The Problem Bazaar

This is an idea for a community pattern, for something like a Rotary Club or church group. It requires a significant level of trust between members of a group.

A physical bulletin board, or something similar, is maintained by the group. It contains postings by members of problems that the group might be able to address. Early on they would probably be volunteer efforts to feed the homeless or build Habitat houses. As trust is built, members could get help with personal problems.

I’m Back

I’m starting to use this again. This time it’s about practical solutions to political problems. I expect to be posting:

  • summaries of complicated conversations;
  • ideas for how to motivate unfamiliar people to associate with each other;
  • relevant articles and podcasts;
  • my experiences trying to put all this into practice in my local community.

Whereas previously my blog has been about exploring my inner conflict, I intend this to be a much more outwardly focused effort.

Democracies end when they are too democratic.   And right now, America is a breeding ground for tyranny.


Illustration byZohar Lazar

As this dystopian election campaign has unfolded, my mind keeps being tugged by a passage in Plato’s Republic. It has unsettled — even surprised — me from the moment I first read it in graduate school. The passage is from the part of the dialogue where Socrates and his friends are talking about the nature of different political systems, how they change over time, and how one can slowly evolve into another. And Socrates seemed pretty clear on one sobering point: that “tyranny is probably established out of no other regime than democracy.” What did Plato mean by that? Democracy, for him, I discovered, was a political system of maximal freedom and equality, where every lifestyle is allowed and public offices are filled by a lottery. And the longer a democracy lasted, Plato argued, the more democratic it would become. Its freedoms would multiply; its…

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How would an anti-racist party work?

(Like a birthday party, not a political party.)

Elsewhere, I’ve mentioned that I think the problem of racism requires us to “expose people to each other – social integration.” This is a a fairly old (months) idea for me; maybe it’s already being done, but I don’t see it and it seems to be a gaping hole in what’s being done. This is essentially a brainstorm.

0. Before we really plan anything, we had better involve black folks. Both to guard against blind spots and for the necessary appearance of legitimacy, this is just the right way to do it.

1. Somehow we need to “break the ice” around race and racism, and make them subjects that can be discussed. In person. Looking each other in the eye.

2. This should not simply be an “anti-racist party.” Give people some other reason to show up, like food, door prizes, or games (board, card, party, etc.).

3. In order to have a significant effect, this should be a sustained initiative. That means we would need a non-profit, donations, and facilities. (I have no idea how to run a non-profit, but I’ll donate!) We could rent a civic center with donations, but making it a municipal event would be appropriate and helpful.

Game ideas

Let’s say we got the best possible attendance: 50% white and 50% non-white. We pair them off with each other randomly to chat. After 10 minutes, we shuffle them and encourage them to talk about the person they just talked to. After another 10 minutes, we shuffle them again and encourage them to talk about the people they’ve been paired with so far. Repeat three more times, for a total of an hour. Maybe have everyone fill out a questionnaire about the experience.

Construct a scenario where black people are systematically favored, maybe within another game. (I would call it Reverse Racism. 😉 )

On Objectivism

After browsing a whole lot of blogs talking about real (i.e. political/philosophical) issues, I found a favorite: Revolution is Free. The author, Erika, wrote an interesting post on Altruism from an Objectivist perspective. I posted a thought experiment as a comment to that post, and include it at the bottom of this post.

I did read about Objectivism some time ago, on Wikipedia and some libertarian sites. I decided I couldn’t agree with it, mostly because of its conclusions about altruism. This was while I remained a Christian; after my deconversion, I reconstructed my ethics and found myself with a model very similar to Objectivism – due mostly, I’m sure, to subconscious plagiarism rather than the objectivity of morality.

Objectivism is the brain child of Ayn Rand, and… Well, here’s her explanation from Atlas Shrugged:

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.

This is almost what I believe, but I think it’s incomplete. I really ought to read Rand’s books, but for now I’ll give a snapshot of my thoughts.

Reason as the only absolute? Yep, I agree there. Our mental faculties fail us regularly, but that’s why we discuss these things.

Productive achievement as the noblest activity? Absolutely, but probably for different reasons than Rand would cite.

Happiness as the moral purpose? Umm, what? What is happiness and why is it so important? This question is what the entire foundation of my own personal philosophy grew out of.

