Writing: the Introspectioning

I’m adding a new section to this blog, where I do some VERY intense introspection. Consider yourself warned.

This blog has, itself been a point of anxiety and frustration for me. This is dissappointing for me, because if you read my mission statement, it’s clear that this is precisely what the blog was meant not to be. Narrative Leaps was supposed to be a place for me where I can shed any inhibitions or cares that would prevent me from producing content.

It’s not that I’m not writing. If you looked at my google drive, you’ll see dozens of documents, many containing thousand words, typed from my very own hands. The problem is that these words are not organized. There are sentences, some of which are organized into paragraphs, but the paragraphs do not flow together, and the sentences often have trouble fitting into paragraphs. There are plenty of false starts, ideas that I began, but came to doubt the truth or relevance of halfway through, or could not figure out how to support.

I hesitate to talk about these sorts of things because introspection about my own writing process is probably far more interesting to me than it is to anybody else. I write about it because, frankly, it is easy. I am writing about literally what I am doing this very moment. I don’t have to worry about losing my train of thought, or getting bogged down in the act of writing when the subject of my writing and the act of writing it are one in the same.

It’s hard for me to keep flow going when I write. I like to think I’m reasonably good at finding ways to construct clever sentences, or concise expressions of solitary ideas, but it’s getting the sentences to fit into paragraphs, and getting he paragraphs to build to something— that’s the tough part. It’s hard to do this all at once. It’s like juggling; throwing one ball, while catching another, and it I make one mistake, my entire train of thought comes grinding to a halt.

Even in college, I was never good at crafting larger pieces. Occasionally, I would be able to string arguments together at length, when I’d thought deeply about the idea and it made sense to me. But mostly, essay writing consisted of me creating these chopped up paragraphs, full of false starts and unsupported ideas, bouncing between my notes, the source I was writing about, and the growing pile of false-start paragraphs, until the deadline began to approach and a I re-wrote everything in ways that, if not always compelling or sound, at least approximated the form of an argument and suggested at deeper thought.

Sometimes I do manage to condense my thought; if I didn’t, this blog wouldn’t have any entries at all. But this crystallization feels like it happens so rarely, and so inconsistently. I can spend so long groping, creating these malformed paragraphs that ultimately never fit together, without any sign of progress. This is what really gets me.

I suppose the only cure is to keep reading, and keep writing. My best idea is to take a stab at outlining posts before I even begin, because it will let me focus on the overarching structure of the argument— what I want to say- without getting too bogged down in the actual construction of paragraphs. Then I can move on to the construction of paragraphs without having to wonder where in the hell my argument is going.

This is normal, I think. Ultimately, I keep at it because I think this sort of thing is worth doing.


A Review/Tangent about Captain America: Civil War

I should preface this review by saying that I enjoyed watching Captain America: Civil War. The movie was a lot of fun, as Marvel movies often are, with fantastic action and pacing, sharp humor, and spot-on performances from both the lead and supporting actors and actresses. If you want to turn your brain off and watch the adventures of witty, attractive superheroes, I could not recommend this movie highly enough. Go see it. You’ll enjoy yourself.

However, I think that in the case of this movie in particular, the movie’s weaknesses are a lot more interesting than its strengths, which is why I’m going to focus on them for the remainder of this review/tangent.

What is wrong with the movie?

If I had to pin down the root cause, I’d say it’s that the story was being pulled in multiple different, conflicting directions. It wanted to have a conflict between the heroes, but it also wanted everyone to remain sympathetic. It wanted to raise deep moral questions about of responsibility, violence, and just governance, but it also wanted to be a fun, action-packed thrill ride. Some movies are able to handle this sort of tension gracefully, but this wasn’t one of them.

The story begins with the Avengers on a mission to prevent terrorists from acquiring a biological weapon. However, in the course of fighting the terrorists, they caused an explosion that killed a lot of innocent civilians, which causes the world governments to demand that the Avengers sign an accord that would place them under the authority of a UN task force, which will oversee their activities.

I personally like this idea. It’s not exactly uncharted ground in the superhero genre (see The Incredibles), but it’s a prescient issue, and it makes sense that the nations of the world might be nervous about a group of 5 or 6 individuals whose power-levels range from “best assassin on the planet” to “one hulk army” intervening in whatever conflict they think is most necessary.

One imagines that this plot could have been the starting point for an interesting discussion on the nature of governance. Unfortunately, however, we never really get enough detail about the agreement to form an opinion about it. Captain America, ever one to follow his conscience, worried that submitting to UN control would prevent the Avengers from helping when they are needed, or would force them to intervene on behalf of bad people, but it’s not clear how realistic this fear is. Tony Stark, likewise, seems to view compromise as necessary, without it ever being made clear what exactly the terms of the compromise actually are.

