How to be an Antiracist, by Ibram X Kendi

Powerfully written.

Kendi lays out a set of definitions for racism, racist, and antiracist, then shows how those rules apply across different areas: culture, sexuality, gender, class, etc.

Along the way, he tells stories from his own life, using his personal growth to illustrate how following the principles of antiracism leads to also being a feminist, an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community, and an anticapitalist.

Because Kendi is so willing to be vulnerable here, to admit to his previous homophobia, his sexism, his snobbery towards other Black people, his hatred of White people, he takes us along the journey with him. And he makes it okay if you’re still only part way along the journey, because he gives you a path forward.

What could easily have been a sermon, then, becomes a conversation. A directed conversation, to be sure, one with a purpose, but one where both parties admit they’ve made and will make mistakes. It made me want to be better, to think more clearly, than simply laying out his current perspective would.

And his anchoring of racism vs antiracism in power, and the way power is distributed among (invented) racial groups, is empowering. By targeting power’s self-interest, we can push for lasting changes, not just momentary victories.

We don’t wait for racism to fade away. We don’t wait for my family to become less afraid of Black people. We first remove the laws and policies keeping the races unequal, then people’s fears will go away.

It’s a serious responsibility, but it gives me hope. Because it makes the work more concrete: Not asking people to hold hands and sing together, but winding down the police state. Investing more in schools, and less in prisons. Breaking up monopolies and pushing power and money into communities that have neither.

So I recommend this book to anyone, of any race or caste. It offers clarity and hope in equal measure, because we have to see how racist power works — and how pervasive racist ideas are, in all groups — if we are to dismantle it.

What’s Your Pronoun? by Dennis Baron

This is turning into a month of listening, for me.

After the controversy erupted over J.K. Rowling’s statements on trans people, I realized how little I actually know about that side of human experience. Where did these new pronouns come from? What’s the difference between transsexual (which has been around since I was a kid) and transgender? Why nonbinary?

So I decided to start with digging into pronouns. Because a) I’m a grammar nerd, and b) Getting more comfortable using new or different pronouns is a concrete action I can take, right now.

And I’m glad I did! This book is a delight, a quick read that doesn’t skimp on the details.

For example, I had no idea of the controversy over generic he that raged in the US and UK over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Suffragettes like Susan B Anthony argued that if he covered women when it came to paying taxes and being arrested for crimes, then it covered them when it came to voting, too.

This passage, in particular, struck me as completely bad-ass:

If, for instance, in a penal law there are no feminine pronouns, women should be exempt from the penalties imposed. And if men are to represent woman in voting, let them represent her in all. If a wife commits murder let the husband be hung for it.

She (and suffragettes throughout the nineteenth century) lost that argument, and the argument that the fourteenth amendment covered women, since it used not he but persons and citizens.

Which is why the current discussion over the ERA — where detractors insist the fourteenth amendment already covers women — is so specious. There’s hundreds of years of American jurisprudence that says otherwise. We absolutely need an explicit amendment that grants women full and equal rights.

As even this one example, shows, arguments over pronouns go back a long way.

Calls for a new “gender-neutral” pronoun go back three hundred years (!).

Use of the singular they in just that manner go back seven-hundred years! It was never accepted by grammarians, but it was used in print and daily speech all the time.

Baron traces all of this history — the legalities of the generic he, the rise of new pronouns, etc — and links it together, showing how the current debates about pronouns and trans rights echo debates we’ve had down the centuries. Every time, the side of “existing usage” is really on the side of weaponizing grammar to suppress certain populations.

That’s a side I don’t want to be on.

If you’re at all curious about where the “new” pronouns have come from, and why using the right pronouns is so important, I highly encourage you to read this book.

Or if you’re already onboard with explicitly asking for people’s pronouns (and sharing your own), and just like language, I’d still recommend it, as a fantastic and informative read.

So: What’s your pronoun? I’m he/him/his 🙂

Defund the Police: A Skit (with apologies to Letterkenny)

Daryl: About the protests the other day–

Wayne: Assholes with authority are assaulting folks for asinine reasons.

Daryl: But–

Wayne: Beating bystanders with billy clubs and then bleating for bills is bully talk.

Daryl: Can’t we just–

Wayne: Cancel the cops.

Daryl: Do you mean…?

Wayne: Defund the detectives. Defang the dildo-wielding degenerates who deal damage and destruction wherever they descend.

Daryl: Even if they–

Wayne: Evict those eager eagles from their erroneously elevated nest.

Daryl: For how long?

Wayne: Until fascist fuck-ups who would fancy frisking a black fish if they found one finally confess.

