My Biases

A fair point of criticism that could be lobbed my way is that my divorce has made me bitter.  

It is true that I didn’t want the divorce at the time.  I loved my ex-husband madly, without limits, and without reason.  In the final analysis, you could argue that it was his choice to end the marriage.  I certainly had shown no signs of giving up on him.  

From a certain angle, blaming our divorce on cultural differences might also be understood as a sign that I am looking for a scapegoat.  Anything to avoid saying out loud that he didn’t love me enough.

Well, he didn’t love me enough.  

Let me tell you about my ex-husband.  He was beautiful.  Charming.  Intelligent.  Funny.  Ambitious.  Good lord, was he handsome.   He spoke four languages.  I adored his mother.  His nieces and nephews were so sweet.  His siblings were endlessly kind.  I had experiences with him that I would have never had access to with another man.  

And yet.

Everything was always someone else’s fault.  He may not have graduated with a Bachelor’s yet, fifteen years after I met him.  And last I heard, that failure was everyone’s fault but his.  

He had all the pride in the world, but so little to be proud of.  

In the end, his sister-in-law said to me “Beda, we don’t understand.  We know what you did for him.”

I made him feel stupid.  When I asked him to think outside the box, he refused and leaned on a faceless, nameless Imam.  I asked him if God was going to come back.  He said yes.  I asked him if he was going to have to stand before God and answer for his time on earth.  He said yes.  I asked him if that Imam was going to put his hand up from the back, interrupt proceedings, and inform God that he, the Imam, was taking responsibility for my ex’s behavior.

“Why do you have to make me feel stupid about my religion.”

I remember that conversation.  Explicitly.  We were in the shower.  We’d been talking about having kids, raising them.  The specter of Ramadan and 12 year olds who were thirsty in the middle of summer and me having to tell them no, they can’t have water.  

Our marriage died in that shower, on that day.  It just took a long time to realize that it was irrevocably dead.  

I wasn’t perfect.  I was young and immature.  I was pragmatic when he needed me to be a die-hard romantic.  I had these ideas about what a marriage was supposed to be and I kept trying to turn us into the picture I wanted instead of accepting what we were.  I was inexperienced: I didn’t have another long term relationship as a point of reference.  I was hard-headed.  I fought to win.  

Before we were married, my Dad pulled him aside and said, “Son, there isn’t anything in 2,000 years of culture or breeding that has prepared you to be married to this woman.”  My dad was right.  Didn’t stop my dad from loving him, from mentoring him, from employing him.  But he was right.  

So…  sour grapes?  Maybe.  But also years of watching him and his friends in our home and in Morocco.  Observing their relationships disintegrate one by one.   Being a part of his family and therefore as much of an insider as I could possibly be.  I was there for Al Eid when the butcher came and slaughtered four sheep on the rooftop deck of his mother’s house.  Heard his family’s sympathy for his brother’s wife, who had married the crazy brother.  But no one could say that.  No one could confront him.  They just listened to the screaming in unhappy silence.  To do anything else would have been shameful.  Or the other brother, the alcoholic whose hands shook until he started drinking again at 10 and may or may not have been bisexual.  All this shit that they couldn’t talk about and so it just festered.  

I was there in a way that the analysts and the diplomats haven’t been.  Not that I know everything they know, just that they don’t know everything I know.  They haven’t slept in that bed and it’s different, once you have.  

Which is to say that Islam isn’t bad, or at least its holy text is on par with Christianity.  Muslims are people, just like any other people: some are wonderful, some are awful, most are somewhere in-between, or both in different ways.  Islamic culture isn’t …  Okay, it’s sub-optimal.  And I say that having fallen in love with walking your bread dough to the local bakers to have it baked while you go to the Hamam.  And avocado juice.  And easy smiles.  Helpful, generous, open people.  Promising young men living with a corrupt government, sitting around and playing cards for spending money because they couldn’t find jobs with their free university education.  Things stay the same because Inshallah is the answer to every question.  When do you want to meet?  <shrug> Inshallah.  Retirement planning?  Inshallah.  Address government corruption?  Inshallah.  

