Recall the Recall

The whole country knew California had an election this week to recall the governor, an election that failed. The pundit wisdom is that Trumpism gave Newsom his victory, and given that a number of Californians I follow online didn’t seem to get vocally involved in anti-recall activism until after a far-right talkshow host became the leading replacement candidate, I imagine they might be right.

Though only 42% of voters turned out on Tuesday, or mailed in their ballots on time.

For me the message has always been: Don’t vote No because you fear the new guy, vote No because you love democracy, and this isn’t it. The rich people who paid enough money to gather enough signatures never had to make an argument that Newsom was unfit for the office. He broke no crimes. He committed no ethics violations. He just governed differently than they liked, and all they needed for a chance to replace him was the 1.5 million signatures they paid for—and if that seems like a high number to you, that’s equal only to 12% of the last gubernatorial electorate,[1] which is the required threshhold by which California automatically had to begin the process of setting up a recall election. Kansas, by comparison, requires signatures totaling 40% of the electorate.

It’s an enormous and costly process. Tuesday’s recall election cost California at least $276 million to run. If you want to know why that number is so high, I served as an inspector at a polling place on Eureka Street, and I will tell you what we had to do. Bonus: you’ll get to see what it means to hold a fair, functional, and accessible election. And extra bonus: you’ll hopefully see why we need to Vote No Again on 2022’s recall of three San Francisco school board members, and on the likely recall of our district attorney.

I. Preliminaries
Weeks before election day, I had to take a 90-minute online training in election procedures and policies, and answer a number of short quizzes correctly to show that I’d been paying attention. I’ve taken this training twice before, but that didn’t exempt me. Everyone needs to be retrained every year, not only because of subtle differences in procedures (no distancing requirements this time, e.g.), but because you forget. And we need poll workers who know how to process votes.

Then I had to schedule a 1-hour in-person training at City Hall to learn how to set up and take down both the Ballot Scanning Machine and the Ballot Marking Device (more on these later). Again, I had set up and taken down these machines thrice before, but everyone gets trained every year. Afterward, I received my polling place assignment, and my Inspector Bag, which contained all the ballots we’d need at the polling place.

The night or two before election day, I reached out to my fellow poll workers, to verify that they were ready to work on election day and answer any questions they had. Often it’s hard to get workers to commit—that is, usually there are last-minute changes to the team. I had a number of people who were unable to do their training in time or had a covid exposure, and in the end I ended up with two clerks. Running any polling place is a 4-person job, but we would have to make do.

II. The Setup
My polling place was a 6-minute drive away, and as the Inspector (which essentially means I’m head clerk) I had to be there at 5:45am, so I could sleep as late as 5. I arrived and found the owner of the house whose garage constituted our polling location chatting with one of our clerks; the other arrived shortly thereafter. In the garage were three folding tables, 6 folding chairs, and 6 folded-up voting booths (which in SF are essentially privacy-paneled desks on high stilts). There was the Ballot Scanning Machine, and the luggage-type bags that held the Ballot Marking Device and its printer. There was the red box where people would drop off their mailed ballots, which was filled with supplies for the greeting table, plus a kit of extension cords, masking tape, 3-prong outlet converters, and everything else we might need to get something like a garage in working order. Plus a bag of signage required by law. Plus a bag of informational supplies for the election table, also required.

We had about an hour to get all of that set up according to election laws and a site-specific diagram we’d been given by the San Francisco Dept of Elections. Polls opened at 7am. No matter what happened, we needed to open the polls at 7.

My job was to assign tasks to the other two clerks, while I used my Inspector credentials to get the machines running. The Ballot Scanning Machine is self-explanatory; it records the results and number of in-person votes by accepting the Scantron-style ballots voters filled out in their booths. It’s a touch screen that requires passwords and certain procedures to open the polls. The Ballot Marking Device is also a touch-screen thing with passwords and procedures. Its function is to allow those with disabilities preventing them from filling out a paper ballot to vote. There’s the touch screen. There’s audio for the vision impaired and a game controller–like device that can move a cursor around the screen. There’s a way to use a sip-puff device to vote. The setup is straightforward: plug everything in, connect the device to the printer, print a test page, open polls.

