Oliver Sacks’ brilliant & essential lesson: What the legendary science writer taught us about politics & the human mind

Published: Salon (August 31, 2015)

“We normals — aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled… And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived.

So wrote neurologist Oliver Sacks at the conclusion of “The President’s Speech,” a chapter from “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” his classic book chronicling the fascinating stories he encountered throughout his work in neuroscience.

Sacks, who died yesterday at the age of 82, was renowned not only as a brilliant scholar of the human brain and nervous system, but also as a doctor of extraordinary compassion. Instead of simply viewing the mentally and neurologically ill as sick people in need of a cure, Sacks recognized that their unique perspective on reality often helped them arrive at valuable insights that eluded the “normals.”

In “The President’s Speech,” Sacks described the “roar of laughter” that emerged from a hospital ward that was housing patients with aphasia — a collection of language disorders generally characterized by a severe difficulty or downright inability to understand words — as they listened to a speech being delivered by Ronald Reagan. “Some looked bewildered, some looked outraged, one or two looked apprehensive, but most looked amused,” Sacks wrote.

Although the patients struggled to comprehend the verbal content of the president’s oratory, “natural speech,” as Sacks explained, “does not consist of words alone. It consists of utterance – an uttering-forth of one’s whole meaning with one’s whole being – the understanding of which involves infinitely more than mere word-recognition.” Because the aphasia patients weren’t distracted by the rhetoric and theatricality of Reagan’s address, the subtle nonverbal information that eluded most of his listeners was particularly pronounced among the aphasiacs. “Thus the feeling I sometimes have,” Sacks wrote, “that one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all too easily.”

In Reagan’s case, the patients were not impressed.

The most obvious lesson here is that, although democracies depend on the good judgment of voters in order to survive, the electorate is too easily duped by cheap parlor tricks. While Reagan happened to be a conservative, this is most likely true everywhere on the political spectrum. Thanks to the advent of mass media like radio, television, and the Internet, any politician who wants to win in a large-scale election needs to have charisma, gravitas, an intangible “it” quality — all of which have nothing to do with their policies and everything to do with the intuition of the voters who listen to them. Ideally, these gut reactions would be infallible; the reality, of course, is that we are easily misled by deft performances, mistaking the superficial show of leadership for the real thing.

On a deeper level, though, Sacks’ experience at the aphasia ward reminds us that the so-called psychologically “abnormal” have an important role to play in our political life. When we think of outsiders, our minds tend to wander toward business leaders, famous entertainers, and fringe political activists peddling non-mainstream ideologies. Yet in the truest sense of the term, none of these individuals are actual outsiders; by sheer virtue of the fact that they’re contributing to our public dialogue in a way that the vast majority of their fellow citizens can understand (even if they disagree), they are still “normal” enough to be able to play the game, however large or small their roles might be.

A real outsider, on the other hand, is someone who has been rendered incapable of fully participating in our civic life. Perhaps it’s a mentally disabled person who can’t comprehend the words coming from a politician’s mouth, or a homeless man or woman so beaten down by poverty that their attempts to communicate seem like gibberish to most passersby, or someone who isn’t sick at all but falls far enough beyond the spectrum of normative experience that their distinct perspective is reflexively dismissed. (See: the LGBT community’s critiques of heteronormativity, which a few generations ago lacked any kind of meaningful audience.) Regardless of the reason, the real outsiders aren’t the one who disagree with the status quo, but rather those who wouldn’t be able to participate in it even if they tried.

This, incidentally, is why I suspect the patients at the aphasia ward couldn’t stop laughing. Here was a president, twice elected by substantial majorities, who despite being widely lauded as The Great Communicator, was as transparent as a window to them. The aphasiacs may have been isolated from the rest of the world and dismissed as crazy, but they could see a stark truth that the “normals” could not… meaning that, on this one incredibly important occasion, they were the sane ones who could see what society itself was too crazy to recognize.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “I laugh because I must not cry. That is all. That is all.”

