Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Third Degree Racism

I think we do a terrible disservice when we slap labels on people for "who they are" rather than "what they've done." We see a Trump supporter with "Put the white back in the white house," we see Trump's tacit approval, and we see another person vote for Trump. That person must "be a racist". Not "they're acting in a racist way," not "they're tacitly supporting racism." Racism is part of the person's nature, worthy of shame and ridicule simply because they voted for Trump. Maybe in a technical sense it's true. The word "racism" has a subtler meaning among academics and the socially conscious. But most people don't have this understanding of the word by default. When you call someone a racist that implies, to them and to others, that you think they are as worthy of contempt as the people assaulting minorities.

We only hold people absolutely culpable when they knowingly, intentionally, and willfully kill someone. With 1st degree murder, there has to be evidence that the killing was intended while the killer had a cool head. These are the people who kill for pleasure or personal gain.

In 2nd degree murder, the willfulness and knowing are called into question. Drug use, fits of rage, etc. disconnect people from their better judgement and cause them to act in ways that go directly against their own will. They are culpable for allowing themselves to become impaired. We blame them for the murder, but we recognize that it's not on the same level as someone who spends a week plotting to kill someone.

3rd degree murder (manslaughter) generally means there was no intention or willfulness to kill, but a reasonable person in the same shoes would have been able to prevent it (that our legal system is built so heavily on what a "reasonable" person would do is a whole other can of worms).

Then there are other classifications for killing that aren't even called murder. They acknowledge that the killer is responsible for the death, but that there are other factors that mitigate both fault and responsibility. They may only be subject to civil penalties rather than criminal.

I wish we used this kind of categorization in our interactions with people. Trump voters are indeed racist, but to varying degrees. Varying enough that if we could measure people's Racism Quotient, there would surely be a significant overlap between Clinton's supporters and Trump's. The only way we will be able to win over the people we need is if we don't alienate them. The best way to alienate them is to display that their actions are unforgivable and forever label them as "racists", "white supremacists", etc.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Romantic Ending

In order to see what Trump offers as beneficial, you need to have confidence in "the American dream." The ability to have that confidence, to truly believe that anyone can reach any level of success just by working hard enough with no consideration given to chance or starting conditions, is a privilege. It's not about how financial successful you are now, but how in control of your own fate you believe yourself to be.

People who grow up in parts of America or otherwise under conditions where they can't believe in that dream, where it's obvious that the "others" and "have-nots" are being forced to remain "others" and "have-nots," and where your starting conditions all but guarantee the path your life will take, they don't have the luxury of soothing their insecurities with the notion that everything will be OK if they just work hard enough.

But this isn't necessarily about Trump in particular or conservatives in general. The mentality that all you have to do to succeed is to put your mind & body to work in just the right way, to put your own interests first with the sincere belief that the result will be prosperity for everyone, to go through life actively making yourself oblivious to the day-to-day sufferings of the people just "over the hill" but displaying self-righteousness for your minuscule efforts to fix global, systemic problems that need an entirely different way of operating our economy...

These descriptions fit equally well for a lot of the left wing new agey types. The folks who wrote-in for Sanders rather than voting for Clinton to make a statement. The ones who deny vaccines for their children and yell at my wife to stay inside from the chemtrails when all she wanted to do was admire a beautiful sunset. The ones who assign orders of magnitude more value to instinct than to objective reality (especially when it comes to children).

America idolizes Romanticism (the philosophy, not the courtship rituals). When you start with the fundamental world views of conservatism (in-dependence is the path to prosperity, things are fine the way they are) and liberalism (inter-dependence is the path to prosperity, we should always be trying to change), Romanticism distorts them in ways that emphasize the differences and make it harder to reach a shared understanding.

Romanticism sets up expectations that are doomed to fail for the vast majority of people, much like the promises of multilevel marketing schemes (exponentials are a bitch). Also like MLM, the most insidious part of these expectations is the idea that you only have yourself to blame for failure. If only you had sold more, if only you worked faster, if only you could find the right words, if only you weren't such a loser. This clearly has a depressing effect on the overall mood of the country.



