Matters Political

Penny Arcade, PAX, and “gamer culture”: a few more thoughts

I’ve written about Penny Arcade and the Penny Arcade Expo quite a few times before, though not more recently than about a year and a half ago on this blog. In fact, these old posts are a pretty good way to trace the development of my views on PA, PAX, and “gamer culture” (a nebulous term to be sure, but I think not a wholly meaningless one).

It would not be overstating the case to say that my opinions of all three things have gotten no more favorable since that last post. (Elizabeth Sampat’s Quit Fucking Going To PAX Already, What Is Wrong With You from last September is another worthwhile read.)

I’m still friends with a number of people who regularly attend PAX, some of whom are indie devs who exhibit there. I know that the “should you boycott PAX” question is a prickly one for some, and I want to try to be careful here not to blame individual choices for systemic problems. In any case, I think my views on whether PAX can be “reformed” or “improved” or “changed from within” have been clear for some time now: it can’t, because the people who run (and profit from, let’s not forget) it and actually most of the people who go to it either actively oppose any such efforts, or simply don’t care.

I’ve sometimes taken a harder line on things like this, and I certainly know and respect many people who still do — whose position is a flat “don’t go to PAX”. In the abstract, I think that’s the right choice, but practice is always messy. Ultimately, PAX isn’t going to stand or fall, or change or stay the same, on the choice of any individual to go or not to go. All the same, if you’re a ticket-buying attendee, I hope you’ll consider not going; the people in charge of the event do not deserve your money, and there’s a great deal else to do in Boston, and many offsite or after-hours chances to meet up with other games people who’ve come to town for PAX.

It’s important to remember that the problems with Penny Arcade, and with PAX, are symptomatic of problems in game culture writ large, which themselves are symptoms, or manifestations, or particular versions of societal problems. Most everything wrong with any of these microcosms is, ultimately, linked to the racist, patriarchal, capitalist structure of society.

But it’s a funny kind of symptom — we can see this in other sexist media, for example, as well — in that culture is a feedback loop, so the symptoms actually exacerbate and prolong the disease. A fever is a symptom of an infection, but imagine a virus that could survive at 98.6°F but thrived at 103°: the fever would only make the infection worse.

How do you fight that kind of disease — how do you diminish or break the cultural feedback loop? That’s a good question. If PAX does collapse, without any general improvement in gamer culture, something just as bad will likely take its place. To switch metaphors abruptly, audio feedback can be diminished by attenuating the signal at the input, the output, or both. Criticism of games, games culture, games media, and games events (and in particular of prominent events like PAX, E3, GDC, etc.), on grounds of diversity, inclusivity, and social justice has become much more vocal and widespread in recent years (meeting, of course, predictable resistance and backlash); and “counterprogramming” (though much of it is not positioned directly in opposition to the “mainstream” events) like Lost Levels, Different Games, No Show Conference, etc., also seems to me to be on the rise.

I don’t mean that to sound like blithe it-gets-better-ism; “things” are not “getting” better — many people are putting in real, hard work, often with little or no compensation, to make things better. I think probably the best way to “fix” the culture, insofar as we can, regardless of anyone’s individual decision on PAX attendance, is to try to support those critics and counterprogrammers, to join them in the work, or to give them what support we can, or to contend with those who try to tear them down in defense of the status quo.

Again, it’s no secret I dislike Penny Arcade and all their works, with considerable intensity. If their offices were shuttered tomorrow I wouldn’t feel the world had lost anything of value. I avoid visiting their website, and I definitely don’t go to PAX. But (if these are the only two possibilities, which they probably are not) I’d rather see a future in which PAX and Penny Arcade rumble on, perhaps a slightly smaller fish than they are today, in a somewhat bigger pond — but one full of clear, sparkling water and every kind of fish and water plant — than one where they float belly-up, but everyone keeps struggling through the same shallow, polluted muck.

On Adria Richards, PyCon, and SendGrid

As many people are already aware, a woman named Adria Richards, who worked at a company called SendGrid, was fired yesterday. Both Richards personally, and SendGrid as a company, have been under attack by individuals, and by Anonymous. These attacks are “retaliation” for the firing of a developer at Play Haven, by Play Haven, after that developer was ejected from the PyCon conference taken aside and spoken with by PyCon staff (Update: the accounts I initially read said he’d been removed from the conference, but that was evidently not the case. My apologies for the misinformation.) following Richards’ reporting to the conference that he was making inappropriate jokes in the audience of a talk.

