More Wikileaks thinking

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the whole Wikileaks thing these past few weeks, like a lot of people who belong to my particular sub-set of the human population. (First World, technology-oriented, somewhat politically minded. White as a goddamn ghost.)

I’m massively ambiguous about the whole affair, which has earned me my fair share of sneering and disbelieving virtual glares from my friends and fellow travelers. (I use that term in the most ironic way possible.) My own ambiguity surprises me, because in theory this is the sort of thing I’ve been wanting to see happen for most of my life. I’ve always been a card-carrying dyed-in-the-wool cyberpunk type; even though I’ve disagreed with the EFF on issues involving digital music, I support them with all my heart (and occasionally, when I can afford it, my wallet). Transparency in government is something I’m a fervent believer in.

So why does this whole thing make me uneasy?

I think it’s tied into a lot of the reservations I’ve been feeling, for a long time now, about the hacker culture in general. Not the “get excited and write code” part of hacker culture, which I find deeply meaningful and valuable to humanity as a whole, even if some of the participants can be deeply tedious party guests. But there’s also a flip side to the cleverness and ingenuity of hacker culture; a deep arrogance and near-sociopathology.

In America at least, there’s a big crossover between the hacker and libertarian communities. Though I was at one point in my late teens registered as a libertarian — mainly because they were the political party least likely to send me irritating snail mail — I’ve come to have a deep distaste for libertarianism. These days, I tend to believe that European Union-style socialist democracy is probably the most humane economic and political system we’ve got. I might be wrong on that…but I don’t believe that American capitalism works, and I’ve come to abhor the notion of a world ruled entirely by capitalism, oligarchy and the Grim Meathook Future of a totally free market.

A lot of hackers I know personally are basically heavy libertarian types. They hate the government, they hate taxes. They’re smart and very capable of taking care of themselves and don’t have a lot of time for people who don’t. They seem to apply the same sneering contempt to poor people that they do to clueless Windows users; it’s that same sense of superiority to those who haven’t figured out how to hack the system. Most of them are only political in as far as privacy and tax issues are concerned. I’m not saying all hackers are like this…but this archetype certainly covers a fair number of the ones I know, and I know quite a lot of them.

(Even though I write code professionally, I don’t consider myself a hacker, because I’m not interested in code or systems or exploits for their own sake. There’s not really a name for what I am — somebody who thinks about lots of different things and then talks about them or tries to make them happen in a variety of media. “Dilettante” is probably le mot juste.)

Another trait of a lot of hackers I know is an unwillingness to concern themselves with the long-term ramifications of what they do. Their primary motivation is boredom and a desire to be very clever. Which is a great motivator for smart people…but when you’ve got the keys (or lock picks) to a lot of kingdoms, a lack of foresight can cause some very serious problems in the real world. Being capable of hacking into credit card companies and getting millions of card numbers and personal identification information for people is a really cool skill…but putting it out into the world can cause some really serious harm to people who, unlike the credit card companies, don’t even deserve it in theory.

The Gawker thing is a perfect example. When Anonymous (or whatever subset of Anonymous) hacked into Gawker and put the user logins and passwords up for display, the first people who dived for that information were spammers, who used it to log into people’s Facebook accounts and email and send massive amounts of penis enlargement spam and other weird nonsense — for their own monetary gain, of course. (Happened to me, which is why I’m never, ever going to comment on a blog again.) It was an inconvenience at worst, but the point remains: the collateral damage wasn’t done to Gawker, it was done to people whose chief crime was wanting to respond to a post about the Doctor Who Christmas special or to tell other like-minded people what their favorite note-taking app for the iPhone was.

That complete lack of interest in the damage inflicted upon innocent bystanders is psychopathic. It’s putting one’s own political or personal ideology, or simple desire to feel like God, above the well-being of others. It is, in fact, precisely the sort of thing that people despise about corporations and governments in the first place.

But most of the hackers I know winked and tut-tutted at the whole thing, or the Anonymous attacks on Visa and MasterCard and Paypal. Because, really, anybody stupid enough to use the same password for all their accounts — or to use credit or debit or online payment systems — really deserved what they got, right?

The same way a woman who’s assaulted while walking down the street dressed provocatively deserves what she gets, for being so stupid, right?

Which brings us back to Wikileaks, in a roundabout way. The debate over the sexual assault case against Julian Assange has become incredibly tedious to me. I don’t know if he raped or assaulted those two women, and neither do you. I do find the reaction of the Swedish authorities and Interpol to be a bit unlikely, at the very least: I can’t think of any other occasion when Interpol put an APB out on someone accused — not convicted — of sexual assault. Whether the charges were politically motivated or not, the response very obviously is.

But as for the charges themselves, I care as much as I care about any other investigation into assault charges involving people I don’t know, which is not a whole hell of a lot. Sorry. If it happened the way the women say it did, Assange needs to answer for it. If not, he should walk. That’s the level of my concern and care now. The hysteria on every side of that debate (feminist, anti-feminist, conspiracist) has just become horrible noise.

For the record, here’s what I believe about Wikileaks:

1) I don’t think they’re journalists, in the traditional sense. There’s no journalism going on; just massive data dumping. Redacting things isn’t the same as verifying material, putting it into perspective; all the things traditional journalists would do. (Snarky prick alert: Nor do I think that traditional journalism is just “Old Media” and totally lame and the past, and that Wikileaks is the “new way” and totally awesome and the future, and if you do I don’t care, because I’ve walked every side of that particular fence and I know every inch of it by feel and smell and I doubt you do, so be quiet. That debate is deeply nuanced and it’s not played out yet.)

