On Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians,’ the incel ‘Harry Potter.’

On Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians,’ the incel ‘Harry Potter.’

In fantasy novels, those blessed with magical power often chose to become heroes.

In Ursula Vernon’s Castle Hangnail (suitable for children as young as four and at least as old as forty — our family read it aloud together and we all loved it), the protagonist is a child with prodigious magical gifts but limited training. She’s always trying to make the world a better place. The villain is a weaker mage who attempts to siphon off the hero’s power for her own nefarious ends.

Even when fantasy authors are kind of awful – perhaps using their outsize cultural influence to oppress other people – their wizards mostly strive to do good.

But not in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.

A more accurate reflection of our current world, The Magicians shows wizards making the same sorts of choices as Ivy League graduates – greed and status prioritized over service. Characters celebrate their own brilliance by grabbing as much as they can from the world around them. With great power comes the chance to make money in finance.

#

I love having read Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, but the experience of reading it was often cringe-inducing. The characters are awful, particularly the main protagonist. It’s compelling in the way of Bojack Horseman, a steady desire to see what happens, even while knowing that it won’t be good.

The protagonist, Quentin, is a single-minded young man out for glory. He’d planned to jaunt off to Princeton, in recognition of his stellar performance at New York City magnet schools, but he enrolls at a wizards’ academy instead. There, he steadily accrues magical prowess; he also maintains the selfish ethical nihilism of an embittered teenager.

At times, it’s clear that Grossman has knowingly made his protagonist despicable; at other moments, it wasn’t quite clear whether the author was aware. Quentin revels in the incel attitude that love is owed to him by the world in recognition of his determination and intellect. Quentin puts no effort into building relationships – instead, the author rewards him with the desire of flatly-portrayed women, just another trophy to be won.

Though Quentin begins the book bemoaning that a certain lady friend isn’t interested in having sex with him, he doesn’t remain celibate forever. But his same twisted worldview persists.

In Entitled, Kate Manne writes that

It’s a mistake to think that incels are primarily motivated by sex. Not only are some incels also interested in love (or some outward simulacrum thereof), but their interest in having sex with “Staceys” is at least partly a means to an end – the end being to beat the “Chads” at their own game. Sex thus promises to sooth these men’s inferiority complexes, at least as must as to satisfy their libidos.

Yet another mistake is to think that sex would provide a solution to an incel’s supposed problem. If an incel does start having sex, or gets into a relationship, who will he turn into?

A once-single incel may well become a female partner’s tormentor. Anyone can feel lonely. But a wrongheaded sense of entitlement to a woman’s sexual, material, reproductive, and emotional labor may result in incel tendencies prior to the relationship and intimate partner violence afterward, if he feels thwarted, resentful, or jealous.

In other words, an incel is an abuser waiting to happen.

In The Magicians, women are depicted as having personalities only insofar as they relate to Quentin. When Quentin’s ex-girlfriend sleeps with someone – a man who is kinder, more studious, a better wizard, and has spent weeks working closely on a project with her – it’s soon revealed that she had sex with him only to hurt Quentin.

And when Quentin feels lonely and adrift in the final pages of the novel, the author has a new romantic interest fly through his window – the woman whom Quentin had pined for in high school, whom he refused to help when she was herself distraught, who is now a powerful self-taught wizard and hopes only to serve as a queen alongside Quentin as king in a magical fairyland.

#

Quentin hates his parents – he dismisses their paltry hopes and dreams in a few short paragraphs, and never considers using his newfound powers to help them in any way.

Quentin is indifferent to the world – he uses his magic to score drugs and make money. What else would be worth doing? Other people haven’t worked as hard as he has, Quentin believes, or else they would have been successful, too.

And those few people who are better at magic than Quentin – blessed with more prodigious intellects or greater work ethics – are derided as either sexual deviants or friendless wimps, “so autistically focused that even direct mockery bounced right off him.” As in the novels of Ayn Rand, there can only be one greatest man, and the best women will inevitably fawn over him.

Which is why The Magicians works so well. There’s a persistent meanness throughout. The characters are crude and cruel. Through the lens of fantasy tropes, The Magicians reflects our world.

If Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” could cast spells, what do you think they’d do?

On bad penis puns.

On bad penis puns.

Modern English is built on a foundation of The King James Bible and William Shakespeare – the former, plagiarized from a person we burned on the stake for his efforts; the latter, Lord Regent of Bad Penis Puns, as though his very name compelled him: Willy-I-Am Shake-Spear, Billy Wagcock, old I am a dick now brandishing said dick.

English: a hodgepodge tongue, its literature begun with a bloody tale of dragon baiting, vernacular eschewed until Chaucer made his fame from crude jokes and sex slang, the modern form a mongrel mix of guttural Germanic old and ornate Norman new.

And the modern modern era began in Year 1 p.s.U – the first year “post scriptum Ulysses,” which was, according to T.S. Eliott, “the most important expression which the present age has found,” and perched at the apex of the Harvard committee’s 92% male twentieth century centenary a year otherwise known as 1922, since few aside from antisemitic fascist Ezra Pound felt that Joyce’s tome compelled a novel calendar.

Ulysses: supposedly in conversation with the past, but the conversation only flows one way. Knowing the Greco-Roman myth changes how a reader reads Joyce, but Joyce doesn’t alter our perception of the past, unless to cast undeserved disparagement upon Penelope, privileging post-agrarian men’s fear of wicked women’s wanton sexuality.

Quite the contrast with Barbara Hamby’s poem “Penelope’s Lament,” in conversation with the past as though conversation requires both speaking and listening:

PENELOPE’S LAMENT

Barbara Hamby

No sex for twenty years except with my handmaidens

and myself, so when you turned up like a beggar man,

O I recognized you but needed time to trade in

my poor-widow persona for something more Charlie Chan,

you know, a razor hiding behind a cream puff mask,

irritated by my number-one-and-only son,

ranting about food and money, hiding sheep and casks

of wine in caves, so the suitors would be forced to run

away. As if they would. A more ratty shiftless bunch

of creatures would be hard to rustle up. My bad luck,

they wanted to be king. I’d thought of giving them a lunch

of strychnine. Then you showed up, a geriatric Huck

Finn. So be my guest, finish them off, then I mean

to poison you. O Ithaka is mine. I am queen.

Or there’s Emily Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey, also actually in conversation with the past, respectfully acknowledging words that were there already, gracefully responding with what they’re now seen to mean.

After Odysseus returned and the suitors were slain, his son resolved to murder the women whom the dead suitors had coerced into sex … or raped. In Wilson’s words,

Showing initiative, Telemachus

insisted,

“I refuse to grant these girls

a clean death, since they poured down shame on me

and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.”

At that, he wound a piece of sailor’s rope

round the rotunda and round the mighty pillar,

stretched up so high no foot could touch the ground.

As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly

home to their nests, but somebody sets a trap –

they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;

just so the girls, their heads all in a row,

were strung up with the noose around their necks

to make their death an agony. They gasped,

feet twitching for a while, but not for long.

Joyce’s Ulysses – the unidirectional address – is in conversation with the past the way a bloviating mansplainer is in conversation with his victim.

Mansplaining, better explained not by me (a man) but by Kate Manne, from Entitled (excerpted with a few additional paragraph breaks for internet readability):

On other occasions, manifestations of epistemic entitlement may result in a less privileged speaker deciding not to make her intended or fitting contribution to the conversation. This will then often constitute what the philosopher Kristie Dotson calls “testimonial smothering,” where a speaker self-silences.

A mansplainer may be nigh on uninterruptable.

The point is epitomized by an incident recounted by Rebecca Solnit, in her classic and galvanizing essay “Men Explain Things to Me.”

Solnit had attended a dinner party with a female friend, where she’d been prevailed upon by the older, “distinguished” male host to linger after dinner to talk about her writing.

I hear you’ve written a couple of books,” he offered genially.

Several, actually,” she ventured.

And what are they about?” he inquired, in a patronizing tone – much “the way you encourage your friend’s seven-year-old to describe flute practice,” as Solnit puts it.

She nevertheless obliged and began to describe her most recent book at the time, which was about Eadweard Muybridge, an English American photographer and pioneer of motion pictures.

She didn’t get far, however.

Solnit recalls: “He cut me off soon after I mentioned Muybridge. ‘And have you heard about the very important Muybridge book that came out this year?’ So caught up was I in my assigned role as ingenue that I was perfectly willing to entertain the possibility that another book on the same subject had come out simultaneously and I’d somehow missed it. He was already telling me about the very important book – with that smug look I know so well in a man holding forth, eyes fixed on the fuzzy far horizon of his own authority.”

