A prisoner was dragged 107 feet by guards and died 9 days later—where’s his hashtag?

Published: The Daily Dot (September 25, 2015)

Back in October, 59-year-old Wayne County Jail inmate Abdul Akbar suffered multiple bodily injuries—after prison guards tried to restrain him. Reports obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request claim that Akbar became violent after he overslept and missed breakfast, destroying a computer and resisting guards’ orders when they tried to control the situation. Video footage from jail cameras—which has since gone viral—showed Akbar’s unconscious body being dragged 107 feet across the floor to an elevator, clearly violating proper protocol regarding prisoners’ rights.

Akbar died nine days later.

Although prisoners do sacrifice many of their rights upon being incarcerated (such as the right to vote or purchase certain weapons), they have not forfeited the right to have their bodies treated with respect. As the Supreme Court explained in its 1987 ruling Turner v. Safley, “prison walls do not form a barrier separating inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” Unfortunately, as a string of incidents involving prisoner abuse by corrections officers has made clear, this protection is not widely recognized by the modern prison-industrial complex.

At a time when #BlackLivesMatter shines a light on police brutality, it’s time to recognize that injustice also reflects on our prison population: Prisoners lives’ matter, too. A handful of Twitter users have been hashtagging these everyday abuses, but #PrisonersLivesMatter has yet to go viral—stirring public debate and creating a widespread movement for reform. That needs to change.

Video footage from jail cameras—which has since gone viral—showed Akbar’s unconscious body being dragged 107 feet across the floor to an elevator.

The number of incidents indicating this trend is disturbing and growing. At the Fishkill Correctional Facility in Beacon, New York, a mentally unstable inmate named Samuel Harrellwas kicked and punched to death by more than 20 officers—who were nicknamed “the beat-up squad” for their zeal in using physical force to subdue prisoners. In Georgia, four corrections officerswere sent to prison after pleading guilty to regularly beating up inmates and then covering up the abuse. The most notorious incident involved a prisoner who was handcuffed, escorted to a gymnasium where there were no surveillance cameras, and then beaten to the point that he received traumatic brain injury.

Meanwhile, a Maryland inmate named Sandy Brown was held in administrative segregation solely because she was transgender, where she was subjected to physical and verbal harassment for more than two months. In a landmark decision, Brown recently won her suit against the correctional facility.

But in Akbar’s case, despite telling medical personnel that he “got stomped in the face” and was beaten by multiple guards, he never received any tests for possible bleeding in his brain (and the Wayne County Medical Examiner insists there was no evidence of such during the autopsy). He also reported a sore jaw and pain in both his left leg and the right part of his chest. Despite dying of a heart ailment, the county prosecutor decided that there couldn’t have been a connection between the injuries he sustained and his subsequent death.

Along with violent assault, the most common form of inmate abuse is sexual assault. Although corrections officers used to overwhelmingly deny that prison rape was a prevalent problem, the Bureau of Justice Statistics has discoveredthrough a series of studies that sexual assault is actually disturbingly common in American prisons today—with mentally ill inmates disproportionately likely to experience sexual abuse. In 2011 alone, more than 200,000 people were sexually abused in American prisons, and nearly half of all the sexual assault allegations made that year were directed against prison guards and staff.

What can Americans do to address this problem?

To begin, we need to acknowledge that there is a big difference between private, for-profit prisons and publicly-owned facilities. For instance, a study in Mississippi back in 2013 found that inmates were two to three times more likely to be assaulted in that state’s private prisons than they were in the public ones.

The most notorious incident involved a prisoner who was handcuffed, escorted to a gymnasium where there were no surveillance cameras, and then beaten to the point that he received traumatic brain injury.

Even setting aside cases of officer-on-inmate abuse, the data still indicates that prisons are more likely to be violent when privately managed. A national study in 2013 determined that assaults on guards by inmates were 49 percent more frequent in private prisons, while assaults on fellow inmates were 65 percent more common. The report also found that private prisons were more likely to withhold medical care after an inmate was injured, presumably to protect their bottom line.

Similarly, a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found that abuse against immigrants is rampant in privately owned prisons, from substandard living conditions and overcrowding to overuse of isolation units against inmates. Considering that the prison-industrial complex has already caused America to develop the world’s largest prison population, the strong correlation between inmate abuse and private facilities only reinforces the need to end the practice of allowing prisons to be run for profit.

In addition, we need to confront the cultural assumptions that allow us to turn a blind eye to prisoner abuse. There is an undeniable stigma attached to going to prison, one that strips prisoners of their humanity. This makes it exceptionally difficult for ex-cons to obtain gainful employment and encourages America to employ penal practices (such as the death penalty) that have been abolished in most other developed nations. After all, if prisoners are less than human, their deaths don’t matter as much.