2) I absolutely, utterly, completely believe that the American government has no right to prosecute Julian Assange or to attack Wikileaks in any way. He’s not an American citizen and he does not fall under American jurisdiction. Even if he was, it’s fairly clear he would fall under First Amendment and whistleblower protection, the same way that Daniel Ellsberg was when he gave out the Pentagon Papers. It would also be a grievous moral act on my government’s part…not that anybody seems to care about that anymore.

3) I believe that what Wikileaks has done with the Afghanistan information and with these diplomatic cables is not going to make the American government more transparent in its dealings with its citizens or with other nations. It’s going to have the opposite effect: it’s going to make people who are already paranoid about information leakage a lot more paranoid. And I don’t like the idea of hyper-paranoid people with their finger on the metaphorical button or buttons.

4) I don’t believe that Assange gave one nimble rat’s fuck about the collateral damage he might cause by releasing this information, any more than the Anonymous hackers who’ve been hacking into things in his name did about the damage they might cause. Assange strikes me as a rather archetypal sociopathic black-hat hacker type. I’ve debated other people who are involved in Wikileaks, and it’s my impression that several of them are precisely the kind of libertarian hackers I’ve been talking about; from everything I’ve seen, so is Assange. I could be wrong about that, but based on the evidence I’ve seen, that’s my guess.

I’m also bemused by the sheer hypocrisy that is being shown by every player in this affair. Assange wants transparency but gets outraged when somebody leaks details of his sexual assault case to the Guardian; Anonymous wants to tear down the walls of the secret-keepers, but do so from behind their own obscuring wall of anonymity; the hacker community that is so vocally supporting Assange’s attack upon secrecy are the same people who routinely also bitch about the government spying on them and searching them at airports and trying to make them, as private citizens and as business operators, pay their full share of taxes. I’m a big believer in consistency of thought and action: you can’t have it both ways, kids. You want an end to secrecy, fine; but that means your secrets can be spilled too.

Do I ultimately think Wikileaks is a good thing? Yes. And no. Both. Either way, I think it’s a Pandora’s box that has been irrevocably opened. Things are going to change because of this; the whole notion of privacy and secrecy is going to be turned upside down, not just for governments but for all of us. I also think this is the beginning of a new era of net warfare, played out between governments and NGOs and groups that don’t even have memberships or know who they themselves are, like Anonymous. I think the main outcome is going to be that living online is going to get a whole lot more irritating.

And I’d like to believe that, just like with the mythical Pandora’s box, hope still lies somewhere at the bottom of all of this.

(For further reading, Big Bruce Sterling‘s thoughts on all this.)

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Shine A Light

Yesterday, Thanksgiving morning, I went down into the storm drains beneath Las Vegas with Matt O’Brien, my wife and some other friends to deliver food and supplies to the homeless people who live beneath this city. Eight years ago, Matt and I wrote a series of articles in the Las Vegas CityLife about the storm drains and the people who live in them. We got a lot of coverage for it — the early 21st century version of retweets — and were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. (Your publisher nominates you, so it’s not that big of a deal, but it was still pretty cool.) Matt went on to continue exploring the drains, ultimately writing a book about his experiences, Beneath The Neon. I went off to start a dot.com. Though I’ve been down in the drains a few times since, Matt was the one who really kept involved with the situation and the lives of the people down below. He even founded a community project, Shine A Light, to help people get out of the darkness and into recovery programs and housing. A lot has changed since I was last down there. For one thing, there are a lot more people than there were before (though nowhere near the 700+ that Britain’s The Sun suggests). And the people who are down there seem to have made the transition from crashers to squatters; several of them had incredibly organized and elaborate “houses”. The drains are beginning to look less like a place to doss down for a few nights or a week, and more like a Sterlingian interstitial favela. The very existence of these subterranean temporary autonomous zones is a quirk of Las Vegas’s uniquely Manichean climate and geography: it’s either bone-dry or flooding here at any given time. The fact that it’s mostly the former is why people can take up semi-permanent residence in the storm drains here. They’re almost always dry, except when they’re not…and if you’re in them when a wall of water comes rushing down out of the western mountains, you’re probably dead. This is both heartening and disturbing. Heartening in the sense that these people are establishing some sort of equilibrium for themselves, no matter how ephemeral or transitory; a couple of folks mentioned losing all their mostly dumpster-obtained possessions when floods came through. But it’s also disturbing in the sense that eight years after Matt and I alerted the world to the problem, storm drains are still serving as a substitute for homeless shelters in Las Vegas. The official treatment of the homeless by Las Vegas and Clark County is reprehensible, bordering in some cases on outright human rights violations. Mayor Oscar Goodman made the national news by attempting several years ago to make it illegal to give food to homeless people. This was after he made the statement publicly that Las Vegas “has no homeless problem”, a statement which any resident or off-Strip visitor to the city can tell you is ludicrous, bordering on the surreal. I can’t find the exact numbers at the moment, but a few years ago I saw a statistic which suggested that less than 1% of Clark County’s budget went to social services. This wouldn’t surprise any Las Vegas residents. The streets (and the tunnels beneath them) are full of walking wounded, human casualties of addiction and mental illness, not to mention people who simply fell through the cracks of an increasingly depressed local economy. Several months ago, I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who told me that “80% of the homeless are addicts” and that most of them don’t want help — that the services are there if they want them. In the case of social services, this is simply and demonstrably untrue: both public and private services for the homeless and for addicts here are criminally underfunded. More than one of the people I met in the drains yesterday told me they were on waiting lists for housing and treatment programs, sometimes for months. And when you live in a concrete cave under a city, you may not have months to wait on help. But more to the point, I think, this is an example of a deeper, underlying attitude I see again and again in Las Vegas: a profound and distressing lack of empathy for those in need. Put another way: this is a mean-ass town. If Las Vegas has a spiritus urbus, it’s psychopathic. Yes, a great percentage, maybe even the majority of homeless people are addicts. So what? Las Vegas is a city of addiction. I’d personally guess the rate of alcoholism in the city runs about 10%, maybe higher, most of it undiagnosed or treated. (That includes, ironically, the acquaintance who was railing about homeless addicts.) Even more are hooked on illicitly-obtained prescription pills. And God only knows how many gambling addicts manage to keep their addiction in just enough check to keep a roof over their heads. This is a city that subtly and not-so-subtly celebrates alcohol culture, cocaine culture, speed culture. Goodman himself is a notorious public drunk who once told an audience of schoolchildren that if he only had one thing to take to a desert island, he’d bring a bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. Apparently it’s okay to be a drunk or a crackhead or a junkie in Las Vegas, so long as you can hold your shit. Lose your handle on your own vices and you aren’t worth saving. The people beneath Las Vegas’s neon can’t rely on the city or the county or the state to help them, and they don’t seem to be able to rely on the goodwill of their fellow citizens; most Las Vegans don’t know they’re down there and most of the ones who do wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire. And their numbers seem to be slowly, steadily growing. These people live in the cold, in the dark, in shit-smelling tunnels where no light shines, like fucking rats. That’s not acceptable. Matt’s working a lot with Help of Southern Nevada to help people get out of the drains and back into the world. I’m working on ideas for how to raise money for HOSN to give them more opportunity to help the people in the drains, and I’ll post more on that as I come up with viable notions. In the meantime, throw your spare holiday change at HOSN, even if you don’t live in Las Vegas. Help them help the people who cannot help themselves. Help them shine a light in the darkness.