Because we don’t have solid information, our judgment of this UN accord is shaped most by our perceptions of the characters involved. Do our feeling align more with Tony Stark, who is ridden with guilt about the off-screen civilian casualties in the Age of Ultron? Do we prefer Captain America, who wants to preserve the right to act according to his conscience? Or maybe we just want the skeezy US secretary of state who is pushing the agreement to shove it.

Additionally, the character’s reasons for supporting or opposing the agreement are not terribly well fleshed out. “You’re being uncharacteristically non-hyperverbal,” Black Widow says to Iron Man, who is sitting quietly while the other Avengers debate the accord. “That’s because the answer is obvious. We need to be brought under control” is roughly Iron Man’s reply. That’s about as much as we get.

This was frustrating. Ada Palmer puts in her finger on exactly the problem I had in her discussion of Shakespeare compared to current television:

People don’t say very much in current TV, at least in drama. Lots of screen time is devoted to vistas, establishing shots, standing there looking cool, and to gazing dramatically at one another. A giant, long-awaited confrontation or confession scene will still often only involve ten or fifteen lines of dialog at most, leaving my Shakespeare-saturated brain demanding, “Tell him more! Tell her more! Tell me more! Ask questions! Explain your reasoning! Say what you really think!” It’s amazing to me how many conflicts in the few TV dramas I have watched recently are caused by Character A facing Character B and announcing “I want X” and Character B responding, “I oppose X so now we’re enemies,” and the viewer knows the real reasons both characters want these things and that if Character A would just tell Character B her/his thought process they would reach a compromise, but they don’t because they don’t explain, and don’t ask. I think such scenes are aiming at sympathetic tragedy, the viewer realizing that all the strife to come is the result of a misunderstanding, and making it easy for the viewer to sympathize with both sides. Over and over, five minutes’ more conversation would mean no one has to die. With the exception of Othello, Hamlet and some moments in the comedies, Shakespeare’s characters generally explain their why in addition to their what, but Shakespeare then makes the conflicts insoluble all the way down, so the tragedy feels grand and fated, not just a product of accident and misunderstanding. An interesting shift in storytelling technique, and possibly in how we think about conflict.

Emphasis mine.

In order to understand how this observation applies to the movie, we’re going to get further into the summary. Spoilers ahoy.

Where we left off, some of the Avengers have decided to go ahead and sign the accord that would put them under the control of the UN committee. However, while all of this is happening, the UN summit is bombed, killing many diplomats. A security camera identifies the bomber as Bucky Barnes, Captain America’s childhood friend who had been transformed into the Winter Soldier after years of steroids and psychological torture in a Hydra facility. The UN, understandably, wants to bring Bucky into custody, but Captain America is convinced that his friend is innocent, and in the ensuing manhunt, Captain America goes rogue in order to protect him.

Now for some serious spoilers. First, Bucky didn’t actually bomb the UN. He was framed in order to start a worldwide manhunt that would bring him out of hiding. The villain, posing as a UN psychiatrist, used Bucky’s capture as an opportunity to interrogate him and get information about the location of the facility where he had been made into the winter soldier. It turns out Bucky had been part of a larger super soldier program, and there were a bunch of other super soldiers just hanging out in stasis somewhere in Siberia, waiting for a would-be villain to wake them up and use them to conquer the world. After getting this information, the villain uses trigger words to flip Bucky’s evil switch and sends him on a murderous rampage through the UN facility, and Captain America is barely able to calm Bucky down and get him out of the facility safely.

Upon realizing the villain’s plot, Captain America moves to go find an airplane to get to Siberia and stop this, but there’s one problem: he and Bucky are both fugitives, and Iron Man is looking to bring them into custody. Very quickly, the rest of the avengers align themselves with either Iron Man or Captain America, and they have a full-fledged superhero-on-superhero showdown, which destroys an (thankfully abandoned) airfield.

This battle was, as far as I could tell, completely avoidable. There is no moment when Steve Rogers explains to Tony Stark what’s going on, that he’s figured out the villain’s plot, or why he and Bucky need to get to Siberia. Nor does Tony seem particularly interested in listening to it. The conversation that takes place before these two superhero squads come to blows basically goes like this: “You’ve gone too far, and I’m going to bring you in” “I’m not going to let that happen” “So you’re not going to back down?” “Nope, are you?” “Nope” “So we’re doing this”.

And then they start punching each other.