Being there, drinking coffee, people-watching… it’s beautiful.  Perhaps even more so because it is doomed.  The trajectory of history seems to be pointing in the direction of reason, plurality, and technology.  The harder the lumpheads (of any persuasion) try to drag the whole thing backwards, the more certain we can be of a rebound.  Time moves forward, at least experientially.  The quantum physicists might have other views, but the rest of us experience the relentless march of time in a single direction.  We get smarter, and nothing is lost even if we fall, one-by-one, victims of that march.  

“We shed as we pick up, like travelers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.”  Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

My Biases

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The quote goes back to Aesop, this notion that familiarity breeds contempt.  (For the record, he also said this: We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.)  Vice published a piece about the Military’s support for Trump – some at the leadership level, most among those who end up getting deployed.  Trump fans in the Military talked about drawing back on our intervention in the world, the fact that Trump appears to be decisive (I can’t, in any seriousness, call him decisive.)

What they don’t talk about is how Trump’s anti-Islam message resonates with those who have spent time in the Islamic world.  

Let’s start with this: I’m speaking in generalities.  What I am about to say isn’t going to apply to everyone, but it is a decent starting point.  The religion and the culture are intertwined in the minds of those who grew up in it.  Most westerners can talk about their religion in one silo and their culture in another, and their family in a third.  Most westerners can talk critically about one aspect or the other without feeling the whole edifice is about to crumble. It gets much harder to tease out the threads when you’re talking about the Muslim world.  

My expertise on this is as follows:  I married a Muslim man.  We divorced.  I have worked around former military, lived with and loved an Officer who deployed “downrange,” had a long term relationship with another former officer who also undertook multiple deployments.  And I can say with a high level of confidence that familiarity breeds contempt.  Skipping over the salacious bits (I imagine if you spend some time googling night vision videos from Iraq, you’ll find stuff you can never un-see), let’s talk about why that might be.  

First, the world we first think of as Muslim – North Africa, the Middle East – has a culture that cannot be understood academically.  Which means that our governmental approach to it is doomed from the beginning because there is nothing in an American’s education, culture, approach, or experience that prepares us to understand this culture.  We are the distillation of Western culture down to its bluntest components.  We are direct.  We strive to mean what we say and say what we mean.  We value consistency and authenticity.  We don’t respect sensitivity, particularly if it stands in the way of progress.  We take others at their word.  

None of which works in this world.  

Meaning is conveyed in the subtlest of shades.  Go to a paint store and consider all of the different colors that look white to you.  That’s how little difference there is between different shades of meaning in this world, but each of those shades conveys something specific, and important, and different.  Are you frustrated already, just thinking about it?  Most Americans (and even more American men) are going to throw their hands up and storm off saying “I don’t give a shit which white you choose, just leave me out of it.”  We don’t have the patience for nuance that microscopic.  (Which, incidentally, I am behind 100%.  I don’t see the value in 2,000 shades of white either.  50 shades of grey is at least 45 too many.)

Pride counts for more than having something to be proud of.  God help you if you miss one of those cues that came in 2,000 shades of white paint chips, because you will have damaged your compatriots pride so irrevocably that there is no going back.  Ever.  Why do you think there are honor killings?  Because pride is valued at a higher level than a daughter’s life.  Doesn’t make sense, does it?  You can say the words and nod, but that’s academic.  It’s like reading about mermaids and unicorns.  You can understand the words, they fit together, but on some level it doesn’t compute.  It will never compute.  And anything is on the table in service of pride.  Anything.  Pride is valued above honesty.  It is valued above authenticity.  It is valued above progress.  

Children are not chastised with bad (don’t do that, it’s bad), they are chastised with shame (don’t do that, it is shameful.)