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Finding Common Ground.

I was much inspired by Jon Stewart’s speech at the Rally to Restore Sanity, which I only got around to seeing today. (I had planned to attend the local Vegas edition, but I was busy getting ready to be married the next day, which is a valid excuse.)

I was particularly struck by one thing that Stewart said: “We live now in hard times, not end times.” It’s often hard to remember that. One of the side effects of being fascinated by the history of religion is that you become aware that Westerners have believed that they were living at the end of the world pretty much since the time of Constantine. It has always been a part of Christian eschatology, and as such has pervaded Western culture for almost two thousand years, a strange sort of collective cognitive bias. (I have never gotten the impression that this is part of any other major religion’s established worldview, though it obviously forms the basis of lots of crazypants cults and such.)

The reason it always seems that things are getting worse is because humans tend to have a built-in idea that “change” = “bad”. We establish our foundation of how things are in our childhood; as we age, we see that foundation challenged day by day. Radio becomes movies becomes television becomes the Web becomes Twitter. Colored becomes Negro becomes Afro-American becomes African-American becomes person of color. Gay stops meaning “happy”. America stops being the happiest place on Earth to live. Greed becomes good, then bad, then good again.

But change, as the very most fundamental laws of physics tell us, is inevitable and indeed constant, from the atomic level all the way up to the structure of the universe itself. Change is the Terminator; you can’t argue with it, can’t reason with it…except unlike the Terminator, change doesn’t stop when you’re dead. The world keeps turning.

Fighting change is a Sisyphean task at best; at worst, it can be an act of atrocity. Part of my dislike of conservativism of any stripe is the underlying principle of trying to keep things the way they were. In the case of American conservatism, this is usually predicated by a desire to return to a notional “happier, simpler time”. The fact that such a time never really existed, of course, doesn’t stop people from imagining it to be a worthy goal. A lot of white middle-class Americans believe that the 1950s and early 1960s were a utopian era; and maybe they were, for white heteronormative middle-class Americans. It wasn’t a lot of fun to be black in 1952 in America, or an independent female, or queer, or mentally challenged, or mentally ill,or physically challenged, or atheist. In fact, for anybody who wasn’t getting their picture painted by Norman Rockwell, life in America pretty much sucked.

Not that it’s perfect now, but over the last forty years at least we’ve started to understand that the way we lived and the assumptions we made back then — what we defined as “normal” and “healthy” and “right” — were not absolutes, that in fact in a lot of ways we were kind of barbaric assholes. We’ve confronted racism and bigotry and hatred head-on, and seen them for what they are.

Not all of us, of course. There are still many Americans who believe that homosexuality is a sin, that atheists are incapable of morality, that Hispanics are trying to undermine America by sneaking over the border to take American jobs and abuse the privileges of American citizenship. There are people who believe that marijuana is more dangerous than alcohol, that Muslims hate freedom, that the President is secretly a resident alien who is bound and determined to take everything away from them — their guns, their money, their freedom, and their God.