Just before leaving Christianity, I believed in reason as the only absolute. I sought the truth that I might be set free. It turns out that freedom ain’t so great once you have it. My mental stability, self-respect, sense of identity, and overall happiness all plummeted. I still valued morality but had just destroyed my reason for being moral, and found my resolve weakening. I decided I would have been better off without this freedom.

Observing that I valued happiness over truth, the only reasonable response seemed to be to promote happiness over reason. I swore to myself that I would not be responsible for anyone else’s similar experience. But why was happiness so important, and what caused it?

Ultimately I decided that my very amateur understanding of evolutionary psychology was the best available material for constructing a new foundation for my ethics. We are made happy by things which have historically promoted survival. We exist because our ancestors did such things. Survival is our mission, and our instincts, including happiness, are a crude mission brief.

This results in three principles:

  1. Each person is obligated to promote the general interest, or “greater good,” or, most specifically, the survival of the human species;
  2. Every person’s base value is equal; and
  3. Each person is (usually) most familiar with his own interest, and therefore holds more responsibility for himself than for anyone else.

“Base value” means the value afforded to someone for being human and thereby promoting the survival of the human species. Attributes like youth, or leadership and hunting skills (in a primeval society) make some people more valuable than others.

Too much emphasis on instincts to the exclusion of reason causes destructive behavior like war. Too much emphasis on reason to the exclusion of instincts causes other destructive behavior like eugenics. My conclusion: The primacy of reason must be held in tension with an aversion to cognitive dissonance.

By this I mean that I believe the Nazis, for example, had instincts against their atrocities. A combination of hatred (instincts) and misguided (pseudo-)science motivated them toward horrible acts. Although primal instincts were part of the problem, I can easily imagine this happening solely on reason. We must listen to our “hearts” when they warn us that what we’re doing is wrong.

Such cognitive dissonance is a pretty reliable sign that neither we nor society will be happy about our actions. On the other hand, the ability to override one’s instincts is a very important skill. Despite the horror of war, we do need soldiers who can kill other soldiers. Unfortunately this cognitive dissonance then turns into PTSD.

Anyway, here’s the thought experiment:

You find yourself on an island. Also on the island is a critically injured man. You can treat him enough that he will heal and be able to fend for himself, but doing so will delay your return home. Should you help him, and why or why not?

In case conscience (psychological self-interest) plays a part, imagine it as two scenarios:
1) Your travel delay would be significant but not quite enough that it would justify his death in your mind;
2) Your travel delay would be huge enough that you could rationalize the man’s death and not feel guilty. (What kind of delay are you thinking here?)

Political Diplomacy

The phrase “political diplomacy” should be redundant, but politics in the large, as it were, is characterized by misunderstanding, polarization, and demonization – especially on the Internet. I’m interested in what we can do to have more civil conversations, regardless of disagreement. I think this would result in more changed minds, but perhaps this is the problem: no one wants to risk changing their minds.

The immediate context for this post lies in the comments for this article. The author, Tom Levenson, told me:

Not trying to achieve readership from the “scorned” as you put it. Trying to galvanize action against them. I’m never going to persuade Mr. Esk and his ilk that they’re clueless bigots who need to rethink their position; I can work to marginalize them politically and culturally, which is what this kind of post is aiming to do.

The phrases “Mr. Esk and his ilk” and “marginalize them politically and culturally” are the operative parts here, and I think they represent a disconnect in how Mr. Levenson is considering politics. But he’s not alone; this seems to be the unspoken prevailing idea on the matter.

Who are Mr. Esk’s ilk? I assume they are those who agree with him, which seems to be much of Oklahoma. Keeping that in mind, to marginalize someone politically and culturally means to diminish their influence by causing less people to pay attention to them.

Who are paying attention to Mr. Esk? Obviously his ilk are, but Mr. Levenson is not concerned with them. Perhaps some people in Oklahoma are not aware of Mr. Esk’s statements, or aren’t alarmed by them. The only others would be those who already condemn Mr. Esk’s statements (mostly in private, because left and right have annoying taboos against calling out their own).

Then it would seem that Mr. Levenson wants to be listened to by people from Oklahoma. This seems like a well-advised start, then (emphasis mine):

Today’s case-in-point comes from the grea batshit insane state of Oklahoma, where we meet this fine primate:

Surely people in Oklahoma will be more likely to listen to Mr. Levenson after he lumps all of Oklahoma in with Mr. Esk. If someone in Oklahoma is not offended, they probably already agreed with Mr. Levenson that their state is crazy and dislike Mr. Esk.