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled already on this topic, and as a cisgender, hetero white man, whether or not my understanding or ideas are correct, my voice is not among the ones that need to be heard most. (This is also a big part of why I haven’t been blogging nearly as frequently as I used to.) That said, I wanted to list a few links covering the story-so-far, as best I’m aware of it, and make a few short remarks on the matter.

First, Richards’ own account of the incident at PyCon.

Next, a Venture Beat article discussing the incident and some of the fallout, including DDoS attacks against SendGrid.

Here’s the Facebook post where SendGrid announces firing Richards.

This post by Amanda Blum has been getting a lot of circulation (perhaps because, I uncharitably speculate, Blum leads with “I don’t like Adria Richards,” imputes to Richards a history of being “unreasonable”, and insists “This wasn’t about feminism, and she shouldn’t be allowed to sit her perch on the issue.” and “Adria reinforced the idea of us as threats to men, as unreasonable, as hard to work with… as bitches.”). I think there’s a lot wrong with it.

Here’s a further post on SendGrid’s blog about Richards’ firing. Interestingly, they make the same mistake I did yesterday: they interpreted a proposed change to the PyCon code of conduct as a confirmed change intended to prohibit public discussion, like that Richards engaged in, of harassment incidents. My friend @quarteringsea, however, pointed out to me that PyCon say the proposed change (under considerable discussion on their GitHub repository) was intended to target the kind of doxxing and attacks Richards has been subjected to, rather than her initial report:

(Further update: it is actually now completely unclear to me which behavior the change is meant to address, so I’m cautiously holding out hope, but PyCon really needs to do a better job clarifying the situation. A Code of Conduct should be unambiguous.)

Finally, Melissa McEwan has an excellent response at Shakesville to some of the most common criticisms of Richards’ actions; and my friend Courtney Stanton has a thoroughly documented piece at BuzzFeed linking these incidents to the whole disgusting history of sexism and harassment in the tech and gaming worlds.

Here’s what I want to say, and it’s almost certainly redundant with some of what I’ve linked above, but the right way to articulate what bothered me most about the common insistence that “she should have just asked them to stop” instead of publicizing the photo: There is no fucking reason the onus should have been on Richards to politely ask the men to stop. She had a right to expect professional behavior, and moreover the odds of a man responding constructively when confronted by a woman — especially a woman of color — over sexist behavior are, in our society in general and in the male-dominated, “proudly-politically-incorrect” tech world in particular, extremely low.

Maybe the persons in question would have responded calmly, apologized, and improved their behavior in the future, but anyone who knows anything about how women who complain are treated in male-dominated fields (allow me to again recommend Stanton’s BuzzFeed post above) knows that, without already knowing them personally, there is no reason to assume they would. The odds are much, much stronger that they’d be defensive, dismissive, passive-aggressive, or just plain aggressive, and quite possibly escalate their inappropriate behavior — and that they’d feel themselves perfectly justified in doing so, that no one around them would step in, and they’d later deny having done anything wrong. (For an excellent account of how this sort of thing often works, I recommend my friend Maddy Myers’ writing on the fighting game community.)

“In an ideal world,” as the device goes, would it likely be preferable for a person witnessing inappropriate behavior to try asking those responsible to stop before taking any other action? Well, in an ideal world, no one would be behaving inappropriately in a professional setting in the first place; but let’s set that aside and stipulate that yes, if you have a reasonable expectation that a polite admonishment and request will be effective in both stopping the current problem and reducing future problems, without compromising your safety, that’s the fastest, lowest-friction, best response. We do not live in a world where women, especially in male-dominated spaces, can reasonably have that expectation. Keeping it private doesn’t necessarily result in any less harassment, but making it public does make it harder for everyone else to deny it’s happening.

A final note: As my friend @lastnora pointed out, the “don’t publicly shame people, that hurts the community, let’s just deal with it internally” logic being deployed in a lot of responses to this incident is precisely the logic of abusers. Don’t make the family look bad, don’t make the church look bad, don’t make the [whatever group] look bad — but a group that protects hostile or abusive behavior is bad, and to try to keep it looking good is deeply dishonest. Nora’s tweets, referring to the proposed PyCon Code of Conduct language:

Oh look, it’s time to talk about gamer culture and rape culture again.