Quick Note: ‘Reverse Racism’ Doesn’t Exist

Published: The Good Men Project (August 27, 2015)

When people talk about “reverse racism,” they are describing a phenomenon that doesn’t exist.

This isn’t to say that yesterday’s shooting of two Virginia journalists wasn’t motivated by prejudice. For that matter, even if perpetrator Bryce Williams was correct in claiming that he had experienced discrimination at the hands of his employers, he was undeniably wrong for choosing such a violent method for redressing his grievances. What happened on Wednesday was a terrible crime, one that horrifies all decent people.

But it wasn’t racist, despite being labeled as such by actual racists like America’s favorite child murderer, George Zimmerman.

Of course, most of the people who bandy about the phrase “reverse racism” aren’t nearly as contemptible as Zimmerman, and it wouldn’t be fair to imply otherwise. That said, I’ve heard the term used often enough that it is necessary to briefly explain why it’s out of line.

We can start with some vocabulary lessons. When you’re referring to an individual’s negative attitude toward a group of people (usually based on popular stereotypes), the correct term is “prejudice.” If a person decides to harm someone else based on that prejudiced attitude—whether it’s as minor as making a derogatory comment, as awful as an act of violence, or anything in between—then the correct term is “discrimination.” As the events in Virginia make clear, it is entirely possible for a non-white person to hold prejudiced views and discriminate against white individuals.

Racism, on the other hand, refers to a systematic problem rather than an individual one. Entire societies have been built around the assumption that certain races are inherently superior to other ones—see the United States and how it treats African Americans, Nazi Germany and its atrocities against the Jews, the Turkish oppression of Armenians, etc. Within these societies, individuals not inherently inclined toward prejudiced beliefs or discriminatory attitudes are far more likely to contribute to repressive ideas and practices because an entire culture has been built around perpetuating them.

That’s why, despite the shrill claims of Zimmerman and other right-wingers (Zeba Blay of The Huffington Post does a fantastic job debunking its use on issues like affirmative action or black-only institutions like Black Entertainment Television), it is nonsensical at best and malevolent at worst to argue that “reverse racism” exists. A similar point can be made about those who decry “reverse sexism” or argue that they’re victimized by religious oppression when scolded for holding prejudiced views against LGBT individuals. If you want to condemn the bigotry of someone who doesn’t benefit from “in group” status—i.e., someone who isn’t a white, heterosexual, Christian male—you should pick words that clearly establish you’re referring to an individual’s errors. It is simply inappropriate to choose language that refers specifically to systemic forms of oppression, regardless of whether you’re doing so intentionally or otherwise.

Donald Trump has blood on his hands: Why the nativist demogogue is the second coming of George Wallace

Published: Salon (August 26, 2015), The Good Men Project (August 22, 2015)

Donald Trump has indelibly associated his presidential campaign with the cause of opposing political correctness. He has every right to do this – but we in the media need to make sure that ideas which are simply “un-PC” are distinguished from near-criminal irresponsibility.

This brings us to Trump’s comments after hearing that a Hispanic homeless man in Boston had been viciously assaulted by his supporters.

“It would be a shame,” Trump briefly observed, before continuing: “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.”

He similarly qualified his regret in a tweet:

“Boston incident is terrible. We need energy and passion, but we must treat each other with respect. I would never condone violence.”

Just to be clear, we’re not talking about hecklers who uttered a stray racial slur. Scott and Steve Leader urinated on a man’s face while he was sleeping, punched him repeatedly and beat him with a metal pole. As they did so, they proclaimed that “Donald Trump is right, all these illegals need to be deported.”

When Trump talks about the “passion” of his supporters, he is implicitly referring to how they might mimic his “un-PC” rhetoric on issues like illegal immigration, misogynistic language, or (going back four years) President Obama’s birth certificate. Taking those positions may or may not be racist (hence the debate over political correctness), but they are very different from an act of criminal assault. When Trump fails to see the difference between the former and the latter, he risks proving the pro-PC crowd right in the ugliest possible way.