From an anthropological perspective, it sucks that entire ways of life are lost to the ages. From a personal perspective, it sucks more to have the world as you know it crumble around you, and even more when the folks from distant lands who control most of the water and all international commerce are making all the rules for you. And describe you "from an anthropological perspective."

But this nostalgia and attachment to the present/past is doing all manner of measurable harm up to and including killing people. Conservatism demands that we maintain bigotry. That we perceive all suggestions to change as threats (unless they roll back previous change). That the way things were is better than the way things are or the way things seem to be headed. That the world is too complicated for us to make any rational choices on a national/global level. Liberalism is much more open to change, but is vulnerable to similar failings from a different vantage point.

We need to have a sit down with our egos, take a nice big dose of reality, and realize that there's no way we're going to get through this without working together. Reality, nature, God, whatever you want to call it, has set up a game with all kinds of traps and pitfalls, Pandora's boxes, great rewards and great suffering. Contrary to much received "wisdom", that game's rules are consistent and generally predictable. By asking the right questions we can learn how the universe behaves in ways that Romantics believe we can't. By testing our assumptions and calling our beliefs into question, we can make changes that produce a measurable improvement to everyone's quality of life (not just the people with the cities). There's no way we can do that alone; we are too imperfect.

Us vs. The World gives us much better odds than Us vs. Each Other vs. The World. But you can't just sit there and expect everything to be OK without accepting change and relying on others.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Elephants, Donkeys, and Voting, Oh My!

A lot of Democratic voters (read: much of my Facebook feed) have expressed extreme surprise, if not genuine shock, at Trump's win. I wonder if their level of surprise is correlated with how they voted in the primaries. Much of Sanders' support came from people trying to serve the same need as the people who support Trump: the need not to feel consistently ignored by the people in power. My hypothesis is that Sanders supporters who voted for Clinton have no small helping of "told you so" to mitigate their "OMFGWTFBBQ!!!!111"

To be clear, the level of sadness and rage is completely understood, and I share it to the extent that a privileged, straight, white, cis male can. However, I can't say it came as a surprise.

Just before the election, Nate Silver seemed to be defending FiveThirtyEight's suggestion that Trump had a significant chance of winning. My trust in the quants grows stronger.

It's ironic and sad that so many people thought Trump would be the end of the Republican party, when it seems to be the exact opposite. But hopefully the level of success of both Sanders and Trump will be a wake-up call to everyone working to keep the status quo.

Speaking of status quo, there's the Electoral College. I know a lot of people will feel betrayed by the system because Clinton seems to have won more popular votes (albeit narrowly). On the one hand, in a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all system that is inevitably reduced to 1 or 2 choices, we really are being failed by the system. But the problem isn't the electoral college itself. I actually think the electoral college is doing exactly what it's designed to do: limit the influence of states that happen to have a disproportionate share of the population due to the chaotic interactions of geography, economics, and time.

The simple fact is that much of the country wants something that Clinton couldn't offer but Trump is willing to promise. National frustration with DC and Wall Street is at an all time high. Confused as we might be wondering why people believe he'll actually improve things for them, he definitely offers "something different."

But the problem isn't the voters or the electoral college, it's the way we actually express our votes. There were several candidates besides Trump and Clinton who many people would've been happy to see as President, even if they ultimately voted for a major candidate. But the way we vote, where every person gets a single "Yes" to assign to a candidate, has been proven mathematically to lead to a two-party (or one-party) system over time, and to minimize voter satisfaction.

Wouldn't it be nice if instead we could say "I would be OK with these people being president, but not these ones"? Or even better: "I really like this lady, I'd be OK with that guy, but NO WAY do i want HIM in office." In a hypothetical race, Bernie could still be on the ticket without taking votes from Clinton, people could vote for Stein, Johnson, or that guy from Utah without feeling like they wasted their vote. Even write-in candidates would have a chance of winning, if they reached a minimum share of the vote.