There is the inside world and the outside world.  Inside is for family.  Women are inside.  Outside is for the men.  What is said outside may only have the thinnest tie to the truth, but it isn’t considered shameful to lie.  What would be more shameful would be to admit something that is true, but unflattering.  You tell the truth inside, but then maybe only to the men.  And probably not even to the men.  Maybe to your father.  Maybe.  And honesty with yourself about yourself… fuggetaboutit.  

Honestly, I don’t know how anyone functions.  

Our cultures are oil and water.  And that doesn’t mean that we are at war with each other, it simply means that in the venn diagram, we think that the place where the circles overlap is bigger than it is.  Because we’re American.  We’re optimistic.  We’re direct.  We can do anything.  But only the Americans who have tried to get anything done in that sliver of overlap know exactly how small it is.  Find a soldier who has deployed and ask him or her about Islam.  Chances are they met some extraordinary people of courage.  Fellow soldiers.  Police officers in training.  Interpreters.  Leaders.  People they could speak with directly, trust completely, and work with effectively.  But overall?  I’d put money that their experience led them to believe that the whole thing was a clusterfuck from the start and we had no business getting involved because we didn’t know the terrain, human or cultural, and we had no clear objective.  Spreading democracy, incidentally, is not a clear objective.  Democracy isn’t smallpox.  

And I’d hazard a guess that most soldiers aren’t fans of Islamic culture, which gets shorthanded into Muslim people.  

This isn’t about religion.  Personally, I think organized religion is 99% bullshit.  Believe what you want to believe, connect with the divine in the way you see fit, and leave me alone to do the same.  The state of my soul has nothing to do with the state of your soul.  I don’t see how you can reasonably make the argument that religion isn’t its own culture.  In America, the national culture and the religious culture grow further apart every day.  I think this is to the good.  In the middle east, the culture and the religion cling to each other so hard we can only hope they suffocate each other entirely.  

Ooh.  Inflammatory.  I know I’m not supposed to say this.  I know I’m at odds with my basic liberalism which has no problem with democratic socialism, government regulation, socialized health care, mourning Bernie, end the war on drugs, etc., etc.

Of course, I’m American.  I would think this, but I’m firmly behind the notion that a culture should be judged by its outcomes.  By that measure, Western culture isn’t perfect.  There’s still too much racial bigotry, not enough logic (just listen to the people defending assault weapons), and too much religion trying to take over the public sphere.  However.  With all of its flaws, Western culture has demonstrably better outcomes for the vast majority of its citizens.  

You could call that relative, and question my measures.  Well, my measure are things like literacy; life expectancy; poverty;  transparency in government; equality under the law for men and women; the absence of child soldiers, child brides, and child factory workers; the absence of honor killings and feminine genital mutilation (we could legitimately get rid of circumcision here, just for the record); freedom of speech; and freedom of (and from) religion.

Perhaps if you were looking at social cohesion, then Islamic culture would come out on top.  Maybe for the fantastical architecture?  The sense of poetic despair?  Rumi?  The debt of gratitude we owe the Islamic world for hanging on to the world’s intellectual treasures while we the west went through the dark ages?  All of that is great.  But at what price for those who don’t fit in?  At what cost for the LGBTQ community?  The Saudi girl who wants to be an engineer?  The Somali girl who doesn’t want to marry the man her parents picked?  The Afghan girl who just wants to learn how to read?   Should they all be sacrificed for social cohesion or tradition?  And even then, the wars rage on between people who believe things that can only be differentiated by a few shades of white.  So much for social cohesion.  

Does Islam, by definition, prohibit female engineers, or girls who go to school, or homosexuals who live safely and openly in society?  Certainly no more than Christianity does.  But is the culture prohibitive of all of the above?  Absolutely.  

