Tuesday, June 24, 2014

In Defense of Judging

Statement of Principles (Yep. It's the kind of post that needs a Statement of Principles.)

At the Bookstore & On the T: I will never judge a specific book purchase at the store or a specific act of reading I see on the T. I'm going to defend judging in this post, but just because judging is an available action, doesn't mean I can judge whenever I want. At the store or on the T, I have no idea why you're buying or reading that book. Maybe you're getting the latest Anne Coulter because you need material for your sculpture garden of hate. Maybe you're buying Ulysses to set it on fire. Maybe you're reading Twilight because your Little Sister is reading Twilight. I don't know if you're reading The Empathy Exams to expand your understanding of the human condition or as a prop to impress the bookseller you have a crush on. In some ways, I would have to learn your entire life story before I could have any solid base for assessing and then judging your specific purchase of The Secret, and, as a wise scholar once said. 

So because I know nothing of your life, I will never judge a particular book purchase or particular reading choice.

Literature and Entertainment are Different Things: I think much of our culture's inability to have a productive conversation about the role of books in our lives is our refusal to distinguish literature and entertainment. Both are important aspects of a fully realized human life. I'll say this again, because these terms are so fraught with assumptions, it is easy to see them and make assumptions. Literature is important. Entertainment is important. Humans have many intellectual and emotional needs; some are met by literature, some by entertainment. To me, literature is any work (book, TV show, movie, song, painting, etc) that is most fully experienced through the interpretive efforts of the reader, both in terms of how the components of the work mean amongst themselves and how the work means within the wider world. To me, entertainment is any work (as above) that is most fully experienced through the reader simply absorbing the work. You engage with literature and give yourself up to entertainment.

Of course, “literature and entertainment” is a spectrum, not a division. Few, if any, works are purely one or the other, and even the purest examples of literature or entertainment will likely have moments of the other. And, part of what distinguishes one from the other is how the reader responds, which means the same work can be literature to one reader and entertainment to another. But this spectrum and the role of the reader shouldn't be taken too far. Patterns have emerged over the years. Some works are treated by most people who read them as entertainment and some as literature. Even if we can't identify a fundamental trait to distinguish them, it's clear, that as a society of readers, we can reach agreements. (Much more on this idea later.)

I Am Responding to a Minority: Most posts, essays, comments that deal with “judging” start with perfectly reasoned arguments about the false hierarchies that have historically constrained human expression, but a noticeable number of people go too far, leaving behind the specific act of judgment they are arguing against to condemn the act of judgment itself. They go from “This particular person has judged poorly, expressing outdated or perhaps even oppressive assumptions and biases,” to “No one can tell anyone about anything and they certainly can't make any kind of judgment about what I choose to read.” The first is totally necessary in our progress towards a truly humanist society and the other, I believe, negates the meaning and the fun of literature.

With those principles in mind:

A Defense of Judging

Democracy Requires Judging: Can I judge your political decision? In our attempt at democracy, who you vote for, who you donate to, what petitions you sign, what you repost on Facebook influences the policies that will change my life. The decision by someone in West Virginia to support a pro-coal candidate will contribute to human-driven climate change, and thus, to the potential collapse of, you know, society. Shouldn't I be able say, “In my judgment, your decision to support this candidate is a bad one, not just in my subjective opinion, but with a preponderance of objective evidence?” You could argue that democracy cannot function if our culture precluded the ability to judge other people's political decisions. If politics is just a collection of opinions, we can't sort one opinion from another, and thus, can't to enact policy. We might as well just spin a roulette wheel of possible solutions.

Your politics (both of the voting and petition signing kind and the how you spend your money kind) is a function of both your worldview and the way you interpret the world; a world view that is built, in no small part, on the books we read and a method of interpretation that is built, perhaps even more so, on the books you read and how you read them.