This kind of voting, known in various forms as approval voting, range voting, score voting, is in use at various levels of government all over the US and the world. The cool thing is that there is nothing in the constitution that dictates how popular votes are counted, only that the states pick electors for the electoral college based on the results. That means this change can happen in a grass-roots way, much like marijuana legalization (see what I did there?). We don't even need a constitutional amendment for this to work.

If you can't readily imagine the kind of difference this would make or are curious to learn more, have a look at http://rangevoting.org/. There is everything from a simple high level overview down to thoroughly sourced arguments and original research. As I mentioned earlier, our current voting system has been shown to lead to a minimum of voter satisfaction. Not just suboptimal; one yes vote per person, first past the post, winner take all is worse than every other democratic voting system as far as producing outcomes that satisfy the most people. Even something as simple as changing it to "Yes/No" for each candidate makes a 'UGE difference.

Please consider bringing this up with your local, state, and national representatives. It's an achievable goal that would dramatically improve how Americans feel about their ability to be heard through their votes.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Your Duty to Change Your Opinions

The set-up: A man shares a link (which I will not reproduce here) to an article by a woman voting for Trump. She executes the most impressive mental gymnastics in order to allow her support for Trump to coexist with her experiences as a sexually abused woman in America. The natural response to this was a combination of shock and pity by the sharer's female friends. One of his other friends came to his defense, and I couldn't help but respond.

I am so often amazed at how irrational and intolerant people can be when they don't agree with your personal opinion. Guess what? We ALL get a chance to vote, whether you agree, disagree or choose to mock and belittle others.
I'm amazed at how people can't seem to see the difference between people having divergent political views and people calling others out for deplorable, despicable behavior and attitudes, and an utter lack of human dignity.
It's your opinion that another's opinion is divergent, can't you see that? And whether we agree or not, we're entitled to our own.
If you're really arguing that all opinions are equally worthy of respect and that there isn't any way to objectively measure the outcome of those opinions then you've already lost the plot. Please expose yourself to some philosophy and critical thinking instead of echo chambers and kool-aid drinking

Some opinions are harmful in that simply believing them and sharing them with others, let alone acting on them, will cause suffering for you and those around you. If you find yourself in possession of such beliefs, then what you're experiencing right now is called cognitive dissonance. You think of yourself as a good person, you have these beliefs, therefore those beliefs can't be bad. I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but people are flawed. It's possible to believe something sincerely and without malice, but still have that belief cause harm.

It's our duty as members of civilized society to question ourselves and challenge our most cherished, deeply held beliefs with intense scrutiny. The greatest enemy of progress is certainty, and "all opinions are valid" is the most insidious justification of false certainty there is.

"Boys will be boys, if she didn't want to get raped she shouldn't have gone to the party drunk" --- perfectly valid opinion yeah?

"That black man should be hanged for hitting on my white daughter" -- perfectly valid opinion yeah?

"My baby is possessed and needs to be held under water for 10 minutes to exorcise the demon" -- just someone's opinion, right? Totally fine for them to feel that way?

Please wake up. Society needs you to take off your blinders. There are real issues and real problems in the world. you can't just stick your fingers in your ears and tell people to vote for whatever opinion makes them feel good at the moment.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

On Emotional Support

Thank you to everyone who has offered kindness and support over my recent revelations. My wife and I have been on a journey of learning to support each other emotionally over the past few years and I want to share a couple of the resources that have helped. I don't know if I would've made it to this point without them.

The watershed moment for us was exposure to Brené Brown's work on vulnerability. Every one of her books has been an enormous help both in our private and public lives. The Daring Way is working to help people and organizations find strength in vulnerability.

In our discussions we've often lamented how little education we receive in how to deal with emotions. There are no classes on "how to be in the room with people you don't like" or "when should you apologize?" Instead, you lash out, face punishment, and never really learn what to do with those feelings the next time they come up. Thankfully, that's changing. The School of Life offers precisely these kinds of lessons in an easily digestible and amusing format.