At 7am, I shouted “The polls are open!” to the street outside, which was empty of people. Here’s what our garage looked like:

III. Polls Are Open
Half the people who showed up just wanted to drop the ballot California mailed them into our sealed red box. The other half wanted to vote on a printed ballot and get it scanned and counted on-site. Nobody ever had to show an ID to do so. Maybe 1 in 5 voters would pull out an ID after we by law asked for their name and address, and we’d say, quickly, “No need to show ID!” One woman stopped and looked at me. “Oh that’s not okay. That’s gotta change.”

“Actually, there are a number of systems in place to verify this,” I said. “It works.”

“Really?” she asked, and it was a curious and surprised “Really?” not a skeptical one. Which is one of the lessons you learn quickly about the electorate when you work a polling place: everyone trusts and believes in us poll workers.

After I told her the election is safe and fair without IDs, I wondered whether that was true. Had I lied to her to stop her anti-democratic feelings? I thought about it, and it would be possible to commit election fraud if a number of very specific events happened in a specific order. If I wanted to vote twice in the same election, I would first need to know the name and address of a person registered to vote, and I would need to know where they voted. This is all online. I would need to make sure they didn’t already vote by mail, because if they did, as soon as I got to their polling place, the clerk would explain that the Dept of Elections already received my ballot, it’s listed right here in the roster, and so the only way I could vote there would be provisionally. You need to sign a provisional ballot, and you need to sign a mail-in ballot, and I think you need to sign a registration card, so in addition to all the above, I’d need to be able to forge the registered voter’s signature. If I could, then the Dept of Elections would need to decide whether to accept a mailed-in ballot or a day-of provisional ballot, and while I have my own ideas which of those to accept and reject I don’t know what their protocol is for this, but the point is that one of those ballots will be rejected. So maybe I myself have voted twice, but that’s still, in aggregate, one person one vote.

But what if the person I’m impersonating didn’t vote by mail? Well then I’d need to hope that either (a) I beat them to the polling place or (b) they decided not to vote at all. Again: the same forged signature issues are in place, as we need everyone to sign the roster proving they are who they say they are. And if (a) happens and the real voter shows up afterward, they would be told “You’ve already voted today,” which I imagine would be enough of a surprise that they’d produce ID proving they were who they were, in which case there’s a page where we can challenge any previous vote, and tell the Dept of Elections to reject the first one and count the second. (The CA Elections Code says that challenges should favor the challenged voter, i.e. the person insisting they haven’t already voted and are who they say they are.)

I get into all this to show how expensive, because thorough, fair elections are. And a healthy democracy works hard and spends money to make it easier for its citizens to vote. Easy registration procedures are part of this, but so is the fact that San Francisco has more than 500 polling places in the city. I think USF’s campus has 2 of them. Our voters on Tuesday kept saying, “Oh I just live around the corner.” I passed another garage polling place when I walked on my break to find some food. There were at least 3 and possibly 4 people at each of those polling places working to help voters vote.

At any rate, 2 of the 3 of us workers had to be in the garage from 7am to 8pm, which is the time when polls are open. (After a dead stretch between 7pm and 8pm, there’s always one guy who comes in with 5 minutes to spare.) It’s a long day of looking people up in the roster and getting them to sign their names, explaining the voting procedures, explaining why they have to vote a provisional ballot if they aren’t in the roster, voiding the mailed ballots they brought with them because they want to vote in-person, or because, as one guy explained, his toddler had drawn on it.

This blog post is boring because the work of this is probably boring. It’s knowing a lot of arcane laws about voting, but working a polling place is never boring. Well that’s a lie: we could go an hour without seeing anybody, and for stretches there’s nothing to do but sit in a garage with strangers. But almost everyone thanked us, just for doing what we were doing. And everyone was nice. One woman got an error message when feeding her ballot into the Ballot Scanning Machine, and the message said she’d “overvoted”—chosen too many candidates for a single race. We explained that she could either submit the ballot as is, or we could return the ballot and she would get a new one. “Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “We can just leave it.” And I said, “It’s very easy to give you a fresh ballot so that your votes are counted.” And she stopped and looked at me, and said, “Okay.”

She voted Yes on the recall, I couldn’t help notice when we voided the ballot. I was happy to help her do this.