The very important book, Solnit’s female friend soon realized, was Solnit’s.

The friend tried to interject this point three or four times. But the mansplainer failed, somehow, to hear her.

When he finally registered this news, his face fell; he turned “ashen.”

Solnit writes: “That I was indeed the author of the very important book it turned out he hadn’t read, just read about in the The New York Times Book Review a few months earlier, so confused the neat categories into which his world was sorted that he was stunned speechless – for a moment, before he began holding forth again.”

Of the many insights that Solnit offers us here into the nature of mansplaining, one of the most striking is the way both speakers in this exchange are assigned roles, which are then difficult to break from.

Solnit’s host was the authority, of course; and she was cast as the naive one – “an empty vessel to be filled with [his] wisdom and knowledge” she writes, “in some sort of obscene impregnation metaphor.”

Because of the social dynamics in play here, it then became very difficult to change the course of the conversation.

But the skewed sense of epistemic entitlement that structured the exchange left her host’s face “ashen” when he finally registered his error. She was in danger of humiliating him.

Still, he was only momentarily deterred: he proceeded to explain other things when unceremoniously deprived of that fledgling site of epistemic domination.

Joyce is out to impress and overwhelm – “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” As though only speaking, not listening – not the relationships that outlast us – could save someone from death.

Joyce’s Penelope: a woman, a wife, sexually voracious, not to be trusted. Joyce’s hero, Odysseus: masturbating in public at the sight of a schoolgirl’s underclothes.

As though the original myth were insufficiently misogynistic. As though the myth needed more than the misogyny made clear with Wilson’s words, more than the misogyny marked in Christopher Logue’s War Music, a modern epic in (two-way) conversation with the past, in which Odysseus’s ally Achilles pouts to his mermaid mother:

The Greeks have let their King take my prize she.

And now they aim to privatise that wrong.

Make it Achilles’ brain-ache, fireside, thing.

So go to God.

Press him. Yourself against Him. Kiss his knees.

Then beg Him this:

Till they come running to your actual son,

Let the Greeks burn, let them taste pain,

Asphyxiate their hope, so as their blood soaks down into the sand,

Or as they sink like coins into the sea,

They learn.”

And yet, within Ulysses, there is an absolutely gorgeous scene, some thirty-four pages long in my edition, “Scylla & Charybdis,” in which Stephen Dedalus, Joyce’s Telemachus, lectures lyrically on William Shakespeare.

As expected for an English text, sex jokes abound.

Twenty years he lived in London and, during part of that time, he drew a salary equal to that of the lord chancellor of Ireland. His life was rich. His art, more than the art of feudalism, as Walt Whitman called it, is the art of surfeit. Hot herringpies, green mugs of sack, honeysauces, sugar of roses, marchpane, gooseberried pigeons, ringocandies.

Sir Walter Raleigh, when they arrested him, had half a million francs on his back including a pair of fancy stays. The gombeen woman Eliza Tudor had underlinen enough to vie with her of Sheba. Twenty years he dallied there between conjugal love and its chaste delights and scortatory love and its foul pleasures.

You know Manningham’s story of the burgher’s wife who bade Dick Burbage to her bed after she had seen him in Richard III and how Shakespeare, overhearing, without more ado about nothing, took the cow by the horns and, when Burbage came knocking at the gate, answered from the capon’s blankets: William the conqueror came before Richard III.

Sexuality, per his post-agrarian mind, described as dirty – “scortatory,” a word for sultry goings on that lacks the playful good-humor of “fescennine” or the simple celebration of “sensuous.” In the local university library’s Oxford English Dictionary, the only citation for the word “scortatory” came from this scene, although later editions of the OED include a precedent from 1794 and a nineteenth century denunciation of “scortatory religions.”

Past usage for “capon” is rather more lively, although Joyce’s particular employment is as childishly petty as the Reddit wasteland’s proto-incel overuse of the word “cuck” to describe any unwanted situation – in 1398, Trevisa writes that “the capon is a cocke made as it were female by keruynge away of his gendringe stones.”

Consensual sex as though castrating an uninvited party – not that the encounter between Shakespeare and the woman is described as clearly consensual, but the person supposedly castrated by Willy’s (which would have been Dick’s) dalliance was the burgher, apparently uninvolved in either pairing.

Sex as competition – which perhaps seemed sensible to Joyce since his very eloquence is intended to be competitive, a thunderous plaint demanding that we recognize his exclusive triumph, with this scene a fractal microcosm of the whole, Dedalus’s competitive banter seeking victory for his own (& thereby Joyce’s) prodigious intellect.

Loving or laying or writing to win. Within a world where, without behavior like this, neither sex nor intellect would be mistaken as finite goods.

Throughout the marvelous X+Y: A Mathematician’s Manifesto for Rethinking Gender, Eugenia Cheng encourages us to avoid needless competitive thinking:

In No Contest, Alfie Kohn characterizes competition as coming from situations where resources are scarce.

But education involves a resource that can never be scarce: one person having knowledge and wisdom does not prevent someone else from having it. It might be scarce in the sense that not many people have it, especially when it comes to very specialized knowledge, but the whole point of education should be to share knowledge and wisdom with the next generation and thus ensure that it keeps growing.

So the fact that we make education competitive is at worst contradictory and at best a choice that we should acknowledge and question.

It’s not a competition, but men’s attempts at female sex wit have at times been less than winning, travesties like the Bond-ean “Pussy Galore” or even our Latinate word for internal parts that means etymologically not “birthing channel” or “wayfare of life,” but rather “sheath.” A place to put your sword. With the whole shebang described by medical men too squeamish to undertake actual inspection – the second century Roman scientist Galen instructed his readers (men) to “Think first of the man’s turned in and extending inward.”

It seemed obvious to Galen – despite his likely inability to birth a child – that you could “Turn outward the woman’s” … or “turn inward the man’s” and “you will find the same in both in every respect.”

“The same in every respect.” Except that men also believed that a uterus was a living creature, mischievous and untrustworthy inside a woman’s body – “hysterical,” from the Greek word for “womb,” a castigation that someone’s excess of feeling or rage against patriarchal oppression was due not to circumstance but to her wandering organ. The genitalia that crept up inside her and latched onto her brain.

#

English is for alliteration (which sounds better if you slur the initial vowel sounds into sameness); romance for rhyming. Neither English nor true romance languages have great words for sex, but our latinate word is better.

The term “fornicate” comes from heat and warmth. Although not in the good, true way, that love can both spiritually and corporeally warm us like fresh baked bread. Instead, we have the word because sex is what goes on in brothels, and a traditional set of brothels had vaulted chambers, and these rooms vaguely resembled the shape of baker’s brick ovens, and these hot warm ovens were where bread was made.

Etymologically, fornication leaves something to be desired. And yet, it’s the best we have.

“Fuck” comes from farming and violence – the possible root words mean “to plow” or “to punch”. As though sex is something that a person with a penis does to another.

Not something shared – as with the Maori word “hika,” which can mean either making fire or making love – but something taken. Predisposing English speakers to see men’s genitals as pushy, greedy things. The English language can betray us as we try to build a better world.

Although at times there’s truth. The violence and the greed – at times, tragically often times, men can be such dicks.

On self-importance.

On self-importance.

We only have one life to live. We only have so much time.

How will we use it?

#

There’s a trade-off that many privileged people face – should we focus on family or our career? This choice is especially stark for women, who are often expected to be the primary caretakers for their families, no matter how stellar their career prospects.

Everyone has different priorities, and nearly everyone will end up feeling a wistful sense of regret someday.

Would we be happier if we’d chosen differently? If we’d had children younger? Or if we’d postponed children, spent a few more years building a name for ourselves?

We’ll never know for sure.

In Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter, though, the protagonist finds his answer.

#

NOTE: Dark Matter is a scary science fiction thriller. I enjoyed reading it. Crouch is an excellent storyteller, and he handles almost all the science really well. If you like thrillers, you’d probably enjoy it.

If you’re thinking about reading it, you might not want to read the rest of this essay now, because it’ll spoil some of the plot for you.

Maybe you should navigate away from this page to check the catalog at your local library! Don’t worry – this essay will still be here next month, after you’ve finished the book.

Or maybe you feel like you can’t handle scary thrillers right now, what with regular life being so inordinately stressful. In which case you’re welcome to carry on reading this essay.

#

The protagonist of Dark Matter, Jason, is a brilliant scientist who chose to put his family first – his career has floundered, but his home life is content.

