If Buddhism Requires Anarchism, Why Didn’t the Buddha Say So?

A couple of months ago I wrote an article about how Buddhist ethical first principles commit Buddhists to probably political anarchism. The basic argument was simple: According to Buddhism, to even begin to practice, one must accept the Five Precepts. The first two are “to abstain from taking life” and “to abstain from taking what is not given.” But by definition, the state must violate these two in order to exist, because laws require force, and ultimately deadly force, for their enforcement, and any taxation that isn’t voluntarily simply is taking what is not given. Thus Buddhists, when they use the state to advance their political goals, are violating the very core of their professed ethics.

One objection people have made to my argument is that the Buddha, while speaking to various rulers during is life, didn’t tell them to abandon rule, and didn’t tell them that the very nature of government violates Buddhist ethics. Given that the Buddha understood Buddhism as well as anyone, this disconnect means I must be mistaken in my interpretation of his teachings.

I’m skeptical. I can think of at least three plausible reasons why the Buddha wouldn’t have publicly spoken to the disconnect between political action and personal ethics.

1. The Buddha taught to his audience.

First, in the vast body of writings known as the Pali Canon, which is accepted by Buddhists as the earliest extant record of the words of their philosophy’s founder, we see the Buddha teaching conflicting doctrines. The traditional explanation for this is that the Buddha was supremely practically minded. His goal was to help others achieve an end to their suffering, and so he taught to the individuals he happened to be speaking to at the particular time. He told each person what they needed to hear in order to progress toward enlightenment, and given that different people have different needs and are in different situations, his teachings varied.

Generally, kings don’t take well to being told their rule is illegitimate. If, upon sitting down with a king, the Buddha said, “If you want to follow the Dharma, you must cease enforcing your will through laws and you must cease taxing your subjects,” it’s rather unlikely the conversation would’ve gone any further, any opportunity to help this person achieve release from samsara precluded.

It is possible, then, that the Buddha decided to focus, in his talks with rulers, on matters he knew they’d be more receptive to, in keeping with his general pedagogical strategy.

2. The Buddha was dependent on rulers.

Mendicants in the Sangha begged for everything. A monk owned only his robe and his alms bowl. The Buddha had no lands, no source of income, no army for his defense. If a ruler grew angry and decided to snuff out his nascent movement, there was little the Buddha could’ve done to stop it. Thus keeping his mouth shut about the incompatibility of ethics and state rule was simply prudence. He could do more good in the world teaching the Dharma, even if it meant staying quiet about politics, than he could dying at the hands of an irritated monarch.

3. The Buddha never fully analyzed the nature of state power.

We know the Buddha was at least somewhat aware of the concerns I raised in my essay. In the sutta SN 4.20, while sitting in private retreat, he asked himself,

I wonder if it’s possible to rule legitimately, without killing or having someone kill for you; without conquering or having someone conquer for you; without sorrowing or causing sorrow?

Of course, the answer to his question, at least as it regards all governments then existing and all governments that have existed since, is “No.” It is impossible to have a state that makes and enforces laws without at least the threat of violence, including killing, of those who disobey the law. Otherwise laws are nothing more than suggestions.

But the Buddha lived far before philosophers had adequately mapped out the nature of state power or questioned its moral legitimacy. Then, and even now, the assumption was that state power is legitimate, and the only question worthy of analysis was how to properly use it. Attempts to offer an origin of this power existed, but it was only recently that philosophers began to seriously question its very legitimacy or to poke holes in the standard justifications.

I find it quite plausible that the reason the Buddha didn’t tell rulers that their very rule itself violated the first two precepts is simply because he hadn’t adequately examined the nature of that rule. Like everyone else of his time, he assumed its existence, and couldn’t imagine an alternative. (Except possibly in the mythical form of the Chakravarti, or Wheel Turning Monarch.)