Like, okay… I get why the movie is written this way. I understand that the movie would be really boring if the heroes were sober and intelligent and averted the need for violence by acting like adults. And I won’t lie, the battle itself is a LOT of fun to watch. The effects and the direction are fantastic, it’s filled with funny dialogue. If nothing else, Marvel knows how to direct these big, sprawling epic battles.

But at the same time, the stakes of this battle feel oddly small. The fight feels more like posturing than fighting, more a test of their opponent’s resolve than a means to an end. The heroes clearly don’t want to hurt each other (in fact, they joke in the middle of the battle about pulling their punches; “we’re still friends, right?” Black Widow says to Hawkeye mid punch), but they still don’t spend more than two seconds talking in the hopes of avoiding the battle in the first place (imagine Captain America taking a few minutes to explain “hey, we know Bucky was framed for the UN bombing, and there’s a bad guy currently heading to a compound in Siberia where he’ll wake up a small squad of murderous super soldiers, and we REALLY NEED TO STOP HIM”).

Normally I wouldn’t complain about frivolous violence. Plenty of other movies treat violence lightly. Indiana Jones would not be nearly as much fun if it spent a lot of time having Indie come to terms with the number of people he has killed over the course of his adventures. The franchise, understandably, doesn’t want to go there.

However, the reason why I’m complaining about it now is because Captain America: Civil War totally wants to go there. The movie is very much about Iron Man and Captain America coming to terms with the number of people the Avengers have killed in the course of their adventures, and the conflict is largely driven by a disagreement over how the Avengers ought to handle this responsibility. Ironically, their battle is probably one the strongest arguments for Iron Man’s position. Why should anybody trust the Avengers to be judicious, responsible, and minimize civilian casualties if they can’t resolve a reasonably clear-cut disagreement without leveling an airfield? In a movie about heroes taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions, I have a very low tolerance for petty, avoidable, frivolous battles.

The reason why I bring this up is because the movie seemed to throw into sharp relief the low esteem we hold for actual conflict resolution. Civil War certainly isn’t the only example of manufactured, unnecessary conflict in our media. You’ll see just as much, if not more, on any reality TV show, but reality TV is at least an unpretentious genre. It knows it’s garbage, and that’s its main appeal. My issue is more with the superhero movie, which aspires to address serious moral questions, but still ultimately came down to superheroes flipping around and punching each other. Because this is, at some level, what people came to see.

There has been some discussion of the movie’s politics. In addition to these Vox articles, Andrew O’Hehir of Salon, who I will not do the honor of linking to, writes a review of the movie which manages to compare every major character in the movie to Donald Trump. This comparison is about as stupid as it sounds, but I ironically, I think this sort of article demonstrates how the meta-commentary on manufactured conflict is far more politically relevant than anything that happened in the actual movie.

Much like superhero movies, current politics lives and breathes conflict. Although it aspires to be a forum for the resolution of social and moral questions, at the end of the day, it is conflict, not the resolution of conflict, that keeps the ratings high and the clicks coming. Stories today don’t go viral by attempting to communicate across partisan disagreements– they go viral by being as aggressively, belligerently partisan as possible (and by mentioning the name Donald Trump, a fact that Andrew O’Hehir is probably all too aware of). We have created a political environment that that doesn’t reward people who resolve conflicts, but people who create them. It seems our reward is Donald Trump.

But who knows. I suppose, in the end, I still enjoyed the movie. I just wish it had decided to flesh out the reason for the conflict a little bit more. Food for thought. Tangent over.

Moralizing Problems of Scale

I’ve been thinking a lot about the consequences of increases in the scale of human societies. I got to thinking about this as I came across a passage describing the New York City that was inhabited by Alexander Hamilton. How big was this city? Any guesses?

Before I answer, let’s put this in context. The city were I grew up was a quiet college town in north-central Florida. It’s current population is just under 130,000 people.

Now lets go back and look at the revolutionary era United States. At the time, Philideplia was the largest city in the United States. It’s population was around 40,000– less than a third of the population of my modest hometown. The New York City of that era, which is called the “greatest city in the world” in Hamilton the Musical, was even smaller: 25,000, one fifth the size of of my hometown.

Or rather than my hometown, take the city of Flint, Michigan, which most people know about only because of the gross neglect it suffered at the hands of the state government. Flint is still four times larger than the New York City in 1776. Indeed, there are more people living in Flint today than there were in 1776 in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston combined.

These are the cities that produced the titans of early American politics, that sparked a political revolution, creating a government that, at least in theory, was founded on the principles of enlightenment thought, the first of its kind in human history, all from a population of people smaller than our nowhere-villes.