So, yes, because my political decisions affect you and my political decisions are based on my worldview and world-interpretation drawn from the books I read, you have the right to judge the books I read. Though you might not have all the evidence needed to judge one of my particular reading decisions, you do have all of the evidence to judge whether a book is likely or unlikely to contribute to me having a productive worldview, and, I would, add, you do have all of the evidence to judge society-wide patterns in reading. (Though, nearly everyone who tries to doesn't actually collect all the required evidence. More on this later.) And, honestly, given how easy it is for our politicians to manipulate our vote, for a powerful minority to sculpt our media, and for American policy to fly directly in the face of established scientific fact, I think there is compelling evidence that our reading abilities and thus our reading habits, need improvements.

Didn't Post-Modernism Get Rid of Ideas Like “Good” and “Bad?”: What we tend to call “post-modernism” is probably best understood as a complex and often contradictory amalgam of cultural processes that grew out of (and around) modernism's radical humanism. In terms of “good” and “bad,” that amalgam of processes leads us to this idea: “There is no universal fundamental truth upon which we can base our concepts of 'good' and 'bad.'” Which is not “There is no such thing as 'good' and 'bad.'” Humans are social animals. Our ideas are built, in part, through interactions with society. Though we cannot ultimately define what is “good” and what is “bad,” over the course of human history we have reached agreements on those ideas. All post-modernism ultimately does to “good” and “bad,” is reveal their agreement-ness.

When someone argues that there is only personal taste and opinions, for whatever reason, that person is abandoning the process of agreement. Maybe they honestly misunderstand post-modernism, maybe they don't want to exert the effort of agreement, and maybe, just maybe, they're a little afraid through the process, we won't agree with their taste and opinions. Honestly, I think avoiding this process is a little, well, sad. Not only does it, at a pretty fundamental level, abdicate one's social and political responsibility, I think it removes the point and fun of literature. If it's all just a matter of taste, then we have no mechanism for shouting at each other, maybe at a bar, maybe after a few drinks, about books. Who wants a world without that?

I knew Knausgaard before he was cool, (I have the signed Vol 1 Galley and this essay to prove it.) but the backlash against his work and those who praise it is starting. The debate between his supporters and his detractors is going to be FUCKING EPIC, hashing out everything from the nature of storytelling, to our definition of “fiction,” to the function of meaning in your (Yes, You!) life...unless we just accept that we have different tastes and give up. I know, ultimately and fundamentally, I can't argue definitively and conclusively against taste, but I can say a taste-only world sounds really fucking boring.

Judging Isn't Good or Bad: We judge salsas at supermarkets, waitstaff at restaurants, and we sure as hell judge drivers on roads. We judge co-workers, siblings, and celebrities. We judge fashion decisions. We judge public transportation. We judge conversations at parties. We judge performers on American Idol and we judge the judges who judge the performers. Why should judging books be somehow different from all the instances of judging in our lives?

Judging is like dancing. Sometimes it can be done well, sometimes it can be done poorly, and sometimes it can be done so poorly that you embarrass yourself in public. But just because your friend's date got drunk and danced like vengeful gnome filled his hips with loam, doesn't mean no one should ever dance.

How to Judge

The real problem we seem to be having with judging and books, is those who take it upon themselves to judge, have been doing a terrible job. So, before you publish your latest assessment of a major trend in American publishing, make sure your piece meets these qualifications.

Judge a Work on the Right Terms: Much of what I consider misdirected criticism around books, comes from the critic applying the wrong set of standards. If you read a work with the expectation that it is going to be literature and it is entertainment, you will be disappointed. But insulting a work of entertainment for not meeting the standards of literature is like shouting at your dishwasher for not doing your laundry. Similarly, complaining about the effort a work of literature demands is like whining about your personal trainer making you sweat. If you're not sure which a work is, well, figure it out before you publish anything and include in whatever criticism you do publish (even on Facebook) a statement that explains which standard you are applying and why.