I haven’t even mention the 3 elections officials that visited our polling place multiple times during the day. One was to check that we’d set everything up in a way that was accessible and adhered to election laws. We had not. Given the tightness of our garage, I’d decided to leave 3 of the 6 voting booths packed away in the back. But even though we never had close to 6 people voting at once, election law dictated that we provide this many booths, so this official helped us find a way to get them all up with enough space around them for anyone to maneuver. One guy came and checked our tech was operating okay, and then he came back hours later to check again. We weren’t on our own. These folks had 5 and sometimes 10 polling places to watch over, so do the math on how many people are working all day in San Francisco alone just to make sure elections are fair and functional. Now do the math for California, the most populous state in the country. It’s awe-some, when I think about how well we make democracy happen.

IV. Polls Close
This is always the worst part, because all you want to do is go home after what’s been a 14 hour day, but we need to verify all the votes cast, count all the remaining ballots, and do a number of checks on security systems, which involves 3 forms and a lot of accounting. And all the while we have to shut down the machines, take down tables and booths and signage, and on and on and it takes about an hour. Then we need to wait for two city officers (a transit cop and a sheriff cop) to come take away the ballots and the election results, which come from the Ballot Scanning Machine. It has a little register tape it spits out the vote tallies on, and we clerks have to sign it and tape a copy outside our polling place. (Did you know that about an hour after polls close you can walk around the city and see how your candidates did at each polling place?) It also has 2 memory cards I unlock from panels on the side and seal up in bags. And of course, there are the actual paper ballots that were put in the machine. So again: elections are fair. They are incredibly well run.

Usually we go home around 9: 30. So let’s call it a 16-hour day from when you leave the house to when you get home.

V. Recalling the Recall
I wasn’t going to be an inspector this time. I liked the idea of taking 2021 off (CA has no November election this year). But I started reading about suspicions of election fraud, and the pro-recall people coming out in a big numbers to stop any malfeasance, and I thought, Come at me, you fucks. Election fraud is a fantasy fueled by a feeling many of us have, regardless of our politics: other citizens can’t be trusted. Our government, made up of other citizens, who have formed systems by which we make democracy happen, can’t be trusted.

I don’t take election fraud fantasies personally because I’m a poll inspector. I take them personally because I’m a citizen.

San Francisco has another recall election coming up, likely in January or February, to possibly remove the three members of the School Board who’ve served long enough to be eligible to recall. (The rest started only in January.) SF requires signatures equal only to 10% of the electorate to trigger a recall. This, as you can imagine, is fucked and stupid, but here we are.

The pundits are quick to point out that this recall isn’t driven by Trumpism. (I’d argue otherwise.) This one’s not a power grab, this is direct democracy by angry parents who mostly vote Democrat (given where we are). Here’s a telling quote from Heather Knight’s Chronicle coverage (headline = “Opponents of S.F. school board recall say it’s fueled by Republicans. Tell that to its liberal backers”):

If you are angry at what your elected officials are doing, you don’t get to force a recall to fire them from their jobs. That’s what elections are for. And if only 10% of the electorate wants a recall, they don’t get to force the majority to vote. These are (or should be) basic tenets of democracy. What I’m afraid of is that people will see that this recall has this Gaybraham Lincoln asshole’s endorsement, and so (in San Francisco at least) think of it as a “good recall.”

There is no good recall, not with the undemocratically low standards California has set up.[2] I’ll point out here that the three members of the school board up for recall are up for reelection in November 2022, so we might need to have, city-wide, an estimated $7.2 million election on whether to oust people we could just not vote for 9 months later.

This is my point for this whole long post: With any recall election, it’s not about the outcome, it’s about the purpose, the cause. Have crimes been committed? Have ethics violations gone unpunished? Have our representatives failed in their duties to govern?[3] And most importantly: is an undemocratic method of removing them from office more important than letting democracy do that job?

To me, it never is. We all work too hard on democracy together to let a few rich people force recall elections to get their way. Please, please vote no on the recall(s) next year.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Not 12% of the population, or even 12% of registered voters, 12% of all the people who voted for that race last time.
  2. Fortunately, after this failed recall, people are starting to think about changing the rules.
  3. School board recall folks have a case that they have, and I’ll leave it to you to decide if they do, but if you ask me they’re blaming people for a pandemic’s damages.