But I’m skeptical of Mr. Levenson’s apparent belief that Mr. Esk’s ilk are impenetrable to reason. I was once a fundie (likely Mr. Levenson’s biggest gripe against Oklahoma), and I had some pretty crazy ideas. I associated with several secularists online, and slowly began to think for myself. I now recognize the patience they exercised by engaging me.

I also recognize the abrasive secular personalities who helped perpetuate the negative image of secularists which I had been given (not entirely intentionally) by my religious leaders. Mr. Levenson, and most other politically involved people, perpetuate similar stereotypes – likely because they also hold such stereotypes of other groups.

These images discourage us from listening, because they replace understanding of people. Instead of getting to know someone, we just refer to our images in order to engage them. But someone who doesn’t listen has no place expecting to be listened to. And indeed, Mr. Levenson seems to acknowledge this; I just don’t understand whom he thinks he’s talking to.

On Homosexuality

My ideas here won’t be too surprising, given my religious-right upbringing, libertarian political leanings, and secular understanding of society. However, I’ve mostly decided I don’t agree with any of the relevant ideas for laws, including those already implemented.

Anti-LGBT violence is alive and well. I don’t pretend to understand what goes on inside the heads of people who do that. And I want to make clear that I don’t agree with it; no one should live in fear because of their lifestyle.

Gay marriage is a gray area for me. I don’t agree with a law requiring marriages to be heterosexual. I think there’s a good chance that sociological problems can arise from not encouraging heterosexuality, especially regarding parenthood. That would, however, not be the job of the government.

Homophobia, as an everyday attitude arising from suppressed homosexual desire, doesn’t seem to me to be a real thing. If a gay guy decides to dress or behave in a way that makes his sexuality apparent, he should expect his interactions to be sexualized. I honestly don’t want to be around a heterosexual of either gender who does that. (For example, I don’t recommend wearing any of this.)

If a gay guy doesn’t sexualize himself but still finds people acting strangely, I would chalk that up to the fear of the unknown, and the politicized nature of homosexuality. Suppressed desire does not seem to me to be necessary to explain any of this.

I know this is an unpopular opinion – from the left and maybe even the right. Please don’t simply tell me I have the wrong opinion; explain why it’s wrong.


  • 2015-06-21 – I’ve moved from not really having an opinion on policy to opposing all laws related to sexuality, including those concerned with “discrimination,” which is usually not the government’s concern. In particular, I used to think laws might be appropriate to encourage heterosexuality.

Libertarianism of Women (or: On Feminism)

Well, my first post on this blog was rather successful: I got welcomed to the blogging party by wearemorethan with a “like.” That was faster than I expected. Her reason for blogging is explained here. Reading her blog, I find myself in sort of a “friendly other” position.

I’m a guy, but I have long found several social conventions related to women absurd. This has intensified as I’ve come to better understand my libertarianism. Women shouldn’t feel obligated to perform a ridiculous grooming ritual – unless they just really like grooming themselves (can’t relate).

I also like that she’s pushing for grassroots action, not laws. Laws can be appropriate, but they’re difficult to do right. I’m all for leaving government out of it as long as is reasonable.

My position on feminism is best illustrated by why I wouldn’t be comfortable calling myself a “male feminist”:

  1. I don’t identify as “fem-” anything. Within my social circles it sounds odd, mostly because of what society is rather loosely calling homophobia.
  2. I don’t expect to support most laws that come out of the movement, or even all of the grassroots action. So the label doesn’t really fit.
  3. I think feminists too often ignore legitimate biological reasons behind social norms. Usually women bear the primary consequences of this so I figure I should let them prove me right or wrong. But this means I often disagree with their entire approach to issues.

But she asked for publicity, and I think her cause is legitimate. Plus, friends are good.

“Progressive” vs “Liberal”

I grew up “conservative” and now identify politically as “conservative libertarian.” (That means I’m generally not too radical about what laws to not have.) I knew of folks on the left as “liberals.”

I recently read an indictment against that term, that those who apply it to themselves are too moderate. The author, @dexdigi, prefers “progressive,” partly because of conservative use of the “liberal” term as an insult.