Jason wonders what might have been. A friend from graduate school is winning accolades — fancy grants, publications, and awards.

I could’ve had all that, he thinks wistfully.

In Joseph Heller’s Good As Gold, professor Bruce Gold thinks, “There is no disappointment so numbing as someone no better than you achieving more.” After helping his friend celebrate yet another award, Jason trudges home feeling a similar sentiment.

But then he meets another Jason – a version of himself who, years ago, chose to prioritize his career instead. That Jason has no family. That Jason invented a machine to jump between realities, to enter timelines in which different choices had been made.

That Jason – who chose personal glory over caretaking – is even less happy. And so he kidnaps the initial protagonist, stealing his family and launching him through the machine back into a world where everyone adores his utter brilliance.

And that’s when the first Jason, who’s had a chance to experience both worlds, realizes: love matters more. Money, sex, adulation – none of it can replace his family. He wants to be back with his spouse and child. He’s willing to do anything to get there.

Even murder the myriad copies of himself who all want the same thing.

#

Despite the horrific violence, it’s actually a beautiful way to depict priorities – Crouch shows the value of caretaking by giving his protagonist a choice. Suddenly, Jason is freed from his past. He could be anywhere. He could live in a world where he’d used his earlier time in any possible way.

He wants to be in the place where he chose to love.

#

A strange quirk of storytelling is the ease with which we, the audience, transfer our empathy and compassion to a protagonist. Even a wretched protagonist – if Bojack Horseman were a peripheral character in someone else’s show, he’d obviously be a villain. And yet, in his own show, I cared about him. I wanted him to succeed, even though he’d done nothing to deserve it.

Quentin Tarantino toys with this idea in Pulp Fiction – when John Travolta is the protagonist, sipping an expensive milkshake or reviving his boss’s spouse, I felt deeply invested. But when Bruce Willis is the protagonist and kills Travolta, I don’t care at all – at that moment, I’m only interested in Willis’s experience.

Than Travolta comes back – and behaves horribly – and, somehow, I find myself caring about him again. His impending pointless death is suddenly irrelevant. He jokes that Samuel Jackson wants to be a bum and I laugh along.

We make the same mistake in our own lives – we see ourselves as more important than we really are.

#

A friend’s daughter recently landed in jail, busted over heroin and Xanax. My friend feels conflicted about her daughter’s arrest – being in jail is awful, “But the way she was going, she would’ve died if she didn’t end up there.”

“The problem is, she worries too much. Worries so much about what other people think of her.”

“But she’s starting to get it now. To realize that she doesn’t have to worry, because other people aren’t thinking of her at all.”

#

In Dark Matter – as in Hugh Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics – with every decoherence, the universe splits. Every outcome is real and propagates through time.

(If you like stories set within this framework, I highly recommend Ted Chiang’s “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom,” published in the collection Exhalation.)

And so there are infinitely many copies of Jason who all want to return to his family – every choice that he’s made since the kidnapping has created another world, another Jason hoping to return.

They will all stop at nothing to rescue their spouse and child. And so they begin to kill each other. Infinitely many Jasons are converging on the world they left.

This convergence seems almost plausible while reading, based on the physics of Dark Matter. The problem being, of course, our lapse into self-importance. Our quirk of prioritizing the experiences of a central character.

Within that world, there would be infinitely many Jasons … but there would also be infinitely many copies of the “stolen” spouse and child. Just as many quantum decoherence events would have occurred in their lives as in his.

Comparing the magnitude of infinite numbers can feel puzzling. For example, it might seem like there should be twice as many numbers as there are even numbers … only every other number is even, after all!

But these infinite quantities are the same. If you write every number on a ball, and then you write even numbers on buckets, there are no balls that can’t be put into a bucket. Each ball labeled “N” goes into a bucket labeled “2 * N”.

Infinitely many balls, infinitely many buckets, and the infinities match.

In Dark Matter, there would be infinitely many Jasons, but also infinitely many worlds that he had left behind, so the likelihood of reaching a world with more than two of himself – the protagonist and the original villain – would be vanishingly small.

#

In World of Wonders, Aimee Nezhukumatathil describes a vacation to Kerela, India, with her new spouse. They were eating dinner on a houseboat when they heard noises from the roof.

A troop of macaques were up there eating fruit. Then a wildcat came and chased the macaques off the roof, but the macaques still stayed nearby, watching.

Nezhukumathil and her spouse felt worried – would the macaques attack? Steal their food? They tried to convey their worries to a local resident, who laughed at them. And the monkeys seemed to laugh at them, too.

Nezhukumathil and her spouse finished their dinner quickly and then went inside the houseboat. That night, for the first time that trip, they locked the door to their cabin – “as if these macaques would know how to turn a doorknob and latch.”

“The last thing I remember hearing that night was a distant meowing and chatter-like laughter, and I swear, somewhere in the back waters of Kerala, those bonnet macaques are still having a good laugh over us.”

It’s an easy fallacy to slip into. An experience that’s rare for me – taking a vacation, visiting a doctor, buying a wedding ring – takes on outsize importance precisely for its rarity.

But the salesperson at Goldcasters helps giddy young couples every day. I have a clear memory of the E.R. nurse who gave me a rabies vaccine at 3 a.m., but there’s almost no chance she remembers me – she’s been doing that sort of thing for years.

The macaques spook tourists – and perhaps steal their food, purses, or loose necklaces – every day.

Macaques have their own conscious experience of the world. In their stories, they’re the protagonists. We humans merely dot the periphery. Nameless and forgettable, we fade into the background.

#

As we choose how to live, it helps to maintain a sense of humility about our importance to the greater world.

In time, our money will be gone. Our personal glory, too.

Helping others – choosing caretaking over our careers, at times – can connect our stories to something bigger than an individual.

Of course, eventually all of that will disappear, too. The whole world is terminal – our sun will fade, our species will go extinct, our universe’s entropy will increase until there’s no more heat, no more warmth for anything to happen.

So we also need to prioritize personal happiness while we’re here.

Luckily, loving others tends to make us happy.

On the theory of mind.

On the theory of mind.

In Donnie Darko, kids call a woman in town “Grandma Death.” She’s a feature of the landscape. An object. Interesting to watch sometimes – there she is, hobbling across the street to check the mail – or talk about at dinner.

I didn’t realize she was still alive until we almost hit her with the car.

They say she’s rich.

Donnie Darko’s life changes when he realizes that “Grandma Death” isn’t an object, but a person. She wrote a book. She has hopes and dreams. Donnie writes her a letter, hoping to start a conversation.

#

My family lives in a small town. There are two high schools – my spouse teaches (excellently!) at one of them.

And yet, even though this is a small town, her students often look surprised the first time we cross paths with them outside of school.

“Amazing, right?” my spouse will say. “Teachers don’t just sleep upside-down in their rooms like bats in a cave!”

#

Cognitive scientists discuss “theory of mind,” the understanding that other people have thoughts and feelings. Young children don’t seem to have this. If a child knows something, why wouldn’t everyone else know it, too? If a child doesn’t know something, then how would you?

A common test for “theory of mind” is to have a child watch the following scene: a puppet sees a treat hidden under a cup. The puppet leaves the room. The treat is moved. The puppet comes back, and you ask the child, “Where will the puppet look?”

A young child will point to the place where the treat is. An older child will point to the cup.

Once upon a time, we humans thought that we were the only animals with a “theory of mind.” We aren’t. You can run variations of this experiment with crows, with octopuses. They pass. They know that other creatures know things.

At a fairly young age, most human children learn that other people possess information. They have brains that know.

It takes longer before we learn that others have brains that feel.

#

In Brian Phillips’s essay “But Not Like Your Typical Love Story,” he sketches a biography of the elderly woman who haunted his home town. For Phillips, she was part of the landscape. An object.

By the time he was in high school, Phillips understood that this woman had a story. She’d been fabulously wealthy, once – perhaps the wealthiest person in the world. She’d married her stepfather. Much later, lovelorn and lonely, she found herself giving money to a grifter, following him fruitlessly across the country. She returned to her home town and wore outdated clothes.

Phillips had lost his grandparents. They’d died tragically – alcohol, a boat on the lake, perhaps a heart attack. “The coroner’s best guess was that he had fallen out of the rowboat and my grandmother had drowned trying to save him.

Phillips, growing up, wished he could feel something. He knew his grandparents wouldn’t be coming over anymore. He was nine. He understood what death meant.

But not how it felt.

By high school, Phillips understood so much more about the world. But, even then, did he understand how the world felt?

