Friday, November 30, 2018

The 2018 Bad Sex In Writing Nominees

“Empty my tanks,” I’d begged breathlessly, as once more she began drawing me deep inside her pleasure cave. Her vaginal ratchet moved in concertina-like waves, slowly chugging my organ as a boa constrictor swallows its prey. Soon I was locked in, balls deep, ready to be ground down by the enamelled pepper mill within her.

Okay, in fairness to the nominees, love scenes are inherently fraught. The nomenclature is emotionally loaded, one false move can invoke giggles or worse--but I think all of that is less a reason to automatically shy away and more a reason to do what you can to get it right. After all, sex is a universal and hugely important aspect of being human, so it would be a shame if novelists were afraid to depict it. 

For me, "getting it right" has more to do with building the foundation than the scene itself. If the characters are solid, if their attraction is real and interesting, if the setup works...then there's at least an opportunity for a satisfying payoff. My rule of thumb is, if what matters is that the characters had sex, you shouldn't show the sex. If what matters is how they had sex, you have to show the sex.

But to analogize to comedy...the funniest punchline in the world is useless if it follows a lame setup. Conversely, if the setup is good, the punchline is relatively easy.

All of this applies to dialogue, too. Probably to everything.

And now that I've shot off my mouth, I'll probably be included in the 2019 list... :D

Sunday, November 25, 2018

The Religion of Liberal Hegemony is Overdue For This Kind of Apostasy—and a Reformation, Too

I just finished listening to an outstanding book that I hope will be widely read: The Hell of Good Intentions: America’s Foreign Policy Elite and the Decline of U.S. Primacy. It’s a study of what the author, Harvard Kennedy School professor Stephen Walt, calls liberal hegemony, a foreign policy worldview Walt persuasively argues has been disastrous for America and for the world. As the jacket puts it: “Since the end of the Cold War, Republicans and Democrats alike have tried to use U.S. power to spread democracy, open markets, and other liberal values into every nook and cranny of the planet. This strategy was doomed to fail, but its proponents in the foreign policy elite were never held accountable and kept repeating the same mistakes."

As I listened to the book, I found myself thinking that liberal hegemony might be best understood as a kind of secular religion. It has its own priests (whose views often differ from those of lay people); its own orthodoxies (and apostates); its own catechisms. I’ve read studies of how, when a cult believes the world will end on X day and the event doesn’t happen, the cult doesn’t abandon its belief but instead rationalizes the inconsistency, and the psychology there is also reminiscent of liberal hegemony’s refusal to reconsider dogma and resistance to contrary evidence (and even common sense).

All of which is doubly interesting when you consider the way many Americans have been trained to cherry pick religiously inspired violence as the only violence worthy of condemnation. “They kill in the name of Islam, what other religion does that?”…that kind of thing. But the psychology of religion manifests itself more broadly than is immediately obvious, and certainly more people have been killed in the name of liberal hegemony than in the name of other, more obvious gods.

I couldn’t help smiling when in the acknowledgments Walt mentions the paradox of his own establishment credentials: researcher at the Center for Naval Analyses; member of the Council on Foreign Relations; guest scholar with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Brookings Institution; faculty member at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School, the University of Chicago, and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government…being a proponent of some of Noam Chomsky’s views on education, I thought, “My God, how can someone have a CV like that and still be so insightful?”

I’ve come across two reviews of the book that I think deserve mention.

First was this one, from the Guardian. Overall it was positive, but the writer seemed to be doing the thing where he was afraid of seeming too effusive, so he invented a couple of mild criticisms at the end that were neither warranted nor even coherent. First was chiding Walt for “discounting the possibility that Iran harbors ambitions as a regional hegemon.” Of course Iran would like to be a hegemon—who wouldn’t? I confess that given the opportunity, I myself would probably opt for some sort of personal neighborhood hegemony—it would be a great way to get people to obey the speed limit, talk more softly on their cellphones, and clean up after their dogs. The point of offshore balancing, Walt’s proposed alternative to liberal hegemony, is that it’s a response to the given of hegemonic ambitions. In other words, to paraphrase Madison on “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” if countries (including Iran) didn’t seek hegemony, offshore balancing would be largely pointless. Discount hegemonic ambitions? On the contrary, the existence of those ambitions is what offshore balancing is built on.