Besides our own discoveries, I'd also like to pass along some of the resources that have been brought to my attention since revealing my story:

A Voice for the Innocent whose "purpose is to allow people to share their stories of sexual abuse and rape to a listening ear who won't judge them and will still allow them to be as anonymous as they choose to be."

MaleSurvivor has been conducting 3-Day Weekends of Recovery (WOR’s) throughout the US & Canada since 2001. Facilitated by a team of trained therapists and educators who adhere to the highest ethical standards of their clinical professions. These healing weekends provide adjunctive support for any male – 18 or older – who has been sexually victimized as a child and/or as an adult.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

On Frederick Hodges

CONTENT WARNING: Explicit descriptions of sexual assault and other victimization

Nothing about him was threatening, except maybe his height. But I was no shorty for an 11 year old, so it didn't mean much to me. We'd met before so that my mother could get a feel for him, once at a park for sure, and perhaps another time. The offer was generous enough: my grandmother was holding a conference on the other side of the country and one of the folks she worked with offered to bring me along and take me on a tour of Washington, DC. Growing up poor and frequently on the move didn't afford many opportunities like this, so we were all very excited.

As well as those interactions went, we still proceeded cautiously. My mother and grandmother talked to me about their worries. They talked to me about what it means to be homosexual, reinforced that my body is mine and mine alone, made sure I was willing and able to say "no," etc. Let me be doubly clear: all due diligence was done. No one else in this story shares culpability besides him. I know that will do little to assuage the guilt and shame but it needs to be said nonetheless. I harbor no resentment. If they had not prepared me in this way, I'm sure the story would've played out differently.

The picture of the Aryan race (tall, blond, light eyes, chiseled features), his tastes were ... apropos. His kitchen was filled with racist artwork, mostly early 20th century depictions of black people (fat women with exaggerated lips eating watermelon, and the like). The massive Duo-Art grand player piano took up the bulk of his living space and his collection of player rolls was impressive. I had never seen a laser disc collection so impressive, and ... OMG STAR TREK!!! We hit it off immediately, playing music, watching star trek and old movies from the '20s, singing, it was awesome. It was like hanging out with the rich kid but it was his own money not his parents'.

Oh and the poster sized pictures of naked pre-teen boys hanging on his bedroom walls. Did I mention those?

He occasionally brought up masturbation as a conversation topic. Having never tried it myself, I was thoroughly unconvinced that it was a widespread phenomenon despite his insistence. As far as I knew, no one else did it, and you would have been cast out if anyone found out you did. He asked if he could show me how, and I told him it was too embarrassing. I won't say he left it at that, but he was very good at knowing when to let off the pressure, and it felt like he was respecting my wishes.

Now, I was exposed to a lot of things as a kid that I'm not sure anyone would've approved of. Between "accidentally" seeing the most graphic parts of The Accused while waiting for Crocodile Dundee to start, and catching What's Love Got to Do with It on late night HBO, let's just say I had at the same time an advanced and stunted impression of rape for an 11-year-old.

What we were talking about that I would've mentioned this, I have no idea. But somehow we made a game out of Ike & Tina's relationship. By the time we had reached Maryland the game had evolved into running around the room trying to grab each other's foreskin, screaming "NO IKE!" when you got caught. It was all in good fun, right?

Again, he always made sure to keep me feeling in control. If I said I didn't want something or said I was done, he would "respect" that. So with this confidence in the safety of our relationship, I continued to report "all's well" whenever my mom and grandmother would ask how things went.

After the trip to Maryland, I continued to spend the occasional weekend with him, partly for piano lessons, partly for day care (single, working mother on welfare needed all the help she could get). We went to a Star Trek event at the California Academy of Sciences (which apparently was one of the topics in the suit against him; someone on the plaintiff's side witnessed us there). The poster he bought me is one of my most prized Star Trek possessions. He took me to the Ritz Carlton where he played piano in the cocktail lounge. We saw classic movies at classic theaters in Oakland & Berkeley. Oh the laser discs! And he even had a computer that I'd use to draw Star Trek control panels and the like.