Daryl: Golly

Wayne: Granted god-like powers to grab goods and grandstand on greatness, they gotta go.

Daryl: Have you thought about–

Wayne: Heave ho to the hot-headed hitmen with hearts of hate and habits of heavy fists.

Daryl: Just–

Wayne: Justice doesn’t jump out and jack-boot a juggler in the jiggles just for laughs.

Daryl: ‘Kay.

Wayne: Keep the keystone kleptocracy kilometers away from kids, is all I’m saying.

Daryl: Likely.

Wayne: Laying into little Leopolds and Lillys without legal legitimacy is for losers.

Daryl: Maybe they–

Wayne: Mashing moppets every month for making messes is monstrous.

Daryl: Not if they–

Wayne: Noting the narcs neglect of their neighbors in favor of nightly numbers.

Daryl: Ouch.

Wayne: Overlooking obvious offenders in their offbeat overstretch creates opposition.

Daryl: Proof.

Wayne: Punching protestors is poor protection of the public.

Daryl: Quotas.

Wayne: Quenching their quixotic quest for quotidian quiet.

Daryl: Right?

Wayne: Radical rascals who reject right-thinking and responsibility.

Daryl: Sounds like–

Wayne: Shifty seneschals who shit on any semblance of sanity.

Daryl: Talking about–

Wayne: Tiny totalitarians who top out thinking tanks make them trustworthy.

Daryl: Unbelievable.

Wayne: Utterly unsatisfactory and unscrupulous usage of ubiquitous umbrellas of immunity.

Daryl: Verily.

Wayne: Vanquish the vicars of vicious vicissitude and vampires of verification.

Daryl: What you mean is–

Wayne: Walk over to those wankers with their whale-like wads of cash, wax their ears, and wash ’em off our way-fares.

Daryl: Extreme.

Wayne: Exactly.

Daryl: You really think–

Wayne: Yes.

Daryl: Zounds.

Wayne: Zip ’em up, and zero out their budgets.

Daryl: All righty then.

Wayne: Black Lives Matter, bud.

Juneteenth

Growing up in Texas, we didn’t talk about Juneteenth in school.

We talked about the Civil War, of course. Of the “brave” and “fearsome” soldiers that Texas sent to fight for the Confederacy. But not about slavery, other than it being a “bad thing” that “was over now.”

We talked about Texas’ War of Independence from Mexico. That war was also motivated by slavery, by the desire for white Texans to have and import slaves. But we didn’t talk about that either. Only the Alamo, and Santa Anna, and again, the “brave” soldiers who fell.

But we never mentioned the brave slaves who ran away from home, in a desperate flight to freedom. Knowing they would be beaten if caught, and possibly killed.

We never talked about the black soldiers that served in the Union army, knowing the whites in that army still thought of them as “lesser men,” and that if captured by the Confederates they’d be made into slaves, even if they’d been raised free.

We didn’t talk about that kind of bravery.

So we didn’t talk about Juneteenth, and how its origins were Texan. How white Texans were so desperate to hold onto their human property that it took a Union Army arriving on the Gulf shore to force them to give them up.

Because our history was written and taught by white Southerners, who, being racist themselves, can’t see anything but shame in such a holiday. They identify too strongly with the losing side.

But having learned about the holiday as an adult — too late, true, but better than never — I can see pride in it, mixed in with the shame.

Not white pride, mind you, but American pride. Pride that the Civil War was fought and won by the side of justice. Pride that the slaves were freed, that we set off on a path to give all Americans the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The path is long and stony, and we’ve still a long way to go. But we can celebrate the progress we’ve made, even while pushing forward into the future.

I’m spending this Juneteenth catching up on more of the history that I missed in school. And thinking on how I can do my part to move us further down the path to becoming a truly free country.

Justice for Breonna’s killers.

Defund the Police.

Black Lives Matter.

The Indian World of George Washington, by Colin G Calloway

This is the kind of American history I wish they’d taught me in school.

It’s a story of intrigue, of diplomatic maneuvering between dozens of nations. Of military campaigns won and lost. Of peace betrayed and hope rekindled.

I would have eaten this stuff up. Did eat it up, when presented with the history of Europe in the Middle Ages or Japan’s Edo Period or China’s Warring States.

(Okay, so the latter two I only got exposed to via video games, not school, but still)

But teaching me this version of American history would have forced adults around me to acknowledge our part in this struggle. And most of the time, we were the villains.

We made treaties with Native American tribes, swearing to abide by some border line, and then promptly set about settling past that line. We struck deals with the leaders of individual villages and then insisted whole tribes adhere to them. And when those tribes refused to sign new treaties with us, establishing new boundary lines, we invaded, burned their villages to the ground, and slaughtered their people.

