones that are most loudly heard.
      • If you organize and call in with dozens or hundreds of other people at once, or if you show up en masse to a town meeting, you are going to be taking up all the time. My wife has personally seen legislators take bills off the table because they’ve been flooded with calls all day, and no one in the office has been able to get any work done. This is easier to do at the local level than at the national level, but it’s still possible, no matter what.
  • Your call does count. Literally. They keep track of how many people call in support of or against specific bills, and while it may not dictate their final vote (they have to balance a lot of interests in the best of cases), it will influence it, especially if you are one of many people calling. They are always thinking of their next election, and they have to weigh what they may prefer as the right policy against the wants of their electorate.
  • As such, if you don’t want to spend a lot of time on the call, you can do a simple script:
    • “Hi! My name is _______ and I am a voter in [name your State or Congressional District]. I am asking Senator ______ to please vote against [Name a terrible Cabinet pick]. [Briefly explain your position: “Science deniers have no business in the Energy Department/EPA, etc.” Offer a gentle emotional appeal: ] . Please relay this message to [Senator’s name]. Thank you!”
  • If you’re feeling a bit more game than that, engage the staffer you’re talking to. This doesn’t mean shouting at them: it means asking them what the Senator’s position is. It means asking why that’s the Senator’s position. Get Socratic as fuck up in this shit. Be the annoying 4-year-old who asks “why?” to every goddamn statement of fact. Eat that time up.
  • What’s important to remember is this: Be civil. If you’re being abusive, they may have justification to hang up on you. Also, it’s a human being on the other end of that phone. Christ, just don’t be a dick.
  • What’s even more important to remember is to be organized. You are a raindrop. You need a lot more of you to make a storm.
    • Something to help: Democrats have already identified the 8 nominees they’re going to work actively to block. They include Sessions, Tillerson, and Pruitt. These are the places you’re likely to have the most impact. Call your Senators about them.

Don’t know your Senator’s number? Find it at this website and program it into your phone. Call regularly. Get your friends to call regularly. Call everyone. Call all the time. Democracy favors the loud. Be loud AF.

Jesse: And that’s it, right? Being loud AF. We use the saying “personnel is policy” to mean that the people who you choose to have around you and the people in positions of authority are the real deciders of so many things in our government. Honestly, that’s probably a good thing: expertise is good for solving problems, and taking the time to vote on every single thing would be not only exhausting but probably cripplingly counter-productive. Still, even at the lowest possible level of government — the clerk at the DMV, the traffic cop — all the way to the highest levels like Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, there are a surprisingly high number of judgement calls and room for what we call “administrative discretion”, a.k.a. the cop deciding not to give you a ticket because you were nice, or the clerk processing your application even though you didn’t have the correct form.

That means two things: one, that it is vitally important that we keep careful watch over who is given positions of power; and two, that it is always, always, always worth it to express yourself politically — at the end of the day, all of these positions in the vast interlinked bureaucracy that is the United States government are held by people (or lizard people), and people, when given the chance to make a judgement call, tend to make a call based on what they think will be popular, and they tend to get their idea of what ideas and values are popular because they hear them expressed a lot in the world.

Featured photo: Jason See

The future belongs to the best organized

A LOT OF PEOPLE haven’t heard of Saul Alinsky, and many of the people who have heard of him seem to have the wrong idea. Alinksy died in 1972, and while he was influential, he was never famous enough to be a household name. He never wrote a blog. People on the political right who have heard of him know him from his vague association with Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and something about communism and dangerous lefty ideas, while people on the political left who have heard of him tend to see him as another face on the Mt. Rushmore of liberal thinkers, alongside Dr. King, Eugene Debs, and Noam Chomsky.

The truth is, however, Alinsky wasn’t really “political” in any kind of right-left sense as it is typically framed today. Alinksy was an operator, an organizer, a do-er — he was a guy who believed that all people should have a voice, and a guy who understood that in a pluralist democracy like ours (a democracy in which there are many groups, but no single group constitutes a majority), the most organized voices always win. So that’s what he did — he helped organize people.