During this period I learned that "Mulatto" was the word you use to describe a mixed-race person, that Driving While Chinese was a thing (which I later tried to confirm with one of his Chinese, I'm assuming now ex-, friends), and that the jokes about a jew, a black, and a connecticut yankee were good clean fun. Black face was an amusing act by Eddie Cantor. A mother should be ridiculed because she thinks her daughter's name, Pajama (PA-juh-muh) is pretty.

The first time I ever felt any true discomfort was quite literal. We were sitting on the couch watching Star Trek. I was laying in his lap and felt something poking me in the back. I got a little weirded out and asked if that was what I thought it was. He said no it wasn't and pulled me back down onto him. The ... problem subsided, so I didn't really think anything more of it.

Still, he would occasionally bring up the masturbation thing. I mean, part of me gets it... If I were talking to a 12 year old and they insisted none of their peers masturbates, I would be laughing inside while trying to change the subject. A part of me would feel bad that he hasn't yet figured it out for himself, but it certainly wouldn't be my place to say anything. But this man was trying to convince me that I *should* be masturbating, and that he wanted to be the one to show me how.

Well there I was, an increasingly horny, nearly teenage boy, watching the girls around me change both physically and in my own perception. As I was exposed to more examples besides him, I began to accept that masturbation is a perfectly normal part of being a human, and started to open up to the idea of his "offer."

As soon as he picked up on this, he was straddling me on his futon, tip poking out of his pants, showing me the pre-cum/lube leaking out and asking me to touch him. To feel what a full adult erection was like in my hands. I did. He asked me to pull his foreskin down. I did. He pulled out the futon, laid down, and proceeded to masturbate. I was very curious; I'm always interested in learning new things and having new experiences, so in spite of his insistence that I never tell anyone about what we did together, I didn't feel like anything was wrong. He came, and we talked about how interesting it was that semen cycles between clear and cloudy over the course of a few minutes.

I continued to visit him pretty regularly for the next year or so. We would masturbate, watch old (racist) movies, etc. Eventually I didn't see him quite as often, but my grandmother's conferences are every two years. The next one would be in Lausanne, Switzerland, and he was again ready to share his financial privilege with me for a month long tour of Europe.

As it relates to the current topic, most of the second trip was uneventful. We didn't play Ike & Tina in the hotel, he actually let me eat cheese while we were in Italy (he was a hard core vegan at the time, and my protein craving guts were a wreck every time I visited), and for the first couple weeks he didn't do or say anything sexual.

In fact, it may even have been me who brought up masturbation when we were in Paris. Now 13, I had a strong desire for pornography, and I heard France was a great source for such a thing (the internet was still young). When I asked him to buy me a dirty magazine, he asked me to give him a blow job in exchange. I told him no, but this was the first time he started being insistant. He started to use the same trick with masturbation; trying to convince me that it was perfectly normal for boys to give each other blowjobs. Eventually the conversation escalated to him asking "well why not, then?!" to which I responded "because I'm not gay like you!" I don't remember if he dropped it right away, but I did get the impression he either denied being gay, or denied that homosexuality was necessary for wanting to give boys blowjobs.

Again, he continued to prove that he'll take "no" for an answer, so from my point of view, nothing was wrong with that interaction. Eventually he relented on the porn. He bought me one magazine in Paris and another in England. We masturbated together once more, I think for the last time.

Once my voice started changing and I started approaching his eye level, our interactions became fewer and farther between. He moved to England to go to attend Oxford University. When my grandmother's next conference was held at a nearby college in Oxford, he let me stay in his flat.

This time things were very different. He was much more distant. I imagine a part of that was his intense PhD studies, but I'm pretty certain that I had moved out of his preferred age bracket. I think I've only seen him once since then at a gathering. We hugged or shook hands or something, and then went on with our lives.