Another fun fact: There are more people living in Brooklyn today than there were in the entire United States when the declaration of independence was signed.

This means that, in terms of “lives governed”, the mayor of New York city has more power than George Washington. In terms of the number of lives influenced, the political tempests of America’s youth had less immediate impact than Brooklyn zoning ordinances.

My view is that, if you want to understand the differences between today’s society and the society of our ancestors, you’d get a good portion of the way there simply by acknowledging the fact that today’s nowhere-villes are an order of magnitude larger than their metropolises, and today’s metropolises are an order of magnitude larger than their nations.

I wanted to tie in this line of thinking with a piece of cultural criticism in The American Conservative that Leah Libresco linked to on her blog.

To summarize, the article describes a “trade in” culture in the United States, which is characterized by increased willingness to cut short long term commitments, both interpersonal and civic, in pursuit of something better. The result, he argues is a more superficial, listless and  isolated modern society.

I’ll let his words speak for themselves:

[F]iring coaches is how professional sports franchises deal with conflict. And athletes know that this is how professional sports franchises deal with conflict: so when a team hits a bad patch, and the players are underperforming, and the coach is getting angry with them, and relationships are fraying… why bother stitching them up? Why bother salving the wounds? If everyone knows where the situation is headed — sacking the manager — then isn’t there rather a strong incentive to make things worse, in order to hasten the inevitable, put an end to the frustrations, start afresh, get a do-over? Of course there is.

And precisely the same tendencies are at work in many of the key institutions of American social life. This is one of the chief reasons why so many marriages end quickly; this is why so many Christians church-hop, to the point that pastors will tell you that church discipline is simply impossible: if you challenge or rebuke a church member for bad behavior, he or she will simply be at another church the next week, or at no church at all.

It seems that we — and I’m using “we” advisedly here, as you’ll see in a moment — are becoming habituated to making the nuclear option the first option, or very close to the first option, when we can. Trying to come to terms with a difficult person, or a difficult situation, is an endeavor fraught with uncertainty: it might work, but it might not, and even if it does work, I could end up paying a big emotional price. Why not just bail out and start over?

This piece touches on a lot of core conservative concerns, most of which I share. Americans today struggle with civic engagement. Americans today are more isolated. Americans today have a harder time establishing and maintaining long-term relationships. This is empirically true.

But at the same time, this is being framed as a moral failing of our society (which seems to be how partisan writers  frame every single problem that they write about).  This strikes me as inaccurate. An alternative, which seems perfectly reasonable, is that people are willing to move around, cut ties with social institutions, and generally try to “trade up” is because our society is large enough for this sort of approach to work.

Culture lags behind the material conditions. If people in the past tended to be more committed to the social institutions that they were a part of, it isn’t because they had better values, it’s because cutting ties was a much less viable option. If you’re living in Maycomb, Alabama (the fictional town were To Kill A Mockingbird is set) and you don’t like your church… well, that’s really tough, because you have three options, and within a day’s travel, and you don’t mix races in the church. It’s not that they had a “culture of commitment”; it’s that they didn’t have any other options. And this is set in the 1930s, within living memory.

Of course, fact that we have new options does not necessarily mean that we know how to use them intelligently. In fact, we have every reason to expect that we’d provide worse answers to questions that previous generations never had to seriously consider before. If we fail to chose wisely, it isn’t because we’ve lost touch with moral truths, it’s because our parent’s experience genuinely didn’t prepare us for this sort of question.

We are in uncharted territory, and hard to know the result. One possibility is that the culture will simply adjust to the new possibilities, new norms will develop, and over time people will tend to make better decisions. The other possibility is that this will expose a weakness in human social organization that will require a more radical departure from the way we’ve done things in the past.

For example, it’s well known that civic engagement suffers from free rider problems. Being an engaged citizen is difficult and costly, which leads many people to opt out. Although the impact of a single individual opting out is negligible, the system breaks down if everybody does it.

Time and time again, the scale of our society has increased, and we have suddenly found that our “solutions” to social problems (which were often stopgap and improvised to begin with) stop working. Sometimes we find new ways to make it better. But those solutions often come with sharp, unanticipated costs.

One of the unanticipated costs becomes apparent in the personal dimensions to this question. By cutting our losses, do we deny ourselves experiences that have the potential to make us better, happier people? Jacobs argues that we do.

In the three decades that I lived in Wheaton, Illinois, I was a member of three different churches, and I often wonder what I might have learned — what wisdom I might have gained, what benefits of character I might have reaped, what good I might have done for others, what I might have been taught by fellow parishioners — if I had never left the first one. I can’t manage to wish I had stayed, but that may be because all I know is what went wrong there, what made me frustrated and unhappy. Any benefits I (or others) might have received through persistent faithfulness are unknown to me, a matter of speculation.