His favorite place was the museum devoted to the old woman’s life – the Marland Mansion, where she had lived when she was wealthy. Inside was a statue of her at twenty-seven, the year she married her fifty-three year-old stepfather.

Later in life, she’d ordered this statue smashed and buried. “Smash the face first, she’d said.

Later still, after she’d died, secrets were told. That’s where I buried the statue. A curator went and dug it up. The pieces were reassembled. Phillips would stare at the reconstructed statue.

I came close enough to see the pale lines crisscrossing [her] white stone face where the sledgehammer struck it. I tried not to notice them.

You see I was still so young that I thought I should be looking at the statue. I should have been looking at the cracks.

#

As we grow up, we all learn that other people know. Typically, we become kinder in consequence.

If we’re lucky, we learn also that other people feel.

This will break our hearts.

But it’s also like cracking free from inside a shell. Our hearts break. And we can become good.

On grammar in Latin and English.

On grammar in Latin and English.

I spent most of my time during high school doodling in notebooks – during an entire year of biology, the only thing I learned was that the word for several fish of a single type is “fish,” but the word for several fish of different species is “fishes.” 

For dissections – earthworms, giant crickets, pig hearts, and frogs – we were partnered with whomever sat at the table with us.  My partner always brought the newspaper and ostentatiously checked stock prices during class.  The kid in front of me spent a few weeks reading A Confederacy of Dunces. 

My eyesight wasn’t good enough to read over her shoulder.

At least the distinction between fish and fishes turned out to be correct.  My statistics teacher was a baseball coach – he didn’t know calculus, so the only explanation he gave for the workings of a Gaussian distribution was that the numbers were printed on a chart. 

The baseball team had a winning record, though. 

Even in English class, my brain was filled with junk.  We were taught not to split infinitives or end sentences with prepositions.  These are sensible rules in Latin.  An infinitive – like “to read” – is a single word in Latin, so it would be quite strange to put another word in the middle.  Latin also has strict rules about word order — a sentence would be garbled if the preposition was in the wrong place.

But we weren’t learning Latin!  We were learning English, and – lo and behold! – the grammar rules of English are different.  In English, word order is flexible.  A lot of nuance comes from the arrangement of our sentences.  English doesn’t have as many tenses as other languages – there’s no subjunctive – so we English speakers need to scrape out nuance where we can.

In my high school English class, we were also taught not to use “their” as a singular possessive.  Even now, I rarely do – I don’t write “Each student brought their book,” I instead sacrifice the meaning of my sentences and write things like “Students brought their books.”

I was hoodwinked!  Instead of using the word “their” as a singular pronoun – which it is, in English – I trusted my teachers when they claimed that this word was exclusively plural.

Hogwash!  The equivalent claim would be to say that it’s incorrect to write:

You are reading this essay.

After all, “you” is a plural pronoun.  And “are” is the plural conjugation of the verb “to be,” which I used only to match the expected conjugation of the pronoun “you.”  The correct thing to write is:

Thou is reading this essay.

See?  There’s only one person reading, so I need a singular pronoun, “thou,” and a singular conjugation, “is.”

From What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron, I learned that the pronoun “they” has been used as a singular since the 1300s.

In a sense, singular you is even more of a newcomer on the pronoun scene.  The plural you was applied as a singular pronoun to address royalty as early as the thirteenth century and was used in other situations demanding deference and formality – call the monarch thy majesty instead of your majesty and it could mean off with your head.

But you doesn’t appear as a singular in all contexts until the 1600s, when it slowly, slowly starts pushing out thou, thee, thy, and thine, second-person singulars that English speakers had been using since the days of Beowulf.  The th- singulars persist even now in some English dialects, and nineteenth-century grammar books regularly demanded singular thou and thee, along with thy and thine, even though these pronouns were no longer considered standard English.

It consoled me somewhat to read that students have long been taught outdated, inaccurate information.  It’s not just my brain that was filled with rubbish.

When a cabal of misogynistic grammarians worked to replace singular they with he in English textbooks, people tried to protest. 

In 1885, in an article titled “The New Pronoun,” the Atlanta Constitution printed:

There is nothing awkward or ungrammatical in [singular they] so far as the construction of English is concerned.  It is ungrammatical when measured by the Latin method – but what has Latin grammar to do with the English tongue?

If you wanted, you could even make a scientific argument for the validity of singular they – in quantum mechanics, the state of each single particle is described by a superposition of states.  Immediately after a measurement, wavefunctions can “collapse” to be composed primarily of a unique form – after a photon passes through a polarizer, it’s fluctuation will be parallel to the polarizer’s axis.  But even this “up and down” state can be expressed as an equal superposition of two perpendicular polarizations tilted forty-five degrees.  Indeed, the latter expression is the only useful way to describe this photon if it’s about to pass through a second polarizer tilted forty-five degrees from the first.

We are not monolithic.  Each and all of us can be described as an amalgam of many different traits.

But we don’t need any scientific justification for the use of singular they in English.  This grammatical usage is deeply enshrined in our language, and the singular pronoun “they” can best convey the plenitude of many individual humans’ identity & experience.

It’s still difficult for me to use the word “they” as a singular pronoun in formal sentences – my crummy education was pernicious.  The proscriptions are deeply ingrained in my brain.  But I’d like to think that I’m not totally calcified in my ways.  And I’m quite grateful that Denis Baron prepared such an erudite history of English pronoun usage.  What’s Your Pronoun​? is a lovely little book.

I hope that my kids’ brains will be less muddled than my own.  When we read stories aloud, we typically correct unnecessarily gendered language.  Girls and boys become kids.  An actress is an actor, too.  Our Curious George lives in a world of fire fighters and police officers.

I was reading Rob Harrell’s gorgeous Monster on the Hill to our kids when our three-year-old interrupted me.  At first, I couldn’t understand what she was saying.  I asked her to repeat herself.

“You should say spouse.”

from Rob Harrell’s Monster on the Hill

She was right, of course.  I’d unthinkingly read the text as written.  So I felt embarrassed … for a moment.  Then I remembered to feel proud.

On domestication and Sue Burke’s ‘Semiosis’

On domestication and Sue Burke’s ‘Semiosis’

In Sue Burke’s Semiosis, humans reach an alien world with intelligent plants.

The settlers find themselves afflicted by inexplicable infertility.  Most women are able to bear children, but many men are sterile.  The settlement develops a culture in which women continue to marry based on the vagaries of affection, but from time to time, a woman will kiss her spouse goodnight before venturing off for an evening’s energetic tussle with a fertile man.

The human settlement has established itself at the base of a single plant.  This plant has ocular patches and can recognize individual humans.  The plant provides fruit that seems exquisitely tailored to each person’s nutritional needs.  In return, the humans carefully tend the plant – irrigating its groves, clearing away competitors, and fertilizing new growth.

The plant manipulates its human caretakers.  By tweaking the composition of their food, it controls the humans’ health.  Selectively instilling infertility or fecundity allows the plant to direct human evolution.  Among the fourth generation of human settlers, more than half of all children were sired by a placid man who was so contemplative and empathetic that he learned to communicate with the host plant.

The plant domesticated its human caretakers.

#

Here on Earth, flowering plants also co-evolved with animals. 

Plants could very well consider themselves the dominant species in these relationships – after all, plants use animals to do their bidding.  Plants offer tiny drips of nectar to conscript insects to fertilize their flowers.  Plants offer small fruits to conscript mammals to spread their seeds.  And plants far outlive their servants – thousands of generations of animals might flit by during the lifetime of a single tree.

Some plants directed the evolution of their helpers so well that the species are inextricably linked – some insects feed on only a single species of plant, and the plant might rely on this single species of insect to fertilize its flowers.  If either the plant or insect disappeared, the other would go extinct.

#

In Semiosis, the alien plant changes its attitude toward humans over the generations.  At first it was concerned only with control and utility.  The motile beasts were a tool that it could manipulate with pleasing colors and psychoactive fruits. 

Eventually, though, the plant develops an affection for its human wards.  Of course, these humans are markedly different from the people who first arrived on this planet.

The plant’s affections changed in the same way that our own attitude toward wolves softened as we manipulated the species.  Many humans are still reflexively afraid of wolves.  We tell children stories about Little Red Riding Hood; when I’m walking in the woods, sometimes I find myself humming the refrain from “Peter and the Wolf.”  The ecosystem of Yellowstone Park was devastated when we murdered all the wolves during the 1920s; willow and beaver populations have rebounded since wolves were reintroduced in the 1990s (most likely because wolves mitigate the damage done by uncontrolled elk populations); now that Yellowstone’s wolf population isn’t critically endangered, states surrounding the park are letting human hunters shoot wolves again.