Years later he was on trial for his similar treatment of another boy. Somehow he thought it would be a good idea to ask me to testify in his defense and put in that request through my grandmother. I hate him for the pain he put her through by making me answer "I can't". I hate him for the guilt and shame she and my mother will inevitably feel after reading this.

I can try to convince myself none of this left me damaged, but I would be lying. I can reassure my family that none of this was their fault, but it would feel like a lie to them no matter how true it is.

But I can also tell the truth. And if we all share our truths, then maybe we can see we're all in the same boat together and work towards a common good.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Dear Mortgage Company...

UPDATE 2011-08-20: I just got a call from Seterus saying that I've been approved for the modification and they sent out the final documents on Thursday! Thanks to everyone who offered advice and kind wishes.

Following is a letter I just sent to my mortgage company. It pretty much speaks for itself (some things are redacted for my own privacy).


To: Seterus, Inc. Fax: 877-371-7799

Attention Customer Service:

Subject: Loan # [REDACTED]

Matthew A Orlando [REDACTED]

August 2, 2011

This is a “qualified written request” under section 6 of the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act (RESPA).

I am writing because your organization has utterly failed to live up to its obligations and has denied me a modification based on false information. First some background:

My wife became unemployed in 2009 and we fell behind on our mortgage payments in the beginning of 2010. At this time our loan was serviced by Chase. Around April 2010, we applied for a modification, and were approved for a trial period for the July, August, and September payments. The modification was scheduled to be finalized on October 1. In September, however, I got a letter from Chase informing me that the loan would be transferred to your company (then IBM LBPS, now Seterus).

When I received information about the transfer from your company, I called to make sure the modification was still in the works. I was told to continue making the trial payment and things seemed to be moving along. In January, I was informed that we were approved for the modification and that documents had been sent out. I still hadn’t received anything by February when your automated dialer started calling me every week for being behind on my payments.

Every week for months I talked to someone and told them I had not yet received the documents. Every week for months I was told they would look into it. I spent a few 40-60 minute calls being transferred between different departments, all telling me they would look into it. At one point someone said “I see this message was sent to <so and so department> but they never did anything with it. I’ll try to get that moved along.” Every. Single. Week. For MONTHS.

You guys gave me this runaround for MONTHS. From February through late May it’s the same thing. Calling to collect on a debt, wondering why I haven’t sent back my documents, even though I told you repeatedly and persistently that I had not received them.

Let me spell it out one more time since it didn’t seem to get through:

I NEVER RECEIVED MY FINAL DOCUMENTS FOR THE APPROVED MODIFICATION

But wait; there’s more!

Around early June, I got my weekly “you’re behind on payments call.” I was told that at this point, because so much time had passed since the initial application, they would have to open a new file for me. This was downright insulting. YOU failed on your end and now I had to start the process all over again with the chance that it wouldn’t be approved.

True to my worries, the modification was declined with the excuse (paraphrased) “Your monthly mortgage payment including principle, interest, taxes, and insurance is less than 31% of your gross monthly income.”

[Ed. note: Using variables here instead of pure redaction so it makes more sense]

Let’s do some arithmetic here. My annual salary is $[12a]. Divide that by 12, you get $[a] per month (I listed $[a] as my monthly income on the Request for Modification form). What’s 31% of $[a]? The answer is $[0.31a]. What is the monthly mortgage payment listed my statement including principle, interest, insurance, and taxes? $[0.33a]. Which number is greater: $[0.31a] or $[0.33a]?

[Ed. note: yes, a is a positive number]

Given the above, I demand that you re-instate the modification trial period and send me the final documents no later than November 1, 2011. I would also like a written letter of apology for all the abuse I’ve received in the face of my good faith efforts.

I understand that under Section 6 of RESPA you are required to acknowledge my request within 20 business days and must try to resolve the issue within 60 business days.

Sincerely,

Matthew Orlando