Let Me Introduce You to My Friend Sample Size: Though science and book criticism are very different things, I think book criticism can benefit from the scientific method. If you want to pass judgment on a general reading trend, you actually have to read, let's say five of the books you consider to be in the trend. (Twelve would probably be better.) Otherwise, you're not writing about the actual trend, you're writing about what you think the trend is. I'll be honest, I have some concerns about the possibility that a significant percentage of adults spend a significant percentage of their reading time, reading books written for younger readers, but you haven't seen anything about that in this blog, because, frankly, I don't want to put the time into reading 5-12 popular with adults young adult books in order to understand the trend.

Never Tell Another to Feel Shame: If you have convinced someone that it is wrong to throw recyclables in the trash, they will feel shame when they throw their recyclables in the trash. You don't need to tell them to. People are perfectly capable of feeling shame for making mistakes on their own. Instructing people to feel shame compromises your argument in two ways: first, it instantly raises everyone's hackles and guarantees all of your other points, no matter how good they are, will subject to unsympathetic scrutiny; second, it implies you haven't actually made your point convincingly.

But more importantly, don't be a dick. Seriously.

Judge the Particular Not the Person: Finally, as above in my statement of principles, you will almost never have enough information to accurately judge a person. If you are going to judge, judge an entity that you can actually know with some thoroughness. A vote. A social pattern you've thoroughly researched. A book you've read.

What Is At Stake?
So this has been a lot of words. And for what? Why spend all this time on the issue of whether or not we can judge books and reading decisions? (I mean, besides the fact that books are important to me, and thus the conversation around books is important to me.) Forbidding judgment outright creates a fundamentally passive world. You simply coast along on your own tastes or on the tastes carved into you by family, culture, and (in the U.S.) capitalism.

You know who benefits from a culture of taste-only passivity? Bud Lite. Mainstream politicians. The Koch Brothers. The corporations who make billions because, rather than exercising any kind of critical judgment, we just accept the shit they sell us. It benefits the people who respond to an argument about the social, ecological, and flavor value of farm-to-table dining with a dismissive, “Fucking hipster.” It benefits people who are willing to be active, when everyone else is passive. You know, assholes.

Simply put, assholes rule a passive world. Every “meh,” every shrug of the shoulders, every “whatever,” every thoughtless, “it's all just a matter of taste,” is an opportunity for an asshole (who is usually a rich, white, straight, man) to grab power. There should be judgment free zones in our culture. There should be a lot of judgment free zones in our culture, but if we make the entire world, including the world of reading, a judgment free zone all we do is empower the people who don't give a shit about anybody else. I'm not saying that those who argue “it's all a matter of taste,” are themselves assholes, but that this particular attitude enables assholes.

There are downsides to judging, and unfortunately, far too few of us practice judging well, but if I had a choice between a world ruled by critics who sometimes (maybe even often) judge poorly and a world ruled by assholes who exploit of our passivity, I'd choose the critics every time.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Luck Denial in Sport and Society

I don't know exactly when the tide turned for my assessment of the series, probably game three or four, but the phenomenon was distinctive and persistent enough that coverage of game seven between the Bruins and the Candiens featured a highlight reel of Bruins hitting the post. Though you won't hear it from any players or coaches, and now that the series is over, any mainstream journalist, or even most fans who want to put a good sportsmanship face forward, the Bruins lost to the Canadiens because of bad luck. Frankly, the fact that they took the series to a game seven while hitting the post 13 (13!) times shows just how much better, overall, the Bruins are. And the posts weren't the only bad luck. There were another half dozen times the puck ended up on edge or slightly offline and a Bruin ended up missing an easy goal. And the luck didn't just prevent the Bruins from scoring. A blocked shot lead to a breakaway and a Canadiens goal. A puck flipped into the neutral zone made through gloves and legs to land for a breakaway and another goal. The third goal in game seven really encapsulated the entire series for the Bruins. Chara was perfectly positioned in the two-on-one. He forced Pachiaretti to the side of the net and Pachiaretti just kinda flipped the puck towards the front of the net (probably the best play he had) and, of course it bounced off Chara and in, stretching the lead back to two goals. Chara did everything right and the Canadians just happened to score. Story of the fucking series. As much as it sounds good to say there's no such thing as “puck luck,” that's all it does, “sound good.”