That the earliest philosophers, of which the Buddha was one of the most important, didn’t have the benefit of the 2,500 years of philosophical development and progress we do shouldn’t be held against them. But we also shouldn’t fail to recognize that such progress exists. We simply have thought more deeply about these concepts over the last two thousand years, and so know more. Just as the Buddha held to primitive medical beliefs, he also held to primitive political ones, and part of that takes the form of not thinking through the political implications of his underlying ethics.

Fortunately, the rest of us can now do that for him.


Detective Pikachu, Avengers, and the Appeal of Esoteric Entertainment

I don’t know anything about Pokémon, but my kids are into it, and so I’ve been checking our reviews of the new Detective Pikachu movie. The reviews from Pokémon fans are quite good. The negative reviews largely complain that it’s inaccessible to people unfamiliar with the source material. Along similar lines, one of the few consistent complaints in reviews of Avengers Endgame is that it’s a movie loaded with fan service.

This sort of criticism strikes me as odd. Why should we expect that cultural artifacts must be entirely transparent to people without knowledge of their context? So much of our cultural output is now embedded in richly imagined worlds with long and complex histories. That’s a great part of their appeal to fans. And while it makes sense for franchises to offer starting points for the unfamiliar—to provide good places to start developing familiarity—it’s unreasonable to demand that every entry play this role. Esoteric entertainment is tremendously entertaining for those initiates into its details, and it’s okay that the entertainment industry occasionally or even frequently produces esoteric entertainment. There’s so much stuff produced, after all, that you can always find something else to watch if this particular movie isn’t meant for you.

I imagine Detective Pikachu would be a good deal less fun for Pokémon fans if it spent the first twenty minutes telling you what Pokémon are or if it had an exposition dump every time a new pocket monster showed up. And Avengers: Endgame is the series finale of what amounts to a ten year, high budget TV show. Of course it’s going to be about what came before, and of course it’s not terribly worried about the needs of viewers who haven’t seen the twenty plus episodes that came before it.

Noting that a movie is inaccessible to newcomers is fine, and a movie review ought to note that. But it’s awfully weird to see reviewers say a movie is bad because it assumes prior knowledge or is targeted at people who already love the fictional universe. Our creative culture is rich enough and with enough variety that we can cater to different tastes.

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The Sadness of a Border “Emergency”

I got stuck watching a bit of Fox News a month or so ago. One of the things that really struck me was how quickly it became clear that its target audience is terrified, and of very nearly everything. In the world of Fox News, blacks are protesting not to prevent police violence, but to overthrow the very order of law itself. America’s young adults are brainwashed into Marxist zombies who want nothing more than to tear down everything good about this country, live off the livelihoods of hard working people like Fox News viewers, and banish Christianity from the national scene and polite company. Immigrants are flooding into our nation, every last one of them looking for a good, hard working white person to rob or rape or kill.

It’s a laughably inaccurate portrait of America, yes, and a thoroughly disgusting one. To believe it, you’d have to put real effort into ignoring all of the evidence around you, and assume everyone outside of your ideological bubble was lying to you, all of the time. And you’d also have to think, deep in your heart, that anyone who isn’t just like you–in your religion, your culture, your social status, your tastes, your values, and often your race–is at best a dangerous rogue, and at worst only a threatening beast.

But most of all, you’d have to see the world exclusively through a miasma of fear and anger and resentment. I just can’t imagine how terrible it must be to live that way. How small and powerless it must make you feel. How penned in and thrown off balance.

I was reminded of that Fox New viewing and my reaction to it when I saw today that Trump had declared his emergency at the border. Of course there’s no emergency at the border. No serious person with any experience of the world and any grasp of the evidence would think so. But if you’re terrified, all the time, and of everything, then the whole world, every bit of it outside your door, is an emergency, and it is only through extreme measures that we can push back on this ongoing catastrophe of otherness.

What an awful, damaging, depressing, and profoundly sad way to live.