The personal dimension is also worth talking about. One can easily imagine that, when the world is not routinely forcing us to create lasting, enduring personal relationships, we lose the ability to make such relationships work when it is really, truly important, like when you’re married and trying to raise a child.

But at the same time, one might imagine a future where “knowing how to solve really difficult impersonal problems” might well become obsolete , the same way that hunting game, milking a cow, or farming vegetables have become obsolete. If I’m allowed to be more selective in how and when I make binding commitments, I may well not need to know how to solve very difficult personal problems. They will simply never come up.

It’s a hard balance to strike. Suffering may build character sometimes, but that’s hardly a reason to suffer. Sometimes the best solution is to disengage. One of the sweetest things about being an adult is that I don’t have to interact with anyone I don’t want to interact with.

More generally, I think the question of when to “work with what one has” v.s. when to “strike out to find something new” is hard to answer with any level of certainty. You can try to approach it rationally. You can try to weigh the likelihood of finding something better against the costs of striking out. But the end is always a gamble. There is no knowledge without cost.

A conservative reader might see this and think that I am simply another secularist, trying to transform a sacred institution, like marriage, into yet another variable in a cost-benefit analysis. But I suspect that declaring an institution “sacred” is, in this context, a way to avoid grappling with hard questions about it.

In other words, to solve new problems, it’s often necessary to dig deep and try to understand how our institutions work, including the sacred ones. De-sanctifying an institution is not easy, but it could be necessary.

This is, in my view, the reason to resist the urge to frame these cultural shifts as moral failings, and to try to see what problems these new cultural trends are directed towards solving, whether or not they are effective, and what could be done to improve them.

Unitarian Universalism: An Uncertain Religion for Uncertain Times

I have mixed feelings about Unitarian Universalism. Whether or not I call myself Unitarian Universalist at any given moment is a matter of my mood, how much sleep I’ve had the night before, what I’ve read recently, and maybe the phases of the moon.

On one hand, I am grateful for what the church has given me. I attended regularly as a teenager, and the church’s commitment to pragmatism and individual inquiry resonated deeply with me. It still does, enough for me to say that I owe the church a very real intellectual debt. On the other hand, in many contexts, going to church feels a little bit like watching a parody of religion. It’s the skin and flesh of religion, but without a skeleton. The result is a regrettable tendency to default to a sort of limp, feel-good, new agey liberalism.

These two features have always been difficult for me to reconcile with each other. On one hand, the religion is capable of a sort of honesty that you don’t often see in religious education. I think this is best exemplified in the UU sex education curriculum, which if I had to describe in a single word, it would be “honest”. In my experience, it struck an impeccable balance between giving young people the benefit of adult experience without making it feel like preaching, or worse, patronizing.  It was not couched in euphemisms. It was not dressed up in an exaggerated fealty to a doctrine that nobody fully understood. It had a sort of “no bullshit” tone that met us at our level, with age-appropriate answers to the sorts of questions we would have about sex and sexuality.

This is the exact opposite of the feeling I get from most of the the other aspects of the church. Their appropriation of religious traditions always felt, well, pandering. Sugar coated. Sanitized. Born from a desire to disengage and deny the ugliness and confusion that course through the world’s religions and the human experience. It’s a hard to strike the correct balance between scaring and coddling, but UU tends to err on the side of coddling.

Which is a shame, because in my view, UU’s greatest strength is its honesty and intellectual humility. It is, in my view, the only religion that has really tried to come to terms with the accelerating pace of history.

For most of human history, living conditions were relatively stable. A parent could raise their child with reasonable confidence that their child would live a pretty similar life, and that the wisdom of their ancestors could be received more or less whole-cloth.

In the world today, we see dramatic technological innovations whose effects are not limited to the wealthy and the powerful, but that alter the way of living at all levels of society. We are among the first generations of people who can be reasonably certain that our children will not live the same way that we do. We live in ways that humans have ever before lived. We die in ways that that humans have never before died.

In its renunciation of doctrine, Unitarian Universalism has tried to be a religion of the modern world. It has at least tried to reconcile the apparent contradiction of the fact that, coming into the world, children need guidance to mature into adults, while also understanding that the world is too big for our guidance. We adults don’t have the world figured out, and the future prosperity hinges on the answers to questions that I and my generation may not have even realized we needed to ask.