And yet, we giggle at the antics of domesticated dogs.

#

Among wild animals, the most aggressive individuals are often the most fecund.  Wolves who can fight for and hold the alpha rank get to breed; the others don’t.

During domestication, breeding patterns are altered.  To create dogs, we selected for the most docile individuals.  If you could expand your temporal horizons wide enough, all populations might seem as mutable as clay.  A species flows through time, ever changing, evolving such that the traits that best lead to viable children become more common.  In the wild, a speedy rabbit might have the most children, because it might survive for more breeding seasons than others.  On a farm, the most docile rabbit might have the most children, because its human handlers might give a docile male more time among the females.

Domestication seems to change animals in stereotyped ways.  Zoologist Dmitry Belyayev designed an experiment with wild foxes.  Only the foxes that were least fearful of humans were allowed to breed; over the course of some dozen generations, this single criterion resulted in a large number of behavioral and morphological changes.  The domesticated foxes produce less adrenaline; they have narrower faces; they have floppier ears.  This suite of traits seems to be present in almost all domesticated species.

Cats still have pointy ears.  As it happens, cats are barely domesticated.

#

Humans seem to be self-domesticated. A few hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors lived in very small groups, maybe one or two dozen individuals.  After humans diverged from the last common ancestor that we shared with bonobos and chimpanzees, most human species still lived in groups of about this size.  Neanderthals may have lived in groups as small as six.

Eventually, Homo sapiens drove all other human species to extinction.  A major competitive advantage was that Homo sapiens lived and worked in groups as large as a hundred.  With so many people cooperating, they could hunt much more efficiently.  A violent conflict between six Neanderthals and a clan of a hundred Homo sapiens would not go well for the Neanderthals.

In the modern world, the population densities of urban areas force humans to be even more docile than our recent ancestors.  But even with our whole evolutionary history promoting cooperation, many people struggle to be calm and kind within the crowded confines of a city.  Some can do it; others feel too aggressive.

When a person’s disposition is ill-suited to the strange environment we’ve made, we punish.  We shunt people to high school detention, or jail.

In Semiosis, the plant overlord reacts by limiting fertility.

#

As in Richard Powers’s Overstory, the perspective of a long-lived, immobile plant would be markedly different from ours.  Human generations flit by as a plant continues to grow.

The bamboo forest/grove in Arashiyama, Kyoto, Japan. Photograph by Daniel Walker on Flickr.

Domestication takes generations – in Belyayev’s fox experiment, twenty generations passed before a third of the population was tame – but an intelligent plant could wait.  By selecting which individuals get to pass on their genes, huge changes can be made.  From wolves, we created Great Danes and Chihuahuas.  From a scruffy grass we evoked buxom ears of corn, as though by glacial magic.

#

In particularly dark eras of our past, humans have tried to direct our own evolution.  Social Darwinists in the United States forcibly sterilized people whom they disliked.  Politicians in Nazi Germany copied the legal language of the United States when they sought philosophical justification for the murder of entire religious and ethnic groups.

By putting the motivation inside the mind of a plant, Burke is able to explore the ramifications of directed human evolution without alluding to these evil regimes.

#

In jail, somebody said to me, “I heard that humans were evolving to have really long fingers, so we could type real fast, and big-headed hairless bodies.”

“Yeah, yeah,” somebody added, “I saw this thing on the Discovery channel, it was like, you know the way they show all those aliens on the X-Files?  That humans were gonna be like that, like the aliens were just us coming back to visit from the future.”

Illustration of “future humans” by Futurilla on Flickr.

I murmured in disagreement. 

“Humans are definitely still evolving.  But evolution doesn’t have a goal.  It just selects for whichever properties of a creature are best for making copies of itself.”

“With modern medical care, we don’t die so easily.  So the main driver of evolution is the number of kids you have.  If you have more kids than I do, then you’re more fit than I am.  Future humans will look more like you than me.”

“There’s not much data yet, because evolution happens over such a long time, but the one study I’ve seen recently showed that humans in the United States are evolving to be shorter.”

“But it’s not like we’re getting shorter so that we’ll fit better inside spaceships.  It’s just that shorter people have been having more kids.”

#

Plants have directed the evolution of bees.  Of bats – there’s a bat species that fertilizes agave, another that fertilizes mangoes, and so on. 

Photo by Marlon Machado on Flickr.

Plants directed our evolution, too.  We owe our color vision to our history as fruit eaters – we needed to see the difference between ripe reds and green buds.

And, like all populations, we are changing.  Evolution isn’t done.

What might a clever plant want us to become?

On translation and quantum mechanics.

On translation and quantum mechanics.

We have many ways to express ideas.  In this essay, I’ll attempt to convey my thoughts with English words.  Although this is the only metaphoric language that I know well, humans employ several thousand others – among these there may be several that could convey my ideas more clearly.

The distinct features of a language can change the way ideas feel

Perry Link writes that,

In teaching Chinese-language courses to American students, which I have done about thirty times, perhaps the most anguishing question I get is “Professor Link, what is the Chinese word for ______?”  I am always tempted to say the question makes no sense.

Anyone who knows two languages well knows that it is rare for words to match up perfectly, and for languages as far apart as Chinese and English, in which even grammatical categories are conceived differently, strict equivalence is not possible.

Book is not shu, because shu, like all Chinese nouns, is conceived as an abstraction, more like “bookness,” and to say “a book” you have to say, “one volume of bookness.”  Moreover shu, but not book, can mean “writing,” “letter,” or “calligraphy.”  On the other hand, you can “book a room” in English; you can’t shu one in Chinese.

There is no perfect way to translate an idea from Chinese words into English words, nor the other way around.  In Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, Eliot Weinberger reviews several English reconstructions of a short, seductively simple Chinese poem.  The English variants feel very different from one another – each accentuates certain virtues of the original; by necessity, each also neglects others.

Visual appearances can’t be perfectly described with any metaphoric language.  I could write about a photograph, and maybe my impression would be interesting – the boy’s arms are turned outward, such that his hands would convey a gesture of welcome if not for his grenade, grimace, and fingers curled into a claw – but you’d probably rather see the picture.

Here’s Diane Arbus’s “Child with a toy hand grenade in Central Park, N.Y.C.” 

This isn’t to say that an image can’t be translated.  The version posted above is a translation.  The original image, created by light striking a photosensitive film, has been translated into a matrix of numbers.  Your computer reads these numbers and translates them back into an image.  If you enlarge this translation, your eyes will detect its numerical pixelation.

For this image, a matrix of numbers is a more useful translation than a paragraph of my words would be. 

From a tutorial on computer vision prepared by Amy Jin & Vivian Chiang at Stanford.

Different forms of communication – words, pictures, numbers, gestures, sounds – are better suited to convey different ideas.  The easiest way to teach organic chemistry is through the use of pictures – simple diagrams often suffice.  But I sometimes worked with students who weren’t very visual learners, and then I’d have to think of words or mathematical descriptions that could represent the same ideas.

Science magazine sponsors an annual contest called “Dance Your Ph.D.,” and although it might sound silly – can someone understand your research after watching human bodies move? – the contest evokes an important idea about translation.  There are many ways to convey any idea.  Research journals now incorporate a combination of words, equations, images, and video. 

Plant-soil feedbacks after severe tornado damage: Dance Your PhD 2014 from atinytornado on Vimeo.

A kinetic, three-dimensional dance might be better than words to explain a particular research topic.  When I talked about my graduate research in membrane trafficking, I always gesticulated profusely.

My spouse coached our local high school’s Science Olympiad team, preparing students for the “Write It Do It” contest.  In this competition, teams of two students collaborate – one student looks at an object and describes it, the other student reads that description and attempts to recreate the original object.  Crucially, the rules prohibit students from incorporating diagrams into their instructions.  The mandate to use words – and only words – makes “Write It Do It” devilishly tricky.

I love words, but they’re not the tools best suited for all ideas. 

If you’re curious about quantum mechanics, Beyond Weird by Philip Ball is a nice book.  Ball describes a wide variety of scientific principles in a very precise way – Ball’s language is more nuanced and exact than most researchers’.  Feynman would talk about what photons want, and when I worked in a laboratory that studied the electronic structure of laser-aligned gas clouds, buckyballs, and DNA, we’d sometimes anthropomorphize the behavior of electrons to get our thoughts across.  Ball broaches no such sloppiness.