So yes.  By the measures described, Western culture is superior.  I don’t think anyone should die over this.  I don’t think we should drop bombs to stamp out a religion or a culture.  I don’t think anyone should be ostracized or excluded.  I’m not for a ban or a wall or profiling. The “don’t be an asshole” rule always applies.  But that doesn’t change the fact that our foreign policy in the middle east is hampered by our lack of visceral understanding of the culture we’re working with.  And it doesn’t change the fact that western culture produces better outcomes for a larger percentage of its population.

And if the Military has feelings that align with Donald Trump about how immigration from the Middle East should be handled, perhaps their feelings should be understood as having a foundation in experience that goes beyond bigotry and racism.

Okay, let the yelling begin.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Could I Be a Conservative?

I mean, theoretically, if Conservative weren’t tainted with asshole in much the same way Feminism has been tainted with joyless, anti-sex, anti-man, word policing*…  yes.  

One of the best articles I’ve read yet about the debacle that is 2016 comes from Vox, wherein a Conservative and Republican turns around and faces what outsiders have long pointed out, and that is that the Conservatives signed up for a marriage with the ugliest parts of our society, and have amplified that ugliness with their rhetoric, and are now shocked to discover that the ugly had no equal measure of loyalty to the Conservative movement.  The second they got the opportunity to ditch the ideals in order to jump into bed with a candidate that gives them a straight shot of bigotry, nationalism, fear, and protectionism, no chaser… that’s what the base of the Republican party did.  The luminaries, the next generation of presidential hopefuls, by and large said that they’d rather be unprincipled and throw their lot in with a short-fingered vulgarian than be accused of helping a Democrat.

Think about that.

They hate liberals so much that they would rather be aligned with a fraudulent, bigoted narcissist than be seen to give an inch in the direction of those namby-pamby Democrats.

The Conservative values I can get behind include fairness, equality, freedom of speech, self-determination.  But I’m more passionate about everyone minding their own damn business and not being an asshole.  Who my neighbor loves, sleeps with, or marries has nothing to do with me.  It doesn’t change my life, it doesn’t affect my paycheck, it doesn’t alter the quality of my relationship, and is therefore none of my damn business.  A predator who is intent on rape doesn’t need permission to lurk in the ladies room.  You don’t send your kids to the bathroom alone, and you didn’t send them to the bathroom alone long before we were talking about transgendered rights.  Someone grappling with their experience in their body at that level should just be left the hell alone to find some peace, and if peeing next to me in the ladies room furthers that, then come on in.  While there may be a woman here or there who is cavalier about abortion, the vast majority of women come to a decision about pregnancy and their bodies through much grief and in incredibly difficult situations.  It is no one’s business but their own.  Unless you’re watching someone inflict harm on another living thing, mind your own damn business.  It isn’t that hard.  

If all those Republican blowhards in Congress (the Democrats are blowhards too) really wanted smaller government, they would write better laws.  They would write fewer laws.  They would let science and reason dictate policy (does pot really need to be a Class A drug?)  They would make publicly-funded campaigns a reality.  They would quit this nonsense where they spend more time fundraising than they do understanding the issues they are supposed to vote on.  Government agencies exist to understand and implement the laws written by Congress.  Write better laws, have better government.  Simplify the tax code, shrink the IRS.  But they don’t actually want the stuff they are squawking about, because if they wanted it, they could have it.  Easily.  Write some shit that makes sense and quit your bitching.  

So yes, you could count me in the number of Americans who would vote for a Conservative if said Conservative wasn’t an asshole bent on panty-legislating, denying climate change, ignoring the historical precedent that brings us regulatory bodies like the EPA or OSHA, and providing unlimited welfare for corporations.  If you find one of those, please let me know.  I’ve got a place for that Conservative right next to my unicorn.   