Back to School

The worst best time of the year. For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve heard those words (usually just before the word “savings”), a spark of anger pins me to my spot. Not yet damn it. It’s like last call on the bar night of your summer. As a kid I felt this, the dread of a coming routine and monotony, of homework and new classmates to navigate. Those pains got mitigated by shopping: new bluejeans, a Britches backpack in a cooler color, a fresh 64-count Crayola box with sharpener. I liked thinking about my First Day Outfit. But if Back To School was the start of something, it was the start of another chore. Another room to clean. Another bag of trash to take out to the curb.

Now I’m a teacher, and Back To School is still a drag, because teachers love summer break more, I’d argue, than students do. But if my Back To School is the start of something, it’s always the start of another shot. Teachers have, if you’ll forgive the pervy comparison, a Woodersonian school experience: we get older, they stay the same age. What that means is that the school year is like Groundhog Day (there’s a far less problematic comparison), where it sometimes feels like the only thing that’s changed is our wisdom (or ignorance) and our energy (or our weariness). A third comparison: for teachers, the start of the new school year is what the start of the new calendar year is for everyone else. A chance to do better. That’s what makes Back To School more of a thrill than a drag, for me at least.

Here are my resolutions for this school year:

  • Privilege the macro-level when it comes to reading and commenting on student MSs. Not just overall shape and structure and form stuff, but stuff like implied authors, mode-shifting, and even that outmoded idea of theme. This is the stuff I feel shakiest on as a writer and teacher. The stuff that has always felt to be on the spookier side of writing—can’t we just take care of the pence of our texts and let the pounds take care of themselves, so to speak?
  • Keep my directing duties in their place. Easier said than done, but for me (who chases after quantifiable achievements so as to convince myself I’m not a bad person), it’s easy to believe that I’ve been hired for the job of Academic Director of the MFA Program, and that I need to fill my workday with answered emails and new spreadsheets and other “deliverables” to prove I’m worthy of the job, whereas the reality is that it’s my turn in the faculty rotation for this service duty, which should take exactly half my working hours—i.e., 3/6 of my workload alongside research (2/6) and teaching (1/6).[*]
  • Stay safe, flexible, and compassionate. Because the one glaring difference this Back To School is that the Groundhog Day effect is reversed: we are back in offices and classrooms after 17 months of shut-in pandemic monotony. That feels great, and yet people are wary enough about the prospect of coming back together that a colleague published an op-ed in last Sunday’s Chronicle that was given the headline: “Nice to meet you. Are you going to kill me?”

As much as the laziest parts of me might love business as usual, it’s neither a way to grow nor what our times seem to be calling for. I’m glad that we’re back. I can’t wait to see students in our offices again, behind masks for now. I feel excited this morning, maybe half-hopeful, half-wary, but tonight is the first night of classes in our MFA Program and the thrill of that is still palpable, even though I personally won’t be in classrooms owing to my teaching thesis students one-on-one this term.

I guess the point of this post is to capture that feeling, however poorly and distractedly I’m doing it. The best part of my job is getting a student to learn a new thing. And the ultra best part of my job is getting a student to see something they wrote in a new light, to realize that what they’ve been trying to do—be a good writer—has already been happening. For us teachers, today’s the first day that starts.

Now I need to go pick out an outfit.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. If you read this and think I should be using quote marks above when I write “Now I’m a teacher,” that’s fair. I’d much rather be a teacher than an administrator but this currently is my lot in life.

How Not to Be Wrong on Twitter

Spoiler: you can’t. Everyone’s wrong on Twitter. Well: everyone posting a sincere tweet that’s usually based on anger and/or policies they’d like changed is wrong in and throughout their post(s).

Why? Well, I’m here to figure it out. This idea came to me three minutes ago.

*

Here’s what happened. I was on Twitter to tweet in anger about the effort to recall San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. I hate recalls because I love democracy (I’ll return to this later), but mostly I hate that this recall effort, which from all I’ve seen based is in witlessness and failed imaginations, has garnered the signatures it needs and will be voted on in 2022.

