Into Each Life…

Rain was drizzling on me this morning as I made my sacrifice to marginal fitness — 100% humidity, though the pollution was low, breezy, 16°. About fifty steps in, I realised that this was going to be a perfunctory run, not a victory over anything: muscle tightness in my back and upper right leg, hotness (thank you, autocorrect) shortness of breath, and nothing even vaguely resembling a kick. I suppose that completing the mile is the victory, even though it took me 11:10, a full minute lower than my plateau.

Just Can’t

I was chatting with Danya on Twitter, about Fleabag and clergy and sex, and it occurred to me that we and our wise friend Laura could do a great job of writing a book about sex and clergy. That is just a dream, of course (at least as far as I’m concerned; Laura and Danya may be able to make it work). There’s so much that I’m obligated to do that the collaborative project won’t happen, even though it could — and that made me a bit sad.

On the other hand, it’s useful, helpful, to remember that simply because one can do something, doesn’t mean that one can do it, for lot of reasons. There are few clear pathways, and most people face obstacles that limit what they end up actually accomplishing, and I’m in almost every category of the most privileged, least limited demographic groups in the world (in history, for that matter). For most of the people among whom I walk day by day, they can do more, given the opportunity; they can see that possibility hanging there in front of them, and they know to the core of their being that they’d do a good job of it. But the playing field isn’t level, there are internal constraints as well as extrinsic constraints, and there are obstacles that arise from being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are record companies that won’t listen to your band; there are directors who won’t cast you; there is that debilitating ME that flares up just when you were going to get an opportunity; there are White folks who won’t treat you fairly, men who won’t, posh people, straight people, citizens who won’t give a migrant a break, well-intentioned model citizens whose goodwill extends only to the point of what doesn’t pinch them personally…. The range of circumstances that can make possibilities into impossibilities can’t be calculated.

At a point where resignation, clear-sightedness, determination, and keeping alert for the opportune moment interact, there may be an ideal attitude — but who could presume to condescend to people who don’t see even that as a possibility for them? I’m not here to judge anyone, and my ruefulness is just a tiny droplet of the seas that my neighbours have to swim in. I’ll hold onto it, not as some injustice done me, but as a pinhole into the daily weight on my neighbours’ shoulders.

No Zip

I had to prove my identity yesterday in a comprehensive, ‘No, really, are you actually a distinct individual named A K M Adam who has been alive since…, and currently resides…, and who has not committed any criminal offences…’ way. I brought along my RFIDed passport, by hyperbiometric Leave to Remain, an expired passport, my birth certificate and Social Security card, and several bank and utility notices, a pay check stub, and I was prepared to do the whole ‘Google for AKMA, and observe how far back in time you can see photos of me under that name’ deal. Luckily for me, my identity was affirmed; then again, I am a cisgendered straight White male whose English-language skills are only inflected by having lived in the USA for fifty years.

In the process, though, I noticed that my birth certificate (the original) and Social Security card show unmistakeable signs of having been prepared in the 1950s. Over and above the wear and tear on my certificate (really, I ought to get a fresh official copy) the typography and general design sensibility belong markedly to the pre-1960s world. Even more, the addresses (and telephone numbers, if there were phone numbers on them) reflect the more local world before nine- or even five-digit Zip codes. My name was typed on my Social Security card, which was then stapled onto a larger informational card that explained the idea of Social Security. The contrast with my Leave to Remain card couldn’t be much starker.

And the very capacity to observe that contrast in epochs marked me as having been alive for a long time.

Go, and also, my time Sunday morning was 10:17. No zip there, either.

One Of My Favourites

In the world we now inhabit, where artists’ creepy side[s] overshadow the works they produce, it’s difficult to admit this — but one of my favourite moments in all of rock’n’roll comes when (known to be creepy*) Chuck Berry deploys ‘unloose’ as an adjective (that just means ‘loose’) to make the meter work:

* Convicted of transporting an underage woman across state lines ‘for immoral purposes’; installed a video camera in the women’s toilet in his restaurant; found in possession of salacious videorecordings of an underage woman. Yup, that’s even worse than creepy.

Just A Note

… so that I don’t forget, I ran a gasping 10:39 this morning. On the positive side, I still haven’t stopped running the whole mile; on the frustrating side, I haven’t yet gotten back into 10:10 form. And I still hate running.