I guess I don’t need to elaborate here on how I feel these days about Penny Arcade and their bicoastal, twice-yearly paean to conspicuous consumption, PAX Prime/PAX East. They represent some of the worst of gamer culture, they gleefully profit from misogyny and rape jokes, and their convention (increasingly, it seems) disregards its own “no booth babes” rule, making women feel less welcome and encouraging (presumed male) attendees to see all women, booth babe, cosplayer, developer, PR, or “regular” attendee, as sexualized objects there for men’s pleasure.

It’s distressing, then, but hardly surprising to hear that, at a party thrown by Mojang’s Markus “Notch” Persson, noted fedora enthusiast, indie-game-scene darling, and creator of the wildly successful Minecraft, a female game blogger seeking some relative solitude in a corner was accosted, harassed, and sexually assaulted by a male party-goer. Understandably upset, she fled the party, and when her friends sought out security, they were greeted with shrugs.

Some salient points:

  • The party was paid for by Persson himself, not by Mojang. It’s not entirely clear to what extent he organized it, and to what extent the party venue handled those details.
  • The party took place during PAX Prime, but was not an official PAX event, nor was it at the PAX venue. However, as it was a party thrown during PAX by a video game celebrity; it’s reasonable to assume that the majority of attendees were PAX-goers.
  • A notable exception: some attendees, distinguished (according to Ky, the blogger who was assaulted) by red wristbands, were women hired from a modeling agency.
  • Lydia Winters, Minecraft’s “Director of Fun” commented on Ky’s blog post clarifying that Persson, not Mojang, had thrown the party and that the models were hired by “the production company” to “have more girls there to up the girl to guy ratio. It’s a pretty typical club procedure.” (Winters confirmed via twitter that it was in fact her who posted that comment.)
  • It’s not clear, then whether hiring the models was in fact Persson’s idea, or whether he knew about/approved it. (One would imagine that, if planning were left to the venue or some other third party, given that Persson was paying, he’d at least have been asked to sign off on the expenses.)
  • Persson himself, about three hours ago, tweeted:
  • In an update at the top of her post, Ky emphasizes that she doesn’t feel PAX or Mojang is responsible in any way for what happened, and that in her view “The ONLY person who should be held accountable for what happened is the asshole himself.” She also states, “Also this post isn’t about nerd or gamer culture or blaming those cultures at all, this could happen in any community, at any party, to anyone.”

There are a few points I want to make about this.

[Author’s note: I added a few sentences and split the next paragraph into two, because I wasn’t entirely comfortable with its original tone.]

Perhaps predictably, I disagree with Ky that this has nothing to do with PAX or with nerd/gamer culture. She is obviously the final authority on her own experience, and just as obviously the man who attacked her is the only one who bears direct (let alone legal) responsibility for that crime. But from my perspective, one shouldn’t be too quick to discount cultural and environmental factors that make predators feel they’re free to operate in a given situation — and that make bystanders more likely to shrug, to see the warning signs of predatory behavior as “normal”.

It’s certainly true that things like this can and do happen “in any community, at any party, to anyone” — rape culture is endemic, and no subcultural niche is entirely free of it. However, gamer culture — fueled by Nice Guy (often shading into MRA) bitterness over high-school bullying and lack of “success” with girls (an historical injustice elevated to mythic proportions in nerdism) — clings to especially overt misogyny and objectification. One need only look at the vitriolic response to Anita Sarkeesian‘s proposed (now underway) “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” video series, the myriad examples at Fat, Ugly, or Slutty?, or of course the Dickwolves debacle, to see this in action.

PAX encourages and revels in these attitudes — reflecting the views (so far as one can surmise from their actions) of its founders and their core fanbase — but it certainly doesn’t start with PAX, or with Penny Arcade. Society’s misogyny has always been an element of nerd culture, and nerd culture’s tendency to be self-referential, insular, and distrustful of “outsiders”, makes it self-reinforcing. Critics, whether from without or within the subculture, are almost invariably dismissed out-of-hand as “not understanding”, not being “real gamers”. And people growing up in gamer culture — especially young men — have spent a decade, or two, or three, absorbing these attitudes with very little real challenge to them.