To illustrate this point, compare Trump’s response to these criminals with a similar incident almost 37 years ago. Former Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama, a notorious segregationist, was running for president on a third-party ticket that focused in large part on his opposition to civil rights for racial minorities (he ultimately netted more than 13 percent of the popular vote) and, predictably, his rhetoric frequently inspired acts of violence among his supporters. On one occasion, five teenagers were assaulted while protesting at a Wallace rally in Chicago. His response is worth republishing in full:

“I’m sorry it happened. If I had my way, no one would get hit. I acknowledge the right to picket peacefully.”

Wallace may have gone on from there to talk about his own encounters with violence (and he would tragically suffer a near-assassination in 1972 that left him paralyzed from the waist down), but he never allowed the focus of what had happened to shift away from the issue of criminality. Even one of America’s most infamous racial demagogues understood that he had a public responsibility to draw a line between rhetoric, however incendiary, and direct acts of violence. It would have been unconscionable to do otherwise.

Trump, by comparison, has yet to openly acknowledge that crucial distinction. This is not a situation that can be chalked up to mere political enthusiasm; indeed, it isn’t even like the violence at the Wallace rally, in which the targets were at least deliberate political actors. This was a violent crime in which an innocent person was targeted based solely on his racial background, clearly motivated by hate and possibly inspired by Trump’s own words. He cannot be allowed to spin it as anything else, any more than the media can permit him to add caveats to any expressions of regret he may offer. He doesn’t have to apologize if he doesn’t think he did anything wrong, but he absolutely must make it clear that these kinds of actions are beyond the pale – and unequivocally condemn anyone who commits them, no ifs, ands, or buts.

So far he has not issued any such unqualified condemnation, and that is incredibly troubling. Without it, Trump’s growing legion of supporters may feel encouraged to perpetrate more acts of racially motivated violence. They’ll believe – and not necessarily be wrong – that a growing contingent of those who would assume political power in this country will secretly condone acts of criminality against racial minorities. At a time when our law enforcement officials already treat non-whites like acceptable targets for violence, this is an incredibly dangerous precedent to set.

The stakes here transcend questions of political correctness or the tone of the debate surrounding a particular set of issues. In a nation that has always been rife with racial tension, it is essential to clearly delineate that debate over public policy can never be permitted to disintegrate into violence. That potential always lurks beneath the surface, so responsible public servants (or, in Trump’s case, aspiring public servants) are mindful of it. If Trump fails to meet his responsibility here – and we in the media don’t force him to do so – than any future blood that is shed will be on all of our hands.

Americans aren’t just putting in longer hours—we’re being forced to work until we die

Published: Salon (August 26, 2015)The Daily Dot (August 19, 2015)

Believe it or not, there is a line that Donald Trump refuses to cross. As he has made clear in debates and speeches, he parts ways with the other Republican candidates over the touchy subject of Social Security reform. “Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid,” he explained in April. “And we can’t do that. And it’s not fair to the people that have been paying in for years and now all of the sudden they want to be cut.”

While Trump’s position on this issue is commendable, it shouldn’t obscure the real problem in America today—a job market in which ordinary people are overworked and kicked to the curb. The idea that it is acceptable to renege on a financial promise made to an entire generation of Americans from their very first paycheck, then force them to work for the rest of their lives, is merely one manifestation of this larger issue.

It’s a problem perhaps best exemplified by the revelations about Amazon. Run by CEO Jeff Bezos, whose alleged mantra is “If you aren’t working at least 60 hours a week, you aren’t working,” Amazon is notorious for working its employees to the bone. Centered in Breinigsville, Pennsylvania, Amazon demands 100 percent productivity rates from its employees and threatens to take away their jobs if they fail to comply with that unreasonable demand.

Run by CEO Jeff Bezos, whose alleged mantra is “If you aren’t working at least 60 hours a week, you aren’t working,” Amazon is notorious for working its employees to the bone.