On Joi

I’ve held back on speaking publicly about Joi Ito’s actions as head of the MIT Media Lab, for several reasons. First, I’m both a friend of Joi’s and in a very casual way I talk with him about matters spiritual, and I didn’t (and don’t) want to shut down lines of communication in either capacity. Second, I didn’t want to get caught out having responded too rapidly while the news was still developing. Third, the floor was dominated by people with greater engagement on behalf of women who’ve endured rape and abuse, and there’s nothing I can say that would add to the righteous fury they express in the wake of the horrific, expanding, Epstein scandal. Fourth, I try to choose what I say carefully. In some ways, it’s still too soon to speak up; on the other hand, silence is complicity, and keeping quiet would betray my responsibility to women who experience sexual violence, and that would betray too many about whom I care.

A declaration of interest: Joi has been kind, interested, encouraging, and a committed friend to me. I’ve seen a very good side of Joi; I have respected him in many ways, and where I have disagreed with him, we have done so cordially and with generous patience. Thus (and for other reasons as well), in what follows I want to keep as close as is possible to recounting facts. The evident facts themselves say an awful lot.

If Joi had asked me for advice,* I’d have counselled him to have nothing whatever to do with Epstein or his money. I am sure Joi would have known this, just as he recognised Ethan Zuckerman’s principled stance against doing business with Epstein, and just as it has been said that he tried to keep Ethan (also a friend) away from Epstein and the women in his entourage. If (as seems clear) MIT had blacklisted Epstein as a donor, then soliciting donations from him and concealing those funds signify a self-conscious determination to violate the good advice of eminently trustworthy, respected friends as well as the prudential governance of his employers. Larry Lessig (whom I also count a friend, sees the anonymity as an ethically positive gesture, suggesting Epstein’s disinterested benefaction; others have raised questions about Larry’s apprehension of the ethics of philanthropic giving, arguing that Epstein was not disinterested at all, but hungrily seeking self-justification and ego-reinforcement from hobnobbing with great scientists. I’d simply add here that this secrecy does not resemble, to my mind, what the Judaic tradition teaches about anonymous giving being the height of charity, or what Jesus was talking about when he said ‘Let not your left hand know what your right hand is doing.’ Epstein seems to have known exactly what both hands were doing.)

Now, soliciting major gifts involves delicate ethical judgements, and most institutions tilt the scales at least a little toward laxity. It’s only a very rare philanthropist who came by vast sums of money without the faintest trace of exploitation. (George Bernard Shaw dramatises vividly some of the intricacies of the moral calculus of wealth in Major Barbara.) The ethics of institutional development constitute a high-stakes game of poker, with the integrity of administrators and institutions at stake in every hand, and I can’t guess how many walk away from the table without having lost at least a little honour or integrity. Ardently as I believe in higher education (and museums, and social service agencies, and other ventures that depend on philanthropic charity to sustain their missions), some hands are not worth playing out, even if your cards are strong, even if you think you know your opponent’s tell, even if you’ve successfully bluffed before.

Not only did Joi use Epstein as a source for Media Lab funding, he also received substantial sums from Epstein for his own investment funds. Doing personal business with Epstein carries none of the (nominal) exculpatory value of serving higher ends.

Joi made a name for himself in part by building strong communities, strong teams. I know; I’m part of a couple of them to this day (so far as I know, Joi hasn’t looked in for a very long time). Such communities, such teams depend on trust and some sorts of altruism; one has to be willing to forgo certain sorts of satisfaction in the interest of others for the whole group to thrive. In the Warcraft guild that Joi founded, players from around the world not only cooperated for in-game accomplishments, but connected in enduring out-of-game relationships as well. The same is true of the circles of digital friendship in which Joi moved, and which in some cases he midwived.

He likewise took active roles in movements for open access and copyright reform, and as best I recall he was (at least, at the time) avowedly very committed to women’s causes.

The MIT Media Lab’s involvement with Jeffrey Epstein repudiated the values and principles that made Joi’s superlative skill at parlaying weak ties into effective social connections as a positive force. Many of the people in Joi’s social network have admirable reputations for conscientious effort to make the world better, freer, safer, and more open; Ethan exemplifies them, and he has honourably sacrificed an extraordinary position for his work because he could not in conscience mix his social actions and paedagogy with toleration of and benefiting from Epstein’s evils. Others who respected and trusted Joi have found themselves defending somebody who betrayed them and belied their testimony.

And none of this comes close to the injury done those women who might have expected Joi to stand up for their interests, rather than throwing in his lot with their assailant.

This is where matters stand this morning; I’ve tried to keep this to agreed facts in the public domain.