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On racists in government and sunlight as a disinfectant

Rep. Steve King of Iowa said some pretty racist things. Again. This time, though, they were both shockingly unambiguous and came after a midterm election where the GOP got shellacked, and where its only hope to regain ground is in appealing to the kinds of people who don’t find racism all that appealing. So his congressional colleagues aren’t just ignoring it like they’ve done so often before. They’re taking action, albeit well short of expelling him.

What struck me about the resulting national conversation is the assumption, sometimes made explicit, that Steve King can’t keep going on like this, not if he wants to maintain his job come the next election cycle. Surely, the reason the fine folks of Iowa’s 4th District have been sending him back to Washington as their representative every other year since 2003 is that they just aren’t aware of how thoroughly he despises anyone who doesn’t look as lily white as they do. (The district is 95.8% white and 0.8% black.) If only the media would make it clearer, or if only they heard about it from other lawmakers in their party, they’d recoil from the man and kick his ass out.

Except I’m not convinced. We like to think America’s mostly moved on from its profoundly racist past, and that, while racism lingers, it’s at the very least underground or confined to tiki torch weirdos or the most thuggish of cops. Systemic racism, structural racism, those remain more widespread, but Steve King’s brand of actually expressed white supremacy, that’s on the outs.

But that would be very odd if true. We’re only a generation or so removed from outright segregation, after all. Only a generation away from lynchings held like festival events, with crowds cheering the strangulation or immolation of innocent blacks. To think racism as consciously believed white supremacy would just not be a thing a mere four or five decades later, when some of the perpetrators of those horrors are still alive, is, well, naive. There are lots of Americans who, while they might not shout it from the rooftops, are still kind of convinced that blacks just aren’t as good–innately, intellectually, morally–as whites, or that people from those odd places outside our borders can’t possibly “share our values” and so are always and everywhere a threat to good white stock.

This is why I suspect that for a critical mass of voters in Iowa’s 4th, Steve King’s racism is a feature, not a bug. They might not admit it, but they’re pretty okay with the stuff he says, even the stuff that appalls the rest of us. I think it’s just too soon to believe otherwise, to believe people like King aren’t expressing the views of a rather large portion of the electorate.

Thus sunlight can’t really disinfect, because for too many Americans, what Steve King–or Donald Trump in more veiled ways–is saying just doesn’t need disinfecting. He could tone it down, but he’s expressing all too widely held beliefs.

We’re just going to have to wait. Racism is in retreat. Racists are in decline. But we’ve still got a long way to go, and racism lives on in our elected bodies because racism–real, unapologetic racism–lives on, probably more than we want to admit, in our electorate.

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My Year in Books Part 2: Grim Darkness

Last week I talked about the books on Buddhism I read in 2018, which made up the bulk of my nonfiction reading for the year. Today I turn to fiction and, continuing the pattern, most of it stuck to a single topic, namely science fiction in the universe of Warhammer 40,000.

But this isn’t just a story about me becoming obsessed with a setting. It’s also the story of how I largely abandoned my prior love, Star Wars, for something considerably better.

Last year I gave up on Star Wars novels. From the time Disney announced it was rebooting the Star Wars canon, and releasing a new line of novels that would be as canonical as the films, and running through the release of The Last Jedi, I read nearly ever Star Wars book released. But then I quit, and right about the same time I read my first Warhammer 40,000 novel, Xenos, part one of Dan Abnett’s Eisenhorn trilogy. I went on to read twenty-one more.

By way of explaining this somewhat embarrassing admission, I should say that I read science fiction mostly for the world building, and much of the enjoyment of world building comes from extended immersion. For a lot of people, science fiction is about ideas. But if I want to explore ideas, I’ll read philosophy. (There are, of course, exceptions, but very few science fiction authors are Frank Herbert, no matter their pretensions.) Science fiction, for me, is instead about occupying another place and getting to know it, and that means (1) world-building matters and (2) emersion coming over the course of many books improves the experience.