So inasmuch as gamer culture is tainted by rape culture, and PAX is one of the purer expressions of contemporary gamer culture, yes, this is about PAX. This is about the kinds of people who felt welcome at PAX, and what they thought they could get away with. It’s about the constant presence of “booth babes” at gaming conventions, and the still abysmal representation of women in mainstream games. It’s about the kind of people who think it’s reasonable to “up the girl to guy ratio” by hiring models to attend a party, because they think their (presumed male, presumed heterosexual) attendees neither possess nor need to be encouraged to develop any social skills, and thus are and will remain repulsive to women not paid to tolerate them. (There are, of course, far too many problems with this to unpack in a single blog post.) And it’s about what all this, taken together, in constant dosage over many years, teaches people who didn’t even notice they were being instructed: women are decorative objects, there for men’s enjoyment; they have no significant interests of their own; they are not skilled; they are not peers; if they are not attractive to men they are failures; they are merely things for men to desire and despise. (If you think I’m overstating, now would be a good time to go look again at those links a couple paragraphs up.)

Now, almost everyone — even in the comments section of her blog post, a rarity here on the interwebs — has reacted to Ky’s story with horror and disgust. But almost everyone (including Ky herself) has directed that horror and disgust solely at the individual assailant. It’s easy in this case, because “grabbing a stranger’s hand and putting it on your penis” is behavior (in point of fact, a crime) even most MRAs will recognize as beyond the pale. Oh, that one guy did something really unacceptable! He’s terrible, nothing more to see here. But given what we know about sexual harassment and assault, it’s highly likely that he harassed more than one person that night, and furthermore that he wasn’t the only one who did. How many of the models paid to be there put up with harassment and perhaps assault? How many women party-goers were harassed by sexist nerds who thought harassing the models was “part of their job” (nope!) and extrapolated from there that it was an acceptable way to behave toward any women at that party (again, nope!)? Rape culture teaches men that they’re entitled to sexual gratification from women, whether visual, verbal, or physical; hiring models to “mingle” with partygoers declares the same thing explicitly.

Ky’s assailant is the only case from that party, that we know of, where someone decided he was entitled not only to sexual gratification but to enforce his claim to that gratification with violence — and make no mistake, all sexual assault is violence — and that makes him a relatively egregious example. But that doesn’t make him an isolated, unconnected, free-floating Bad Person whose worldview, impulses, and actions come from nowhere and cannot be interrogated. His attitudes came from somewhere, and for every person like him who physically sexually assaults someone, there are dozens or hundreds who hold basically the same views, absorbed from basically the same sources, who “only” harass and intimidate and make gamer culture hostile to everyone who isn’t heterosexual, cisgender, white, able-bodied, and male.

Finally, here’s the kicker. If past incidents in gamer culture are any indicator (Dickwolves, Fat Princess, Duke Nukem Forever, Resident Evil 5, the Borderlands 2 “Girlfriend Mode” controversy, and countless others) there will be no lasting consequences. A few more people will be alienated from gamer culture, but the majority of gamers will brush it off, and continue to support the institutions that promote these attitudes. The gaming press — even the smart, progressive gaming press — will write about Penny Arcade and PAX and Gearbox and Mojang to talk about their press releases and upcoming games, and will not mention the kinds of things that happen under their various auspices. No lasting opprobrium will attach to any of their names, and the culture will not change. People, even smart, thoughtful, progressive people who understand rape culture and how it works, and work tirelessly to break down race, gender, and sexuality barriers in gamer culture, will keep attending PAX and buying games produced by developers with toxic, misogynist studio cultures. The overwhelming sense will be that yeah, that stuff was bad, but that’s all in the past. Like the security guard in Ky’s story: “Okay? What do you expect me to do?”

That seems like a harsh way to close, but I don’t know what else to say. A lot of people have been patient and polite about this for a great many years, and the results have been rather underwhelming. Nerd culture resists change, and perceives efforts to bring change as attacks, no matter how moderate, no matter how careful the phrasing. I think the best hope is to work to make explicit what it is the pillars of the subculture support: to label their behavior indelibly as sexism, and to finally attach some modicum of shame to behaviors that should always have been seen as shameful. Challenge harmful structures, don’t support them. Don’t let praise for misogynist companies and institutions go unquestioned. make all but the most committedly sexist nerds uncomfortable voicing their boy’s-club attitudes, and make it socially unacceptable for the majority to associate with the hardcore misogynists.

Update: Now cross-posted at Shakesville and The Border House!