The second quibble in the review was that in 2010, Walt looked at Libya as a U.S. policy success. Now, I don’t know anyone beyond John Bolton who would claim that Gaddafi giving up his quest for nuclear weapons as a result of diplomacy was a bad thing. And if it hadn’t been for the excesses of liberal hegemony and a spasm of “R2P" rationalizations, we might not have gone to war (oops, “intervened”) in Libya in 2011 and turned the country into the failed state it remains today. So criticizing anyone for praising the way the United States handled Gaddafi in 2010 is bizarre.

The other review was from the New York Times, by a writer named Jacob Heilbrunn. Overall it was another mostly positive review, but Heilbrunn said some unintentionally fascinating things, including a few that demonstrated liberal hegemony is more a faith-based belief system than it is a rational policy. Here are the parts I found most interesting—and telling:

Some of [Walt's] vexation is personal. He reports that the advertisement he signed [in 2002] attacking the invasion of Iraq has disappeared into the foreign policy memory hole: “In the 16-plus years since the ad was printed,” Walt observes, “none of its signatories have been asked to serve in government or advise a presidential campaign.”

The was an important substantive point—the people who have been consistently wrong have been promoted; the people who have been consistently right have been ignored. Is that even remotely disputable? And even if it were, Walt provides a mountain of evidence to back up his argument. The mention of that letter was only a small bit of it. Walt also had a lot to say about journalists and others who’ve been consistently wrong, and how they keep failing up. That’s a critical substantive point; to try to dismiss it as nothing but personal disappointment is just weird. Especially because even if it were motivated by personal disappointment—and again, it didn’t strike me that way at all—Walt's substantive point would still stand, and still be important.

Why would someone argue like this? My instant take is that Heilbrunn is projecting—that he’s the kind of guy for whom such a point would have been motivated by sour grapes, and he assumes everyone else must be like that, too. And while if Heilbrunn were here, he might argue, “Hey Barry, you’re doing the same thing I did, psychoanalyzing,” I would respond, “Fair enough, Jacob, but your attempt at psychoanalysis was illogical and incoherent and obscured an important substantive point, while I’m doing it to try to understand why someone would say something obviously illogical, incoherent, and obscuring.”

Which probably explains why I don’t get invited to any of the good parties. :D


Walt’s own zest for intellectual combat, though, can lead him into rhetorical overkill. “Instead of being a disciplined body of professionals constrained by a well-informed public and forced by necessity to set priorities and hold themselves accountable,” Walt writes, “today’s foreign policy elite is a dysfunctional caste of privileged insiders who are frequently disdainful of alternative perspectives and insulated both professionally and personally from the consequences of the policies they promote.”

Wait, why is that rhetorical overkill? Walt provides a ton of evidence in support. If Heilbrunn disagrees, of course that’s fine, but he can’t just dismiss the argument without also addressing the evidence!

Walt points to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Atlantic Council and the Center for New American Security, among others, as constituting a kind of interlocking directorate that fosters groupthink and consists of mandarins intolerant of dissenting views. But Walt’s depiction of these organizations misses the mark. There’s plenty of debate in Washington; whether it amounts to much is another question.

That was for me the most fascinating paragraph in the review. It’s like the saying, “If we’re not supposed to eat animals, why are they made of meat?”

It’s as though Heilbrunn is so deep in a box that he can’t see, even when someone shows him what’s going on with a flashlight. Because sure, there’s plenty of debate. Just like there’s plenty of debate between the Democratic and Republican wings of the party on how much more we should spend on the military—should we spend a lot more, or a really lot more? But that’s a very narrow permissible band of meaningful debate. And the only way someone could miss that is by implicitly buying in to the notion of what’s permissible, and treating anything else as unworthy of consideration. Which is exactly Walt's point about groupthink and intolerance of dissent.

Or to put it another way: to go back to my view of liberal hegemony as a secular religion, sure, there’s plenty of debate among rabbis over the meaning of this or that portion of the Talmud, and within the Vatican about the proper understanding of the Holy Trinity or whatever. But wander into one of those debates and suggest that God doesn’t exist? You’ll get the same kind of intolerant reaction I expect you’d get showing up at, say, the Council on Foreign Relations and saying, “I think America and the world would be better off if America didn’t lead, if we stopped thinking of ourselves as exceptional, if we focused less on National Greatness and more on just being good, and if we cut the military (sorry, the “defense”) budget by 50% and invested the savings in domestic infrastructure.” If you were lucky, you’d simply be dismissed as unserious, which is Blob nomenclature for what formal religions prefer to call “heretical.”

Not that the offshore balancing Walt proposes in lieu of liberal hegemony goes remotely that far—but you get the idea.

In truth, any president who announced such a strategy would immediately initiate a free-for-all around the globe as local potentates tested Washington’s resolve.