And Washington was at the heart of all of this.

As First President, he established the policy of buying Native American land when we could, and killing them all if they wouldn’t sell. He also pushed them to become “civilized,” which in his mind meant dropping their own culture — including their sustainable agriculture, their religion, and their gender roles — and adopting settler culture wholesale.

Why would he do this? Because he speculated in Native American land, buying up the “rights” to tracts that hadn’t been formerly ceded by any tribe. He needed those boundary lines pushed back, that land cleared of Native Americans, and then settled by Europeans, if he was to recoup any profits.

This is the part of American history that has white squatters fighting both Native Americans and elites back east for their “right” to seize land.

The part that has our very first treaty under the Constitution negotiated with a Native American tribe.

The part that has Washington taking time out of the Revolutionary War to have three armies loot and pillage their way through Iroquios territory, destroying crops and peaceful towns as they went.

And its the part that shows the Native Americans as what they were: A free people, with their own politics and divisions, struggling to deal with the invasion of their lands. Some sought peace, some wanted to fight, and some moved rather than deal with the Europeans. But all of them thought of themselves as their own nations, with control over their own territory, and their own sovereign rights.

Something Washington never conceded to them, and he embedded that denial in our relationships with the tribes from the start.

This sort of history is complicated, and Calloway does an fantastic job sorting through it. Amazingly, he condemns Washington’s mistakes without finger-wagging.

It’s enough to relate them truthfully. The First President condemns himself.

Congress Should be Bigger

Over in The Atlantic, David Litt argues that Congress should be much larger than it currently is:

In the 90 years since the cap [on the number of reps in Congress] was put in place, the number of House seats has stayed flat while the population has boomed. To put it slightly differently, each member of Congress has become responsible for several times more constituents. District populations have doubled since my parents were born, in the late 1950s. In my own 33-year lifetime, the number of Americans per lawmaker has increased by about 200,000—the equivalent of adding a Salt Lake City to every district in the United States.

Believe it or not, I’ve been working on a similar post, coming at the argument through looking at the ratio of people-to-reps in other countries.

Litt makes the case much better than I ever could (for example, I didn’t know that the number of House Reps was commonly increased after every census until 1919!), but here’s a plot of person-per-rep vs population for about two dozen democracies, from Mexico to South Korea to Nigeria to Norway:

My kingdom for a better chart app

You’ll notice most countries are clustered together in the lower-left-hand corner.

See that outlier, waaaay up in the corner, far away from everyone else? That’s the United States.

Free Markets vs Capitalism

The other day, I friend of mine tweeted something about Rage Against the Machine that tripped my political-philosophy sensors:

real talk, the Rage Against the Machine ticket pricing is unfortunate for many of their fans (esp fans in demographics their songs are about). but they’ve been on a Sony imprint since the early 90s. their per-show guarantee is easily in the six figures. they’re capitalists.

It’s that last part that bothered me. RATM are well-known advocates of socialism; are they really so hypocritical as to be capitalists?

After thinking things over for a while, I don’t believe they are. Wealthy, perhaps. Well-paid, certainly. But capitalists? I don’t think so.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to call my friend out here. But his tweet made me realize there’s a lot of misconceptions in the US about the differences between socialism, capitalism, and free markets. And the case of RATM makes a good jumping-off point to discuss the real relationships between those three concepts.

Because wanting to make money from their music, and specifically from their performance of music, does not make RATM capitalists.

F– the G Ride, I Want the Machines That are Making’ ‘Em

First let’s clarify something: Socialism doesn’t mean the end of money, of private property, or getting compensated for work.

Socialism, strictly construed, only requires one thing: the common ownership of the means of production.

What does this mean? Let’s break it down, going from back to front.

The means of production is just a fancy way of saying how things are made. It can be a factory churning out cars, or a recording studio putting out records.

Common ownership means there’s no one person (or CEO-controlled corporation) that controls a thing. Sometimes this can mean government control — like our public schools — and sometimes this can be a co-op or community organization, like the urban gardens that have sprung up in some cities.

Putting these two together, it means in a socialist economy, no one person controls how things are made. Meaning they can’t force you to pay for access to how things are made.

In other words: Socialists can’t make money by being gatekeepers of some valuable resource, like time in the studio or the use of a 3-D printer.

But they can — and must, since it’s the only way to make money in a socialist economy — make money from their labor, and from the fruits of their labor.