In addition to legacies of systemic racism, one could argue that the rampant stories of racial profiling and excessive force among police officers against unarmed black men they suspected of criminal behavior—from Michael Brown toFreddie Gray—is part of this same larger story. After all, if so many Americans are willing to believe that a person’s basic rights can be forfeited simply because they are suspected of wrongdoing, how easy will it be to convince them that someone who has already been convicted is still entitled to not have his or her body and mind subjected to abuse?

In the end, the same Twitter users and social justice advocates who stand with hashtag campaigns like #BlackLivesMatter have a responsibility to support everyone who is harmed by America’s systemic injustices. Until we address the brutality that takes place every day behind bars, we will continue to fight for some Americans’ safety while continuing to ignore others.

When College Liberalism Is Wrong

Published: The Good Men Project (September 24, 2015)

Once upon a time, I was a Republican.

It was only a few years after the September 11th terrorist attacks and, despite my reservations about the war in Iraq, I believed that maintaining a strong national security apparatus was America’s foremost priority. Because I bought the Bush administration’s line of bull that Democrats were isolationist and anti-military, I registered as a Republican on my 18th birthday. It wasn’t until I had a series of thought-provoking conversations with various professors and students at Bard College (my alma mater) – as well as conducted research that was both class-assigned and independent – that I gradually changed my tune.

This brings me to the problem with the liberal activists at Wesleyan University.

After a staff editor at the college’s main newspaper wrote a piece criticizing the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a petition has circulated to strip the journal of its school funding. The activists have also pledged to boycott the newspaper, demanded that its staff become diverse, and begun chucking copies of the paper into trash cans whenever it’s distributed throughout the campus. When school president Michael S. Roth published a statement pointed out that “debates can raise intense emotions, but that doesn’t mean that we should demand ideological conformity because people are made uncomfortable,” a protester at a student assembly meeting denounced his position as “disgusting.”

Since plenty of media outlets have talked about the vital importance of free speech to both our democratic society and our education system, I’m going to set those arguments aside and instead make an equally important point that often gets overlooked: If you want to persuade people, you must do so by listening to and engaging with them.

When I was a Republican at Bard College (which the Princeton Review had labeled as one of the most left-wing schools in the country), there were plenty of students who harassed me for my beliefs. Usually I just ignored them, but when they did get to me, my reaction was never to think, “Well, if this many people hate me, I must be wrong.” Instead my emotional instinct was to go on the defensive – to double-down on my opinions, regardless of the facts behind them, if for no other reason than to spite the people who were making my life so hellish. If anything, their viciousness made me more certain that I was correct, not less so. Nothing fortifies certainty like a strong sense of martyrdom.

Since plenty of media outlets have talked about the vital importance of free speech to both our democratic society and our education system, I’m going to set those arguments aside and instead make an equally important point that often gets overlooked: If you want to persuade people, you must do so by listening to and engaging with them.

This didn’t mean my opinions were correct, of course. Similarly, if you take the time to read “Why Black Lives Matter Isn’t What You Think” (the Wesleyan op-ed that started it all), prepare to be bombarded by some of the most insultingly flawed logic and inaccurate information you’ll ever see in a respected college newspaper. It starts off with a ridiculous analogy (comparing a rare act of violence by a #BlackLivesMatter activist with the regular violence inflicted by police officers against racial minorities), accuses social justice advocates of “creat[ing] the conditions for these individuals [rioters and looters] to exploit for their own personal gain,” and claims liberals want to lump good cops in with the bad ones.

This isn’t a comprehensive deconstruction of everything wrong with that article (that would require an entire op-ed of its own), but you probably get the gist of it here. Its author, Bryan Stascavage, may or may not be a racist, but he has no qualms about over-simplifying the views of racial minorities. His argument is loathsome, through and through.

It doesn’t directly threaten anyone, however, and when it comes to questions of censorship, that’s really the only point that matters. Yes, his reasoning is flawed and offensive, but insisting that having objectionable opinions violates the “safe space” needed for other students is just plain asinine. No matter where you go in life, you will inevitably encounter people whose views not only differ from your own, but make your blood boil in rage. If that reality makes you feel “unsafe,” then your best bet is to avoid any kind of discussion on controversial subjects.

On the other hand, if you want to effectively combat offensive views, you need to do so by presenting a calm and reasonable counterargument of your own. Even though you may not change the perspective of the initial perpetrators (Stascavage, for example, does not seem like someone open to persuasion), you can influence and enlighten others who may have been leaning in one direction on a certain issue but will now be more inclined to feel another way. In my case, even though I was turned off by the rude and confrontational behavior of some of Bard’s more vociferous liberal activists, I was intrigued by the logic found in many of my course readings, classroom discussions, and talks with other students. They convinced me to become more liberal on foreign policy (my big reason for being conservative in the first place), and because I’d always held left-wing views on economic and social topics, that proved to be enough.