Our communities are tumbling forward, thrown into the kaleidoscope of our massive, dizzyingly diverse, yet increasingly interconnected world.  The way UU tries to adapt is admirable. Its principles seem like an attempt to solve the hard problems of living in a cosmopolitan community, where neighbors are more different from each other than at any other time in our history. It explicitly attempts to negotiate this balance between orthodoxy and anarchy, and foster the increasingly necessary ability to collaborate across the boundaries of faith, language, and culture.

And yet, it shies away… It becomes self-indulgent, and in denouncing doctrine, it often implicitly denounces the importance of the questions that doctrines are developed to answer. It asserts (without base) that a certain sort of answer, replete with buzzwords like “love” and “acceptance”, ought to be unconditionally satisfying. This isn’t the case, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion without a doctrine: an apparent contradiction.  The explanation that made the most to me was the comparison to classical religions. In classical regions, canon’s are fluid, with stories and mythologies flowing together in a hectic hodgepodge that nobody could make sense of if they tried. To meet a new people is to ingratiate oneself to their gods, potential allies or enemies, depending on your aim.

There is no heresy in classical religion. There is nobody trying to provide an authoritative answer to religious questions. There is no preoccupation with finding the one true interpretation of Homer. Individuals may devote themselves to this teacher or that teacher, this god or that god, this cult or that cult, but most people were not in a cult and did not devote themselves to a particular set of teachings. They were more occupied with the day-to-day problems of living, and were interested in how the hodgepodge of stories intersected with their lives.

Unlike the Abraham religions, where you have sacred text that scholars scrutinize to resolve ever more esoteric debates about the doctrine, the Unitarian tradition tries to consciously emulate the older relativism-that-wasn’t-quite-relativism, where religion was simply the collection of stories we carried with us.

This is, to me, a more appealing approach faith. It is dynamic, innovative, generative a little wild. It is also occasionally destructive, harmful, flighty. It is red. Blood surges, coursing through veins and occasionally being spilled from them. But this happens regardless. Hatred and fear give people strength just as surely as love does.

But there is a sort of hubris in hatred. It’s an assertion that one knows the state of the world and who one’s enemies are. This seems to be the less interesting feature of the religions that I’ve studied.

The world’s religions tell stories of people marching into unknowns, strangers in strange lands. What sustains them? Wit? Determination? Solidarity? Family? Faith? Some combination of these forces which we barely understand. I may not agree with people’s understanding of the world, but I struggle to begrudge a person anything that gives them the strength to stand alongside me.

To part, I guess I’ll leave a poetic image. My preference has always been to approach people as fellow pilgrims on a dusty road. We may not know where we have walked before, what we are walking towards, or what we have picked up on our journeys. But for the time being, we’re walking together. So let’s just be honest.

Affirmative Action is Really Hard to Talk About

There’s been a small media firestorm about Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s recent comments on the Abigail Fisher affirmative action case. During the oral arguments, he said: “There are those who contend that it does not benefit African Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.”

This comment has been widely criticized for being racist, for insinuating that black students don’t belong at academically challenging institutions, and for wanting to take us back to the segregation era. This criticism is coming from many sources, all the way up to the Democratic Minority Leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, who said:

“It is deeply disturbing to hear a Supreme Court justice endorse racist ideas from the bench of the nation’s highest court. Scalia’s endorsement of racist theories has frightening ramifications, not the least of which is to undermine the academic achievements of African Americans.”

This is, as far as I can tell, a really bad-faith interpretation of Scalia’s comment. He’s not advocating segregation. He’s not saying that black students should be quartered off from elite schools. He’s saying, roughly, that there’s an argument that black students, as a group, would be better off if they were accepted to universities at the same rate as white or Asian students with comparable academic credentials.

This isn’t an uncommon opinion. It’s also been endorsed by Justice Thomas, who said back in 2013 when the supreme court first reviewed this case.

“The University admits minorities who otherwise would have attended less selective colleges where they would have been more evenly matched. But, as a result of the mismatching, many blacks and Hispanics who likely would have excelled at less elite schools are placed in a position where underperformance is all but inevitable because they are less academically prepared than the white and Asian students with whom they must compete. Setting aside the damage wreaked upon the self-confidence of these overmatched students, there is no evidence that they learn more at the University than they would have learned at other schools for which they were better prepared. Indeed, they may learn less.”

I’m not intending to suggest that Thomas’s opinion on affirmative action is somehow more definitive because he is black. Thomas has been a controversial figure for a while, in no small part because of his opposition to affirmative action, and his opinion is certainly not above criticism. But at least his opinion isn’t pattern matched quite as easily to a narrative about rampant, bigoted, institutional racism, and progressive cartoonists might hesitate a little before drawing him in KKK robes.