The company is also notorious for finding ways to keep employees on the clock without paying them, such as unpaid security screenings. The company is also known to force workers out of their jobs when they need emergency personal time, such as dealing with life-threatening illnesses or miscarriages.

This is symptomatic of a larger national problem. As one article for Mother Jones explained with a series of charts, productivity has surged in America since 1970 even as the median household income has plateaued (if it had kept pace with our national economic growth, it would be $92,000 rather than $50,000 a year).

Similarly, America is one of only 16 countries that doesn’t require businesses to give their employees time off, one of only nine that doesn’t mandate paid annual leave, and one of only six that doesn’t guarantee paid maternity leave. Not surprisingly, a recent surveyby the Families and Work Institute found that 57 percent of American workers feel overworked or overwhelmed due to the increasing demands of their jobs.

The cause of this overworking is not that employees want to be busier but that employers see it as more profitable to demand too much of a small work force than ask for a reasonable expenditure of energy from a larger one. Although American economic output has more or less returned to pre-recession levels, more workers lost their jobs and fewer were hired back here than in any other G7 country.

Corporate profits have increased 22 percent since 2007, with productivity doubling during the recession years precisely because companies have been able to exploit America’s weak labor laws to take advantage of their workers. As Erica Groshen, a vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, explained in an interview with the Associated Press, it’s easier for American employers “to avoid adding permanent jobs” because “they’re less constrained by traditional human-resources practices [translation: decency] or union contracts.”

Not surprisingly, a recent survey by the Families and Work Institute found that 57 percent of American workers feel overworked or overwhelmed due to the increasing demands of their jobs.

If you think this makes Americans better at their jobs, think again. A study published by Stanford University discovered that productivity sharply declines after employees have worked more than 50 hours in a week, eventually becoming non-existent in every hour that they work after the 55-hour mark. Overworking also impairs employee judgment (making them more likely to do their work poorly) and can be detrimental to their physical and psychological health.

Despite this, of course, a Gallup poll has found that the average American works 47 hours a week, with more than four out of 10 clocking in more than 50 hours at their employers’ demand.

The problem of American overwork can be directly tied into the impending retirement crisis. Due to the faltering economy, working Americans have not been able to save as much as they used to; median household retirement savings for 55- to 64-year-old Americans in 2013 amounted to a mere $14,500. As a result, when it comes time to retire, many Americans simply won’t be able to support themselves on the average monthly payment of $1,300—a particularly sobering thought considering that the average 65-year-old is expected to live for almost 20 years after that point.

Exacerbating this is the gradual disappearance of direct-benefit pension plans, which used to guarantee workers an annual income after they retire. Although more than half of Fortune 500 companies offered new hires a direct-benefit plan in 1998, that number fell to only seven percent by 2013.

“Taking their place are defined-contribution plans, the 401(k)s and other such plans in which employers put money into an investment account in the worker’s name,” explains Christopher Flavelle of Bloomberg View. “In theory, employees can still save enough for retirement—if they put enough away, invest it wisely and engage in reasonable planning. But that’s not what usually happens.”

Because these individually-managed retirement plans are complicated, it is exceptionally difficult for employees to manage them without some level of training from their employers. Although polls indicate that most employers know their workers aren’t knowledgeable about these things, they prefer the cost-cutting advantages of defined-contribution plans anyway.

The problem of American overwork can be directly tied into the impending retirement crisis.

One way to get around this would be to increaseSocial Security benefits, a move that would be supported by 64 percent of Americans. The best way for Social Security benefits to be increased along with the cost of living is to either raise or eliminate the payroll tax cap. This would only impact America’s wealthiest citizens (a majority of whom want to cut Social Security), but their influence is enough to give them considerable pull over most of the Republican Party.

However, the fact that every Republican presidential candidate besides Trump has advocated raising the retirement age indicates that our society has begun to accept the idea that retirement isn’t necessary and that it is acceptable to force someone to quite literally work until they die. It may make you shudder to admit that Trump is right about something, but it ought to disturb us even more that our culture has reached a point where Donald Trump looks like the sane one.