Now, all of this unravels in a world criss-crossed by incoherent institutions relative to shame and honour. ‘Shame’ has been deprecated by many commentators; it has been used overwhelmingly to constrain and punish women, it provides a convenient outlet for anonymous bystanders to shore up their self-righteousness by piling on with others in convulsive mass condemnation, and its mechanisms entail attributing some sort of reality to entities such as reputation or souls or character or a moral status that subsists over time. Those are problematic and unpopular qualities.

But I’m not sure we can do without some manner of thinking and acting with the categories of honour and shame, and to some extent their widespread unpopularity makes it difficult to work out the way a populace should handle behaviour that may not be judicially culpable, but which nonetheless corrupts a community’s integrity, aspirations, and internal practices of informal moral evaluation. We have seen a long succession of public figures wanting, trying to make comebacks from wrongdoing of various kinds, and no coherent set of heuristic standards has emerged to guide publics’ deliberations of ‘how much is enough’, ‘what must they do’, or ‘there is no coming back’. We need to do better, for the sake of those who suffer wrong (that they may know that some consensus view of recompense, penitence, or retribution has been fulfilled) and for the sake of the society (lest it be continually be afflicted with wrongdoers who sashay back into roles of prominence and power by observing minimal markers of contrition, or none at all).

Gut feelings — affects — will appropriately play some part in all this, but we need more. We need, as it were, a social gut whose guidance reflects not the whims of a capricious unbound individual but a shared sense of the sort of people we must be, the sort of relationships we support (and discountenance), the sort of consequences we expect for all transgressors (not exculpating stars, nor vilifying the powerless). We need to grow a discourse of right, wrong, indictment, vindication, acquittal, and condemnation that better equips us to respond to moral challenges. Since not every praiseworthy action brings a direct reward, though, and not every disreputable action warrants judicial penalty, that goal will entail acknowledging a bound-ness to honouring some kinds of conduct, and shaming other sorts.

For the time being, the highest priority must fall to repairing lives directly and indirectly damaged by the far-reaching malefaction of a once-living moral horror, and mending the shredded social fabric that made it so easy for him to get away with his atrocities. This nightmare story of violence, deceit, and complicity, has brought to the fore some people whose reporting, whose prosecutorial diligence, whose integrity commends them; while we will not in this lifetime come to a point of saying ‘We’ve done enough’, we can work toward reaching a point at which our shared vision of a common good equips us to distinguish, in word and action, between despicable behaviour and commendable behaviour — so that we can know not only to abstain, but to shy away from the latter former, and not only to applaud, but to enact the latter.

Update: I understand that MIT is about to announce/has already announced that donations from Epstein had been considered and approved at the highest levels — and that, thus, Joi did not conceal Epstein’s donations from upper management at MIT.

* I haven’t been in touch with Joi for months, although we have communicated (and Margaret and I visited him at home) during the post-Epstein-conviction window; nothing even vaguely pertinent to his fund-raising efforts came up in discussion, as far as I remember. That being said, my memories of the early phases of the Epstein story are limited. I know that I was eager for the resolution of the case of some billionaire with a Trump connection who had been very plausibly accused of rape and trafficking, and had a vague sense that he had gotten off with the sort of indulgent sentence allotted to wealthy defendants. I don’t remember any association with Harvard or MIT from those early reports.

No News

Westminster may be in convulsions, Bermuda may have endured catastrophic hurricane damage, but nothing very interesting happened during my Wednesday mile. Headwinds, wt pavements (but no falling rain), 10:29, hard breathing, sluggish legs.

End of August

At the beginning of summer, I had the hope-anticipation that I would ratchet up my running schedule to three days a week. I was making manifest progress, I was aiming at setting a new plateau at a better pace; and since I was freed from the academic obligations and timetable, I thought I could break through to a new, more rigorous routine.

That came to naught. I had more obligations than I had been thinking of, and we went on a couple of holidays, and the weather was sometimes unpropitious, I tweaked my groin muscle, and so on and so forth. But you and I know what’s really at stake: I just plain hate running, and the thought of doing it yet another morning was (in the end) just not on.

This morning I had the now-familiar knot in my groin muscle, but that warmed up and got loose in a short while. The one restraint on my running was my breathing. Jon is visiting with us, and he has COPD, which reminds me that not everyone has lungs that pump copious air in and out, smoothly and quietly. I can run my mile with more or less discomfort, probably doing myself some good by doing this much, and I shouldn’t let guilt haunt me because I wheeze and stumble while others glide soundlessly.

Oh, 10:16.