Which is sort of my point. My issue is not with affirmative action. Truthfully, I think there are ways of framing this discussion in which the case for race-conscious admissions at universities is very compelling. My problem is with how many of my friends have decided not only that affirmative action is good, but that this view is already the consensus of intelligent, decent, moral people.

Nobody should be that confident that their view of affirmative action is a good policy. There are some problems that society has solved– the shape of the earth, for example, or the germ theory of disease, or the chemical formula for water– but how to engineer racial justice isn’t one of them. Like most social policies, the impact of affirmative action isn’t an easy thing to know. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something (or trying to get elected).

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about political polarization. And if there’s anything about polarization that’s worth understanding, it’s that it is more than simple heated disagreement. Disagreements on important issues should be heated, should inflame passions. People should be invested in the outcomes. Polarization is different. Polarization happens gradually, as more and more political issues are approached as if an ethereal vanguard of good, ethical people have already agreed which view is correct. The result are communities where even entertaining an alternative hypothesis in public makes you a pariah, and collaboration between communities becomes less and less possible.

I don’t have an opinion on affirmative action yet. Or I should say that I do, but it’s not a very confident opinion. It’s tentative, subject to revision as I become more familiar with the arguments and the evidence supporting them. This should be the stance that most people take on most issues, from affirmative action to gun control. Civility is a virtue, not because it’s more refined or respectful, but because there are a lot of problems that we don’t actually understand very well.

I know there are people who will say that I am tone policing when I advocate stronger norms of discourse. I would argue, to the contrary, that my aim is to increase slightly the odds that, when we talk to each other, we’ll learn something.

Review of Victoria

The only thing I knew about this movie walking into it was that it was all shot in a single take. Not the cheatyface Hitchcock/Joss Whedon “single take”, where cuts are disguised as fast pans or by zooming in on a character’s back. I mean one honest to god camera-rolling-continuously-from-the-moment-the-director-says-action-to-the-closing-credits take.

And it was really good. I will make one recommendation before you go to see this movie. Don’t spoil it. Don’t watch any of the trailers, don’t read any of the reviews. Don’t even look at what genre the movie is. All you need to know is that the movie is about a young woman named Victoria, who recently moved to Berlin on a working trip. At a nightclub she meets four friendly young men, and in the course of two hours, her life becomes extremely interesting.

More than that, I won’t say, because  the movie is best enjoyed if you’re not sure exactly what genre it is. Victoria doesn’t know where the night will take her, and the movie will be far more enjoyable if you don’t know either.

The one take could easily have been gimmicky, but this movie used it well. The film’s greatest strength is its ability to pull off extremely rapid tone shifts, which would feel contrived if created in the editing room, but unfold seamlessly in real time. It creates a sense of urgency and forward momentum that is very rare in mainstream cinema.

The one downside of this movie is that it is exhausting to watch. I didn’t appreciate how much my brain relies on cuts and transitions when watching movies just to reset my attention span until I had watched a feature length movie without them. But, again, the exhaustion is a testament to the fact that the movie kept my attention throughout its entire running time.

The acting in this movie is also fantastic. Lila Costa and Frederick Lau give very compelling performances as Victoria and Sonne, a young Berliner who she befriends. Even in the small, mundane quirks, which the long take unfailingly captures, their characters are extremely charming, and manage to convey a gauntlet of powerful emotions– regret, euphoria, guilt, and desperation. Alongside director Sebastian Schipper, they can take viewers along with them on an wild and gripping night.



Not the Answer to Martin Shkreli

When Turing Pharmaceuticals decided to raise the price of Daraprim by over 5000%, they had made an assumption about the market. Call it a gamble. The gamble was that no other pharmaceutical company would front the money to get FDA approval to sell a generic competitor, just to get into a price war with an established brand in a very tiny market.

This is not an unreasonable assumption. In order to market a generic version of a brand name drug that already has FDA approval, you still need to run some clinical testing. It’s not nearly as rigorous as the testing that you need to sell a novel drug. You don’t have demonstrate efficacy or safety. But you do need to demonstrate bio-equivalence, i.e. that if you take a single dose of your generic drug, it stays in your system for the same amount of time at at the same levels as the brand-name drug. As I said, it’s not nearly as involved as bringing a new product to market, but this is simply to say that it’s a couple-million dollar ordeal, rather than $2.6 billion dollar ordeal.