Going back to RATM, when they perform, they are generating value — entertainment value — via their labor. And they own the end result of that labor (the music itself, and any recordings that are produced), which they then sell to people.

To a socialist, this is how things should be, everywhere. People work to create something, they own that thing, and then can sell that thing to others and make a living off of it.

Now I’m Rolling Down Rodeo With a Shotgun

So if charging money for their work doesn’t make RATM capitalists, what would?

Capitalists, in contrast to socialists, believe the means of production should be privately owned. This control over the means of production is what allows capitalists to exploit the labor of others. Because if you can own a factory, and claim ownership over every car produced there, then the only thing its workers can own is their labor, which they have to sell to you.

Do you see the difference? Capitalists don’t make money by creating things. They make money by owning things.

So the investor that funds construction of a new building, and then claims ownership over it, so they can start charging people rent, is a capitalist. They didn’t design it, they didn’t build it, they didn’t paint it or make any of the furniture that goes inside. But they still claim they have the sole right to make money off of it.

In Rage Against the Machine’s case, in order to become capitalists, they’d have to go from being music makers to record label execs. People that don’t make music themselves, but instead profit from the music that others create.

And more importantly, profiting because they claim ownership of the music (or at least, the recordings) that are wholly created by other people.

The Sisters are In, So Check the Front Lines

To make a more fully-fledged analogy: What would a music industry organized along socialist lines look like?

Well, the means of production would have to be held in common. So recording studios could not be owned by individuals or corporations. They could be government-run, they could be owned by a community association, or a co-op.

More likely, they’d be owned by artist collectives, who would rent space from a builder’s association that constructed a suitable building. The artists would pool their funds and procure the recording equipment, and any instruments they’d like to keep in the studio. They’d each then have access to the studio, without having to pay someone else.

Individual recordings would be owned by the artists who performed on them, and any sound engineers or producers that helped make the recording. Again, if you put your labor into something, you own a part of it.

Distribution would be handled either by the artists’ collective themselves, or by a co-op that specializes in distributing music (either online or via physical copies).

At no point would anyone that helped the album come into being be cut out of their partial ownership of said album. At no point would control over the album or the music be held by an entity that’s beholden to remote shareholders.

That’s not to say that everything would be free, or that any old album someone wanted to make would have to be recorded or distributed. Because the people behind and around the musicians — the engineers, the mixers, the producers, etc — wouldn’t want to contribute their labor (in other words, take partial ownership of) something they thought wouldn’t sell. Their ability to make a living would depend on the end product selling, after all; more sales means more for them via their cut, and fewer sales means less.

So people would be free to say no to projects, just as they’d be free to say yes. The knowledge that whatever they invest their time, their labor, their talent in, becomes theirs, makes them more responsible, not less. And that responsibility would itself become a market signal, as people flock together to make and distribute music that’s popular locally, and still work to make music that’s popular globally.

So a socialist music industry would actually be a freer market than a capitalist one. Free of the constraints of work-for-hire, of laboring on something and then seeing it enrich someone else. And free of the power wielded by single individuals at the top of corporate hierarchies.

Who Controls the Past Now, Controls the Future

By now, I’m sure you’ve guessed which side of the capitalist/socialist divide I’m on 🙂

But even if you think our capitalist system is better, my central point stands: Making money from the things you create doesn’t make you a capitalist. In fact, doing so is more compatible with socialism than the alternative.

So RATM aren’t capitalists. Just musicians looking to claim their just piece of the value they create.

Goliath, by Matt Stoller

We don’t really talk about the dangers of monopoly in the United States anymore.

We praise it, if we’re VCs investing in start-ups.

We acknowledge a history of it, safely confined to a long-gone Gilded Age.

But we don’t discuss how much it dominates our current economy, or how much damage it does.

Which is strange, because fighting monopoly should be one thing the Right and the Left can agree on.

The Right should fight monopoly because it leads to giant corporations that centralize control of the economy. And centralized control — whether in the form of an unelected Politburo, or an unelected Board of Directors — should be one of the Right’s worst fears.

The Left should fight monopoly because it concentrates power in the hands of owners and financial gamblers at the expense of workers. When the company you’re trying to unionize against doesn’t have any competitors, and controls billions of dollars of assets, it can afford to wait out any strike, or hire enough scabs to stay in business. And it’s harder to organize across not just multiple states, but multiple countries, to ensure a strike even gets off the ground.

Notice I didn’t say anything about consumers. It turns out our obsession with consumer rights (and low prices) has crippled our ability to talk about the rights of producers, of the workers and small-businesspeople that should rightfully be the backbone of our economy. It’s left us defenseless against the new monopolies in our midst, that charge less not because of some “economy of scale” but because they have access to enough capital to underbid everyone else.