After considering this for a while, I think this is an unethical position, mostly because of the propaganda wrapped up in “progressive.” Progress is motion in the proper direction, so for conservatives to call you “progressive” would be like agreeing with you. This is akin to a nation of people calling themselves the Better – in a language their neighbors use.

For that reason, they will probably not do it. This results in two words, “liberal” and “progressive,” for the same group of people. “Liberal” is at least closer to neutral in its definition (and really sounds better than “conservative”).

I get that the positive connotation is probably effective armor against Rush Limbaugh’s tone affecting how a moniker is understood. And I get that people should generally get to choose how they are referred to (within practical limits). But I think that right doesn’t extend to putting your propaganda in the mouths of your opponents, or to confusing people about which term refers to whom.

I really don’t want to imply assent to “progressive” ideology, because I have a lot of disagreements with it. Some conservatives prefer “ultra-liberal,” which has the negative connotation of being particularly immoderate. Plus “ultra” is kind of tainted by its use for white supremacists.

I think I’ll be using “leftist” pending a better suggestion. And while I’m at it I’ll insist on being called a “rightist.”

Racism: Annoying and Tragic

This post is primarily to have a conversation with @dexdigi in bites larger than 140 characters. This is a dirty laundry post; management is not responsible for hurt feelings. But I plan to be vicious to myself, so maybe it evens out.

Hi Dex. That spelling is correct with the capital, right? I want to first make sure you’re aware of my previous posts, for obvious reasons. And you should also know that I gained respect for you in reading your pieces on Medium, but I hope I was clear about that on Twitter. Getting me to understand something so foreign to me, and even orthogonal to my worldview, is not a simple thing, but you managed it well. That’s why I’m suddenly so persistent, although I’m afraid I might be annoying you. My strength is in considering things at length, not so much in communicating well. And this paragraph may be an over-correction.

I found these links from Twitter useful:

  • Racism: A History – I can see from this a context where a modern progressive worldview makes sense. It hasn’t changed my opinions (yet), but it has laid a significant portion of the foundation for my understanding of yours.
  • and Proud To Be – These, particularly the first, did actually nudge me toward agreement with them. I’m still undecided on the issue, because I find that I fall on opposite sides of hypothetical issues of the same general class (concerning rights of identity).
  • Wikipedia: Political correctness – This was useful for a bird’s-eye view of our positions. I actually chuckled when I realized you had jumped me down the timeline of the term.

Your other link, Books to read on racism and white privilege, is now in my bookmarks (and blog) in case I ever decide I like paper again. (How ignorant of me.)

Racism in Me

Now, despite what I implied on Twitter, I do find racism in myself, but I think I’ve done a decent job of shielding my worldview from it. That is, I think I manage to reprimand it before it changes things, although of course it prevents other things from being changed through conversation – because I don’t have a significant interracial life. But let me explain exactly what that means.

Speaking by race, I know a Filipino James and a Mexican Dave, I see an African Joe at work, and I live in an apartment complex dominated by Africans. (They’re all American.) I honestly wouldn’t be interested in knowing Joe regardless of his race, but I won’t go into that. I make a sincere effort to greet my neighbors as we pass, and, confirmation bias notwithstanding, don’t see the gesture returned. (I don’t know any white neighbors, either, being an introvert.)

But James and Dave are involved in a more interesting story. While Dave was absent, I confided in James and our white friend that I sometimes have trouble relating because of a measure of racism. This happened:

Someone is either a racist and therefore an inhuman monster, or they’re an actual, complex human being, and therefore, by definition, incapable of being a racist.

I spent a good deal of effort calming my two friends down after, as far as they were concerned, calling myself a monster. I haven’t had a candid conversation about race since, except with my very white, right-of-center, one-drop-of-Cherokee, very close friend.

And, like many institutions, my company has reliably selected for whites. I’m confident that’s the economy rather than my bosses, for reasons I won’t go into here. Let it suffice to say that the hiring patterns are very inclusive within other specific characteristics.

So I’m honestly not sure what you or others of your complexion expect of me or others of my complexion in personal conversation. As mentioned above, I am an introvert with social anxieties; it’s against my nature to go out of my way to meet people. I have standard social anxiety toward my neighbors, compounded by the issue of race. (Feedback loop!)

To offer something I think you can agree on, I avoid my neighbors partially because I don’t distinguish between them and the unpleasant issue of race. Yet I contacted you because you had already broached the issue. Annoyed by the wart of racism on my thoughts, I took advantage of that safety.