But Walt address this assumption—and it is an assumption, or, as I think it’s better understood, a core tenet of the Liberal Hegemony faith. Again, it’s fine if Heilbrunn disagrees, but to do so meaningfully he needs to engage Walt's point that it *is* an assumption, with no empirical evidence behind it (and in fact lots of evidence of the contrary).

Walt also makes the easy assumption that America can remain a pre-eminent power, but the mounting national debt and Trump’s steady conversion of the country into what amounts to a rogue state could lead to a very different outcome. Soon Americans may discover that the only thing more vexing than exercising dominance is forfeiting it.

This was mostly incoherent, but it also wandered beyond incoherence into a weird realm of deafness to what Walt is actually arguing, which is the opposite. Liberal hegemony isn’t just unnecessary and counterproductive; it’s also ruinously expensive. Continuing to pursue it is what causes increased debt. Walt didn’t assume anything—he cautioned that if America wants to remain solvent, we need a way to get more realistic about what commitments are worth investing in and paying for.

Or to put it another way, of course "America can remain a pre-eminent power”—Walt provides a ton of examples and evidence of all our natural advantages (oceans east and west, friendly neighbors north and south, abundant natural resources, etc). We just have to stop doing the galactically stupid stuff, and we ought to be fine. It’s like a person of normal health can remain generally healthy—if he just stops the binge drinking and gets a little sleep. That’s not an assumption, it’s a description of reality—and sound advice from a good doctor.

But advice from all the good doctors in the world won’t make a bit of difference if the patient is determined not to hear. If the patient wants to get well, a good first step would be to heed the wisdom in this book.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Excited to Help Launch The Correspondent!

If you read my stories and periodic blog posts, you know I have an interest in the shortcomings and failures of establishment media. Around the time I wrote The God’s Eye View, that interest led to an online friendship with Jay Rosen, a media professor at NYU. I’ve been reading Jay’s blog PressThink for years, and he’s one of the most insightful people I know on how media works and why good journalism is struggling.

About a year ago, Jay asked if I’d be interested in helping get out the word on The Correspondent, a Dutch news organization expanding into the English-language market. As soon as I looked into it, I was hooked. I think the concept is exceptionally well-conceived, with as good a chance as I can imagine not just of serving readers, but of providing a healthier model for how to cover what’s newsworthy—a model other organizations might emulate.

Jay has a Boing Boing article today on the importance of “Unbreaking News” that lays out the overall approach. The whole post is well worth your time. For example:

The exciting part is the principles that make it go. These are different from any news site you can name. 
Start with no ads, the key move the Dutch founders made. Downstream from that original “no” are others, equally welcome. No click-baity headlines. No auto-play videos. No ugly promos sliding into view as you try to read the article. No “sponsored content.” (No sponsors at all.) No third party—the advertiser—in between you and the people trying to inform you. No need to track you around the internet, or collect data on your browsing habits. No selling of your attention to others. 
Also: no controversy-of-the-day coverage, which happens when editors from different newsrooms react to the same data showing clicks and taps going to a few “hot” stories. These are typically the stories that trigger outrage in the most people. The people at The Correspondent have a phrase for it. “Your antidote to the daily news grind.” If that's an idea you can get behind, then get behind The CorrespondentJoin our club
Now for the next principle, equally basic. This is not an exclusive club. It’s extremely inclusive. Two reasons I can say that. Yes, you have to pay to be a member. But you pay what you feel you can afford. The Correspondent believes you are smart enough to figure this economy out. A paying membership is the other side of the coin that reads: no ads. And no ads, as we have seen, has all those welcome effects downstream.
The other reason I can say “extremely inclusive” is that The Correspondent is not selling digital subscriptions, as the Washington Post, the London Times, and most local newspapers nowadays do. Paid subscription is a product-consumer relationship: you pay your money and you get the product. If you don’t pay you don’t get it. Membership is different. You join the cause because you believe in the importance of the work. If you believe in the work, you want it to spread, including to non-members.
If The Correspondents membership campaign reaches its goal of raising $2.5 million by December 14, it will hire a staff and start publishing, in English, in 2019. When that happens, there will be no “meter” measuring how many articles you have read this month. No one will ever get that notice, “you have used four of your five free clicks.” Any link that comes to people in their social feeds will be clickable and shareable, without limit. In this way it is more like public radio in the U.S. Members who believe in the public radio mission support their NPR station, but everyone can listen.
The differences compared to the NPR system are important too: The Correspondent will have no corporate sponsors. No government funding. And thus no fear of that money getting cut off. Which in turns means no tendency toward false equivalence, no incentive system for “he said, she said” journalism. These are deeply-woven patterns for which I have often criticized NPR.