I’ve had beefs with the Chronicle in the past, and for sure they’ve been part of the problem in aiding this recall effort, by devoting headlines to crimes that scare people and are easy to share on social media, broadcasting this idea that San Francisco is a crime-ridden wasteland. But also, I’m glad the Chronicle has also provided articles, columns, and op-eds, detailing all the ways that crime is down in the city.

To be clear: if you’ve believed that crime (i.e., robberies, burglaries, assaults, thefts, sexual assaults, larcenies, etc.)[1] is up in San Francisco, you’ve been sold a lie.

Which is what I logged in to Twitter this morning to tweet, with a link to the Chronicle‘s front page story today (I read the paper as a paper that arrives on my porch Sunday mornings): Chesa Boudin and San Francisco’s bitter debate over crime. “If you support the recall effort of Chesa Boudin, you have been sold a mess of lies” is what I typed. And then I added another tweet, with this screenshot of a passage from the article:

My tweet read: “Let me be the first to discount your feelings when they have no basis in reality.”

Twelve minutes later I deleted both tweets because I felt I was wrong.

*

I’m not wrong. You are not doing your part in co-creating a democratic society if you do not think critically about the issues at hand. This asks a lot from us. One of them is to follow cause and effect. What has been the cause of the increase in crime in the city, and how can we attribute it to Boudin? Well, in fact, there’s less crime in the city, and Boudin’s office has even been the first to not take any credit for that. Prosecutors understand that one office or one D.A.’s policies can’t have this kind of direct causal effect on crime rates. (Especially not when there’s a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic going on.)

Fine. If things just feel worse now than they have before, how is this a result of Chesa Boudin’s progressive policies, which have generally sought to release rehabilitated, nonviolent criminals out of long-term prison sentences, and to use fairer and judicious practices in charging and sentencing so as to help lessen California’s notoriously high prison population, which as everyone can tell you disproportionately hurts Black and Latinx communities because of racist policing and sentencing practices?

The recall argument focuses chiefly on this:

They cite any number of recent news stories, all of which are true, and one of the strong points of the Chronicle‘s reporting is to show how the circumstances behind such criminals’ release is usually more nuanced than “Boudin Lets Violent Criminals Roam Free.”

Here, I’m reminded of something N told me the other day, when we were talking about the Post‘s reporting that Facebook’s most popular post in Q1 was an article that cast doubt on the COVID-19 vaccine. “Facts and reporting are behind paywalls,” he said, “while misinformation is free.” He’s generally right. Yes, most newspapers have made their COVID reporting free to all, and I think I pay $0.99/week to read the Post online, so it’s not like it’s terribly expensive to get your facts straight. But for the most part we need to pay for news, and as of 2020, 80 percent of Americans don’t want to do it.

But back to the Boudin recall. What do the recall supporters imagine will happen to crime in San Francisco if they oust him—presumably with someone “tougher on crime”? What, in other words, will be the effect of their cause? We can’t predict the future, so we’ll have to do that thing where we know our history lest we repeat it. And, again as the Chronicle‘s reporting has shown, D.A.s whose policies sent more people to prisons did not produce less crime in the city.

In other words, the D.A. of their dreams is not going to make them actually safer. It may very well make them feel safer, but to what greater effects beyond their personal feelings? What will happen to families and communities when racist sentencing and imprisonment get worse?

Perhaps, to be fair to their argument, we can get the D.A. of all of our dreams: one who both charges more people for crimes and also helps to end racist practices. I could be on board, but while I admittedly know very little about the criminal justice system, what I’ve seen and read have shown me, again and again, that it has such a longstanding problem with its own systemic racism that any increased “toughness” on crime would only and always end up hurting communities of color disproportionately.

Which leads me to ask, when told we need a D.A. who can make us safer, who the “us” is meant to be.

*

Boudin singlehandedly won’t be able to end racism in the criminal justice system, but his office is doing what it can to think about longterm effects. And while they’ve been doing so, every measure we’ve always used to gauge the prevalence of crime in the city shows that crime is down. To me there’s no argument for recall. No critical thinking can get me there.