Joe Biden’s Legacy for Battered Women

Published: The Good Men Project (August 25, 2015)

I have a guilty conscience. Although I respect Vice President Biden quite a bit, I recently wrote an op-ed arguing that it would be a bad idea for him to run for president. My concern (then and now) is that Biden, despite being a qualified statesman, simply doesn’t have the political chops or base of support to mount a viable campaign against either the Hillary Clinton juggernaut or the Bernie Sanders insurgency. If anything, a Biden campaign would only weaken the Democratic ticket in November by dredging up all kinds of mud against his opponents – one of whom, of course, will eventually be the party’s nominee.

None of this means that Biden is a bad guy, though. Indeed, now that it seems increasingly likely he will throw his hat into the ring, I think it’s appropriate to do penance by looking at one of the best aspects of his legacy: The Violence Against Women Act

Passed in 1994, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA for short) was drafted by then-Senator Biden as a way to protect women who were victimized by domestic abuse and sexual assault. Its achievements include establishing an Office of Violence Against Women in the Justice Department, creating a rape shield law that prevents accused offenders of using a woman’s past sexual conduct against her during a rape trial, mandating that victims should not be required to cover the cost of their own rape exams or protection orders, and subsidizing community violence prevention programs, victim assistance services like rape crisis centers and hotlines.

When VAWA celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, Vice President Biden wrote an op-ed for Time Magazine observing how before the bill’s passage “few people understood and our culture failed to recognize” that women had a right “to be free from violence and free from fear.” He went on to explain:

“Kicking a wife in the stomach or pushing her down the stairs was repugnant, but it wasn’t taken seriously as a crime. It was considered a ‘family affair.’ State authorities assumed if a woman was beaten or raped by her husband or someone she knew, she must have deserved it. It was a ‘lesser crime’ to rape a woman if she was a ‘voluntary companion.’ Many state murder laws still held on to the notion that if your wife left you and you killed her, she had provoked it and you had committed manslaughter.”

Biden’s article makes for powerful reading, but since I can’t quote it all here, I’ll leave with an observation he included near the end:

“Abuse is violent and ugly and today there is rightful public outrage over it. It matters that the American people have sent a clear message: you’re a coward for raising a hand to a woman or child—and you’re complicit if you fail to condemn it.

That’s a monumental change from twenty years ago, and it’s why the Violence Against Women Act is my proudest legislative accomplishment. But we know there’s more to do. One in five women in America has experienced rape or attempted rape. Sex bias still plagues our criminal justice system with stereotypes like ‘she deserved it’ or ‘she wore a short skirt’ tainting the prosecution of rape and assault.”

This, if anything, is why Biden’s work on VAWA still redounds to his credit. It’s one thing for a politician to rest on his laurels, but instead of insisting that the fight against domestic and sexual violence ended when his own contribution was in the books, Biden acknowledges that there is still more work to be done. At a time when Men’s Rights Activism is exploding in popularity and right-wing demagogues like Donald Trump spike in the polls despite making openly misogynistic statements, it’s refreshing to know that there are still politicians like Biden who won’t back down from doing the right thing.

I still don’t think you should run in next year’s election, Biden, but I definitely believe that if elected, you’d make a very compassionate – and quite likely very good – President of the United States.

Josh Duggar’s hypocrisy is part of a much larger cultural problem

 

Published: The Daily Dot (August 21, 2015)

America’s most high-profile Christian conservatives often use their social media platforms and media prominence to extol the virtues of chastity—only to get caught up in sex scandals.

The most recent example comes by way of Josh Duggar, one of the oldest kids from the hit reality TV show 19 Kids and CountingComing on the heels of a revelation last month that Duggar molested five young girls (including his own sisters), Americans have now learned that the outspoken opponent of same-sex marriageabortion rights, and sex education was cheating on his wife with an account on the notorious dating site for cheaters, Ashley Madison. “I have been the biggest hypocrite ever,” Duggar proclaimed in a public statement. “While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the Internet and this became an addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife.”