This is no doubt a main reason why the director of the Student Press Law Center, Frank LoMonte, observed to U.S News & World Report, “It is worrisome when you see students wanting to silence disagreeable opinions.” By attempting to shut down debate and punish dissenters, they undermine their ability to change minds instead of enhancing it. In the process they not only embarrass themselves, but betray the very values that they ostensibly wish to advance. If their goal is to advance the cause of liberalism, they will have no qualms about allowing noxious ideas to enter the public sphere and then combating them with human decency and common sense. By instead trying to purge their campus of any objectionable content, they not only give the bad ideas a moral high ground that they frankly don’t deserve, but diminish their chances of convincing others of seeing reason.

Their cause, and our campuses, deserve better.

Here’s the real reason Scott Walker dropped out of the 2016 presidential race

Published: The Daily Dot (September 22, 2015)

On Tuesday morning, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.) announced what many had widely speculated, following a nationwide drop in support: He is dropping out of the presidential race. Walker emphasized in a Facebook post that he hopes his withdrawal will encourage a more “positive” race. That’s a nice message, but optimism isn’t entirely the reason for his withdrawal: The presidential hopeful simply ran out of money.

According to the New York Times, “Walker was among the most successful fundraisers in his party, with a clutch of billionaires in his corner and tens of millions of dollars behind his presidential ambitions.” However, this didn’t allow his campaign to cover all of its expenses, as running for president is increasingly expensive. “Super PACs, Mr. Walker learned, cannot pay rent, phone bills, salaries, airfares or ballot access fees,” the Times’ Nicholas Confessore wrote.

As a result, despite being on pace to raise up to $40 million by the end of the year, Walker’s Super PAC was unable to keep his candidacy afloat.

This matters, especially in a presidential race that is estimated to amass record campaign donations—and spending—from candidates. Former Secretary of StateHillary Clinton and former Florida governor Jeb Bush are likely to shell out at least $2 billion on their bids for the White House, which is double the sum thatPresident Obama and Mitt Romney’s campaigns racked up in 2012. For those who aren’t billion dollar candidates, it’s hard to compete.

That’s a nice message, but optimism isn’t entirely the reason for his withdrawal: The presidential hopeful simply ran out of money.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry also learned this lesson—after becoming the first Republican presidential candidate to drop out of the race. Although Super PACs like Opportunity and Freedom PAC had accumulated $13 million in order to gradually roll out a detailed campaign plan for Perry, it quickly found itself redirecting funds to Perry’s field operations in Iowa, after the candidate fell below fundraising expectations. When even that wasn’t enough to improve Perry’s fortunes and he withdrew from the race, the Super PACs were forced to refund the money to their donors.

As Yoni Appelbaum of the Atlantic points out, many observers assumed that Super PACs would fundamentally transform the dynamic of presidential elections by allowing wealthy benefactors to prop up their favorite candidates—even if they’d run out of money.

Subsequent events have revealed a couple of problems with this assumption. As already discussed, there are limits to what Super PAC money can pay for in a campaign. Whereas “hard money”—that is, funds acquired directly from individual donors up to the $2,700 limit—can be used for any legitimate campaign expenses, Super PAC funds can only pay for things like television ads.

Although the Perry and Walker campaigns apparently hoped they could use positive advertising to offset their lack of funds for field expenses, political realities quickly demonstrated that this was not the case.

In addition, because Super PACs are legally prohibited from working too closely with the campaigns they’re meant to help fund, candidates are in a catch-22 when it comes to staffing them: If they ask their savviest and most trusted advisers to helm these operations, they forfeit the services of their best talent. But if they don’t assign such individuals to take charge of their Super PACs, they run the risk that the organization might develop an independent streak—instead of serving their own interests.

For those who aren’t billion dollar candidates, it’s hard to compete.

As Molly Ball observed in The Atlantic, this proved particularly problematic for Walker, whose Super PAC was run by Keith Gilkes (who ran Walker’s 2010 campaign for governor and his 2012 recall effort) and Stephan Thompson (who ran the governor’s reelection campaign in 2014). Because Gilkes and Thompson were no longer able to communicate with Walker himself, the governor had to rely on a new slate of top advisers. The result was an embarrassingly mismanaged campaign replete withwidely publicized gaffes that left his political brand in tatters.

There are two takeaways from this. The downfall of Perry and Walker demonstrates that—instead of Super PACs allowing the super-rich to even further game our political system–there are limits to how far a candidate can go without broader popular support. “There is something democratic about grass-roots, widespread money support,” explained former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer. “There is something anti-democratic about… propping up a candidate who can’t make it.”

At the same time, it says a great deal about our political system that Walker and Perry were so dependent on large sums of money in the first place. For one, it demonstrates that our election season is broken—increasingly long and bloated, with a high barrier both to entry and to remain in the race. Whereas underdog candidates used to regularly upset the race, it is now exceedingly rare for anyone who isn’t an early frontrunner to outlast the first few primary or caucus elections.

