Dream Diary: Making It In The Industry

As I hear shouting up ahead, I realize I have lingered too long in the village. The demonstrators are being shot. What begun as a protest of the release of Guardians of the Galaxy is now a bloodbath.

I seek refuge in a nearby grate, burrowing downward into the earth, hoping to happen across some public transit. But instead I find myself in an underground conference room, with twenty executives talking quietly. Instead of a table, they sit around a vast aquarium full of colourful fish. Standing in the doorway, I burst into laughter upon realizing the situation. But to my surprise they do not call security, and instead invite me in.

They tell me that if I want to “make it” in this industry, I need to show them what I’m made of. They set a timer, and tell me I need to have all the fish pointing in the same direction. I tell them this is impossible, that a fish’s angle is difficult to control. They tell me that sort of attitude will not get me far, and toss me into the tank.


Dream Diary: Jeb

I argue vigorously with Jeb Bush’s daughter over whether it should be considered shameful to have been an elected official. She is humiliated when her father shows up to support my position.

I lie about a murder, insisting it must have been a suicide. Every day the sheriff comes over to question me; each time we speak I am more convinced that my motives for lying are pure.

Dream Diary: “Block Quotes from Hannah Arendt”

“Statistics are not evidence,” I insisted. “Only block-quotes from Hannah Arendt are evidence.”

* * * *

As we descended further into the catacombs, I picked off her other suitors one by one. Her boyfriend went first; I poured him coconut liqueur from a crystal decanter. He drank too many and got a bellyache. The big one I distracted with a newspaper; I told him there was some good news today. The next one I lost at the elevator; I pretended I couldn’t find the button to hold the door for him. For a moment afterward, I lost her myself. I found myself racing alone down a staircase in the middle of a cavernous hangar. But on the beach, I found her dorm room, and she began to kiss me all over.

Dream Diary: “Political Science”

The Political Science Department is putting on a “singing panel discussion” in the Grand Theater. Many famous professors are there, all of them pretending to be disabled. The Brooklyn College delegation have all had their heads shaved specially.

I watch the performance from a hole in the ceiling. I have never seen so much confetti, or so many acrobats. The spectacle is extraordinary. The panelists become lost in piles of confetti and acrobats.

I retreat to the women’s dressing room, to recover a shoe I left there during a sexual encounter. I am forced to hide among coats after the semester begins unexpectedly.

I Could Say that Paul Bloom is a Callous Idiot, But I Empathize With Him…

[Note: I am late to the discussion on Paul Bloom’s “Against Empathy,” which appeared in the Boston Review earlier this year. But as far as I can tell, though Bloom’s essay received plenty of attention, it has not gotten nearly enough of the outright ridicule that it deserves.]

Fuck Paul Bloom. Fuck this pointlessly contrarian, Slatepitchy, technocratic, inhuman BS, and fuck Yale professors who live perfect lives and have happy families and then say we should feel others’ pain less because it might hurt us too much. 

Such was my initial reaction to Paul Bloom’s “Against Empathy.” But then I began to empathize with him. Hang on a minute, he’s a human being, just like me. He’s a smart guy, he’s trying hard, and he’s fallible. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and engage his arguments. Thanks to a dash of empathy, then, I was able to calm down and think through where exactly the train of his thought plummets off the tracks and into the canyon. I have about nine carefully-considered reasons for despising him.

First, Bloom is lying, or at least guilty of massive intellectual dishonesty. He opens the piece with an anecdote. He says he goes up to people at parties and tells them he is writing a book about empathy. Then he pauses and says “I’m against it.” He does this because he enjoys horrifying them (though, like a dick, he pretends to be surprised when they react badly). But Bloom is misleading these people. He is not against empathy. As he concedes in his reply to critics, “I am not against empathy in general, just empathy as a moral guide.” This is not the same thing as being against empathy. But this second statement, too, is a lie; Bloom is not even against empathy as a moral guide. What he is in fact against is a particular kind of empathy as a moral guide, what he calls “emotional empathy,” which he distinguishes from “cognitive empathy.” (Actually, he even narrows this further; by “moral guide,” he actually means “not by itself a good basis for public policy,” which is also completely different.) The whole framing of his argument as being “against empathy,” then, is purely so that Bloom can make his point seem more significant than it is. (A cynic might say it is to drum up early publicity for the book he mentions in his first sentence of his essay. But I am not and have never been a cynic.)