But I believe that Stewart is essentially right: these people make up a small but vocal minority. Most Americans are just people, with a tapestry woven of convictions and indifferences. Sure, there are people who want to build concentration camps for the friends of Dorothy; there are people who would like to see the Bible banned not only from schools but from private houses. But not many, and the wonderful thing about a society whose first and foremost principle is free speech is that these people are allowed to speak loud and long…which means we know where they are.

There are many things that I disagree with conservatives about, vehemently. I believe that human rights are universal. I believe in gay marriage and transgender marriage and what they used to call miscegenation. I believe that all Americans have the right to be happy in whatever way makes them happy, so long as that happiness does not directly interfere with the rights of others to the same thing. I believe in the rights of sex workers. I believe in the legalization and taxation of drugs. I am an atheist, and I believe that it is wrong to teach religious mythology about the nature of the universe and biology in schools as equal and viable alternatives to scientifically based theories. But I am not in favor of censoring such beliefs, or attempting to prevent people from having those beliefs, or adhering to them as moral values.

The problem is that nothing is that simple. Fundamentalist Christianity and Islam teach that certain widespread human behaviors, such as homosexuality or independent thought in women or the use of certain chemicals, are contrary to the moral intent of the creator of the universe. How do we square that with the belief that everyone is equal, that it’s okay to love whomever you choose so long as they are of legal age to love you back or to be a woman without a man to guide her, or to kick back and smoke a joint and chill out in your back yard listening to the Doobie Brothers?

Well, actually, now that I write that, the answer does seem pretty simple after all: we err on the side of allowing other people to live and let live, and we agree to disagree. We don’t call each other Nazis unless we’re actually behaving like the Nazis did: namely, rounding up all the people we think are bad and doing our best to exterminate them. We don’t call each other fascists unless we’re actually engaging in fascist behavior. We don’t call each other Stalinists unless we’re doing what Big Joe did: attempting to control not only the behavior but the thoughts and beliefs of our fellow citizens.

Here’s where I differ from a lot of other people who, like me, call themselves leftists or liberals: I don’t believe we can entirely wipe out racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or sexual violence between men and women, or nationalism, or bigotry towards those of different religions beliefs or no religious beliefs, or economic and class-based prejudice. I think that these things are part of human nature. There have been societies without some of these things, to be sure, but no society has ever existed without any of them.

But I do believe that we can do our best to make them individual, not collective, beliefs. One man or woman’s racism is inevitable; institutional racism is unacceptable. I believe that a Christian who thinks that gay marriage is wrong is perfectly within his or her rights to believe that, but I do not believe that his or her belief should in any way impact a gay couple’s right to get married. Jews and Muslims have all the right in the world to believe that the other ones are going to Hell; but they should have absolutely no right to harm or persecute or inflict societal persecution upon those others.

I believe that the First and Ninth Amendments pretty much cover it:

  • Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
  • The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

There you have it. The only laws that prohibit gay marriage are religious ones; Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion; therefore, Congress shall make no law opposing gay marriage. It doesn’t matter if you oppose gay marriage or not, because you are a citizen of the United States, and in the United States (all the United States), we do not and cannot pass laws which establish one set of religious beliefs over another (or lack thereof). It’s also illegal to make laws banning people from praying or believing the world was made in seven days or that it is wrong for a woman to appear in public without covering herself from head to toe. I may not like that, but again, not my call to make…and thank goodness for that.

It is hard not to see the right wing as being the instigators in the current atmosphere of rabid public discourse. The greatest trick that Ronald Reagan pulled as President was to somehow inextricably tangle fiscal conservativism with social and religious conservativism. To my mind, there is no obvious connection; it is perfectly possible to believe in privatized health care and also be a gay atheist, for example. And though I myself am not particularly fiscally conservative as a political stance — I tend to believe in socializing a certain subset of services for citizens, such as health care, on the grounds that it makes economic sense in the long term if not the short term — I can agree to disagree, respectfully, with people who are, within reason; I have absolutely no time for rabid libertarians who believe in abolishing taxation entirely, because it’s frankly a stupid argument that ignores human nature as thoroughly as any hardline leftist Communist doctrine does.

I can agree to politely disagree with people who believe in the right of every American to carry a lethal firearm — not because I agree with them, but because I believe that issue is so complex and so hardwired into the basic laws of our country that it deserves more debate, and that there are no easy answers.

I can even agree to politely disagree with those who think homosexuality or transgenderism is a sin, or that certain ethnic groups or races are inferior to others, or that women deserve to be treated differently than men. I may find their views abhorrent, but I also find it abhorrent that many people believe Lady Gaga to be an important, transgressive artist, or that sports should take precedence over academics in our public school system. And I suspect that many of my views are abhorrent to these people as well.

I can do that politely, if not with respect; I don’t respect people who deny the evidence of their senses and scientific method and continue to live their lives based upon the notion that the world was made in a week six thousand years ago, based on oral mythology created by Bronze Age nomads who thought the entire universe consisted of the desert they wandered and possibly the mountains on the other side. But you know what? They don’t respect me for thinking dudes should be able to get married and make out in public. And that’s totally fine.

We are a nation of nearly three hundred million people, and the only thing we all have in common is believing that our politicians are corrupt and that the world would be a better place if the entire cast of Jersey Shore got hit by a meteorite. What we desperately need to do is to just be okay with that, and to calm the fuck down and try to find our commonalities.