In the 2012 race, GOP candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich didn’t peak until months into the race, while Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) wasn’t able to mount a real challenge to Romney—the assumed frontrunner—until that January. If that were the 2016 contest, neither of them would have lasted long enough to ever pose a threat.

Our election season is broken—increasingly long and bloated, with a high barrier both to entry and to remain in the race.

While presumptive nominees and candidates with built-in name recognition inevitably benefit from this system, it discriminates against lesser-known alternatives by denying them the capital they’d need to become competitive. If you start out out in last place, it means you’re likely to stay there.

If the odds are stacked against true outsiders—those who don’t have Donald Trump’s massive net worth or campaign war chest—the public is taking notice. According to a New York Times poll taken last June, 84 percent of Americans believe money has too much influence in politics. While 77 percent Americans additionally want to limit the amount that individuals and private groups can give, politicians like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) support the public funding of elections. “The need for real campaign finance reform is not a progressive issue. It is not a conservative issue,“ Sanders has said. “It is an American issue.”

He’s right: This isn’t about polling numbers or whether you support Rick Perry or Scott Walker; it’s about the state of politics in 2015. A true democracy cannot exist if presidential candidates are being defeated by their checkbooks instead of at the ballot box.

The anti-Semitism against Bernie Sanders

Published: Salon (September 22, 2015)The Daily Dot (September 20, 2015)

Is America ready to elect a Jewish president?

Ann Coulter did her part to draw attention to that question this week, when she sent out a tweet many believed was anti-Semitic implying Republicans only mentioned Israel because they thought it would win them Jewish voters. The question is also relevant now because Sen. Bernie Sanders is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and happens to be of Jewish descent. This doesn’t mean that Sanders is trying to identify himself as “the Jewish candidate,” of course. “He’s not particularly observant, and he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about or thinking about or advocating for Israel,” observed Robert Taylor, a political theorist at the University of Vermont who compared Sanders with the last major Jewish presidential candidate, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.). “He certainly has a secular Jewish background, but I think his role in American politics is much more importantly defined by Vermont liberalism than anything else.”

At the same time, the simple fact that Sanders is Jewish may become an issue regardless of how closely he identifies with his background. Although the most recent poll studying American prejudices in presidential campaigns found that an overwhelming majority would be willing to vote for a Jew (91 percent), the number wasn’t always that high. Back in 1937, only 46 percent of Americans said they’d be willing to vote for a Jewish presidential candidate; 30 years later, that number had only increased to 82 percent. Perhaps more notably, the number of Americans who said they’d be willing to vote for a Jew was surpassed by those who would vote for a Catholic, black, or female candidate.

Regardless of what the polls say (and respondents are always capable of deceiving pollsters, whether by lying to them or themselves), there are plenty of early signs that Sanders’s background will be used against him. Back in June NPR host Diane Rehm confronted Sanders with the charge that he was a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, a conspiracy theory rooted in a baseless online rumor and has its roots in the old anti-Semitic canard that Jewish politicians can’t be loyal to non-Jewish countries. On the other side of the ideological aisle, the National Reviewinsisted on criticizing Sanders’s economic policies under the designation “national socialist”—the extended title for “Nazi”—openly acknowledging that it was partially doing this because Sanders is “the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland and whose family was murdered in the Holocaust.”

Aside from the experiences of the Sanders campaign, there are plenty of other reasons to question whether America is really that tolerant of Jews. As of last yearnearly 60 percent of religious-based crimes in the United States were committed against Jews, with one study describing that it has become “fashionable” in many circles. Another report discovered that 54 percent of college students experienced anti-Semitism in the first six months of their academic year during the 2013-2014 school period. All of this can be tied to broader studies which suggest that anti-Semitic attitudes are increasing throughout the Western world, particularly when tied to old-fashioned religious bigotry or relatively newer attempts to use legitimate criticism of Israel as a means of promoting deeper anti-Semitic beliefs.

In the end, it will be impossible to determine whether a Jewish presidential candidate can win in this country without actually testing that hypothetical scenario in the real world. As such, perhaps it would be best to prepare for such a candidacy by establishing a set of rules pertaining to how Jewish candidates should be treated. Three immediately come to mind:

First, unless a Jewish candidate has said or done something to call their loyalty into question, charges based on the idea that they are somehow “dual” in their sentiments need to be dismissed out of hand as anti-Semitic. Just as it was unconscionable to accuse John Kennedy of being secretly loyal to the Vatican when he ran for president, the notion that Jews can’t simultaneously be proud of their heritage and remain 100 percent in their country’s corner is insulting. As George Washington himself put it, “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Additionally, we must be especially wary of arguments that are based in legitimate positions but can be used as a cover for anti-Jewish hatred. Anti-Zionist rhetoriccan bleed into anti-Semitism when it disproportionately singles out Israel in comparison to other countries, compares Israel to Nazi Germany, or attacks Israel in general rather than singling out specific government policies. Although one can take valid issue with Sanders’s economic and social policies, the Black Lives Matter activist who shut down a Sanders rally in Seattle was a radical Christian(and former Sarah Palin supporter) who repeatedly rooted her claim that Sanders was a racist in rhetoric that referenced “the cross” and other Christian iconography.