Beyond public perception, there are very practical reasons for luck denial, for coaches and athletes. You can't practice for it. You can't train for it. You can't trade or draft for it. You can't strategize for it. By definition, there is nothing a coach or athlete can do about luck and so any attention paid to it distracts from the aspects of their craft they can actually do something about. For professional athletes, not mentioning, discussing, or complaining about the role of luck in an outcome isn't just about sportsmanship; it's a professional performance strategy.

But luck doesn't just affect sports. It also, affects, well, everything. Anything that involves a convergence of phenomena beyond your control is luck. To provide a personal example, there is a long list of decisions other people made and events I had no control over (some of which weren't so positive), that culminated in me being able to pitch my novel directly to Denis Johnson at Melville House. At any point in that chain of events, something could have happened to prevent me from that moment. That doesn't remove the work I put into the novel and the preparation I put into the pitch, but it does mean I can't, logically, claim 100% of the credit for whatever happens with my book.

As in sports, with luck in the rest of life, comes luck denial. In fact, one could argue our economic system, restrained-profitism operating within a democratically administered meritocracy, is built on the denial of luck. To put it simply, acknowledging luck means super-rich assholes have no justification for being super-rich. The base of profitism and the justification for the unequal wealth it creates is that through hard work and talent the super-rich, deserve their wealth. If you acknowledge that maybe some of their wealth was the result of phenomena beyond their control that ended up benefiting them, then the entire structure of contemporary capitalism comes crashing down.

Of course, it's never ONLY luck. Marchand dragged the entire team down. Not only could he not hit the net from two feet away, his absolutely inane snow shower penalty disrupted the Bruins momentum right when it seemed like they were going to start dominating play (again) in Game 7. Barkowski played like a rookie and for the first time all season, looked out of place in the NHL. Subban and Price carried the team on their backs until Pacioretti and Vanek got it going late in the series. But just because it's not ONLY luck, doesn't mean we should ignore the influence of luck in society. By far, the best metaphor for the general role of luck in our society is John Scalzi's essay on “Easy Mode.”  To summarize, those of us lucky enough to be born straight, white, American men (last I checked we didn't pass some pre-birth test that allowed us to choose our parents) play the video game of life on the easy mode. You still need to work hard to succeed, of course, and if you do, you will deserve much of whatever reward comes your way, but the undeniable fact of life is that at some point you will benefit from good luck.

Good luck and bad luck tend to even out you say? Over the course of time, you'll have just as much of one as the other, you say? Two things. One, not really an argument a Bruins fan is willing to hear at the moment. From Game 4 on, I just kept assuming there was no way the Bruins' luck could stay that bad. It did. One might argue that the Canadiens had their own bit of bad luck with Price's injury, but that really doesn't balance anything out, as it does nothing to benefit the Bruins. Two, if you flip a coin and it comes up heads, what are the odds the next flip will come up tails? 50%. How about if you flip it again and it comes up heads again? 50%. What if you flip it a million times and each time it comes up heads? 50%. Luck is like a flipped coin. Yeah, a lot of the time it “evens” out and most of us probably experience just about as much good luck as bad luck, but there is just no reason to believe the effects of good and bad luck will even out, or that there will be a zero sum gain, or that your bad luck now will somehow compensate whoever lost out because of your good luck in the past. I mean, Donald Trump has filed for bankruptcy four times (FOUR TIMES!!!) and yet, his array of good and back luck have allowed him to still be insanely wealthy, despite, four (FOUR!!) bankruptcies.