The only thing I can really say in favor of liberalism versus conservatism is that, by and large, liberals are not trying to take away your right to do anything (except not pay taxes). Conservatives right now are the ones who are telling you you can’t marry somebody of the same sex, or walk around simultaneously believing that the notion of a personal God is bullshit and that you should be able to be elected to public office, that you can be a Muslim and not be treated as if you’re trying to blow up every goddamn plane you see.

Why? Fear, I think. It’s that fear of change. Somebody said to me recently that they’d seen a statistic that the number of Muslims in America was estimated to double in the next twenty years. I responded with the four questions I learned to ask from Bill Hicks: Yeah? And? So? What? So what if 50% of Americans were Muslims? As long as they were Muslims who respected the rights of other people to not be Muslims, so what? So what if we elect a woman as President who likes to eat pussy? The world changes. The people on top of the heap go to the bottom, and the people below them move on up and finally get a piece of the pie, and then twenty years or a hundred years later it flip-flops again. This is how the world works.

I read a criticism of the Rally to Restore Sanity which, in essence, suggests that the whole affair was a way for hipster Generation X America to show that we’re so ironic we don’t need to actually get involved to affect change. I don’t think that’s true. For one thing, it is my experience that ideologues of either stripe are scary, humorless people. (It’s why I can’t live in the Bay Area; too many tedious self-righteous lefties, the kind of people who you wish weren’t on your side.) I am an unwavering supporter of GLBTQ rights across the board, but I can’t stand being around hardcore queer activist types any more than I can stand being around anti-abortion activists. Their hearts might be in the right place, but man, those motherfuckers can’t take a goddamn joke.

And that’s what it all comes down to. We all take ourselves far too seriously in this country, on either side. We get worked up and we start drawing battle lines and calling the people we disagree with monsters and we crank up the volume on public discourse to ear-shattering levels. As Stewart said in his speech: if we amplify everything, we hear nothing.

I’m not saying I’m exempt from this criticism. Hell, I’m a terrible loudmouth and I talk shit and behave like a dismissive asshole. I’m aware of it. What I’m saying here is that Jon Stewart and his massive act of comedic performance art have made me reconsider my own hysteria and hypocrisy.

Maybe it’s because I got married less than 48 hours ago and I’m in a sort of warm, fuzzy daze, but I think I’d like to make a promise to myself: I’m going to calm the fuck down and maybe try to cool it with the cheap shots. Not all religious people are retarded bigots. (Even though, let’s be honest: in the Big Three Western religions at least, the amount of retarded bigotry one displays is directly proportional to how literally one takes one’s chosen faith.) Not all fiscal conservatives are Scrooge-like bastards who kick ghetto children in the face; many of them are just people who have trouble paying the bills, the way I do. Our ideas for fixing our problems are different, that’s all.

I’m not saying there aren’t evil motherfuckers out there who deserve scorn and rage, but I’m going to try to be a bit more precise in my verbal carpet-bombing of them, and more constructive in my criticism of people who simply believe differently than I do. I can’t promise I won’t slip up and, say, mock Catholics for believing that God tells them to fill every goddamn square inch of the Earth’s landmass with dribbling unwanted idiot children. But I’ll do my best.

We needed a rally to restore sanity in America; to remind us that we’re all in this together, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, queer, straight, atheist, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat, and that we’ll go a lot further if we stop trying to destroy each other like characters in a bad fantasy novel, and maybe just sit down and figure out the bits we’ve got in common first, and the things we can agree upon. Even if it’s nothing more than agreeing that deep down inside, we all really, really hate that Snooki chick.

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It Gets Better.

Columnist Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” video campaign has been in the news these past couple of days. The campaign was created in response to a recent rash of suicides by young LGBTQ kids. The videos are by queer adults, letting their younger counterparts know that it does get better, that you can get through the hatred and fear and homophobia of your upbringing and make a wonderful life for yourself.

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This has a real resonance for me. I’m not gay, but I still got gay-bashed in school a lot, because I wasn’t particularly macho and I spoke well and dressed…er, eclectically…and I was friends with a few gay kids and people who later came out. I had a few friends who got it worse than I did, and one of my acquaintances, Matthew Shepherd, got it about as bad as you can get it. My uncle Kevin was also gay; he contracted HIV in 1982, got full-blown AIDS in 1984 and survived until 2002, when he died of a brain tumor he’d been diagnosed with at the same time he’d been diagnosed with AIDS; the doctors didn’t remove it because at the time it was benign, and because in 1984 AIDS was a death sentence that was always quickly carried out. All of Kevin’s lovers and, later, his husbands, were treated like members of our family; his first husband Michael died in my great-grandfather’s arms. So I grew up with gay family members and friends.

But I think this message is vital not just for members of the LGBTQ community, but for every kid, especially the kids whose wonderful minds and personalities mark them as being different from the herd. Goth kids, emo kids, nerds, geeks, freaks, art fags, dorks, hippie kids…every school has at least a few of them. Like me.

I hated every minute of my schooling, from kindergarten onward. I hated the other kids, I hated the teachers, I hated the school administration. I fought every single day not to go to school. And why not? For eleven years I was sent to a place where I was subjected to emotional and often physical cruelty from my peers and indifference and often outright hostility from my educators.