For decades, the world I occupied most was that galaxy far, far away. I still love Star Wars, but as a world to explore, it’s become far less interesting. The setting just doesn’t make a lick of sense anymore, even by the loose standards that are its legacy. I challenge you to describe the post-Return of the Jedi universe without eventually shrugging. Warhammer 40,000’s universe is fantastic, it holds together, even in its over-the-top insanity I find it plausible, and its writers more than do it justice.

And that’s really the thing. Even the best Star Wars novel (at the moment, I still believe that’s Battlefront: Twilight Company) is comparable to probably a middle of the road Warhammer novel. I can think of two reasons for this. First, the Black Library, the publishing house behind these books, simply hires better writers. But, second, the Black Library doesn’t farm its books out to authors mostly known for YA fiction. This isn’t to knock YA as a genre, but the style many YA authors develop doesn’t lend itself to telling stories I care much about. Most new Star Wars novels are, to be frank, like listening to an adolescent describe how he imagines adults behave.

So, Warhammer 40,000. What an enthralling place. It’s a universe that’s huge, dense, and dark. The aesthetics kick ass. It’s silly, but it’s such a finely tuned silliness that it never looks silly from the inside.

I’ve come to think of Warhammer 40,000 as the antithesis of Star Trek. Take every value and style choice of the latter, flip it, and you’ve got the former. Where Star Trek’s space ships are sleek and plastic and well-lit, 40K’s armies travel the galaxy in literal cathedrals built of goddamn stone. Where Star Trek is about hope for humanity, every 40K novel begins with this opening crawl:

It is the 41st Millennium. For more than a hundred centuries the Emperor of Mankind has sat immobile on the Golden Throne of Earth. He is the master of mankind by the will of the gods and master of a million worlds by the might of his inexhaustible armies. He is a rotting carcass writhing invisibly with power from the Dark Age of Technology. He is the Carrion Lord of the vast Imperium of Man for whom a thousand souls are sacrificed every day so that he may never truly die.

Yet even in his deathless state, the Emperor continues his eternal vigilance. Mighty battlefleets cross the daemon-infested miasma of the Warp, the only route between distant stars, their way lit by the Astronomican, the psychic manifestation of the Emperor’s will. Vast armies give battle in His name on uncounted worlds. Greatest amongst his soldiers are the Adeptus Astartes, the Space Marines, bio-engineered super-warriors. Their comrades in arms are legion: the Imperial Guard and countless planetary defence forces, the ever-vigilant Inquisition and the tech-priests of the Adeptus Mechanicus to name only a few. But for all their multitudes, they are barely enough to hold off the ever-present threat to humanity from aliens, heretics, mutants — and far, far worse.

To be a man in such times is to be one amongst untold billions. It is to live in the cruelest and most bloody regime imaginable. These are the tales of those times. Forget the power of technology and science, for so much has been forgotten, never to be relearned. Forget the promise of progress and understanding, for in the grim dark future there is only war. There is no peace amongst the stars, only an eternity of carnage and slaughter, and the laughter of thirsting gods.

I dig it. A ton. And the best 40K authors are really good. Dan Abnett, to pick out probably the best of the lot, writes books I’d reread. Characters I care about and want to spend time with. Prose that rises above the expected workmanlikeness and that I’m even occasionally dazzled by. Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s Helsreach is my favorite piece of military science fiction I’ve ever read.

I imagine I’ll slow down with these in 2019, because I’ve got stuff to read that, I hate to admit, is maybe higher priority than more Warhammer.

But damn if it wasn’t fun to spend so much time there.

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My Year in Books Part 1: Buddhism

I read 43 books in 2018. That doesn’t include all the ones I needed only to look at part of, or skimmed, or gave up on.

It was a weird reading year. Usually I’m more well-rounded in my reading, but 2018 saw me laser focused on two topics that don’t seem to have much to do with each other. But you gotta go where your interests lead, and the books I finish are always slaves to my interests. Thus 2018 became the year of Buddhism and science fiction novels set in the grim darkness of the far future where there is only war.