Organizing from a political standpoint is really just about finding the people who care about an issue, getting them together in one group, and helping that group take collective action rather than as individuals, and Alinksy literally wrote the book on modern organizing (Rules for Radicals, 1972). Primarily, Alinsky helped organize black neighborhoods in Chicago in the 1930’s, but he worked with a number of groups in places like Michigan, New York, and his native California.

I mention all of this about Alinsky because he famously eschewed political parties and all of those complicated “-ism’s” that seem to define mainstream politics. He had his ideas, like all people have their ideas, but Alinsky’s true allegiance was to democracy, and he felt that democracy only worked when all people had a voice and knew how to use it effectively to try to make change. If people he helped organize had an idea he didn’t like, it didn’t bother him because it wasn’t his business. What was important to Alinksy was that people worked together to find their voices and to make a demand of government and society.

I have only dabbled in organizing in my career (it’s hard work and it DEFINITELY doesn’t pay much, if at all), but I’ve come to admire and share Alinsky’s outlook. Yes, I have political views, and yes, if you assigned an “-ism” to them, it would be one of the “-ism’s” on the far left (I think ‘anarcho-democratic socialism’ fits best, but again, who cares?), but I believe very strongly that all those terms like capitalism, conservatism, liberalism, socialism, etc., have come to represent identities and dictate actions like they’re some sort of blueprint.

But these are just vague ideas. They are just the best-fitting descriptions of a set of ideas that a lot of people happen to share, more or less. Like the “identity politics” we hear so much about today, it’s just a way of saying that when you look at the group of people who share a certain set of beliefs, those people tend to share a common characteristic like ideology, skin color, or economic class. At best, these shared characteristics provide a way to broadly identify people uniting around common interest, but at worst, and more and more frequently, they’re a way of stereotyping, dismissing, dehumanizing, and co-opting the voices of others without their consent.

Like Alinksy, I believe that my personal politics are less important than the ability of all people to get together and talk about what’s going on in the world, how they see it, how it affects them, what they think about it, and what they should all do about it. Do I happen to believe that in an ideal world, these people would get together and agree that the system I happen to think is best is the best one? Of course I do. Everyone does. But the reason I do the work I do (I have spent my career in the nonprofit sector), the reason I pursued my course of study (I studied public policy and urban planning in school) and the reason I wanted to work with Matt to write this blog is because too many people do not understand the power and capacity for change they possess.

Call it empowerment, call it education, or call it dumb internet “hot takes,” but I believe we’re all the same stupid jumped-up primates with the same inherent dignity (or lack thereof) and are worthy of the same respect (or lack thereof), and so to me, Enough to be Dangerous presents an opportunity to help people find their own voices, their own power, and their own ideas.

This blog will provide some info Matt and I have gleaned from school or research or some random podcast we both listened to, but the point is not that we will steer you to the right idea. The point of this is exactly what it says in the URL — to give you the tools and the knowledge to express your own ideas in your own community, and maybe make that felt in the world as well.

We could never claim to touch Alinksy’s brilliance or experience, but because I think this blog shares some of his intellectual DNA, maybe it’s best to close with a quote of his from Rules for Radicals: “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”

Featured photo by Pat “Cletch” Williams

The future belongs to the people who show up

ON THE NIGHT OF the 2016 Presidential Election, I was in a New Orleans Airbnb with my wife and cousins. We planned on waiting until 10 — when the election would be called for Hillary, of course — and then going downstairs to get a cocktail on Bourbon Street. Instead, at 10, I found myself urging friends not to panic, to wait for Wisconsin, wait for Michigan, wait for Pennsylvania… and whoops, nope! The world’s on fire!