A couple of weeks ago, I went to see Hanne Blank at an event for her new book, Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality at the Harvard Bookstore. I enjoyed the talk — the gist of which is that our (where “our” roughly means Western European and Anglo-/Euro-American, and other cultures to the extent “we” have successfully exported our ideas) idea of sexual orientation as a more-or-less fixed component of identity — indeed, as an intelligible thing at all — is an historically contingent construction dating only to the mid-19th century. The history of that idea, the political tactics and strategies, it was formulated to serve, and the originally unanticipated constructions which have been put on it and uses to which it’s been put, can be traced, examined in context, and demystified. It’s a powerful thing, to see a prevailing way of understanding the world, and be able to say, “this is not decreed from on high; this is not unalterable natural fact; this is a human construction that arose for intelligible reasons.”

This discussion of historical constructedness put me in mind of a couple of my favorite short quotations, which you’ll see in the sidebar to the right. Edward Said, from the introduction to the 25th Anniversary edition of Orientalism: “[N]either the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.” And Kai Chang, from his sadly vanished-into-the-ether blog (he maintains a presence on Tumblr, but I’ve never been able to figure out Tumblr) — the Wayback Machine does have an archived copy of the post, at least — “Because the world is not a floating sequence of unfortunate events; it’s an edifice with foundations, load-bearing walls, plumbing, wiring, ductwork; and in order to renovate, you need to study those structures.”

Between them, those beautifully expressed thoughts point the way to a great deal of the foundation ofmy way of understanding the world (itself, of course, alsoconstructed and historically contingent). No social convention, no matter how “natural” we’re accustomed to thinking it is — indeed, “nature” vs. “civilization” is yet another constructed dichotomy which obscures and mystifies humans’ relationship with their environment — is actually somehow encoded, immutably, in our DNA.

Almost a decade ago now, Joel Spolsky described his Law of Leaky Abstractions. The law is, “all non-trivial abstractions, to some degree, are leaky.” And what Spolsky means by “leaky” is that whenever you deal with an abstraction (he’s discussing software, but it applies much more broadly than that), details of the underlying system (“reality” if you like, or just a lower-level abstraction) inevitably operate in such a way as to prevent the abstraction from being perfect: some of the messy underlying workings leak through. In programming, we talk, and mostly think and act, as though we dealt in pure, logical concepts, free-floating in the air for us to manipulate as we please: but in fact what we ultimately deal in is electrical impulses traveling between transistors on nanometer-scale wires, and that physical reality constrains and warps the gloriously pure logic of our airy thoughts.

We still have to deal in abstractions: even the relatively low-level abstraction of logical 1 and 0 bits moving between ALUs and registers in neat groups of 64 is too much information for a human brain to hold and track all at once, never mind the electrochemical reactions playing out by the billions every second — or being able to also recognize any kind of higher-level meaning. All thought is abstraction; all speech is abstraction; all social interaction is abstraction. We are complex physical systems understanding ourselves through abstractions. And that’s all right! We can’t do away with abstractions; such a thing is so far outside the realm of the possible that even to ask whether we “should” is incoherent. But we do need to be cognizant that they are abstractions and that they do leak: if we mistake abstractions — historically contingent, constructed systems, which serve necessary functions but are not necessarily the only systems that could serve those functions — for uncomplicated, “natural” fact, we are ill-prepared for what on Lacanian terms* would be understood as irruptions of the Real into the Symbolic.

To come back around to Hanne Blank’s book, then: the binary system of “heterosexual” and “homosexual”, and indeed the entire concept of “sexual orientation” as a relatively uncomplicated, fixed characteristic of a person’s identity, is a leaky abstraction (though no less so, of course, than the system of “acceptable” and “deviant” sexual behaviors which preceded it in Western European thought). It’s a nice, simple idea, easy to think about and apply, and in most cases it seems to fit pretty well. But if you start digging you find it doesn’t have any ontological stability. Not everyone is attracted exclusively to one gender. Not everyone is attracted to ANY gender. Not everyone experiences their sexuality as a fixed “orientation” over their lifetime. If you dig deeper, you find it’s built on another leaky abstraction: the idea of “sexual orientation” rests (among other things) on the idea that there are two genders, masculine and feminine; that every person is either one or the other; and that every person is attracted to either one or the other. But gender, too, is unstable, as not everyone identifies with the gender they’re assigned at birth, or indeed with either pole of the standard gender binary, and not everyone experiences their gender identity as stable over their lifetime. Psychology, sociology, even anatomy, are all susceptible to these leaks.