Rather than do the typical think of listing all the books, with brief comments on each, I’ve decided to tackle this reading retrospective in essay form, because it was a year of sums being greater than parts. And I’m splitting it in two. This week, we’ll talk Buddhism. Next week, the Imperium of Man.


Twelve of those 43 books were about Buddhism, including the first book I read this year: Robert Wright’s Why Buddhism is True. Wright’s book holds the odd honor of being both the most personally influential thing I read and also, in retrospect, one of the least interesting. Put another way, it’s the book that got me into Buddhism, but as a book about Buddhism, it’s at best okay. That said, man, did it get me into Buddhism, and what an important intellectual journey that’s been.

I’d read a bit about Buddhism prior to this year, and tried meditation some too when I’d stumbled across one popular mindfulness app or another. But Wright’s book, for whatever reason, hooked me this time around. Made me think this is pretty interesting stuff, maybe I should give it a go of real study. It even got me to attend a three day silent meditation retreat—which turned out to be one of the most valuable things I’ve done in quite some time.

Why Buddhism is True, plus subsequent eleven other titles, convinced me that Buddhism, broadly, as articulated by Siddhāttha Gotama and recorded in the earliest versions of his teachings known as the Pali Canon, is largely correct. It’s the right diagnosis of the human condition, and offers the most valuable, practical, and immediate way to achieve happiness given our nature and the world we’re situated within. I became convinced enough of all this that it’s probably safe to say now, today, given a year’s worth of reading, I’m officially a Buddhist, at least of a sort.

The odd place of Wright’s book isn’t because it’s bad. Obviously, it had a tremendous effect on me, and that’s something I can say of very few books, this year or any before. (The last book that radically changed my worldview in anything approaching the way Wright’s did was Rosalind Hursthouse’s On Virtue Ethics, which, years back, set me one the path of seeing more questions through an ancient lens and gave me what I still consider to be the most useful and rich way of thinking about moral issues.) It’s more that Wright comes at Buddhism from a different direction than what works for me. His thing’s evolutionary psychology, and he presents the Buddha’s lessons through that. I’m not against evolutionary psychology, though I get the objections to it. When I was an undergrad, my friend and fellow student and now Cato Institute colleague and Free Thoughts co-host Trevor Burrus recommended Wright’s The Moral Animal to me and it lead to the most fun I’ve ever had analyzing literature. The paper I wrote doing an evolutionary psyche interpretation of a Raymond Chandler’s short story is probably my favorite from my college years.

But that’s not my wheelhouse anymore. I’m a philosophy guy, and what’s more an ancient philosophy guy. The ancients—and by this I always meant, before my reading adventures of 2018, the ancient Greeks—understood the issues that matter to me, or at least talked about those issues, in a way that resonates better and that I find more useful than typically modern philosophical approaches. The gift of Buddhism in 2018 was seeing that a guy living half a world away from Plato and Aristotle’s Athens, but at around the same time, was coming up with ideas complementary to my beloved Greeks, ideas that tackled the same problems but from what seemed a more practical—i.e., grounded in practice—direction. Gotama’s teachings are still quite philosophically dense, but his interest is in articulating what concrete steps you and I and the whole of humanity can take right now to achieve stable and lasting happiness.

Wright, then, lead me to Buddhism, but Buddhism didn’t really take until I began to approach it the way I do Greek philosophy, which meant going back to the ancient sources. That took finding Thanissaro Bhikkhu, a Western monk in the Theravadan Thai Forest Tradition, and his—it’s impossible to overstate this—incredible website. Thanissaro’s books, all available for free, made up much, but not all, of the rest of my Buddhism reading for the year. Thanissaro is largely a translator of the earliest Buddhist texts known as the Pali Canon, compiled and recorded from the oral tradition about 400 years after the Buddha’s death. But he also has a generally philosophical mindset of a Western sort, meaning that his exegesis of those texts presents things in a way that works well for me. In particular, his The Wings to Awakening is a comprehensive anthology and study guide to the core of the Buddha’s teachings, and is the book I’d recommend to anyone with a philosophy background who wants to study Buddhism through primary texts. (As I noted, all of Thanissaro’s books can be downloaded for free from his website, but this PDF gives instructions on how to request free paperback copies, as well. It usually takes a few weeks for them to arrive, and will cost you nothing more than the stamp to mail him a letter with the list of titles you’d like.)