The closest critical thinking can get me to support the recall is to acknowledge my political biases. I am driven to want to give progressive policies like Boudin’s a chance, because I’ve long ago bought in to the fight to dismantle systemic racism, and the information I’ve consumed tells me this is one much-needed way to do that. So I may be dismissing the recall’s arguments because of cognitive bias.[2]

Even if I could be led to believe them, I still can’t support the recall, because I’ll always believe more strongly in democracy. As much as it hurt watching the last president get elected in 2016, I knew the election was fair and well run. We weren’t in a 2000 scenario here, and yes the Electoral College is anti-democratic and a nightmare but it’s the system we had. I had to wake up in 2016 and live with the fact that he won the election. We tried to impeach him when it seemed likely he had committed a crime, and we did it again when we all knew he encouraged sedition. They didn’t take, but the impeachment happened only after his personal actions were arguably criminal.

We’re not there with Chesa Boudin.

Any recall effort is expensive, and for it to have any lasting value as a democratic tool, it can’t be used when you disagree with the policies of a person elected into office. Just 51,000 verified signatures are needed to initiate a recall in a city of 492,000 registered voters. With the Newsom recall up in September, it’s possible that 49% of Californians vote against the recall and 51% vote for it, triggering not just his removal from office, but the immediate installment of a candidate who might receive as little a 20% of the votes cast, just because that’s the largest vote share on a ballot of nearly 4 dozen candidates.

That’s not democracy. And now we can understand what’s behind recall efforts: a refusal to accept the will of the people, one very sinisterly passed off as the people “finally having a voice”.

It pisses me the fuck off. Don’t let recall people steal our democracy from us. Hate Boudin’s policies all you want. This is your right, but wait until the next election to vote him out of office. That’s how democracy works.

*

And now back to Twitter, and how I was wrong there. Well, my two tweets had none of the above thinking in them. It had only my arguments, which were both only the beginning of true things. People who already believed them to be right might read them and feel their beliefs reflected, but how I might be right could very likely be different from how they might feel I’m right. Twitter has no room (and for sure no time) for getting into that, for filling in the messy middle of an argument.

So we’re all wrong there.

I scrolled down through my Twitter feed for a while after posting, because it’s Sunday morning and what else might I do, and because even though I’ve pretty much logged fully off of Twitter old habits die hard. And I found a retweet from a sex worker I follow, about a post from the head of some anti-sex-trafficking organization, which included a screenshot of what was called CSAM—child sexual abuse material. Basically, someone crusading for the closure of Pornhub on the basis of its allegedly being a hub for sex traffickers found and posted a screenshot of child sexual abuse as “proof” that this was happening there. The sex worker was rightly aghast at such a fucked up form of activism, and they got the post taken down in minutes, though it had been up on Twitter for hours.

I couldn’t resist checking out this crusader’s feed, and it’s basically 100% tweets about how Pornhub aids child sex traffickers. That’s shown to be true enough times I don’t need to cite sources, but what’s also true is that Facebook aids child sex trafficking, too, and here’s a source that shows how law enforcement agencies look at places like Backpage and Pornhub as low-hanging fruit—i.e., trafficking there is easy to find and catch, but agencies aren’t as good as navigating social media sites, which given their use statistics suggests that trafficking is far more prevalent there.[3]

It’s not hard to launch a crusade against Facebook (to me it’s harder to launch a defense of it), but it’s hard to get people enraged by your arguments when it’s become for some such an essential part of daily life. Plus, the optics can’t compete when porn is in the frame. Witness actor Ellen Barkin, who retweeted one of these crusader’s anti-Pornhub tweets, writing, “Lock them up! #TraffickingHub”.

More prevalent than trafficking on Pornhub are self-employed sex workers trying to make a living, but lest this already-long post run off to become another defending sex work, I want to end by asking where Barkin’s anger came from, in posting what she did, and why is it being directed where she’s directing it?

When, in the process of reading about policies on Twitter, was Ellen Barkin given the room and space we all need to think critically about the issue, look into cause and effect, check the findings of researchers uninfluenced by money or ideology,[4] and ask questions about what actions will best solve the problem with the least amount of pain and trouble for everyone involved?

Instead it’s: the sight of pornography makes me feel something very strong and uncomfortable, and one way to rid myself of this unwanted feeling is to post an agreement with someone who has tweeted only the beginning of an argument, assuming that everyone else can fill in the messy middle.

We all agree to do this on Twitter every time we tweet. Its central feature—the lack of room—is its central flaw.