Add to the million dollar price tag the fact that the median approval timeline for generic drugs is between 3 and 4 years, meaning that if a hypothetical competitor started today, odds are they wouldn’t actually be able to get a drug on the market until 2019. It’s not hard to understand why Mrtin Shekreli would be pretty confident that no competitors would enter the market. After all, a lot can happen in 3 years. For example, Turing could decide it’s had enough of the PR nightmare, respond to government pressure, and decide to lower its prices (no less than a month after the story breaks).

Or you could get something like Imprimis.

Imprimis is the more interesting case. It is pharmaceutical company who announced plans to make the pyrimethamine (the active ingredient of Daraprim) available to compounding pharmacists for extremely cheap– as low as 1$ a pill.

How are the able to do this without getting on the bad side of the regulatory procedures? The answer has to do with the way they plan to produce the drugs, through a procedure called compounding.

Compounding is a throwback to an era before pharmaceutical products were mass produced. Back then, if you wanted medicine, you would go to your local pharmacists, who would actually make your medicine for you from the raw ingredients, mortar and pestle.

Nowadays, compounding is a niche practice. Not all pharmacists are licensed to do it, and those that are typically only do so to accommodate patients with special needs, who cannot take the standard dose of their medication, or who need multiple medications combined into a single dose. From Forbes:

For example, the branded product might contain an inactive constituent (called an excipient) to which the patient is allergic. In the case of children or adults with problems swallowing, liquid or suppository forms of drugs can be made that are only available in tablets or capsules. The compounding pharmacist can also customize the dose of a drug or drug combination that best suits a specific patient.

How does this dodge regulatory approval?

Well, remember, in order to sell a generic drug, you normally need to establish bioequivalence– that the active ingredient is absorbed and processed by the body at the same rate as the brand-name drug. One consequence of this is that you’re only able to sell generic drugs at the same dose as the brand name drug. A 50mg pill would not be pharmacokinetically equivalent to a 100mg pill. Likewise, a tablet may not be pharmacokinetically equivalent to a liquid formulation.

But what if you’re compounding a regimen to meet the specific needs of an individual patient? What if the patient needs a liquid formulation of a drug that is FDA approved to be sold as a tablet? Obviously the regulatory burden need not apply– you wouldn’t expect the custom dose to be bioequivalent to the standard, mass manufactured dose.

“The drug products made by a compounding pharmacy aren’t themselves specifically approved for safety and effectiveness. The consumer relies on the original drug approval process for that.”

What this means is that making the product available to compounding pharmacists allows you to bypass the regulatory hurdles that would prevent other people from bringing a generic product to the market.

So where are we now?

First, it looks like Turing pharmaceuticals lost their gamble, not because some other pharma company decided to cough up the millions of dollars to run the bioequivalence trials, but because another company found a legal loophole that let them market and sell the product without going through the regulatory process. So we get to see some egg on Martin Shkreli’s smug face. Huzzah!

But second, and neglected in the jubilation about this development in social media, is commentary this drama provides on US pharma regulation.

Remember, there’ a reason why we stopped having pharmacists custom make treatment regimens for us. Compared to mass production, compounding is time and labor intensive and introduces the possibility of human error. For example,

In a veterinary case reported by the FDA in May 2015, horses were overdosed with a pyrimethamine combination drug due to a calculation error by a Kentucky compounding pharmacy. The FDA received 10 reports from Kentucky and Florida of horses experiencing fevers and seizures, including four deaths.

This isn’t to say that all compounded medications are unsafe, but it should be clear that compounding is not the best way to scale up drug production. There are reasons why the industry has switched to mass manufacturing, chief among them so that we don’t have to worry about killing people because a pharmacist made a calculation error.

The CEO of Imprimis is trying to cast himself as a hero for the free market, helping curb pharma company greed.

In fact, [the CEO] says that working cooperatively with policymakers is key for compounding pharmacy to make an impact on outrageous drug pricing.

“We don’t need price-fixing or price controls. This is a market-based solution. We can reach a pricing equilibrium using competitive practices.  And we’ve gotta work with policymakers on using compounding to counterbalance the influences on the other side.”

This is, as far as I can tell, absolute bullshit. The only way compounding pharmacies could compete with a manufactured brand is by scaling up production, enough to take a significant chunk of the market share. Is this legal? Maybe, maybe not. But the real question is, if you think that it’s safe to compound enough of a medication to make an impact on the market price, why not just let people manufacture it?

The only reason compounding pharmacists are in a position to curb price gouging is because the regulatory environment prevent drug manufacturers from doing so. Compounding Daraprim isn’t a victory for the free market. It’s not a way to control market greed, and policy makers should not work with Imprimis in order to do facilitate this. At best, Imprimis’s bid is a symptom of inefficient regulatory policy. At worst, it’s a danger to public health.