The year’s worth of all this Buddhist reading introduced me to an entirely new philosophical tradition, not just a set of admittedly extremely valuable tools for self-cultivation. It’s a rich tradition, and one that covers a great deal of ground, in epistemology, morality, and ethics, that stands up easily next to the best ideas to come out Ancient Greece. I’ll explore all this more, and give my longer pitch for why western philosophers really ought to be reading Buddhist philosophers, in an upcoming newsletter.


Abortion and the Law’s Control of Bodies

In yesterday’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, Senator Kamala Harris of California, a likely presidential candidate in 2020, asked a perplexing question, and Kavanaugh provided an even more perplexing answer.

Kamala Harris: “Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body?”

Brett Kavanaugh: “I’m not… I’m not thinking of any right now, Senator.”

I say “perplexing” because every law, with the exception of thought crimes, makes decisions about bodies, because every law, with the exception of thought crimes, is about telling us what actions we can, can’t, or must take.

Take speed limits. The law says I can’t drive faster than 65 miles per hour on this stretch of freeway. In practice, what this means is that the lawmakers have decided that I cannot use my body to accelerate a car above 65 miles per hour. If I fail to follow the law — if I do use my body to press the gas pedal such that the car goes above 65 — I will be punished, assuming I’m caught.

We can tell the same story for any other law you might think of. The simple fact is that law is always and only about setting up a system of rules that “make decisions” about permissible actions. Thus Harris’s question is perplexing and so is Kavanaugh’s stumbling for an answer, because the answer is obvious. Are there laws that make decisions about the male body? Yes, basically all of them. Except for laws that can only possibly ever apply to women’s bodies. (There are, obviously, laws that are just as biologically limited in their reach, but on the male side. The law requiring all men to register for the military draft is one.)

Of course, Harris isn’t interested in laws generally. She’s interested in Kavanaugh’s views on abortion. She, like many other Democrats is worried that Kavanaugh will some day, if confirmed, vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. And, like many pro-choice Americans, she’s framed the issue of abortion as one of “controlling women’s bodies.” That why she asked Kavanaugh if he could think of any laws restricting the male body in such a way. But her question is confused, as we can see by seeking to clarify it in two possible ways.

The first would be rephrase it as “Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body [in precisely the way ani-abortion laws make decisions about the female body]?” Answering the question interpreted this way, however, exposes it as terribly uninteresting, so uninteresting it wasn’t worth asking in the first place: “No, I can’t think of a law that gives the government power to make decisions about the male body in the way an anti-abortion law would regarding the female body because, by simple biology, only women can have abortions.” (We needn’t get into the application of this to trans men here.)

Alternatively, we can interpret the question as asking, “Can you think of any laws that give the government the power to make decisions about the male body [analogous to an anti-abortion law saying a woman cannot act in such a way as to cause the death of a fetus]?” This is a much more interesting take on the question, but it is also one that exposes what strikes me as an obvious mistake in the way the pro-choice side articulates their dispute with the pro-life side. Namely, pro-lifers frequently act as if the question of the moral status of the fetus is obvious and settled, and then assume — or act as if they assume — that pro-choicers must be building their case on some other grounds.