So for my experience, racism is decidedly annoying in at least two ways (intellectual and social), but then a third thing creeps in: I’m annoyed that progressives, after pointing out my privilege, insist that I use it to mitigate itself.

I’m really fine with it being mitigated, but generally those who benefit from something are supposed to be responsible for producing it. Despite understanding the dynamics of lingering segregation and that my “race” is in a better position to address the problem, I’m offended to be expected to work hard for the benefit of others.

It’s not that I have a problem with hard work for others’ benefit; that figures significantly in what I want to do with my life. When something comes up that would obviously be a contribution to society, I try to do it. But if someone tries to shame me into doing it, I’ll resent that, and I probably won’t do it. However, in this case the work is harder for me than recent examples; I might not have done it anyway.

So is this the idea, to shame white folks into ceding their privilege? I have to say I think we’re more open to diplomacy than to require that. But I understand why trust is lacking.

Racism in History

The videos about historical racism were very informative, but really they didn’t change my idea of what it is. They helped me understand three things:

  1. A whole lot more racist stuff was done than was ever hinted to me;
  2. The worst things I had known were worse than I knew;
  3. The solutions for the atrocious forms of racism seen in centuries past were consistently top-down, and appropriately so.

That third one is the important part. And I don’t mean governments decided on them of their own accords; no, they had to be harassed persistently before they bothered. But, once a solution was offered, a heavy-handed government agency was there to offer it.

This was significant to me because I had never understood why progressives take that approach to modern racism. I thought it was simply because they are progressives and top-down is all they know. And I have always considered it an affront to my conservative and, later, libertarian sensibilities. (Top-down is why I can’t stand Republican politics, either.)

Given all that, I still think bottom-up is better in the 21st century. Top-down solutions tend to address symptoms rather than causes. Historically those symptoms have been of extremely immediate concern. Some of the symptoms remain so, but would actually be addressed by less government – which I want anyway.

For example, the marijuana bans (in respective states) are totally absurd. Society would probably be better served if even some of the more harmful drugs were legalized with appropriate controls. Find any other laws that are used as excuses to unnecessarily toss people into prison and scrap them, too. (I’d be for a non-violent governmental reboot, actually. Refactor the Constitution, scrap the laws, start over with more citizen involvement.)

Another example (which follows from the first): We have way too many people in prison, especially black folks. A large portion of prison facilities are probably totally unjustified. These bandwagons are probably pretty easy to find, if I were to try.

But as for things like income disparities, I think any attempt to solve the problem tends to simply move it somewhere else, often aggravating it in the process. This particular opinion is a function of my belief in the free market, which is apparently an incredibly racist idea. Try harder to tame it and it will just throw you harder. (Yes, I’m from Texas.) I think we’re better off with grassroots social networking – the real kind.

And, despite the abundance of shallow online “social networks,” I think the real thing can be aided by technology. Just have it arrange personal meetings between total strangers (say, five of them at a time). Tune it to match people of diverse races and opinions, if you like. Get it mainstreamed and wait a while, and hopefully our stupid feedback loop of race is broken. Government efforts cannot address the problem at this level.

Racism in Conversation

OK, so this section isn’t really as labeled, but I liked keeping with the theme. First of all, the Wikipedia link you gave me for political correctness jumped to 1990, when it became charged with an anti-“liberal” connotation. The common thread between that and all its previous incarnations was “something politically inadvisable to express.” That is what I mean when I use the term, and what I understand when I read it. It fits nicely, and is equally usable from either side of the aisle (or any other position).

I want to pose a couple hypothetical situations and see how you would describe them.

At a Christian church function, one of the attendees happens to be an evolutionary biologist. Another member mentions creationist ideas as part of typical conversation, and the biologist explains that they don’t make sense. Social pressures are applied, and the biologist is successfully silenced. Ignoring his poor discretion, what did the biologist experience?

A few women are having lunch together, and one of them has recently had a miscarriage. Another is a mother of three, and she somehow mentions her children, not realizing how sensitive the issue is. The first woman is offended and the others join in shaming the mother after she has apologized. What did the mother experience?

I recognize that these are not representative of “political correctness” issues; I deliberately made them morally unambiguous in favor of the “victim” of… whatever you decide to call it.