Unfortunately, Ball combines linguistic exactitude with a dismissal of other ways of conveying information.  Ball claims that any scientific idea that doesn’t translate well into English is an insufficient description of the world:

When physicists exhort us to not get hung up on all-too-human words, we have a right to resist.  Language is the only vehicle we have for constructing and conveying meaning: for talking about our universe.  Relationships between numbers are no substitute.  Science deserves more than that.

By way of example, Ball gives a translation of Hugh Everette’s “many worlds” theory, points out the flaws in his own translated version, and then argues that these flaws undermine the theory.

To be fair, I think the “many worlds” theory is no good.  This is the belief that each “observation” – which means any event that links the states of various components of a system such that each component will evolve with restrictions on its future behavior (e.g. if you shine a light on a small object, photons will either pass by or hit it, which restricts where the object may be later) – causes a bifurcation of our universe.  A world would exist where a photon gets absorbed by an atom; another world exists where the atom is localized slightly to the side and the photon speeds blithely by.

The benefit of the “many worlds” interpretation is that physics can be seen as deterministic, not random.  Events only seem random because the consciousness that our present mind evolves into can inhabit only one of the many future worlds.

The drawback of the “many worlds” interpretation is that it presupposes granularity in our universe – physical space would have to be pixelated like computer images. Otherwise every interaction between two air molecules would presage the creation of infinite worlds.

If our world was granular, every interaction between two air molecules would still summon an absurd quantity of independent worlds, but mere absurdity doesn’t invalidate a theory.  There’s no reason why our universe should be structured in a way that’s easy for human brains to comprehend.  Without granularity, though, the “many worlds” theory is impossible, and we have no reason to think that granularity is a reasonable assumption.

It’s more parsimonious to assume that sometimes random things happen.  To believe that our God, although He doesn’t exist, rolls marbles.

(This is a bad joke, wrought by my own persnickety exactitude with words.  Stephen Hawking said, “God does play dice with the universe.  All the evidence points to him being an inveterate gambler, who throws the dice on every possible equation.”  But dice are granular.  With a D20, you can’t roll pi.  So the only way for God to avoid inadvertently pixelating His creation is to use infinite-sided dice, i.e. marbles.)

Image of dice by Diacritica on Wikimedia images.

Some physicists have argued that, although our words clearly fail when we attempt to describe the innermost workings of the universe, numbers should suffice.  Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “Math is the language of the universe.  So the more equations you know, the more you can converse with the cosmos.

Indeed, equations often seem to provide accurate descriptions of the way the world works.  But something’s wrong with our numbers.  Even mathematics falls short when we try to converse with the cosmos.

Our numbers are granular.  The universe doesn’t seem to be.

Irrational numbers didn’t bother me much when I was first studying mathematics.  Irrational numbers are things like the square root of two, which can only be expressed in decimal notation by using an infinite patternless series of digits.  Our numbers can’t even express the square root of two!

Similarly, our numbers can’t quite express the electronic structure of oxygen.  We can solve “two body problems,” but we typically can’t give a solution for “three body problems” – we have to rely on approximations when we analyze any circumstance in which there are three or more objects, like several planets orbiting a star, or several electrons surrounding a nucleus.

Oxygen is.  These molecules exist.  They move through our world and interact with their surroundings.  They behave precisely.  But we can’t express their precise behavior with numbers.  The problem isn’t due to any technical shortcoming in our computers – it’s that, if our universe isn’t granular, each oxygen behaves with infinite precision, and our numbers can only be used to express a finite degree of detail.

Using numbers, we can provide a very good translation, but never an exact replica.  So what hope do our words have?

The idea that we should be able to express all the workings of our universe in English – or even with numbers – reminds me of that old quote: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for the children of Texas.”  We humans exist through an unlikely quirk, a strange series of events.  And that’s wonderful!  You can feel pleasure.  You can walk out into the sunshine.  Isn’t it marvelous?  Evolution could have produced self-replicating objects that were just as successful as us without those objects ever feeling anything.  Rapacious hunger beasts could have been sufficient.  (Indeed, that’s how many of us act at times.)

But you can feel joy, and love, and happiness.  Capitalize on that!

And, yes, it’s thrilling to delve into the secrets of our universe.  But there’s no a priori reason to expect that these secrets should be expressible in the languages we’ve invented.

On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather.’

On Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘We Are the Weather.’

The choices we’re making might cause everyone to die.

That’s kind of sad.  I like being alive, and I like the thought that other humans might be alive even after I am gone. 

Some people – the original Millennials, for instance – prefer to imagine that the world would end when their world ends.  But for those of us who feel that helping others adds to the meaning of our lives, it’s more satisfying to imagine humanity’s continued existence.  Each good deed is like a wave, rippling outward, causing people to be a little kinder to others in turn. 

These waves of kindness can’t last forever – our universe began with a finite quantity of order, which we use up in order to live – but they could persist for a very long time.  Humans could have many billions of years with which to colonize the stars.

Unless we go extinct sooner.  Which we might.  We’re destabilizing the climate of the only habitable planet we know.

Venus used to be habitable.  We humans could’ve flown there and set up a colony.  But a blip of excess greenhouse gas triggered runaway climate change.  Now Venus has no liquid water.  Instead, the planet is covered in thick smog.  Sulfuric acid rains from the sky.

I would rather we not doom Earth to the same fate.

There are things you can do to help.  In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer lists the (abundant!) evidence that animal agriculture is the leading cause of climate change.

You should still turn off the lights when you leave a room.  If you can walk to the park instead of driving, do it!  Every effort you make to waste less energy is worthwhile!

But it helps to take stock of the numbers.  If everyone with a conventional automobile could suddenly exchange it for a hybrid vehicle, we’d still be emitting 96% as much greenhouse gas.  If everyone decided to eliminate animal products from their diet, we’d be emitting 50% as much.

Switching to hybrid vehicles wouldn’t save us.  Deciding to eat plant-based foods would.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to make this switch.  Not least because the peril we’ve placed ourselves in doesn’t feel compelling.  It’s like the difference between venus flytraps and pitcher plants.  With a venus flytrap, you can see the exact moment that a bug is doomed.  Those spikey mandibles close and that’s the end!  When a bug lands on a pitcher plant, though, its fate is sealed well before the moment when it finally topples into the digestive water.  The lip of a pitcher plant is sloped and slippery; the actual boundary between life and death is unnoticeable.

Because climate change will be exacerbated by so many feedback loops, by the time we see the precipice it’ll be too late.

In Foer’s words,

The chief threat to human life – the overlapping emergencies of ever-stronger superstorms and rising seas, more severe droughts and declining water supplies, increasingly large ocean dead zones, massive noxious-insect outbreaks, and the daily disappearance of forests and species – is, for most people, not a good story. 

When the planetary crisis matters to us at all, it has the quality of a war being fought over there.  We are aware of the existential stakes and the urgency, but even when we know that a war for our survival is raging, we don’t feel immersed in it.  That distance between awareness and feeling can make it very difficult for even thoughtful and politically engaged people – people who want to act – to act.

History not only makes a good story in retrospect; good stories become history.  With regard to the fate of our planet – which is also the fate of our species – that is a profound problem.  As the marine biologist and filmmaker Randy Olson put it, “Climate is quite possibly the most boring subject the science world has ever had to present to the public.”

I like that Foer tries to wring empathy from this dull story.  He writes about his personal struggles to be good.  If it were necessary to blow hot air from a hairdryer into a small child’s face each time we bought a cheeseburger, few people would buy them.  But it’s more difficult to restrain ourselves when we instead know vaguely – rationally, unemotionally – that each cheeseburger we buy will exacerbate the hot air – and floods, and droughts, and malaria – that children will one day have to bear.

Our brains are good at understanding cause and effect when they are closely linked in time and space.  Push a button, hear a sound!  Even babies understand how to work a toy piano.  Even my ill behaved dogs know better than to misbehave in front of me (chew the pillow, get shut in bathroom).

My dogs struggle when an effect comes long after the initial cause.  Furtively chew a pillow, get shut in bathroom several days later, once the human finally discovers evidence?  That’s not compelling for my dogs.  The punishment is too long delayed to dissuade them from mastication.

Buy a cheeseburger today – make our children’s children’s children go hungry from global crop failure.  That’s not compelling.  Our brains can’t easily process that story.

We can understand it, but we can’t feel it.

And that’s the message of Foer’s book.  How can we – collaboratively – create a world in which it’s easy to do the right thing?  How can we make cheeseburgers feel bad?

An intellectual understanding – cheeseburgers requires farms with cows, cows emit methane, cows take space, farmers destroy forests to make space, cheeseburgers cause climate change – isn’t enough to create that feeling.  Climate change is too dull a story.