Finally, we must accept that Christian privilege defines our political life in ways that have yet to be fully appreciated. After all, not one of the 43 presidents who have occupied the White House was raised in a non-Christian background. While Americans don’t blink when a presidential candidate begins discussing his or her belief in the New Testament’s teachings or theology, the concept of a Jewish candidate (to say nothing of a non-Christian candidate who also isn’t Jewish) still falls in the realm of novelty. Aside from candidates who have had Jewish lineage but were raised in Christian households (e.g., Barry Goldwater and John Kerry), there have only been two Jewish presidential candidates before Sanders—Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp, who sought the Democratic nomination in 1976; and Lieberman, who made his own bid in 2004.

Even if Sanders doesn’t become America’s first Jewish president, one can at least hope that his candidacy will normalize the concept of a Jewish presidency so that future Jewish candidates can have a fair shot at the White House. If that proves impossible, it will have disturbing implications for believers in the American Dream.

When Do You Go Full Bald?

Published: The Good Men Project (September 22, 2015)

Although my hairline started receding during my mid-20s, it didn’t become especially noticeable until about a year ago. Before then, people still felt comfortable joking that my increasingly prominent widow’s peak would someday turn me into a proverbial chrome dome. It wasn’t until the humor stopped and the sympathy commenced that I realized I had an actual problem on my hands.

Before I made the decision to go full bald, however, I went through a step-by-step reasoning process that I feel deserves to be shared here. It included the following:

1. Be certain that your hair isn’t coming back.

Since I’ve always found hair plugs, transplants, toupees, and comb-overs to be laughably unconvincing (looking at you, Donald Trump), I decided early on that unless my hair could somehow grow back, I wasn’t going to bother concealing my baldness. Unfortunately, there are only two reliable drugs available for treating hair loss – Rogaine and Propecia – and each one comes with serious downsides. Rogaine, though effective in treating baldness that originates from the crown, does not restore receding hairlines (it can make the hair at the front of your head thicker but doesn’t work on the “peaks” of a widow’s peak). Propecia, though more successful in restoring hairline loss than Rogaine, also has a disturbing history of occasionally causing permanent sexual dysfunction among its users. Needless to say, if you thought there was no fate worse than going bald, this realization should help put things in perspective.

2. Become familiar with your own head.

Because everyone’s head is shaped differently, it is important to consider how your own cranium will effect your overall appearance after it has been defoliated. Do you have unusual bumps or birthmarks on the top of your scalp (looking at you, Mikhail Gorbachev)? What about rolls of fat on the back of your neck? Do you have an oval face or a round one?

I’ve recently started joking that I decided to shave my head on Yom Kippur because God had already made it clear that he wanted my hair, so I chose my religion’s most sacred holiday to let him know that he wouldn’t have the pleasure.
Obviously there is no foolproof way of knowing that going full bald will be flattering for you, but these questions definitely need to be evaluated before making that choice. After you have done that…

3. Understand that you are making a major lifestyle choice.

I’ve recently started joking that I decided to shave my head on Yom Kippur because God had already made it clear that he wanted my hair, so I chose my religion’s most sacred holiday to let him know that he wouldn’t have the pleasure. This is all well and good from the standpoint of jocularity, but in the end being bald will transform how people view you. This can be both a good thing and a bad one: Already I have heard that shaving my head has made me look older, meaner, and more intimidating. At the same time I’ve also heard people say that I look sleek and more energetic (perhaps a wilting hairline conveys exhaustion more so than a shiny scalp). While the feedback will no doubt for each individual based on his own appearance and social circle, one thing is certain: People will notice and, for at least a while, will offer commentary. It’s best to be ready for it.

4. Make sure you take the first step yourself.

My close friend Adam was kind enough to help me shave my own head, but before he got around to the tricky sections in the back, he handed me the razor and uttered a very sage observation:

“I can’t cut first. It has to be you.”

Indeed it does. No matter how useful the input of your loved ones may be in helping you reach a decision to go full bald (and mine have been overwhelmingly supportive), the ultimate choice is yours and yours alone. In the end, even a symbolic gesture – like making that first swipe with the electric razor – rests on your shoulders, and as such should always be undertaken by you.