Every level you try to systematize and stabilize turns out to resist that process. The wild multifarious variety of human biology and brain chemistry and all the complex interactions of systems with systems — all the way down, at the very root, to the perpetual randomness of quantum foam — filters up through the abstractions as instability. When we take these neat abstractions and try to impose them on the messiness of lived experience, at best they only mostly fit. Some people can’t or won’t fit into the mold, and some get hurt trying to fit, or more often, by others trying to make them fit. And I think the best way to deal with this, probably, is — if you’ll pardon my repeating myself — to recognize the constructedness, and the leakiness, of the abstractions we use, and to understand them not only as contingent but as provisional. That they are constructed means they are not immutable. We absolutely require sets of abstracting conceptual tools to manage our experience of the world. But there is no reason to presume a priori that the specific sets of tools we have are the only ones that could ever possibly serve the purpose. A worldview is not handed down from on high. It is learned and built up, and it can be revised and replaced as events and information warrant.

Accepting instability lets you adjust and adapt. Moreover, trying to prevent or quash it is an effort doomed to failure.

* in fairness I must admit I know very little Lacan and can claim to understand even less.

On Greader

Earlier this week, Google made some big changes to their Reader service. They radically altered its look and feel to bring it in line with the New Google Look which debuted on Google Plus; and they also removed entirely all of Reader’s native social features.

My favorite thing about Reader — and not just mine — was always the sharing, following, and commenting functionality. On each item in Reader, there were Star, Like, and Share buttons. Like worked approximately like Google+’s +1 or Facebook’s Like, but Share was a bit different. Sharing a post in Reader pushed it to a public RSS feed of all the items you’d shared. It also enabled comments on the item, when viewed within the Reader interface. Other Reader users could follow you, which meant that the RSS feed of your personal shares would appear along with all the other feeds they subscribed to, and they’d be able to comment on your shares as well.

Because it just pushed them out as RSS, though, you could also grab the URL for the feed of your shared items — as I did to populate the “Recent Google Reader Shared Items” sidebar box on this very blog. Apparently that RSS feed hasn’t been taken down from yet, but Reader no longer allows me to add anything to it.

Instead, among the many mostly terrible design decisions involved in New Reader, Like has been replaced with a +1 button (a reasonable choice), and the Share button is gone.

Clicking the +1 button adds a public +1 to the item, and brings up a popup from which you can choose to also share the item to Google+, restricting it to a particular circle if you wish. If you want to share an item without letting the whole world know you’ve +1’ed it, you have to first select the item in the reading pane, then click the “Share…” button up in the top corner of the universal Google bar (as Shih notes, this is extremely nonintuitive, especially for people who are already Reader users. I think that’s on purpose: Google will let you share things without putting a +1 on them, but they don’t really want you to do that: much better to contribute to their “X people liked this” statistics database).

This means sharing items takes a bunch of clicks instead of just one, and to see others’ shares, and discuss them in comment threads, you now have to leave Reader and switch to G+ (and anyone who doesn’t have or — for example due to Google’s needlessly user-hostile “real name” policies, on which see JWZ — doesn’t want a G+ account is out of luck), where lots of screen space is taken up by stuff that isn’t the shared item or discussion of the shared item, and where there’s no way to see only Reader shared items: you see all the posts from the circle you’re currently viewing, status updates, photos, links, and all.

What Google has done is to kill off a feature that was well-tailored to its purpose and encouraged interoperability by use of internet standards, and replace it with one which is ill-suited to the habits Reader taught its users, and which operates within a more closed Google ecosystem instead of using a standard protocol. And they’ve done so with little warning (only a bit more than a week), and an apparently completely unthinking UI redesign in the name of a foolish consistency. Reader’s form and function used to complement each other, and are now at odds.

Why did they make these changes? The only plausible explanation I can see is that they want to drive more users to Google+, because it’s the identity brokerage at the center of their platform strategy. Google+ requires a public Google Profile; Reader, Docs, Picasa, and perhaps some of their other services (not Gmail yet, but it’s probably only a matter of time) require a Google Profile as well, though it need not be public. But if you use any of those services and join G+, you have to set your profile to public. And G+ requires you to use your “real name,” on penalty of profile suspension (which means losing access to not only G+ but also Reader, Docs, and Picasa). They’ve also rolled out the “+1” button to Google search results, and as an embeddable web bug like Facebook’s “Like This”. In other words, pushing users to G+ lets them build a more or less comprehensive database of each user’s online behavior, tied to an identity they can reasonably authoritatively assert represents a single real person in the world. Across millions of users, that’s a huge wealth of minable data on browsing habits.