To unpack this, look at it not from Harris’s perspective but from the perspective of someone who believes abortion is wrong and ought to be illegal. For them, outlawing abortion is no more motivated only or chiefly by a desire to control women’s bodies as the military draft is about controlling men’s bodies. That country is an outcome of the law, yes, but it’s not the motivating aim of the law. In the mind of a pro-lifer, a fetus is a person, people have rights, and one of those is the right not to be killed. Pro-choicers accept parts two and three of this without objection, or otherwise they’d be against murder laws. The difference is only with part one. Pro-lifers believe a fetus is the kind of thing we call a person with rights, and that the right against being killed while innocent is absolute. (The “while innocent” part is important, because otherwise it would be impermissible to kill in war, or as part of a death penalty. We might have reasons to think both of those are wrong, of course, but that’s a distinct matter from the particular question at hand here.) Pro-choicers, on the other hand, believe either that the fetus is not the kind of thing we call a human with a right to life or that it is, but its right to life is not as absolute as that of other types of humans, and so can be overridden by the mother’s wishes or desires.

Thus if we take a charitable view of the pro-life position — and we should, because charity is a virtue, and strawmanning is wrong — an anti-abortion law is no more and no less about controlling women’s bodies as the law that say I can’t kill my children is about controlling my body.

By assuming this not to be the case, by believe that pro-lifers want to control women as opposed to wanting to prevent the deaths of what they see to be humans with absolute rights, Harris and others sharing her position end up in confused positions like the one on display in her questioning of Kavanaugh, and so accomplish little in resolving — politically, ethically, morally — this supremely important question in American law.


The Good Twitter Does

Twitter gets a lot of criticism, and a lot of it is well-deserved. But Twitter’s also an amazing place, where strangers can become friends, and where we can learn much from people we’d never have encountered otherwise.

It was a death that made me fully grasp the scope of that.

My friend @MeadBadger died on Sunday. His real name was Brock Cusick, and he sometimes went by Adam Blackstone, but he was always @MeadBadger. We’d known each other for years, and in that time we’d discussed politics, religious faith, technology, Dungeons & Dragons, and so much more. Knowing him enriched me and I valued our friendship immensely.

I never met him in person.

It was one of those stumble across each other on Twitter things. A mutual follow retweets, one person appears in the other’s mentions, you get to talking. You know nothing about each other except for a username, a quippy bio. In real life, a chance meeting like that, at a bar, a networking event, whatever, would be the end of it. Hi, a quick conversation, move on. But Twitter has that follow button and it’s so easy and costless to press, you can take chances without the risk of real life baggage.

Here’s a person, he seems maybe pretty interesting, so I’ll click follow and now he’s there, every day, his thoughts scrolling up my phone or in a tab in my browser or in an app in the corner of the desktop. That random person is now a presence, and a frequent one.

Then years go by and in that time, this person has become someone you interact with weekly, daily, throughout the day. Even if it’s just a like, an acknowledgment that they heard what you said or you heard what they said.

This, I think, makes Twitter friendships sneak up on you. That follow is so easy, sending a reply or hitting like so quick, that you don’t really realize how much the people there become presences in your life. Until they aren’t. Until they stop. That @MeadBadger was my friend I obviously knew that before his death, but online friendship is something we’re still all getting used to. There have been pen pals before, and that’s similar, but the immediacy, the shared stream of consciousness, makes Twitter different.

I’ve caught myself, several times since Sunday, wondering how @MeadBadger will respond to this thing I’m about to tweet. Because such responses are a baked in part of the whole Twitter experience. People who you just get used to hearing from and might at any time.

I guess I only fully understood the depth of these sorts of relationships when he died. When the always on, enriching, more valuable than I can say interaction with a man I never met but who made me, over the years, a better person through his example and words, just stopped.

I miss @MeadBadger deeply. I wish I could tell him, in a tweet, how much his friendship meant to me. And I’m glad, more than I knew until now, that this silly and frustrating and amazing Twitter platform exists to make friendships like ours possible.


Loyalty versus Obsequiousness Through the Lens of Donald Trump

A loyal person is never an obsequious person.

Donald Trump demands loyalty from those around him. It’s why he fired James Comey, why he’s mad at Jeff Sessions, and why he pulled John Brennan’s security clearance. He makes everyone passing through his orbit sign non-disclosure agreements, a kind of explicit loyalty oath by way of legal documents. Even his kids get in on it.