Even worse, climate change isn’t even the most boring story to tell about our extinction.  In We Are the Weather – an entire book in which Foer castigates himself for contributing to harms that will befall his descendants some 100 to 200 years in the future (because that’s when climate change will get really bad) – Foer doesn’t even mention that he’s also causing harms that will befall his descendants 30 to 60 years in the future.

Even though these nearer term harms are equally calamitous.  Even though these nearer term harms are just as definitively known to be caused by cheeseburgers.

Climate change is dull.  Antibiotic resistance is even more dull.

It’s pretty bad when something is more boring than talking about the weather.

Most farmed animals are constantly given low doses of antibiotics. As it happens, this is exactly the protocol you’d use for a directed evolution experiment if you were trying to make antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

There’s an old story about a king, Mithridates, whose father was assassinated with poison.  Mithridates trained his body with exposure to low doses of poison so that he would be able to survive higher doses. 

It was a clever strategy.  We’re helping bacteria do the same thing.

Our world will be nightmarishly different once antibiotics stop working.  My own children are three and five years old.  They’ve gotten infections that we needed to treat with antibiotics about a dozen times.  Two weeks of taking the pink stuff and my kids got better.

In a world with antibiotic resistant bacteria – which we are creating through animal agriculture – any of those dozen infections could have killed my kids. 

You should watch the New York Times video about antibiotic resistance.  By 2050, it’s likely that more people will die from antibiotic resistant bacterial infections than from cancer.

Click the image to head to the NYT movie — well worth it.

Huge quantities of money are being spent to develop new anti-cancer drugs – new ways for elderly people to stave off time.  Meanwhile, it’s not just that we spend so little developing antibiotics.  We are actively making these drugs worse.

Antibiotic resistance isn’t a compelling story, though.  To feel a connection between a cheeseburger and your someday grandkid dying in bed, feverish and septic, you’d have to understand the biochemistry of lateral gene transfer, DNA replication, mutation, drug metabolism.  You’d need to be able to see in your mind’s eye the conditions that farmed animals are raised in.

And, honestly?  People who can vividly picture a concentrated animal feeding operation or slaughterhouse probably aren’t the ones buying cheeseburgers.

But if the world doesn’t change, their grandkids will die too.

.

.

Featured image: Everglades National Park by B. Call.

On social norms.

On social norms.

I assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  Neither have I.  The number of people who have done the actual cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.

I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States.  If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.

And the rain forest is beautiful.  Future generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it were gone.

When I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the Amazon rain forest.  In retrospect, I’m not sure what this entailed.  We raised money and sent it off in an envelope.  I don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees. 

I have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct.  Many of the world’s problems would be easier to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for everyone.  At the very least, if there are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.

Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed.  Everyone in the world would suffer as a result.  If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.

Unless you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this policy on your own.  If I decided to split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.

A guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can accomplish as an individual.

In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today.  We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems.  It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.

Foer describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself.  This sensation grows more intense as he watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.

But what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?

Foer knows that he could choose to help.  Each day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.

He often doesn’t.

There is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that parades as acceptance.  Those of us who know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the anger.  We should be terrified of ourselves.  We are the ones we have to defy.  I am the person endangering my children.

As you read this, the Amazon rain forest is being destroyed.  Why?  To clear space for cows to graze.

Photo by Joelle Hernandez on Flickr, whose caption from this 2007 photograph reads, “On a few occasions Brazilians told me that ‘People thousands of miles away are contributing to our deforestation.'”

Even if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest to be destroyed. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  A good cheese pizza can be divine.  Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious.  Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.

Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades.  He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments.  He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.

But this knowledge isn’t enough.  He still surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.

So why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years?  Why has it become harder?  I crave meat more now than I have at any point since I became a vegetarian.

Foer wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants. 

Eating meat is pleasurable.  Eating cheese is pleasurable. 

Injecting heroin is pleasurable too.  Driving a car while drunk is pleasurable.  Heck, even cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance behind you would be pleasurable.

In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances.  Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.

Meats and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all climate-change-causing emissions. 

(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets.  If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change.  If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change.  Only 20%.  By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change.  You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)

The current administration has gutted the EPA, and compelled their staff scientists to restate their findings in the weakest ways possible … and these are the numbers still posted on their website.

If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently.  If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.

If we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas emissions could be 50% of what they are currently.  With no other changes, humanity would survive.  Our planet would remain habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.

Pleasure matters.  I’m an atheist, and I’m well aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will go extinct eventually.  I don’t believe you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.

Your life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese.  I support responsible hedonism.  Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that protect our planet.  Most people think that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your sexuality only with other consenting adults.  Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in our culture, a social norm restrains us. 

Well, most of us.

Foer wishes that we, as a people, could choose better.  He’s been struggling to eat food made from plants.  But he doesn’t struggle to restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students.  In those instances, our social norms make it easy to do the right thing.

And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants!  If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.

Deep dish pizza, mac and cheese, nachos and more — all vegan at Kitchen 17.

Feature image by Neil Palmer / CIFOR on Flickr.

On sex work and demand.

On sex work and demand.

I have only occasionally paid for sex work. 

At a library booksale, I purchased a copy of The Magus intending only to read the racy bits.  At a comic shop in California, I bought a bundle of Playboy magazines from the 1970s.  After reading an interview with the Erika Lust, my spouse & I watched some of her company’s short films.  While traveling in India with friends, we visited a health center and each purchased an Ayurvedic massage.

For the massage, each of us was taken to private rooms and told to change into rather skimpy thong underwear.  Then a trained professional – a man for the males in our group, a woman for the females – rubbed our bodies with a blend of oil and spices, carefully kneading our muscles.  There wasn’t the sort of rhythmic, focused attention that I imagine to be a component of “happy endings,” but midway through I began to fret about what I would say if that was the sort of massage that I’d inadvertently purchased.

Worrying left me even more tense after the massage than before it started.  Whoops.

Although, after we had all showered and reconvened in the lobby, my friend who’d convinced us to try ayurvedic massage regaled us with a story from his childhood.  His parents were Indian, and massage was a totally normal part of their culture.  And so, during a family vacation to Mexico when my friend was fourteen, his mother purchased a massage for him at one of the tents near their beach. 

Midway through, the masseuse wrapped her fingers around his oiled penis and rapidly pumped back and forth.  My friend was alarmed but, as a naive adolescent, didn’t know how to make it stop.  So he assumed that the easiest way to get through the experience was to close his eyes and think of things sultrier than England.

The masseuse cleaned off his belly.  He sheepishly exited the tent.  His mother asked, “Was it a good massage, beta?”

He averted his eyes and mumbled, “yup.”  Most teenagers act embarrassed and cagey around their parents all the time, so she didn’t realize anything was wrong.

She would have been outraged to realize that she had hired a sex worker. 

Sex work is a slippery concept, though.  In the process of writing this essay, I tried to come up with a definition; I failed.  You could reasonably argue that all massage therapists are sex workers.  Patrons are nearly naked; there’s a whole lot of lubricated skin-to-skin contact; a body is used as conduit to satiation.

A number of other professions fit most of the definitions of “sex work” that I came up with.  In strip clubs, lap dancers rub against a patron’s body in order to produce orgasm.  After pregnancy, many women visit physical therapists who help them regain bladder control; a worker rhythmically curls her gloved fingers inside the patron’s vulva.  A model might pose for Playboy – or even the Victoria’s Secret catalog – knowing that young men will climax while gazing at her image.  An actor in a pornographic film engages in sexual contact for money; so do police officers.

A writer who drafts an erotic story is arguably a sex worker, too.  The experience is enjoyed asynchronously, but the exchange of titillating words can be a form of sexuality, and a patron can certainly reach orgasm.

In practice, these people are unlikely to face legal consequences for their sex work.  Because the term “prostitution” is so nebulously defined, prosecutors and judges get to decide what counts.

Even for full-fledged, both-parties-shuck-their-clothes, somebody’s-parts-enveloping-somebody-else’s-parts types of sex work, certain people slide right past the law.  Many clients look like prosecutors and judges – wealthy, white, and male – so it’s easy to feel sympathy for them.  Hasn’t the bad press already hurt this man enough?  And, he’s a pillar of his community!  We’d cause too much collateral damage by locking him up!

From Bloomberg.

Instead, we punish people who are already marginalized.  Poor people, Black people, brazen women, LGBTQ folks, undocumented immigrants, drug addicts … they elicit little sympathy from our prosecutors.  Go ahead and lock them up.  Fine them.  Deport them.