For more, here are their 10 Founding Principles. And here’s an article from De Correspondent’s founder, Rob Wijnberg—The Problem With Real News—And What We Can Do About It—about why the primary problem isn’t fake news, but rather real news.

Please consider joining this terrific news organization and please help me spread the word by sharing this post. Thanks.

Friday, November 09, 2018

If You Buy From Amazon, Do It At AmazonSmile

Updated Below, January 18, 2023

If you buy from Amazon, do it at AmazonSmile. AmazonSmile is the same Amazon you know—same products, same prices, same service. The difference is, when you log in at AmazonSmile, Amazon donates 0.5% of the price of your eligible AmazonSmile purchases to the charitable organization of your choice.

My choice is the Legislative Drafting Institute for Child Protection, an organization founded by novelist Andrew Vachss, a lifelong advocate for better laws to protect children from predators. The LDICP produces clear, scientifically grounded, and easily implementable laws designed to protect children. Let me tell you, Livia Lone would be a huge supporter—which is probably why the first acknowledgment of The Killer Collective (February 1) mentions the LDICP, and why the book is dedicated to Andrew and his wife Alice, a former sex-crimes prosecutor and author of the hair-raising and galvanizing memoir Sex Crimes: Then and Now: My Years on the Front Lines Prosecuting Rapists and Confronting Their Collaborators.

If you buy from Amazon, why not do it through AmazonSmile, and ensure that some of your shopping dollars go to organizations like the LDICP?

Update, January 18, 2023

Received this email from Amazon today:

Dear customer,

In 2013, we launched AmazonSmile to make it easier for customers to support their favorite charities. However, after almost a decade, the program has not grown to create the impact that we had originally hoped. With so many eligible organizations—more than 1 million globally—our ability to have an impact was often spread too thin. 

We are writing to let you know that we plan to wind down AmazonSmile by February 20, 2023. We will continue to pursue and invest in other areas where we’ve seen we can make meaningful change—from building affordable housing to providing access to computer science education for students in underserved communities to using our logistics infrastructure and technology to assist broad communities impacted by natural disasters.

To help charities that have been a part of the AmazonSmile program with this transition, we will be providing them with a one-time donation equivalent to three months of what they earned in 2022 through the program, and they will also be able to accrue additional donations until the program officially closes in February. Once AmazonSmile closes, charities will still be able to seek support from Amazon customers by creating their own wish lists.

As a company, we will continue supporting a wide range of other programs that help thousands of charities and communities across the U.S. For instance:
  • Housing Equity Fund: We’re investing $2 billion to build and preserve affordable housing in our hometown communities. In just two years, we’ve provided funding to create more than 14,000 affordable homes—and we expect to build at least 6,000 more in the coming months. These units will host more than 18,000 moderate- to low-income families, many of them with children. In one year alone, our investments have been able to increase the affordable housing stock in communities like Bellevue, Washington and Arlington, Virginia by at least 20%.
  • Amazon Future Engineer: We’ve funded computer science curriculum for more than 600,000 students across over 5,000 schools—all in underserved communities. We have plans to reach an additional 1 million students this year. We’ve also provided immediate assistance to 55,000 students in our hometown communities by giving them warm clothes for the winter, food, and school supplies.
  • Community Delivery Program: We’ve partnered with food banks in 35 U.S. cities to deliver more than 23 million meals, using our logistics infrastructure to help families in need access healthy food – and we plan to deliver 12 million more meals this year alone. In addition to our delivery services, we’ve also donated 30 million meals in communities across the country.
  • Amazon Disaster Relief: We’re using our logistics capabilities, inventory, and cloud technology to provide fast aid to communities affected by natural disasters. For example, we’ve created a Disaster Relief Hub in Atlanta with more than 1 million relief items ready for deployment, our Disaster Relief team has responded to more than 95 natural disasters, and we’ve donated more than 20 million relief products to nonprofits assisting communities on the ground.
  • Community Giving: We support hundreds of local nonprofits doing meaningful work in cities where our employees and their families live. For example, each year we donate hundreds of millions of dollars to organizations working to build stronger communities, from youth sport leagues, to local community colleges, to shelters for families experiencing homelessness.
We’ll continue working to make a difference in many ways, and our long-term commitment to our communities remains the same—we’re determined to do every day better for our customers, our employees, and the world at large.

Thank you for being an Amazon customer.