That said, I don’t want to end this article on such a serious note, so I’ll leave you with an observation from one of Hollywood’s most famous bald actors, Telly Salavas:

“We’re all born bald, baby.”

– See more at: http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/go-full-bald-mrzs/#sthash.HXEXWJC5.dpuf

Why Everyone Needs A Brains Trust

Published: The Good Men Project (September 17, 2015)

It recently occurred to me that there is a special type of friend in my life who I’ve never really honored. For that matter, I’ve noticed that although a lot of people have forged these unique relationships, they aren’t widely discussed in the media. While I could spend an entire article speculating as to why that’s the case, I think our time would be better used simply paying tribute to the special circle so many of us have created in our lives:

The Brains Trust

The term “brains trust” was coined by New York Times reporter James Kieran in 1932, when he noted that Democratic presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt liked to surround himself with some of America’s greatest thinkers of the time. Although his connotation was specifically political, I personally have developed a network of friends who serve a function in my life and career not entirely dissimilar from those of FDR’s advisers.

1. They share my curiosities.

If there is a single quality that separates intellectualism from mere intelligence, it’s that the latter is imbued with a passionate curiosity, an insatiable appetite for knowledge and creativity. When two intelligent people have overlapping fields of curiosity, it’s very easy for them to forge a bond not only over their shared interests, but from the stimulating substantive conversations they can share thanks to their knowledge base and enthusiasm.

2. They offer valuable advice.

On the most immediate level, I’m talking about networking – i.e., developing amicable professional relationships or even friendships with co-workers to advance your career. That said, there are other ways your friends can help your career besides serving as connections. If you respect someone’s intelligence or judgment, they can offer you meaningful guidance in developing important life skills (e.g., I have friends helping me lose weight by learning how to develop a healthy diet) and inspire your creative output (I’ve lost track of the number of articles that were inspired by conversations with friends, who I try to credit whenever possible).

Speaking of which…

3. You enjoy collaborating with them.

I’m not going to list the friends who I consider to be my personal Brains Trustees (out of concern that I’ll offend anyone I inadvertently leave out), but suffice to say that they are sprinkled liberally throughout my body of written work, both as collaborators and sources of inspiration (see Point #2). This is because, when someone is a true Brains Trustee, you eventually find that talking with them isn’t enough; you want to work on projects together. If nothing else, this is to see what might be produced from such a partnership.

While my Brains Trust may help me in different areas of my life than your Brains Trust does for you, the bottom line is that if you have a Brains Trust, they probably benefit you in ways similar to how mine has enriched my life. As such, I feel the need to say that I’m truly grateful to have them. To each and everyone of you, if you’re reading this: Thank you.

Stop telling Joe Biden to run for president

Published: Salon (September 17, 2015)The Daily Dot (September 14, 2015)

Perhaps it was inevitable that the Internet would want Joe Biden to run for president. After all, Hillary Clinton has maintained a massive lead in national polls since the beginning of the 2016 presidential election cycle and seemingly inevitable elections are kind of boring—especially when compared to the heated 2008 contest between Clinton and then Senator Barack Obama. Because he is one of the country’s most prominent Democratic politicians, has made two White House bids in the past, and also served in the Obama White House, Biden is a natural choice to face off against Clinton.

Even though Biden has yet to declare, #RunJoeRun has been continuously trending on Twitter. The problem, as revealed in a poignant interview from last week’s The Tonight Show with Stephen Colbert, is that Biden seems genuinely ambivalent about wanting the job. After discussing at length the pain of losing his son, Beau, to a brain tumor last May, Biden answered questions about a future presidential candidacy: “I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there. I’m being completely honest. Nobody has a right in my view to seek that office unless they are willing to give it 110 percent of who they are.”

Joe Biden knows these struggles well: This tragedy follows the loss of his first wife and his daughter in a car crash 40 years ago. However, his personal history raises an important question: At what point does pressuring someone in Biden’s position become inappropriate? Whether or not Biden does decide to mount a campaign, that’s his decision to make.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t reasons in favor of Biden running. As Clinton’s list of scandals—including her ongoing email woes and flip-flopping on major issues—has grown, her public polling has plummeted. Although Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is currently leading Clinton in New Hampshire and gaining ground on her in Iowa, polling experts like Nate Silver have noted that this has more to do with Sanders’ unique appeal among grassroots liberals than Clinton’s own potential weaknesses as a candidate. For those who want more viable candidates in what is becoming a two-horse race between Sanders and Clinton, it makes sense to encourage Biden to run.

Joe Biden knows these struggles well: This tragedy follows the loss of his first wife and his daughter in a car crash 40 years ago.

But it’s important to keep in mind the very thing that’s made Joe Biden so appealing to begin with: He’s human. “Joe Biden’s unique trait as a politician is—and always has been—his honesty,”wrote Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post.“Sometimes that honesty gets him into varying degrees of trouble. Sometimes it makes it seem as though he’s the closest thing to a real person you could possibly hope for in politics.”