And that’s something of extraordinary value to advertisers. Google, I think, is making maneuvers toward competing with Facebook as the dominant identity broker and supplier of carefully targeted demographic data for ad placement. And, whether because they got spooked by Facebook and slipped up, or for some other reason, they’re doing so in a clumsy way, making bad changes for no obviously good reason, pissing off users, and tipping their hand.

That’s not something I’m eager to be any more a part of than I have to. I’m going to switch away from Reader to some other RSS aggregator. I’ve disagreed with G+’s “real name” policy from the start, and it’s clear that they have no intention of fixing that either; so I’m going to leave G+. Facebook, if anything, respects its users privacy even less than Google (indeed, it’s famous for that disrespect), and though it’s loosely enforced, also has a “real name” policy; so I’ll also be leaving Facebook. (As it happens, I barely use Facebook anymore anyway.) I’m looking for good replacements for Docs and Calendar, but if I can’t find any, I can survive a return to non-web-based solutions, no matter how much I’ll miss easy real-time collaborative editing.

For the time being I am retaining my Gmail account, due to the hassle of changing email addresses, but if they continue to push user-hostile policies, I’ll be looking to fully disentangle myself from the Google ecosystem.

I suppose I’ll leave the sidebar box up until Google kills the RSS feed for good.

Should I Compare Someone I Disagree With to the KKK?

So, I was going to stay out of this one. It’s a complicated mess, and I think on many points both sides are talking past each other.

It started — well, no, it’s barely even meaningful to talk about where it “started”: the roots of the issue stretch back well before the founding of the United States, and threads are woven throughout our culture and history. But the current blagowebby eruption of this normally-subterranean-from-the-white-liberal-point-of-view conflict was kicked off by Melissa Harris-Perry’s column at The Nation, “Black President, Double Standard: Why White Liberals Are Abandoning Obama.” First Joan Walsh responded at Salon; then Harris-Perry wrote a followup blog post; then David Sirota mixed reasonable points about historical comparisons with nasty, condescending personal swipes and counterclaims as overreaching as he insisted Harris-Perry’s claims were.

There were and have continued to be, of course, many parallel and concurrent discussions, debates, and arguments over these posts on Twitter, where in particular Sirota has been prone to undermine what good points he made by adopting a taunting, sneering tone.

But even Sirota’s nastiest jabs seem to have faded to the level of background noise at this point, thanks to Gene Lyons, who penned (and, inexplicably, got Salon to publish — leading me to wonder on Twitter, “maybe Sirota slipped some web intern at Salon an unmarked envelope: ‘hey…make me look reasonable by comparison, eh?'”) “Obama’s bridge too far: When the president gets tough, the tough start whining.” In this gem of a column, Lyons dismisses the entire notion of applying the lenses of race and gender analysis to our history and politics with a “[y]ada, yada, yada”; characterizes Harris-Perry as “a left-wing Michele Bachmann”; and describes her worldview as “a photo negative of KKK racial thought.”


He wrote that.

So, you know, maybe Mr. Lyons just doesn’t quite realize the import of what he wrote; maybe he just figured, well, the KKK think about race a lot, and Harris-Perry thinks about race a lot, so…sure, why not compare them?

As a public service to Mr. Lyons and anyone else who might be thinking about employing a Ku Klux Klan comparison — and as a humble, clumsy homage to ebogjonson’s classic post, with my apologies — allow me to offer this handy spreadsheet: “Should I Compare Someone I Disagree With to the KKK?”

A flowchart to determine whether comparisons to the KKK are appropriate. Spoiler alert: probably not.

Please refer to this as often as needed. Click through for full size.

(Flowchart built with Creately. Edit: forgot to say in the initial post, the flowchart graphic is under a CC-BY-SA license. Feel free to share and adapt it under those terms; a link to this post is sufficient for attribution.)

On Troy Davis, Lawrence Brewer, Capital Punishment, and — again — on Being America

Below is the text of a public post I made on Google+ last night; I wanted to put it here, as well, and to make a couple of other notes on the subject.