Duggar is certainly a hypocrite, but it’s arguable whether or not he’s the biggest hypocrite of them all—because over the past few decades, plenty of other religious conservatives could give him a run for his money at that title.

A short list might include names such as Jason Dore, executive director of the Louisiana Republican Party, whose information also appeared in the Ashley Madison dump. It would also include Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House and 2012 Republican presidential candidate who cheated on two of his wives (including when he was calling for Bill Clinton’s impeachment over the scandal involving Monica Lewinsky). There’s also Evangelical pastor Ted Haggard, who despite his anti-gay rhetoric admitted to having an affair with another man. And former Sen. John Ensign of Nevada was revealed to have had an affair with the wife of a former staffer.

Duggar is certainly a hypocrite, but it’s arguable whether or not he’s the biggest hypocrite of them all.

The list goes on, and on, and on. During the same month that he voted against an anti-discrimination bill, North Dakota legislator Randy Boehning sent an unsolicited picture of his genitals to a 21-year-old on a gay dating site. Former Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina had his status as a conservative darling was destroyed when he vanished for several days to have an affair with an Argentinian woman.

Then-Alabama Attorney General Troy King attempted to outlaw sex toys and opposed gay rights, before being caught by his wife having sex with a male college student. Another Southern conservative, Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, had a reputation for promoting “old-fashioned” values when news surfaced his frequent engagement with the D.C. Madam. And who could forget former Sen. Larry Craig of Idaho, another anti-gay rights conservative, who was caught soliciting sex from a male undercover cop in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport bathroom.

Why does this keep happening?

When it comes to conservatives being caught up in sex scandals, the reason could be traced to what Sigmund Freud called the “reaction formation.” The concept, as Freud coined it, signifies a hostile fight against outward symbols of inward emotions that are being stifled—in other words, self-repression. As it relates to homophobic leaders cheating on their wives with other men, a study from a 2012 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology make shed some light.

There is a solidly established statistical correlation
between social conservatism and higher rates of abortion, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases.

The researchers discovered that individuals who identified as “highly straight” but had latent impulses for sex with other men were far more likely to favor anti-gay policies. In addition, those men were also more likely to call for stricter punishments against gay people who commit petty crimes. “Not all those who campaign against gay men and lesbians secretly feel same-sex attractions,” explained Dr. Richard M. Ryan to The New York Times. “But at least some who oppose homosexuality are likely to be individuals struggling against parts of themselves, having themselves been victims of oppression and lack of acceptance.”

The explanation is pretty similar when talking about heterosexual sex scandals, such as the one involving Duggar. One study found that residents of highly religious and politically conservative states spent more money on Internet pornography than their less religious and conservative counterparts. And the states which banned gay marriage had 11 percent more porn subscribers. There is a solidly-established statistical correlation between social conservatism and higher rates of abortion, teen pregnancy, and sexually transmitted diseases—and nations that have more liberal views on sexuality generally have fewer sex-related health problems than countries that are more repressive.

All of this is because, as Dr. Christopher Ryan explained at Psychology Today:

If expression of sexuality is thwarted, the human psyche tends to grow twisted into grotesque, enraged perversions of desire. Unfortunately, the distorted rage resulting from sexual repression rarely takes the form of rebellion against the people and institutions behind the repression… Instead, the rage is generally directed at helpless victims who are sacrificed to the sick gods of guilt, shame, and ignorant pride.

It’s worth noting here that many of the right-wing objections to what they characterize as pathological sexuality are incredibly modern notions. Beliefs like the idea that there is a clear dichotomy between heterosexuality and homosexuality, or that the traits associated with womanhood are fixed, are relatively modern. They’re the simultaneous product of industrialization—which has created national and global cultures in place of purely local ones—and a reaction to the dizzyingly fast social and cultural changes that have been wrought over the past two centuries.

The danger comes when one’s individual sexual inclinations manifests in social policy, affecting others.