Why? Because I wasn’t like my peers. I was smarter than almost all of them; sorry, but that’s just the flat truth. I was curious and easily bored and I didn’t know how to keep my head down. I was sarcastic and I was insolent, because I hated being where I was and hated the people around me and had absolutely no choice in being where I was. I liked to read, not sit around talking about fucking WWF wrestling. I liked writing music and making art on my computer. I was autodidactic; I educated myself, for the most part, because I ignored my teachers and my schoolwork. I got almost straight Fs from sixth grade onward, except usually in my English classes. When I sat down in my first class, all I could think of was making it to lunchtime without getting humiliated or assaulted; after lunch, I just waited to be sent home.

What I learned in school wasn’t reading, writing and arithmetic; I learned hatred and fear, and I learned that my nominal job in society was to do what I was told. I didn’t learn that lesson then, and at the age of thirty-two, I haven’t learned it now. I do not do what I am told.

I know I’m not alone. Maybe you were one of those kids, who sat in those uncomfortable little desk-chairs and ignored the whispers of “Hey, faggot. Hey, faggot. Hey, cocksucker,” and the spitwads and the slaps in the back of the head when the teacher wasn’t looking; one of the kids who plotted their walk home to avoid where the bullies hung out; one of those kids who sat in their bedroom and thought about putting a gun in your mouth or a noose around your neck because the years until graduation seemed to stretch out like a life sentence with absolutely no hope of parole.

Maybe you’re one of those kids now. Maybe you’re queer, maybe you’re not; maybe you’re just different, the way I was different, the way my friends were different. Maybe you’re scared and hurting and just sick to fucking death of being treated like shit because you don’t wear the same clothes or like the same music or watch the same TV. Maybe you’re having as hard a time as I did seeing the exit door.

If so, I’d like to tell you something. It’s a secret your teachers won’t tell you, your parents probably won’t tell you, it’s something you may secretly believe but deny to yourself in the face of all of the people who are telling you otherwise. The secret is this.

You’re right.

You’re smarter than they are. Really. Trust me. The great thing about Facebook is that I can look and see what the assholes who tormented me are up to. Most of them are sad, pathetic, boring adults. They have tiny lives. Most of them seem to have gotten their skanky girlfriends knocked up at an early age, and have a giant brood of nasty little piglet children. They still like shitty music. They got puffy around the face, the kind of puffy you get when you spend your life getting shit-faced on cheap beer with the rest of the retards because you can’t face the blank wall that is your future. Most of them never left home, or got more than a couple of hundred miles away. A lot of them love Jesus to a really scary degree. Hey, I don’t blame them. If I’d fucked this life up, I’d probably spend all my time dreaming of the next one too.

You’re right about your teachers, too. Most of them just don’t give a shit about you. They’re drawing a paycheck. There are a few who really care — and you’ll remember them, for the rest of your life. A few months ago I called up my wonderful guidance counselor, Clarice Boring, and told her about my impending marriage and my life, and thanked her for being one of those lights during a dark and scary time. You might have an English teacher or an art teacher — or in my fiancee’s case, drama teachers — who are like that. Man, treasure them. They’re good people and sometimes they’re more like family than your family is.

But the rest of them? Fuck them and fuck what they think of you. Don’t assume because they’re in charge that they know better than you how to live your life. They’re just as confused as you are. One of the great secrets of adulthood is that you don’t figure everything out. You just figure out how to make it look like you have.

That goes for your parents, too. Here’s another secret: your parents are just people too. They don’t have all the answers. And no, they probably don’t understand you now. When people have children, they secretly believe that their kids are going to be exactly like them, except that they won’t make the same mistakes. When it turns out that this new person you’ve created is just that, a person, with their own minds and souls and ways of thinking and wants and needs, that might be completely 180º from what you want — a lot of people can’t deal with that.

That sucks, but you know what? That’s not your fault, either. They need to learn to accept who you are and to accept the choices you make. Maybe it’ll take them a while — not everybody’s a quick study — but most of the time, they do figure it out eventually.

And if they don’t, then fuck them. Most cool people I know make their own families out of friends and lovers. If your parents can’t accept you, you just have to understand that and build a family out of the people who do. You’ll find them.

I wish I could tell you there was another way to get through all of this, but there’s not. You’re stuck with this bullshit, kid, right up until the day you get that diploma and bounce the fuck on out of wherever it is the universe started you off — the burbs or the hood or some sad little cowshit town out in the middle of Flyover Country. But from there, you can go anywhere. Anywhere. Sometimes you get to do it in style; you’ve got the grades to go to a kick-ass college and study whatever you want, or parents who can pay to see your dreams realized. If you’ve got that chance, take it.

If that’s not the case — if you’re not bound for Harvard or MIT or UCLA — you can still get out. Nobody’s got a chain around your ankle. Sometimes salvation looks like a Greyhound bus, headed to New York or San Francisco or Portland or Denver. That’s not easy, but it can be done. Plenty of people do it and do well.

I won’t bullshit you: it’s rough out here in the big world. It is. The stakes are higher. You can die out here, get killed, disappear, lose yourself to a bottle or a needle or a pipe. And people like us, who make our own way in the world, often find ourselves in places we’d rather not be, because we’re not following the easy, well-defined path.

But you can make it. And Dan Savage is right: it gets better. It does. I swear to you, kid, it gets better. You make friends. You fall in love. You become master of your own destiny, wherever the world takes you and wherever you decide to go.