Poet and novelist Jay Parini made a similar observation on CNN, describing Joe Biden’s interview with Colbert as “uncommonly moving” because “of Biden’s offhand honesty, passion and wrenching humanity as he discussed his beloved son Beau’s death from brain cancer earlier this summer.” Parini wrote, “[I]t was life happening before our eyes, the kind of life we find in our own living rooms and kitchens.”

While Parini undeniably has a strong point, there is something troubling about a political culture that focuses so much on capitalizing off of authenticity that it forgets to show respect for it. Imagine you were in Joe Biden’s shoes—would you be willing to forge ahead as if nothing changed? Some would choose to continue our career ambitions despite (or because) of such setbacks, while others may need the time to grieve. But one thing is certain: We all would expect the rest of the world to give us space, so that we can have the breathing room necessary to make these tough decisions for ourselves. Why shouldn’t Biden receive the same regard?

Of course, this isn’t the first time a politician has faced unspeakable tragedy in the public eye. In  2012, when the Republican presidential primaries had boiled down to a contest between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, it came out thatSantorum’s daughter, Bella, was fighting complications caused by Trisomy 18, a rare genetic disorder that is often fatal. Although many conservatives had serious reservations about Romney and viewed Santorum as their last best hope, the consensus if Santorum put family first—and dropped out—that was OK.

More than 20 years earlier, Al Gore’s son was nearly killed in a car accident. Although Gore had placed a strong third in the 1988 Democratic primaries—and would have thus been an automatic frontrunner in 1992—he bowed out of that race with support of his party.

Imagine you were in Joe Biden’s shoes—would you be willing to forge ahead as if nothing changed?

None of this means that Biden shouldn’t run. Indeed, Beau himself reportedly told his father, shortly before passing away, that he wanted him to run for president, and recent reports indicate that Biden is meeting with top Obama fundraising bundlers, which suggests that is still seriously considering that possibility. But just as politicians and the public supported Al Gore and Rick Santorum, so too should the Internet’s anti-Hillary crowd recognize that Biden is a person first and a politician second.

It’s not just about whether America is ready for a Joe Biden campaign. Joe Biden needs to be ready for America first.

3 Quick Tips for Awkward, Lonely Nerds

Published: The Good Men Project (September 15, 2015)

Back in January, Salon ran an editorial by famous writer and game show winner Arthur Chu called “The plight of the bitter nerd.” Apparently this piece proved quite popular, since it has recently reemerged as one of the site’s biggest hits, and there is good reason for this. Instead of taking a simplistic approach to the concerns and feelings of bitter nerds like himself, Chu acknowledges that “it seems in every group of nerdy guys I’ve known there’s one guy who’s trapped in a feedback loop of anxiety and self-loathing when it comes to women that goes around and around in circles.” Indeed, he admits that he’s very lucky to get away from being at a similar emotional place only a few years earlier.

That said, there is an important reason why Chu identifies with feminism, which deserved to be quoted in full:

“For most of us, sex is a big part of our lives, and our relationship to gender therefore a weighted and fraught thing. We all have hang-ups and neuroses, and they’re much more likely to manifest in the way we see sexual attraction and relationships than in the way we do our taxes. No one actually said men have it easy.

But men are the ones who by and large get to deal with this as an internal matter. Women are the ones who have to deal with internal hang-ups and, as Laurie Penny points out in her piece, external threats from other people. Guys deal with Women in the abstract, as a category; women deal with specific men who physically threaten them.”

Again, Chu is obviously speaking in generalities – of course there are men who have been physically threatened by women who are exploiting gender roles, just as there are women lucky enough to go through their entire lives without ever having their gender used against them. That said, the general trend is precisely what Chu described, which is why he concludes that “I don’t know how ‘women,’ as a group, can help men with the problems he [an MRA sympathizer] describes… But meanwhile, women are getting stalked and raped and killed. That’s something that men are doing and that men can stop other men from doing. And, with apologies to my fellow emotionally tortured guys, that really ought to be our priority.”

While I share Chu’s sentiment on how feminist priorities significantly (and I do mean significantly) outweigh the concerns of lonely bitter nerds, he’s wrong that there isn’t advice which can help nerdy men effectively address their problems. Like Chu, I’m also a nerdy man whose early childhood experiences with girls have given me a residual awkwardness which has lasted for many years (having Asperger’s Syndrome definitely didn’t help matters).

While I was fortunate enough to see that change once I went to college (my school was unusually open-minded, allowing me to develop several successful relationships there that gave me the confidence and skills necessary to maintain a normal dating life as an adult), I still feel a connection to that isolated teenager who hadn’t yet learned that high school experiences can be very different from ordinary life. As such, I have three quick tips for other men who are in that predicament.