These problems, then, may very well have a root cause. While sexually repressed lifestyles may not be psychologically healthy for individuals, there is nothing morally wrong or dangerous about deciding to follow an abstinent (or an otherwise sexually-conservative) set of values. The danger comes when one’s individual sexual inclinations manifests in social policy, affecting others.

Although social conservatives claim to promote “old-fashioned” sexual values, it is necessary to understand that there are deeper psychological drives behind much of the political rhetoric. The personal intersects with the political, often with dire consequences for innocent men and women who want nothing more than to live according to their own inclinations—and to do so free from persecution.

They have every right to do this—and we, as a society, have a moral responsibility to protect them from hypocrites like Josh Duggar.

Why We Need To Bring Back Crushes

Published: The Good Men Project (August 20, 2015)

Let’s talk about crushes.

I recently noticed that when adults discuss their romantic feelings, the term “crush” is almost never used. When it does appear, there is almost always an apologetic undertone to it – people will qualify their crushes with adjectives like “schoolboy” or “schoolgirl” (as in, “I have a bit of a schoolboy crush on you”), or will in some other way indicate that they feel the emotion they’re displaying is childish.

To understand why this might be the case, I decided to break down the two opposite extremes of romantic sentiment:

  • Love: There is no emotion more meaningful than this one. Love can come in many forms and be directed toward all types of people – family members, friends, teachers, colleagues, and so on – but romantic love is particularly special because it’s the most intimate and vulnerable connection two human beings can form with each other. My personal theory has always been that love, at its core, is a human being’s attempt to cope with the inevitability of death. No one can know for certain what happens when we shuffle off this mortal coil, but the knowledge that there is one person who chose you to be their ultimate partner in life alleviates the terrible loneliness that accompanies a true appreciation of our finite conscious existence.
  • Lust: When you get right down to it, this is basically just a craving. Like hunger or exhaustion, it is the human body’s wave of indicating that one of its primordial physical needs isn’t being met. The main difference between lust and hunger or exhaustion, of course, is that the former isn’t technically required for survival (you can theoretically spend an entire lengthy lifetime as a virgin), whereas you literally need food and sleep to remain alive. Nevertheless, we are programmed to want sex, and the felt need is a very real one.

Having a crush, to me, is the exact middle ground between these two poles. Unlike lust, a genuine crush entails deep affection for the other individual’s personality traits – their interests, sense of humor, ability to carry on a conversation, various life philosophies, etc. There is an intangible but unmistakable chemistry that two people develop when one or both have a crush on the other, a mixture of bantering and more direct expressions of endearment.

By contrast, love only exists when two people have known each other deeply for a very long time. It is possible to be in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate that emotion, but I’d argue it isn’t possible to love someone “from afar.” If you don’t know that individual as well as you know your best friends – and through qualitatively and quantitatively substantial interaction, rather than mere speculation as to what they’re really like – than any legitimate affection is at best a crush and at worst mere lust gussied up through rationalizations to seem like more.

The best part of a crush, though, is that you can do anything you want with it. If you’re in love with someone, the sheer intensity of the emotion usually compels you to some sort of proactive gesture – or, barring that, an existence of terrible internal torment. By contrast, if what you feel is merely lust, then you probably shouldn’t pursue a romantic relationship; consensual sexual encounters are fine, but anything more involves deluding yourself into believing that horniness is interchangeable with love (an assumption that rarely ends well for either party in a relationship). When you have a crush, though, you are on the fence about your feelings – and that means you can either ignore them without fear of subsequent regret or act on them without worrying that you’re being insincere. When you think about it, having a crush is the best place to be if you’re single and looking.

In short, it seems like the term “crush” has an obvious application to adult dating life. It isn’t used particularly often because of the juvenile association, but that doesn’t mean we don’t still need it. That’s why I’m going to continue using it whenever I feel it fits (and like most adults who date, I’ve developed many crushes over the years), and hope others will catch on.