I think I may be being too fair to Bloom here, however, by assuming that he has a coherent position and is simply misleading people about it in order to be provocative. In fact, his use of the word “empathy” is so vague and contradictory that it is impossible to actually know what he is arguing. Bloom likes to pretend he has found a neat distinction between the “good” cognitive empathy and the “bad” emotional empathy. But I defy any reader to come out of the essay actually knowing what Bloom is referring to, how one can actually, practicably follow his proposal to retain “compassion” and ditch “empathy.” Yes, he offers a definition. He says emotional empathy is “feeling the pain of others,” and that this is the “common sense of the word.” But then his examples don’t follow the “common sense” of the word at all: he suggests empathy would mean feeling all of the sorrow of a friend whose child has drowned. Yet nobody thinks of empathy this way, as being some kind of one-to-one correlation between one’s feelings and the feelings of others where every time I learn that someone’s child has been killed I literally feel as if my own child has been killed. (He has the brazenness to say that those who defend empathy are “confused” by the term’s meaning, when he himself has asked us to use both the “common sense” and his totally unused, extreme sense.)

It’s a tribute to Bloom’s expertise in fudging and circumlocution that he says of his interlocutors that “some of them found my argument persuasive—one even called it obvious—while others responded with abject horror.” Such a diversity of reactions often occurs when one has written so unclearly as to leave open the question of whether one has even said anything at all. What Paul Bloom is doing is the old trick of provoking his audience with a bold statement, then spending the rest of the text hedging and qualifying so completely that when one reacts viscerally to the thesis statement, he can reply “Aha, you’ve totally misinterpreted me, how terribly uncareful a reader you are.” I call this “Žižek’s Gambit.”

So Bloom’s argument could be either so banal as to be worthless, or an absolute rejection of a fundamental human belief. We don’t know, and this makes it hard to actually engage with his position. But let’s assume that he is arguing something moderately significant, and imagine that some of the familiar recurring themes in his text hold together as a coherent assertion, namely something about how feeling others’ emotional pain does not alone constitute a sound basis for social policy. Does it hold up?

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Dream Diary: “Pink Slips”

I am bitten all over by cats, whom I am convinced are working for Wall Street.

They line us up beside the river. “As you know, there are ten employees. We are going to toss nine pieces of paper into the water from the bridge. You will all dive in, and whoever does not come up with a piece of paper will be fired.” Only the Working Class Boy and I refuse to dive in. We are both fired. Our employers think it is very funny that the paper is pink.

Scraps: “The Fun of It”

The more people told him about the pleasures of New York City, the more firmly convinced he became that he should never, ever visit it.

Would there be banyans? There absolutely would not. Would people resent him for existing? They absolutely would. Would things go wrong? Inevitably so. “That’s the fun of it,” they said. “It’s about experience.” This, to him, was Fool’s Logic.

“But you’re a writer,” girls would tell him. “A writer has to know, a writer can’t close his eyes.” He disagreed. He would prove that a writer could close his eyes.

The central problem was that he enjoyed being happy. In New York City, it seemed as if he would spend most of his time ducking unnecessary obstacles. He would either be killed by a police officer, or, even worse, accidentally kill a police officer himself. There would be unexpected clangs in the night, untimely collisions with taxicabs. He would always be in trouble with doormen and conductors, always noticing the sewage lagoon one footstep too late. “Never expose yourself without cause,” he had once read on an advertisement, and he took the slogan to heart.

But stubborn refusal cannot itself comprise a worldview, and soon he found himself on 125th St., his suitcase stolen and his subway-pass lost in a storm-drain.

“Buggering shit,” he muttered, before being killed by a police officer.

The Faults of American Criminal Justice Run Deeper than Race

[This article was originally posted at New Politics magazine as part of a symposium on #BlackLivesMatter]

For those continually exasperated by the spate of white denials of racism in the face of blatantly racist police murders, the #CrimingWhileWhite stories on Twitter were a gratifying rebuttal. By offering a mountain of testimony in the form of direct race-based compare-and-contrast stories, the meme undermined the country’s pernicious refusal to acknowledge that perhaps, just perhaps, it might be good to be in the upper caste. In making explicit what all secretly know to be true, an honest conversation seemed at last to be occurring.

But one thing remains puzzling about the picture being painted by #CrimingWhileWhite tweets: Who are all these people who have had such positive interactions with cops? Many poor white people might be surprised that “Criming While White” apparently gets one a free pass, and so would the large population of regularly-brutalized homeless people in my own hometown of Sarasota, Florida. The problem with the concept, then, is not that it gives priority to white voices, as some argued, but that it reinforces the myth that the police can have some trace of benevolence, that there is an ideal justice system in miniature lurking beneath the visible one. In doing so, it prevents a full reckoning with American criminal justice’s corrosive faults, and limits possibilities for altering it.

The fact is that a bloated, unaccountable police force victimizes a wide swath of people, and that being a member of a privileged race is not always protection. Certainly it wasn’t for Kelly Thomas, the homeless man murdered by Fullerton, California police officers. As the schizophrenic Thomas had the life beaten out of him behind the Slidebar Rock-N-Roll Kitchen, he called out hopelessly for his father: “Dad…Dad…Dad.” Thomas didn’t fare any better than Eric Garner, except that his officers were put on trial– before being acquitted.

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