And one day, you’ll find yourself over thirty, looking at the life you’ve made — a life you probably couldn’t have even imagined back in the day, back in school — and all the horror and hate and terror will seem like a bad dream that somebody else had. You won’t be that scared person anymore.

And that’s when you’ve won.

My heart breaks for you, kid, and what you’re going through. You may not believe that, but it’s true. It breaks for you and every other kid like you, like me, like us. It breaks for every kid who takes a beatdown because of how they dress or how they think or who they love. As a wise man once wrote, “What I hope most of all is that you understand what I mean when I tell you that though I do not know you and even though I may never meet you, laugh with you, cry with you, or kiss you, I love you. With all my heart, I love you.”

All I can do is repeat myself: it gets better. It gets better. It gets better. You will be beautiful and you will be amazing. You will be loved, you will be admired, you will have people to share your dreams and your life with. You will win.

And fuck anybody who tells you otherwise.

Get to it.

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An open letter to BP’s PR department

Dear BP’s PR department:

First of all, let’s get one thing very, very clear before we go any further: your company has fucked up. Not “made a regrettable error” or “inadvertently” anything. You have caused a massive unnatural disaster. Right now, pretty much everybody on the planet hates your guts. There are guys in caves in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden, sitting around a radio playing the BBC World Service, going “Dude, seriously, fuck BP.”

I can’t imagine there’s anybody who doesn’t actually sit on your board of directors who doesn’t want to kick your asses right now. And by “you”, I mean “everybody who works for BP, including the PR department, the receptionists and probably the janitorial staff”.

So, now that we’ve got that out of the way….

I understand that it is your job to try and make BP’s relations with the public as optimal as possible. You want the public to love your company, to want to consume your products and make everybody a lot of money. You do this, by and large, by figuring out ways to make BP look like the coolest, most environmentally-conscious company in the world. This is a very difficult thing to do when you’re dumping gazillions of gallons of death sauce into the Gulf of Mexico. So you’re probably very busy right now.

One thing you might want to do, however, is to recognize that you’re going to have to ignore one of the basic tenets of public relations: what I mean is, you have to admit you’re wrong. Really, really wrong. Like, the only thing you could have done that was worse was to basically just light the fucking planet on fire while raping babies.

You also need to admit that you were completely careless and ignored your own engineers, who told you this was probably going to happen. You also ignored the fact that your oil well starting actually falling apart like Lindsey Lohan on a mescaline margarita in March, which might have alerted you to a problem.

We know why you did. You’re a corporation. Your job is to make money. And you were afraid you were going to not make as much money if you stopped and actually built an oil well that could actually do the job it was intended for. Let me underline that: there was never, ever any chance you’d lose money on this. You just might have made less money in the short term.

Look: you sell petroleum. You sell the one thing that every nation on the planet is willing to go to war to possess. You’re like Nino Brown in New Jack City, if the entire world was Chris Rock. You’re our momma, you’re our daddy, you’re our nigga in the alley. You’re our pusherman.

The worst that might have happened was that you spent a few million dollars shoring up the Deepwater Horizon, and then you would have gone on making lots more money because it wouldn’t have blown the fuck up. As far as the world is concerned, the only good thing about this spill is that every barrel of that oil is one less barrel you can make a profit on. You’re losing billions of dollars here.

Not that anybody feels sorry for you on that account, so don’t try that tack. It won’t work. In fact, there’s only really one strategy that will be at all effective in saving your company from a planet-wide boycott and bad press the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since Adolf and Eva did their William Tell routine in the bunker in 1945.

It’s very simple. It will work. Nobody will like you, but at least they won’t hate you to the point where they might actually pressure their governments into hounding you into bankruptcy and madness.

Just write a letter. I will even draft it for you. It needs to read something like this:

Dear Earth,

We fucked up. Badly. Very badly. We are completely and utterly horrified by what has happened. Every time we think of what our company’s greed for profit and carelessness has caused, we run to the toilet and puke. We drink a lot these days. Every time we see another picture of an oil-covered bird, we think about doing a full-on Jonestown thing here at BP HQ. Just put the toxin in the air vents and pump it into every office so we don’t have to live with the total horror and guilt for the incredibly awful thing that we specifically have caused to happen. Not to mention the people who died on the rig. That makes us sick whenever we look at ourselves in a mirror, which is why we’ve had all mirrors and reflective surfaces removed from BP HQ until this all gets resolved. We just can’t look at ourselves.

We have no excuses. We have no spin. We take full responsibility for this spill. It was our fault, nobody else’s. It was a completely avoidable accident, and we let it happen because we didn’t really give a shit. We figured that there was a pretty good chance this wouldn’t happen. We were so incredibly wrong. We are thoughtless and careless and greedy. We are grubby little pigs rooting at the teat of 21st century capitalism.

Here’s what we’re going to do to fix this problem: whatever it takes, whatever it costs, as quickly as possible. We are not going to try and save our own equipment or our revenue stream from this oil well, if doing so means that a single extra gallon of this shit burbles up into the Gulf. We know we’re simply going to take a massive loss here. We don’t care. Plugging that hole is our first priority. Everything else we do, all our business, comes second to this.

And once we finally do that, we’re going to spend as many billions of dollars as it takes to clean up our incredibly massive mess. We don’t put a limit on how much we want to earn, so we’re not going to put a limit on how much we’re going to spend. We’re going to usher in a new century of corporate responsibility.