Think of Amazon, and how it spent decades without turning any kind of profit, all while its stock rose and rose. Would any normal business have been allowed to do that? Any sane business? No. Amazon was allowed to pursue its monopoly, and won it.

But I didn’t see any of this until after reading Matt Stoller’s book.

I felt some of it, sure. In the way Silicon Valley companies chased advertising dollars instead of solving real problems. In how Uber and Amazon set their prices artificially low, specifically to drive their competitors out of the market, and got praised for it.

And in the way I’ve come to look at running my own business as some kind of crazy dream, instead of the normal out-growth of a career spent in engineering.

Stoller’s given me a framework, and a history, to understand all of this. How we used to enforce anti-trust laws that would have stopped Facebook from buying out all of its competition, or Amazon from driving local bookstores out of business. How the financial markets used to exist to enable small businesses to get off the ground, not pour money into multinational behemoths that crushed them.

And how it all funnels money and power up the food chain, leading to today’s rampant inequality and distorted economy.

If you have any interest in economic justice, whether as a devoted capitalist or a socialist or just a plain liberal, I’d recommend reading Goliath. Stoller’s book restores the lost history of American anti-trust, placing us back in a historical context of the long fight between centralized control and distributed power.

It’s the one book I’ve read about recent events that’s given me hope.

Because we cut down the Goliaths once. We can do so again.

Learning to Listen About Race

I was raised by racists.

Not cross-burners and Klan members, but racists all the same.

My mother sat my sister and I down when we were in middle-school, telling us not to date anyone outside our race. She posed it as a problem of us being “accepted as a couple,” but the message was clear.

My older cousins would crack one-liners about the noise a chainsaw makes when you start it up being “Run n—–, n—–, run.” They thought it was hilarious.

The joke books my parents bought me when I showed an interest in comedy never mentioned Latinos, only “Mexicans,” and only when they were the butt of the joke, sometimes being thrown from airplanes by virtuous (read “white”) Texans.

When I grew older, I rejected this casual racism, just as I rejected my family’s religion and their politics. I thought I was free of prejudice. I thought my generation would grow up and replace the older racists in charge. That it was only a matter of time before racism was over.

Then Barack Obama was elected President. My wife and I watched the returns come in together, excited to see it happen. A Democrat back in office. And a black man. We’d done it!

Only we hadn’t. My family’s racism went from casual to angry. Their party turned, too, going from dog-whistling Dixie to embracing white nationalists.

Taking a knee at a ball game became an act of utmost disrespect, because a black man did it. A Republican Governor’s plan for decreasing health care costs became “death panels,” because a black man embraced it.

It blindsided me, this vitriol. I wasn’t prepared for it, didn’t know how to handle it.

Of course, minorities had always known it was there. They’d been living it, their whole lives.

So I’ve been trying to listen more. Both in person, and by seeking out books that will teach me.

Here’s three I’ve read recently that have shaken me out of my complacency, and showed me some of the structure of American racism. A structure I hadn’t been able to see before, because it was never meant to hold me in.

Just millions of my fellow citizens.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

The book that first opened my eyes to the constraints and the artificiality of “white” and “black.” Powerfully, movingly written, it showed me how the American conception of race has been used to divide and oppress.

It also pushed me to question my own whiteness, and to look back to a time when I would not have been considered “white.” My family’s Irish and Blackfoot; for most of American history I would have been excluded from “white” society.

That doesn’t mean I have any special insight into what African-Americans have been through and continue to experience. Rather, it taught me that whiteness or blackness has nothing to do with skin color, and everything to do with power and hierarchy. It is, fundamentally, about perpetuating injustice.

The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander

I’ve written about this one before, and the effect it had on me.

Before reading it, I had no idea just how lucky I was to have gone through life without ending up in jail. That I didn’t, even though I was raised poor, is not a testament to my behavior, but an indicator of my acceptance as “white” by American society.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo

A hard book to read, but a necessary one. Breaks down the reasons why even well-meaning “white” people like me get defensive and lash out if their racism is called out.

It’s hard to write that sentence, to own the fact that though I consider all people to be equal, and don’t consiously hold any prejudice, there are things I will do and say that will hurt and offend people. And that while I cannot prevent the fact that I will make mistakes, I must be open to having those mistakes called out, and be willing to be better.

It’s the hardest lesson for me to learn. Because it’s one thing to have your eyes opened to the bad behavior of others. Another to realize that you’re part of the problem, and if you don’t become more aware, and less defensive, it’s not going to get better.