A Few Thoughts on Racist Tweets

 

Published: The Good Men Project (August 18, 2015)

Political articles have been written for millennia, but thanks to the Internet, anyone with the right technology at their disposal can voice their opinions on the published work produced by professional writers. This is mostly a good thing… but what lessons can we learn from those occasions when readers cross important lines of decency?

Last week I wrote an editorial that criticized white supremacist, misogynistic, and other hierarchical ideologies as inherently unmasculine.  It was published by The Good Men Project, cross-posted on Salon, and continues to net me far more personal feedback (i.e., sent by email, Facebook, or Twitter) than any other piece I’ve written this summer. I’d like to focus on one subset of that reader response – namely, the reactions that have targeted me for being a Jew. Bear in mind, the article in question never mentioned that I was Jewish, meaning that the respondents had to research my other work in order to discover my ethnic background.

 

For a sampling of what I encountered on Twitter, visit the original article here.

There are two main observations that need to be made here:

1. Most obviously: When you resort to attacking someone through bigotry, you are implicitly admitting intellectual bankruptcy. It doesn’t matter whether you choose race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any other criteria; similarly, it makes little difference if you utilize actual slurs or try to find sneakier ways of making your point. From a strictly logical standpoint, any argument worth defending doesn’t need gutter tactics to win converts. At best you will earn applause and support from fellow bigots (in this case anti-Semites) on the grounds of your bigotry rather than any additional particularly cogent or insightful analysis that you might be offering. More often than not, however, the offenders do little else besides draw attention to themselves thanks to their shocking language. This is an achievement on par with scribbling profanity on a bathroom wall.

2. The language itself is harmless… but because it can be more sinister, it needs to be taken seriously. Trust me, I receive no joy writing about anti-Semitic tweets. This isn’t to say that I derive no pleasure from reading said comments; like most writers, I have a bit of an ego, and there are many hate letters/tweets so magnificently dumb that I’d have to be positively inhuman to not derive a few chuckles from them. That said, there is always the concern that granting any recognition to the lowest common denominator automatically empowers it, and as such I generally try to refrain from acknowledging them in my written work. The problem with doing so with bigots, however, is that their language isn’t always limited to the world wide web. As of last year, more than 100 murders were traced back to users of Stormfront, the Internet’s most popular forum for white supremacists (which created a thread about me back in 2013), while numerous mass shootings have been linked to the misogyny that pervades Men’s Rights Activist and other “manosphere” groups.

From these observations, three lessons can be learned:

1. When someone uses bigoted language, don’t express outrage – characterize that person as a coward. After all, if someone feels the need to shock in lieu of presenting an intelligent argument, it’s a safe bet that individual is motivated at least in part by the fear that they lack the intellectual and moral resources to construct a persuasive and rational position. Outrage gives them the veneer of legitimacy, whereas calling them out on what they’re doing exposes their vulnerability.

2. If you use bigoted language, you deserve to be lumped in with the most rotten and violent elements of society. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve personally committed acts of violence yourself. Because online hate groups have caused real-world deaths, the simple act of attacking someone on the basis of their demographic profile is an inherently threatening one. This doesn’t mean we should prosecute these individuals (the First Amendment exists for a reason), but it absolutely gives us the right to lump them in with the brutes whose rhetorical tactics they choose to emulate.

3. If someone who agrees with you uses bigoted language, distance yourself from that individual. One of my earliest published articles was a piece for Mic (then known as PolicyMic) that urged my fellow Democrats to oppose attacks against Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney that focused on his Mormon religious background. Even though I received dozens of angry emails from liberals after that piece (I hadn’t activated my Twitter account at that time), I am particularly proud of it because I was willing to call out “my own” instead of blindly standing by them when they opposed their own ostensible values. It may be uncomfortable to part ways with the men and women who are usually on your side, but at the end of the day, it is far better to be on good terms with your own conscience than to simply follow the herd because you think they’re usually right.

In closing, a relevant quote for those who dragged my religion into this discussion:

“Anti-Semitism is a noxious weed that should be cut out. It has no place in America.”

– President William Howard Taft