In return, we hope that you understand that we fucked up, and that we’re going to do better in the future. We’re not going to cut corners, we’re going to be careful, and we’re going to keep bringing you this substance that you all rely on in a safe and ethical fashion. We hope that if we can make you truly believe that we’re doing everything we can, you might still buy our product.

Your friends, Beyond Petroleum

So, uh, yeah. I’d go with something like that.

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120 Minutes and the value of curatorship

I was delighted to find on Metafilter a link to The 120 Minutes Archive, a site dedicated to preserving the history of MTV’s long-defunct underground music show 120 Minutes, which was, back in the early 1990s, my gateway to the world of alternative music. (For example, I recorded this show from the summer of 1992 and dubbed it onto a C90 cassette tape by holding my little boombox with the built-in microphone up to the TV’s speaker. I’d walk around listening to the Soup Dragons and Daisy Chainsaw and thinking I was the coolest kid in the world. In point of fact, I still do that, actually.)

A lot of people who bitch about how MTV doesn’t play videos anymore seem to have conveniently forgotten what MTV was actually like in the days before The Real World and Road Rules. It was completely full of horrible, shitty, disposable shlock back then too; it’s just that the shlock was musical rather than reality-televisual in nature.

The first time I saw the video for Nirvana’s”Smells Like Teen Spirit”, it was buried in a block of videos from acts like Poison, Guns ‘n’ Roses, MC Hammer, The New Kids On The Block, Extreme, Mr. Big and C+C Music Factory. Despite the fact that bands like The Pixies, Public Enemy, The Smiths, De La Soul, Nirvana, Mudhoney, and The Happy Mondays were all putting out records and videos at the time, you were far more likely to see the video for Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” or Extreme’s execrable slow jam “More Than Words” every half-hour than “Here Comes Your Man” or “Bigmouth Strikes Again” or “Me, Myself And I”.

(I particularly remember that grating month or so when MTV played Guns ‘n’ Roses’ incredibly pompous, idiotic, tedious, endless video for “November Rain” quite literally every hour and a half. I think they only stopped when the UN issued some sort of proclamation on the use of media as torture.)

For the first few years of its existence, 120 Minutes was produced and hosted by a fellow named Dave Kendall, and it’s hard not to see the show as uniquely a product of Kendall’s taste and choices; why else the constant playing of videos by relatively obscure British acts like The Wonder Stuff and World Party and XTC, as well as industrial groups like Severed Heads and Skinny Puppy who couldn’t get within a light year of MTV’s constant rotation?

But this is precisely what gave the show its value; a great part of the charm of 120 Minutes was that it didn’t focus on a specific genre or style of music; rather, the playlists seemed to be based on Whatever Dave Kendall Thought Was Cool At The Moment. For example, check out this playlist from January 1991:

  • Happy Mondays “Step On”
  • Iggy Pop “Candy”
  • The House of Love “I Don’t Know Why I Love You”
  • The Stone Roses “Fool’s Gold”
  • The Pixies “Dig For Fire/Allison”
  • Cocteau Twins “Iceblink Luck”
  • The Jesus and Mary Chain “Head On”
  • Nine Inch Nails “Head Like A Hole”
  • World Party “Way Down Now”
  • The Soup Dragons “I’m Free”
  • Concrete Blonde “Joey”
  • The Cure “Never Enough”
  • Midnight Oil “Blue Sky Mine”
  • The Charlatans UK “The Only One I Know”
  • The Sundays “Here’s Where The Story Ends”
  • Sonic Youth “Cool Thing”
  • Sinead O’Connor “Nothing Compares 2 U”
  • Peter Murphy “Cuts You Up”
  • Jane’s Addiction “Been Caught Stealing”
  • Depeche Mode “Enjoy The Silence”

That’s a fairly genre-busting little romp through the world of alternative pop circa 1991: you’ve got Madchester, light industrial, wall o’ noise, gloom pop, East Coast alternarock, psychedelia, and, er, Iggy Pop.

Pandora and Last.fm would never generate this playlist: the bands and songs contained within it have very little in common, except that they’re not mainstream music. But it’s still obviously an intentional set of items; anybody who knows the history of pop music would look at this and nod their heads and recognize it as a reasonable and coherent collection.

You can say the same of any random playlist of Santa Monica public radio station KCRW’s legendary Morning Becomes Eclectic show, which is a sort of Apollonian audio-only version of 120 Minutes geared at Angelenos with refined musical sensibilities. These days, those playlists are designed by MBE host Jason Bentley, who used to be the soundtrack supervisor for Six Feet Under.

Bentley and Kendall (who’s still working, so far as I know) are subjective curators of music; they provide unique, individualized filters for music. You either like what they like, or you don’t; but if you do, they serve as nodal points for finding new stuff you wouldn’t find otherwise.

Algorithms can’t, as of yet, find cool; there’s no objective connection between The House Of Love and Nine Inch Nails. It takes a Dave Kendall to find it. And that was why 120 Minutes was so amazing…and the fact that MTV ditched it years ago says pretty much everything you need to know about the state of that particular cable channel.

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John Hughes RIP

bc11John Hughes, director of films such as Pretty In Pink, 16 Candles, The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, has died at age 59 of a heart attack.

Thanks for teaching me how to be cool, guy. :-(

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Helping Wolfram Alpha, pt. 1.

wolfram2

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