*

By way of a tl;dr sum-up, here’s something that came up yesterday in a Zoom event I hosted for the MFA Program, with Paisley Rekdal, whose Appropriate: A Provocation is the smartest thing I’ve read about cultural appropriation in literature, what’s wrong about it, and why we need to work better. Rather than trying to imagine The Other, what their lives are like and how their trauma is relatable or something we should try to empathize with, Rekdal urges us to think about what our desire to imagine The Other is about. What does it tell us about power and access, and in asking ourselves these questions, how might our writing start to do the work to challenge and possibly dismantle the systems in place?[5]

This is one place where critical thinking begins: what is the nature of my feelings and desires, where are they coming from, and what can they tell me about the systems I’m a part of? When you tweet, in so many words, “THIS,” or when you’re quoted by a newspaper saying that people are feeling something that can’t be discounted, you haven’t even begun to do step one.

And as much as I believe in democracy, sometimes I don’t think you deserve as much a say in its workings as do the rest of us, doing the work.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Homicides, however, are up in San Francisco, but this is true statewide and, the Chronicle reports, is in line with a nationwide trend.
  2. I don’t think I am. I’ve read the facts, and it’s very hard to see how I’m wrong about them. But this is a devil’s advocate argument I’m doing as part of my method of critical thinking.
  3. And if it’s not too self-defeating to cite a useful tweet thread with source links in a post about how we’re always wrong on Twitter, you can read more about this issue here.
  4. Such people may not exist, but if they do, the closest equivalent would be tenured faculty in our universities, so think again if you support cutting public funding to those institutions.
  5. UPDATE: It occurred to me just now that this is an idea Rekdal cites from Loffreda and Rankine’s On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary.

I Don’t Even Know What Love Isn’t

I.
I took another personality quiz the other night; I find these irresistible. This one was part of an online course a magazine article on happiness had directed me to, and the quiz’s 96 questions of the “How well do you feel this statement applies to you?” variety, promised to rank 24 attributes in order of my personal strengths and weaknesses. Here, in order, were what the course called my “signature strengths” (i.e., the top 5 most applicable):

  1. Creativity
  2. Love of Learning
  3. Judgement
  4. Curiosity
  5. Leadership

These felt accurate, by which I mean they flattered the things I like to pride myself in (when I feel I’m able to). I noted the image of the person they pointed to; he’d be most comfortable in an ivory tower. Out of curiosity, I looked at the rest of the list to see what, at #24, was the attribute ranked last among all possible attributes.

It was Love:

Valuing close relations with others, in particular those in which sharing & caring are reciprocated; being close to people.

I thought two things when I saw that: I’m not surprised, and then, Shit is this a wake-up call?

II.
Here are two stories from the closet, both set in Pittsburgh, 2000-2003, the years after I graduated college.

One night, I was browsing the Barnes & Noble in Squirrel Hill, looking at the stacks of face-up paperbacks on the New Releases table, and one in the corner caught my eye: Party of One: A Loner’s Manifesto. I read the back cover: the author profiled famous people who chose solitude in life and all the same gave art and wisdom and beauty to the world. I remember one of them was Haruki Murakami. I had just read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and it was one of the finest novels I’d ever seen, and as I held the book in my hands, I thought This is me. This is the path in front of me.[*]

In those years, I lived alone for the first time in my life, in an attic apartment heated by an old gas-fed box, built before my parents were born, which I had to light each cold night with a match. The friends I had were, for the most part, in heterosexual couples. I, too, was a heterosexual, waiting, I felt, for the right woman to come along, without having an idea of what that woman would look like, or be like. I was a loner (fated, I understood) who hated spending a lot of time alone, so I met these friends 4 or 5 nights week at a handful of bars in town. Usually it was me on one side of the booth, and them on the other, a boy and a girl, and these triangulated nights of drinking and talking were such a high point of my life that I began to feel expert at this. A professional third wheel, that’s what I would be. I was the guy that any couple could call when they wanted to get out of the house and needed some new energy. I took it each night as a point of pride, and then I drove home, took off my own clothes, lit four or five matches to get the tricky gas box going, and fell into bed. I lay in the dark, staring into the orange flame of the heater, and soon my breath would catch in my throat, once, twice, and again I’d be sobbing. Just sobbing and sobbing loudly into the room. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t want to know what.