My wife, Steph, works in New Jersey politics, and that means you’re imagining her as some sort of Tony Soprano gumar with big hair and too much make-up. She’s more like Leslie Knope from Parks and Rec. A sweet, gregarious Italian girl from the Jersey Shore who thinks she can help people who need help. I’ve never seen her more upset than she was on election night — Donald Trump was so clearly a liar, so clearly a kleptocrat, and so casual about tossing grenades into the lives of the marginalized people of the world that she simply couldn’t conceive that so many of our loved ones would support him.

What was so galling was that he was what everyone was saying was wrong with politics. I’ve seen Steph get into it with strangers at bars — She tells them what she does for a living, and they say, “Sorry sweetheart, you’re all corrupt,” and she tears them a new asshole, because they have no fucking idea what they’re talking about. I’ve lived in DC, I’ve worked two blocks from the White House, and I’ve married a public servant, and it even took me a few years to reject the common narrative that American politics are hopelessly broken.

I reject it now because I go out for drinks with the poorly-paid peons that keep America afloat. I’m friends with Congressional staffers, non-profit workers, union employees, even dreaded lobbyists, and in them, I don’t see conniving puppet-masters like Frank and Claire Underwood from House of Cards. What I see — when they’re at their best — is Sam Seaborn and C.J. Cregg from The West Wing. At their worst, they’re like the petty buffoons of Veep, but they’re never evil.

But after the election, it was hard to argue with the House of Cards interpretation of American politics. “They can’t make that stuff up!” one family member said of House of Cards. Sure, they can make up an intergalactic robo-war in Battlestar Galactica, or a time-traveling alien who lives in a police box in Doctor Who, but they can’t make up a Senator pushing a girl in front of a train.

As I talked to more and more of my non-political friends and family members, I realized how far we as a country have become divorced from the reality of our democracy. A staggering amount of people believe 9/11 was an inside job — that George W. Bush was competent enough to conduct the greatest cover-up in history, but couldn’t manage to find false-flag terrorists that were from the country he wanted to invade or plant a few WMDs. Even more of us think that it’s impossible to be an elected official without being patently corrupt, which is demonstrably wrong. And nearly everyone votes based on personality, not on policy.

After the election, I spent most of my time on Facebook, trying to help organize and console friends who had just seen a brighter future melt away before their eyes. I am not part of the “everything’s okay” crowd, because it’s not, but I do think there’s more reason for hope than we maybe imagine.

Probably the most vocal voice on my Facebook feed was Jesse Steele. I’ve known Jesse since the first day of second grade, and we lived together a few years after college, back when we were broke and drunk most of the time. The two of us eventually went off to grad school — he studied public administration, I studied human rights — and he now works as a manager of a non-profit. I’m a writer and occasionally a journalist.

After the election, we decided that our Facebook posts could only get out to so many people, so we decided to start a website. We’re calling it Enough to be Dangerous (with a stylized 2, for reasons that have nothing to do what was available on GoDaddy), and we’re focusing on how we, the mothafucking people, can be effective in our democracy.

Because, look: things seem bad. But we still have a nominally democratic system. It’s a system that favors the people who show up. And for years, the main people showing up have been businesses. This isn’t because they’re evil, it’s because they have very clear bottom lines, and because they can see — in terms of dollars and cents — how different policies are affecting their bottom lines.

It’s a lot harder to quantify our conception of “the good life” than it is to look at numbers on a balance sheet. So we convinced ourselves that what was good for business is good for us. And it sometimes is. But it often isn’t.

So the future will start bending back in our direction if we start paying more attention to how we’re planning for it. That’s it — that’s all. There’s no reason that Donald Trump needs to mean the end of America or the end of the world.

What we’re going to try and do with this blog is to explain how we can be good, involved, effective global citizens. As the stoic slave philosopher Epictetus said 1900 years ago, “Only the educated are free.” As Jesse said to me on Gchat a half an hour ago, “In a pluralist democracy, whoever is the most organized wins.”

Let’s get educated and organized. We can still win this. This blog will hopefully teach you just enough to be dangerous.

Featured photo by Paul Sableman