Juno Mac and Molly Smith have written an excellent book, Revolting Prostitutes, documenting the actual results of our laws against sex work.  On the topic of nebulous definitions, Mac and Smith write that, in England (where sex work itself has been decriminalized, but every measure that would allow sex workers to keep themselves safe is illegal):

The definition of brothel-keeping is so capacious as to easily facilitate the criminalization of sex workers: a brothel can be any place where ‘more than one woman offers sexual intercourse, whether for payment or not’ or that is ‘resorted to for the purposes of lewd homosexual practices’.  In other words, a flat-share where both housemates regularly have casual non-commercial sex could theoretically count as a brothel under British law.

Vague and misogynistic, this is exactly the sort of language that leads to injustice.  Police officers haven’t been raiding the apartments of college kids who choose to fool around with their classmates; instead, they use this law as another tool to oppress undocumented immigrants.

It should be no surprise that carceral feminists and sex-working feminists have such difficulty even discussing this topic.  We disagree not only on the solution but on the problem: for carceral feminists, the problem is commercial sex, which produces trafficking; for us, the problem is borders, which produces people who have few to no rights as they travel and work. 

The solutions we propose are equally divergent.  Carceral feminists want to tackle commercial sex through criminal law, giving more power to the police.  For sex workers, the solution includes dismantling immigration enforcement and the militarized border regimes that push undocumented people into the shadows and shut off their access to safety or justice – in other words, taking power away from the police and giving it to migrants and to workers.

Mac and Smith acknowledge that there are valid reasons to dislike the existence of sex work.  But there is a danger – if we are too focused on the risk that society might view women’s bodies as objects to be bought and sold, we might lose sight of the real problem. 

Most sex workers don’t like their jobs.  They sell sex because they need money.

When we devote resources to the criminal justice system instead of the social services that people need, we make the problem worse.

We are not here to uplift the figure of the ‘sympathetic’ client, nor the idea that any client has a ‘right’ to sex.  We are not here to prioritize discussion on whether the sex industry, or even sex itself, is intrinsically good or bad.  Nor – as we will unpack over the course of this book – are we uncritical of what work means in a context of insatiable global capitalism and looming environmental catastrophe.

In the sense that we wish to see an end to all work, particularly the gendered and exploitative nature of prostitution, many sex worker activists are in fact ‘sex industry abolitionists’.  As the English Collection of Prostitutes have said, ‘Ultimately we are organizing for an end to prostitution … When women are able to claim back the wealth we helped produce, the economic conditions which have forced millions of people everywhere to sell their mind, body, time, and skills in order to survive or improve their standard of living, prostitution will no longer be there.’

[Anti-prostitution feminists] position work in general as something that the worker should find fulfilling, non-exploitative, and enjoyable.  Deviation from this supposed norm is treated as evidence that something cannot be work. 

It’s not work, it’s exploitation’ is a refrain you hear again and again.  One feminist policymaker in Sweden told a reporter, ‘Don’t say sex work, it’s far too awful to be work.’  Awfulness and work are positioned as antithetical: if prostitution is awful, it cannot be work.

Anti-prostitution feminists and even policymakers often ask sex workers whether we would have sex with our clients if we weren’t being paid.  Work is thus constantly being re-inscribed as something so personally fulfilling you would pursue it for free. 

Indeed, this understanding is in some ways embedded in anti-prostitution advocacy through the prevalence of unpaid internships in such organizations. … The result of these unpaid and underpaid internships is that the women who are most able to build careers in the women’s sector – campaigning and setting policy agendas around prostitution – are women who can afford to do unpaid full-time work in New York and London.  In this context, it is hardly a surprise that the anti-prostitution movement as a whole has a somewhat abstracted view of the relationship between work and money.

Work may be mostly positive for those who can largely set the parameters of the conversation, like high-profile journalists.  However, this does not describe reality for most women workers or workers in general (or even many journalists). 

Most workers suffer some unfair conditions in the workplace and would not, as a rule, do their jobs for free.  Work is pretty awful, especially when it’s low paid and unprestigious.  This is not to say that this state of affairs is good, or that we should accept it because it is normal, but nor is it useful to pretend that work is generally wonderful and exclude from our analysis the demands of workers whose experience does not meet this standard.

Mac and Smith would love to live in a world where no one felt the need to sell sex.  Barring that, they would like to see sex work become less exploitative, and they offer concrete policy suggestions that would help.  Their proposals are reasonable – and very different from the laws that our predominantly wealthy, white, male legislatures have been passing.

Even in Sweden – where we first saw the “Nordic model,” which ostensibly decriminalizes the act of selling sex while punishing buyers – sex workers are harassed by the police.  There has been no amnesty for women who sell sex because they are barred from other forms of employment by their immigration status.

From the Economist.

But, even if the police chose to pursue only buyers, these laws would still harm sex workers.  If any person involved in a transaction is considered a criminal, the transaction will be dangerous.  Sex workers subject to the Nordic model are unable to take basic safety precautions, and so they are hurt by these laws.

Similarly, U.S. bills that were ostensibly passed to protect women have instead caused worldwide harm.  Mac and Smith write that:

SESTA-FOSTA [which shut down websites like Backpage for trafficking concerns] censored a huge number of advertising platforms at once in spring 2018, rendering sex workers in the US and beyond more precarious, broke, and desperate almost overnight as their source of income vanished.  SESTA-FOSTA increased the power of clients and would-be managers, as sex workers scrambled to find work in any way they could. 

One client wrote, ‘I definitely think this will end up being a win for hobbyists [habitual clients] … prices will drop because providers [sex workers] will not be able to pull in new customers and have to take whoever they can get.  Specials [such as sex without a condom] will become more prevalent … They will have to act friendlier and not have the luxury of turning away clients any longer.’

[Note: clarifications for terms like “hobbyists” and “specials” were provided by Mac and Smith.]

It could seem paradoxical that these laws, which ostensibly aim to fight exploitation, instead make exploitation easier and more prevalent.  But ultimately it is not a paradox: reducing sex workers’ ability to connect with clients always increases scarcity and makes workers more vulnerable.

When we try to suppress demand by passing laws that punish people who buy sex, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.  When we try to suppress demand by shutting down advertising platforms, the lives of sex workers become more dangerous.

We’re doing the wrong things.

Politicians are targeting the wrong sort of demand.

In economic terms, the demand for sex work is relatively elastic.  Fooling around is fun; it isn’t necessary.  When the price goes up – because sex workers raise their rates, because there’s an outbreak of STIs, because the transaction is criminalized, because there’s a cultural norm that people share their sexuality only within the confines of a church-sanctioned marriage – most people will have less sex.

Supply and demand.  In this sort of crude approximation, elastic demand would be represented by a relatively horizontal line (quantity changes significantly if the price changes) and inelastic demand by a relatively vertical line (quantity stays the same no matter the cost). Image from GrokInFullness.
What happens to demand when the effective price goes up because of a risk of punishment. Note that the intersection point between the red & dotted lines is lower than the original intersection point. Even though sex workers aren’t being directly punished, they’re now earning less money. Image from GrokInFullness.

By way of contrast, the demand for a safe place to live, food for your children, or medicine are all inelastic.  When you’re fleeing the ravages of climate change or militarized gang violence, it doesn’t matter how much it costs.  That’s why our immigration policies have been failing – by policing our borders, we’ve raised the price of migration, but we haven’t addressed substandard living conditions in people’s home countries.

Instead, we are making people’s homes less safe.  Both the colonial legacy and ongoing carbon pollution of places like the United States and wealthy European countries have led to droughts, government corruption, and drug-sale-funded violence around the world.  We have a moral obligation to help the people whose homes we’ve ruined; instead, we’re treating them like criminals.

I’ve written previously that a global wealth tax used to fund a guaranteed basic income would be the best solution to many of our world’s problems; Mac and Smith also conclude that:

To make sex work unnecessary, there is much work to do: winning rights for freedom of movement, labor rights, access to services and to work without threat of deportation, employment alternatives, better welfare provisions, cheaper housing, support services for single mothers, and so on.  If everybody had the resources they needed, nobody would need to sell sex.

Revolting Prostitutes is an incredibly well-written, deeply researched, important book.  It deserves to be widely read – certainly by everyone who purports to care about feminism, immigration, or human rights.

I worry, though, that some readers might be turned away by an ad hominem attack.  Many authors have careers that inform their writing; I’ve never seen these mentioned in our local university’s library listings before. Wouldn’t it be enough to list “Author: Smith, Molly” with no clarification?

Misogyny dies hard.