Yet, for someone so concerned with loyalty, Donald Trump doesn’t know quite what loyalty is. I don’t just mean in the sense that he believes loyalty to be unilateral. For Trump, you are loyal to him. But he is never loyal to you. It’s not clear he understands what bilateral loyalty would entail.

No, the real problem with Trump’s notion of loyalty is that he’s confused the term with obsequiousness. The former is a virtue, the latter a vice. Loyalty is earned, and continues through a relationship of respect. I am loyal to you because you deserve my loyalty through your continuing demonstration of the characteristics that earned it in the first place.

Obsequiousness, on the other hand, is evidence of a failure of character on the part of the obsequious. Where loyalty comes from a recognition of the worthy traits of another, obsequiousness comes from an internalized sense of servility. Loyalty is about me recognizing your lofty traits. Obsequiousness is instead about me not having strong and worthy traits of my own.

That Trump in fact demands the latter is a telling condemnation of both his personal character and his abilities as a leader. It is a sign of the deep insecurity that is perhaps the president’s single most defining trait. A loyal friend remains loyal in part by holding you to the standards that earned you his loyalty in the first place. Loyalty elevates both sides in the relationship. But Trump sees no need to be elevated, because he desperately wants to see himself as the best there’s ever been, while at the same time harboring constant and crippling doubts about the truth of that belief.

That’s why he instead demands obsequiousness. He needs his underlings to praise him, to always remain supine. Deviation must be punished, harshly and thoroughly and without remission until the offender resumes his groveling posture and empty flattery. To allow anything else would be to admit that loyalty is contingent on quality, and that Trump is maybe not as quality as his fragile ego has convinced himself he is.

Donald Trump is a failure of a man. He has worldly success, yes, but as a person, as a moral being, as a figure to be admired, he falls breathtakingly short. His confusion of loyalty for obsequiousness is but one piece of evidence that deep down, wherever a tiny remnant of his humanity might be found, he recognizes that truth.


On Civility in Politics

Shunning is sometimes appropriate, and politics shouldn’t change that.

Should we shun political opponents? Should we refuse to associate with them, or to serve them in our businesses? The matter with Sarah Sanders getting kicked out of a restaurant has a lot of people staking out what strike me as poorly examined positions on these questions, positions rooted in the silly notion that “we shouldn’t let politics come between us.”

The short answers to the above questions is, yes, of course we should shun political opponents — when their behavior or beliefs are of the sort worthy of shunning. And, yes, we should refuse to associate with them or serve them in our businesses — when their behavior or beliefs are of the sort worthy of such refusal. That their behavior or beliefs are motivated by politics, as opposed to some other value system or ideology or motivation, is immaterial, and arguments to the contrary merely grant ugly political beliefs an unearned and dangerous buffer from the kind of moral opprobrium we find perfectly acceptable when applied to ugly beliefs of other origins.

It is, of course, possible for political disagreement to exist without it stemming from shun-worthy beliefs, and this fact is too often ignored by partisans. But that doesn’t mean that all political disagreement is of an honest and respectable sort. Sometimes people are bad people and their bad people-ness is reflected in the political views they hold. In such instances, we should still treat them as bad people.

If you think it’s okay to kick someone out of a restaurant who holds racist beliefs, because you don’t want to associate with someone so morally repugnant, then you should also think it’s okay to kick someone out who channels those racist beliefs or anti-immigrant beliefs through politics. If you think it’s okay to refuse to associate with someone you know to be morally corrupt and dishonest, you should also think it’s okay to refuse to associate with someone who puts their moral corruption and dishonesty to use defending the actions and policies of the morally corrupt and dishonest.

I wouldn’t want Sanders in my house. I wouldn’t be friendly to her if I met her. She’s a morally corrupt and fundamentally dishonest person. She’s exactly the kind of person I choose not to associate with and teach my children not to associate with. That she was kicked out of a private business instead of a house changes none of that.