State-enacted killing of innocent (and not-proven-guilty) persons is a necessary, inevitable feature and consequence of a legal system which allows the death penalty. There is no such thing in the world as perfection: all systems fail sometimes, all humans are fallible. The theory, though not the implementation, of the criminal justice system we have in the United States is probably one of the most resistant to failures, but there is not and can never be a system which never fails.

Knowing that systems always fail, the only rational thing to do is to try to design them not only so that they fail as infrequently as possible, but also so that their failures are as mitigated, and do as little damage, as possible.

A system which allows execution as punishment for crimes is a system which will — not can, not could, but WILL — kill innocent people. Troy Davis is far from the first, and so long as the death penalty is legal in this country he won’t be the last.

To support the death penalty is, inescapably, to support legalized killing by the government of innocent persons. The vast majority, I am sure, of death penalty supporters think that such cases are deeply regrettable, and that efforts should be made to avoid them; but as long as the state is allowed to kill people, it will sometimes kill innocent people.

Supporting the death penalty requires either a belief against all evidence, all facts, and all reason — a willful delusion — that some human legal system could possibly be so infallible as never to put an innocent person to death; or a belief that some rate of wrongful executions of innocents is acceptable in order to kill criminals.

Either is deeply troubling, but the latter especially makes my blood run cold.

This is what we are, in the United States of America. We tell ourselves, as a society, a lot of stories about our history, about the important people in our history, about the founding values of our country, about “what it means” to be an American. Most of them are lies.

What it means to be an American is to claim to be uniquely virtuous in the world, while living atop the piled-high bones of centuries of genocide and atrocity, profiting to this day from centuries of stolen labor, claiming the mountain of bodies on which we stand and the filth-filled gully below it together constitute a level playing field. What it means to be an American is to tell other countries to respect human rights, while we tap our own citizens’ phones, kidnap and torture people on mere suspicion of having connections to “the terrorists,” and proudly murder a man whose guilt of the crime for which he dies is not proven.

We are a nation of vicious, hypocritical cowards; we should own up to it, at least.

That post discusses the inevitability of killing innocents under the legal death penalty, and the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves in the US — something I also wrote about a couple years ago, after Shepard Smith was so angry about torture that he dropped an F-bomb on-air; then, I said: “And all of [this] does count.  We don’t get to pretend it didn’t happen.  We don’t get to pretend someone else did it.”

But the other thing I want to say is this: Lawrence Brewer, who was one of the three men who murdered James Byrd, Jr. in 1998 merely for being Black, and who was unequivocally, confessedly, unrepentantly guilty, was also executed last night. There’s an enormous amount of doubt about Davis’s guilt; there is none at all about Brewer’s. He was proud of what he’d done.

For the state to kill him — no matter how strongly one might believe (and I do) that the world is no worse off for not having him in it anymore — was nonetheless every bit as unjust and barbaric as was Troy Davis’s execution.

The state’s power to enact and enforce laws, and to try, convict, and penalize those who break them, arises from society’s right and obligation to keep itself intact, functioning, and healthy. In principle, though frequently not in practice (see above, re: impossibility of perfection), laws represent the lines drawn by society to protect itself: what falls outside those lines is too harmful to society to be allowed. And so to keep itself healthy, a society has the right to create mechanisms to try to prevent that harm, such as imprisonment to prevent perpetrators from causing further harm; well-known penalties such that people tempted to break the law will decide the risk is too great; requirements where possible that the perpetrator(s) compensate the victim(s), and reform and rehabilitation programs to make it easy for people who’ve done harm to society to instead find ways to help it. But society only has the right to do this so long as the mechanisms it puts in place are themselves within the harm threshold.

Capital punishment by the state is, in my view, inherently as far outside the harm threshold as murder is. A murder is, by definition, a harm that cannot be compensated for: no recompense or restitution can be made for a death, because lives are not objects and do not have a price. A victim’s family might want, as the MacPhails did in the Davis case, the killer to be killed; or they might want, as the Byrds did in the Brewer case, the killer’s life to be spared. But the law should never be an instrument of personal revenge: society’s concern is protecting, preserving, and keeping itself healthy, not enacting vengeance on behalf of individuals. If someone is a continuing danger — Brewer is reported to have told a reporter the day before his death, “I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again, to tell you the truth.” — society is justified in keeping that individual isolated, to prevent further harm. But just as we might take prisoners of war, and hold them for the duration of the conflict, but are compelled by law and decency to treat them humanely, and forbidden to kill them, so too is it inhumane to kill a killer.