*Feminism.  I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.  Feminism is the belief that men and woman should be treated equally under the law.  It is the defense of a woman’s self-determination, even if she self-determines to be a sex worker.  Or a home-maker.  Or a kick-ass lawyer.  Feminism is not an excuse to use the status of historical victim to bully others.  It is not the assertion that men and women are exactly and biologically the same, or that biology doesn’t matter to behavior.  It is not the belief that sex should be performed in birkenstocks with granola on the bed and then only if the man in question apologizes profusely for his patriarchal genitalia first.

Could I Be a Conservative?

Smart Rules: Canaries and Alligators

The trouble with everything costs something is that you can only experience one set of consequences: the decision tree branches, you pick one or the other, and the not-chosen branch dies quietly.  Schrodinger’s Cat, once examined, is either one or the other.  You don’t get to play both out.

I have a supervisor.  My supervisor finds me disrespectful.  I find him intellectually incurious, and therefore limited as a manager of people.  You have to be interested in perspectives other than your own to manage effectively.  His response to my perceived disrespect has been distinctly bullyish.  I spoke up for myself.  And here we arrive at the rule for being smart for the day:

Don’t write a check with your alligator mouth that is going to break your canary ass.

I’m not saying that’s where I am.  Everything costs something: speaking up in your own defense is expensive.  Keeping quiet comes with its own expenses, and the truth is that, more often than not, the person who makes a problem known becomes the problem child and not the person who caused the problem.  Speaking up makes people uncomfortable.  Everyone would rather you do the safe thing, the comfortable thing, and talk bad about the schmuck, wreak havoc with everyone’s morale, complain bitterly and quietly, and then find another job.  The clean answer, the direct answer, raising your hand and saying no, this isn’t going to go down like this…

Both options have their costs.  The one is up front and immediate.  The other is a bit like paying by credit card.  Sure, you think that paying a little bit over time is easier on your finances, but one day you wake up like most Americans with $15,000 on the Visa and 22% APR, wondering how you could have ever been so stupid and what on earth you have to show for the debt.

There is no clear answer here.  In my case, Schrodinger’s Cat is dead and I don’t know how things would have played out if I hadn’t stood up to the bully, because I did, and now I’m the problem child.

Everything costs something.  There are times when that is both a certainty and a comfort.  I would have been paying for this anyway… at least that’s what I tell myself.  Besides.  I’m not sure I was constitutionally capable of keeping my mouth shut.  So there is that to consider as well.

Canaries and alligators.  Make sure your back end matches your front end before you assert yourself.  That’s all.

Smart Rules: Canaries and Alligators

Smart Rules: Doubt

Also known as the whackadoodle test, or don’t be the hubris guy.  

The most intelligent people in the world are painfully aware of how much they *don’t* know.  Doubt is your friend.  Doubt is one of the most valuable critical tools you have.  Doubt keeps you honest, and the honest conversation you have with yourself is everything when it comes to the business of smart behavior.  (Because how is anyone going to know you’re smart if you are doing dumb shit?)

People who are dealing honestly with you will respect your doubt, they will be fine with you asking questions, verifying details.  They won’t take it personally because they have nothing to hide and they want a partner who has asked hard questions and discovered solid answers.  

People who are are not honest will resent your doubt.  They will act outraged, they will rail and cry about how you are being so unfair, they will make it personal attack when it isn’t.  These people carry around their emotional needs like the cloud of dust that followed Pig-pen, and they want nothing more than to cloud your vision with all that drama.  

Doubt is another word for curiosity: how does this work?  How can it go wrong?  What don’t I know?  Doubt doesn’t have to carry emotional content.  It isn’t personal.  And it needs to be directed equally back at you.  What are the chances that I’m wrong about this conclusion?  Only a whackadoodle doesn’t allow for the possibility that they are wrong.

Absolute, unjustified certainty is also known as hubris.  The old Gods overlooked all kinds of sins.  The one thing they punished with regularity was hubris.  Doubt is your antidote to hubris, and will keep you from making a fool of yourself.  Or at least it is the best you can do to prevent falling on your face.  

Smart Rules: Doubt