1. Don’t put women on a pedestal.

I know quoting Gloria Steinem is a great way to lose sympathy from MRAs and PUAs, but she nevertheless had a saying that is really useful here:

“A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.”

Although she was discussing the experiences of women, this is actually a valuable insight for men as well. When you hear MRAs or PUAs describing “what women do” or (in the case of the latter) how to “pick up” women, they act as if there is some great feminine monolith, a collective of sexbots whose programming can be used to your advantage if you just figure out the right combination. Not only is this assumption blazingly misogynist, it also misses an important point that can help shy and nerdy men – if you act like women are some ethereal “other” that you must win, you make the obstacle of curing your loneliness so much more difficult than it needs to be.

At the end of the day, women are people – no better and no worse – and the tricks you need to communicate with them are no different than the ones you’d use with men. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be awkwardness (just as when you talk to men) or cruelty (again, like with men), but the best way to develop the confidence to talk to a woman is to realize that she isn’t some otherworldly angel. She’s a human being with the same fundamental hopes and fears that you probably possess.

2. Don’t think of women in terms of their “value.”

Another theme I often hear from MRAs and PUAs (not only online but in person) is that women judge men based on a set of superficial criteria: How much money they earn, how successful they are in their careers, various physical attributes (genital size, muscularity, etc.), and so on. While this resentment isn’t entirely invalid (see Point #3), that legitimacy is undermined when these same men insist that they want not only a woman, but a “hot woman.” There are exceptions, of course, but in general one of the most common complaints I hear from self-proclaimed “bitter nerds” is that they want a woman who is thin, conventionally attractive, and as such capable of enhancing their social status by simple virtue of public association

The most obvious problem with this perspective, of course, is that it’s transparently hypocritical; when an angry nerd insists he has a right to date a hot girl, he isn’t railing against injustice in general, but instead sulking that a system of social hierarchies is benefiting others but not himself. Yes, there are women who only date men to enhance their own status, but they are only doing the same thing that men do when they demand that a woman be “hot” so they can assuage their egos and impress other men.

By reducing relationships to games in which there are “leagues” and “winners” and “losers,” these men and women thwart the good intentions of those who seek meaningful companionship, in which emotional intimacy, intellectual compatibility, and sexual gratification are all inextricably entwined.

While I don’t have advice for women, there is one question every man should ask himself if he wants to play a role in stopping this: Am I pursuing women based on whether I feel a deep connection and attraction to them or because I think of her as a prize?

3. Hold women accountable on an individual-to-individual basis.

None of this means that the various wrongs nerdy men have experienced from women should be diminished. Quite to the contrary, when a woman refuses to date a guy simply because he doesn’t have a high-value career or physical appearance, she is no better than a man who refuses to date a woman because she put on a few pounds or isn’t considered physically attractive in general. Certainly those men and women have a right to do that (remember, people have a right to date whomever they want), but it’s shallow and shameful and should be called out as such.

At the same time, it’s important to realize that women who do these things aren’t acting on behalf of women everywhere; they are individual human beings making individual (in this case bad) choices. This distinction strikes many men as unfair, but the reality is unavoidable: Right now, the power dynamics in both America and the world are such that women are politically, economically, and socially disadvantages.

Consequently there is no parity in terms of each gender’s experiences interacting with the other. When a group of bitter nerds decides to harass an attractive woman online, they are participating in a broader culture that deems it okay to reduce a woman’s worth to her sexuality and demean her accordingly. By contrast, when a woman decides to spurn a man on superficial grounds, she isn’t perpetuating a deeper social injustice; she’s simply being a bad person, not only by prejudging someone else but by denying herself potentially rewarding friendships and romances simply so she can climb the social ladder (social ladder-climbing, incidentally, is not limited to either gender).

This still sucks, of course, and as such it is no worse for a man to call out a woman who is being shallow toward him than it is for a woman to call out a man who rejects her for not being a 10 or whatever such nonsense. That said, this stops being acceptable the moment the men in question decide that the actions of bad women can be used to describe all women, or that they constitute a systemic inequality in gender relations rather than a sign that women are capable of just as much nastiness as their male counterparts. Similarly, it becomes problematic when men forget that people have the right to be shallow and prejudicial – just as a vain man has every right to insist on only dating 10s or die alone trying, so too do women have the right to accept nothing less than a flawless Prince Charming.

Indeed, this can be used to sum up the overall point here: When all is said and done, women as a gender are being systematically oppressed, from being paid less than men for the same work to having their bodies treated like slabs of meat owned by other people. That is the main issue that requires discussion in our political debate. The concerns of nerdy and awkward men, though not devoid of merit, are fundamentally no different than those encountered by anyone who has been burned when attempting to seduce and/or fall in love. This doesn’t mean that their feelings should be ignored, but it’s important to place them in the right context.