III.
The morning after I took the personality quiz, my therapist asked me what it meant by “Love”. Did I recall? I went home and looked it up:

Love as a character strength, rather than as an emotion, refers to the degree to which you value close relationships with people, and contribute to that closeness in a warm and genuine way. Where kindness can be a behavioral pattern applied in any relationship, love as a character strength really refers to the way you approach your closest and warmest relationships. Love is reciprocal, referring to both loving others and the willingness to accept love from others. 

This helped. I hadn’t, it seemed, been given evidence that I was a person incapable of love, I was just a person who was a little dumb about it, the way I’m a little dumb about car mechanics and mortgage financing. I thought of those Pittsburgh stories and remembered how, like a toddler drawn to a power outlet, my mind is drawn to lonerism and solitude despite all the hurt it’s caused me.

What’s left now are questions: If it’s untrue that I don’t value close relationships with people, then whence this result? If love is reciprocal, is there a breakdown somewhere that led me to respond to such statements as “I can accept love from others” and “I am good at expressing love to others”[**] in the negative? Why didn’t “I have the ability to make other people feel interesting”? Why wasn’t I “good at sensing what other people are feeling”? And, of course, the big Haddawayian question: What is love?

IV.
Somewhere as a kid I picked up the idea that love is going out of your way to help another person, troubling yourself to benefit them, the way hate was troubling yourself to hurt another person. There was something neat (meaning tidy) about this labor-exchange system, and I felt able to take on that role. Duties, assignments, and tasks energize me. In writing classes, I taught the objective-correlative by telling students that the words “I love you” don’t signify anything. Love has to be shown in details of doing, actions characters can take to reveal the love you say that they feel.

I’ve read Chapman’s The 5 Love Languages (shocker: mine’s “acts of service”) and I’ve read Lewis’s The Four Loves (I was chiefly interested there in “Philia”, the love among friends), where he distinguishes early on between what he calls Gift-love and Need-love. The former lines up with my whole labor-exchange idea: it’s the things we do to improve the lives of those we care for, materially or emotionally. Need-love, on the other hand, is as he writes, “that which sends a lonely or frightened child into his mother’s arms.”

Since we do in reality need one another … then the failure of this need to appear as Need-love in consciousness—in other words, the illusory feeling that it is good for us to be alone—is a bad spiritual symptom; just as lack of appetite is a bad medical symptom because [we][***] do really need food.

This bit makes me think of expression versus discharge, a distinction I learned to make from Dewey’s Art as Experience, who is talking about it in terms of the impulse—when hit by a need or urge, to discharge it is to carry it right to its innate end, but to express it is to consider the shape/structure/experience of the means by which you reach that end. I think of this because food metaphors are useful: discharging food hunger is grabbing whatever powerbar is at hand; expressing it is considering what sounds good to eat and then cooking it with a recipe you can make your own.

I don’t care for cooking, particularly without a recipe, and I’m bad at figuring out what sounds good for dinner on any given day. Perhaps I’m a born discharger, hasty to get to the end of an experience, driven to resolve any errant need. But Lewis’s bit now raises a tough question: When I need love, what do I do about it? Or, more to the point, how can any healthy expression of love (i.e., a thing I do to get me the feeling I want) be anything but one-sided?

This is likely the basis for the reciprocity that the personality quiz points to. Need-love and gift-love aren’t the same, but any expression of love always carries both, the way every spermatozoon carries both sex chromosomes. Maybe love is the domain or experience of that kind of reciprocity, where giving always also feels like taking. And maybe those for whom Love is a “signature strength” are skilled at seeing in any expression of love both halves of that reciprocity.

But that’s what sex is, that giving = taking experience, or at least so I’ve written here and elsewhere. So wait, is this how sex and love aren’t so easily separable for people? Is that my wake-up call?



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. I didn’t buy the book. Presciently?
  2. And “I often express love to others” and “I can express love to someone else” … the quiz was nothing if not repetitive.
  3. I corrected Lewis’s gaffe for him; this originally read “men”, and it’s interesting to watch the patriarchy flout the needs of grammar and usage, in this sentence that opens in the first person and then ends in the third person, just to keep asserting that “men” stands just fine for all human people.