Even though it is an illusion, and there is no real way to ensure the most talented and hardest working are always rewarded, I think the meritocracy can be a net gain illusion. I believe society has a whole benefits when talent and hard work are rewarded in some way. But that's not what we have now. How do we solve luck denial in society? It starts with raising the minimum wage. The best way to acknowledge that shit beyond our control happens, while also rewarding hard work and talent, is to ensure the lowest members of society, still live safe, physically comfortable, lives of dignity no matter what mistakes they've made or how flawed they appear. The point is not that everyone is equal in terms of wealth, but that no one in the world's richest country, for whatever reason, is forced to live in or near squalor. Once the floor is raised, acknowledging that nobody is 100% responsible for where they end up in life, the negative repercussions of our illusion of meritocracy are essentially eliminated without meaningfully affecting the positive elements of the delusion. Talent will still be rewarded. Mistakes and failures punished. There will be rich and poor. All it would mean is the people at the top wouldn't be quite so astronomically rich, which is fine by me, since they don't really deserve it anyway.

Since I started with hockey, I might as well end with hockey.

On Brad Marchand: I can't think of a worse performance by a professional athlete that I've ever seen. Not only could he not hit the net, he consistently turned the puck over at the offensive blue line, and took stupid penalties, and did not, get in any opponents heads. He made bad decision after bad decision and played so poorly, not even Bergeron and Smith could hoist him to some level of competence. Along with “Another fucking post!” I think “Just dump the fucking puck in!” was my most frequent furious exclamation. There were other players who underperformed, but I don't think you could look at how Lucic (who had a wrist injury), Iginla, & Kreijci were as actively detrimental to the team. They were points when they were dumping the puck in, forechecking for a bit and then losing the puck. It would have been wonderful if Marchand's play lead to that. Yes, Rask needed to make a couple more big saves, and yes, Barkowski was generally out of sorts, but when you look beyond the posts for reasons why such a good team could lose, it's hard to look anywhere else but Marchand.

That said, I'm not sure trading him this off-season would make sense, if for no other reason than I can't imagine his trade value being very high. If the Bruins don't think he'll help them win another Cup, they would probably get the most value for their trade by giving him a chance to score some goals in the regular season before trying to move him. Then again, if the right deal comes around, as it did with Sequin, I wouldn't be surprised if Chereli made the move.

On PK Subban: I have never had a high opinion of Subban. He is unbelievably talented, but, in recent years, even in his, ugh, Norris winning year, I believe he has diluted his talent through diving, cheap shots, reckless hits, and whining to the official. As good a skater as he was, he never seemed to have his head enough in the game itself to truly be a great player. Shockingly, he cut out a lot (but not all) of those shenanigans in this series and was a force of fucking nature. The Canadiens would have lost four in a row if Subban hadn't played at the level he played. I mean, he looked ridiculous calling for the puck by jumping up and down on the ice, or rather, he would have looked ridiculous if he wasn't 100% right and 100% scored on the hockey equivalent of calling your shot. He still didn't deserve the Norris when he won it and he can still be a reckless, dangerous (ask Vanek about that), and cowardly player, but he showed some actual growth and actual maturity in this series and if he continues to mature this way, he will be an exciting player to watch.

On The Bruins Next Year: There's a reason why they won the President's Trophy and there is every reason to believe they will be an elite team next year. Of their core, only Chara is really aging out, and he had another Norris Finalist caliber season, and even if he loses another step Denis Siedenberg could easily become the Bruins' top shut down defenseman. Rask will still be Rask, Bergeron will still be Bergeron, and Kreijci will still be Kreijci, while we expect to see continued improvement from Krug, Bartkowski, Smith, and, pleasant surprise of the playoffs, Soderberg. And Cherelli proved he will make big moves (Sequin last year) if they make sense, and simpler, safer, prudent moves, (Meszaros at the trade deadline) if those are what's available. Logically, there is just no way to argue against the Bruins being Stanley Cup contenders again next year. Unfortunately, logic is one thing and luck is another.