Wednesday, October 07, 2020

White Privilege, White Supremacy, and White Evangelicals

Last week my bike got stolen off the front porch. I wasn't sure if it was worth calling the police since bikes get stolen all the time. It did however have a bright red kids passenger trailer attached to the back, so I thought the chance of them finding it was higher. When the officers arrived they were professional and patient. My children, who witnessed the theft, didn't have many details to give them, but we chatted casually about the bike and any distinguishing features it might have.

Surprisingly enough (to me and the officer) he was actually able to find the bike and was waiting on me at my house when I returned from the grocery store just a few hours later. Given the frustrating beginning, this turned out to be a very positive experience for my family. We got our bike back with minimal pain. We learned an important lesson about using bike locks. My neighborhood (we have a text chain) was encouraging throughout. My children got to interact and see what community policing looks like.

This is what the Black Lives Matter movement wants for all Americans. Regular, normalized, police interactions. Civil rights has always been a push to give the disenfranchised what the privileged already have. In fact, our next door neighbor, who just so happens to be black, jokingly said “if I ever have anything stolen I’ll be sure and have you call the police for me!”

As is painfully aware, this has been difficult for white America to understand. If we only use our own experiences to understand the world, we will only understand our world. So I wanted to follow up that story with some content that has helped me gain a greater understanding of reality.

I’ll also note that these links I gathered to speak directly to one specific group of white Americans: white evangelicals. I am a Christian. I attend a theologically orthodox church. And I believe these people, my people, have the most potential to come into a right understanding on this issue.

This first link is a podcast that describes the modern political history of this group known as “evangelicals”. It starts all the way back in the founding days of the United States, but if you want to skip to when the movement truly began, you can start at minute 37:45.

What this podcast above shows is that race and segregation, not abortion, was the initial unifying political force for white evangelicals in the 1970’s. Even though racial integration was explicitly a key issue for the white evangelicals politically, I don’t think that’s as obvious today. It confirms what I wrote in this old post before the 2016 election about how the abortion issue, especially in presidential politics, is largely a red herring. And here’s more recent link about the abortion conversation among Christians from an old blogging friend.

There can be an assumption, based on white experience, that the issue of race is not important today. However, there are some stark differences living in this country and a black citizen. Unless you believe there is an inherent difference between races, then the only explanation for such a gap is hundreds of years of a 2 steps forward, 1 step back. Here is a video from an evangelical Christian laying out many examples of such inequalities.

Racial inequality is real. The compounded effects of centuries of legal and societal policies are real. The threat of white supremacy continues to be real. The lack of modern institutional improvements with those realities in mind is also very real. I’ll close with a very specific theological call to the white evangelical community. Here is a video from the most prominent member of my denomination, Tim Keller. It directly addresses why Christians, more than any other group, should be comfortable with the reality that the actions of previous generations can bring both blessing and curses that we need to mourn.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Donald Trump Can Not Be Trusted

Over the last several years my online usage has moved away from complicated topic discussions and more to purely social use. The biggest reason why is time. With 4 kids and 2 jobs I just have less of it. The second biggest reason is my realization that people just don’t change their mind very much. If there is one thing people don’t change their mind about the most, it is President Donald J. Trump. Regular polls have shown that since he locked in the GOP nomination in 2015, he has had between 35% to 45% approval rating. The most consistent in modern American history. More on that later.

However, I decided to take a break from my break. Donald Trump has many many flaws, but I think his core weakness as President is that he cannot be trusted. This is not a unique or new idea, but it became extra clear to me this week as his fraught relationship with the truth was revealed in 5 separate stories that span the spectrum of his corrupting influence. The topics include 1) the current pandemic, 2) race, 3) Supreme Court, 4) obstruction of justice, and 5) Trump’s obsession and deception of his own popularity. Heads up, this is very long. I started it on Father’s Day weekend in the middle of a pandemic so I had had a little more free time than normal. Here we go.

1) As I wrote the first draft of this post, the President was holding a live rally in an indoor Tulsa arena where about 20,000 people were going to be crammed together. It’s expected another 50,000 will be gathering outside. This is in the middle of a global pandemic that has so far resulted in almost half a million deaths globally, about 122,000 of those in the United States (with over 30,000 new cases today, those numbers will obviously continue to increase).

 This is just an example of one action taken by Donald Trump that encourages Americans to do the opposite of what his own CDC recommends. He was so extreme in his desire for a mass gathering, his own fans didn’t show up in the numbers they had planned. The event was half empty. Instead of discussing all the incorrect things he’s said on the coronavirus, I’d like to focus on the theme of his comments and the impact they’ve had on the national mindset.

The tone Donald Trump has taken since he was first briefed in January has been one of uninformed optimism. He’s predicted the end of this pandemic several times and the dates have all come and gone. He’s consistently under-predicted the number of deaths, even while his own federal agencies were saying otherwise. He continues to push and apparently even took an unrecommended and potentially dangerous antimalarial drug. Even now, he’s urging the opening of the NFL against the suggestion of Dr. Fauci, a member of Trump’s Coronavirus Task Force.

This is the President’s first major crisis and to be fair, it’s a big one. It’s hard to imagine a worse response. The reason why this kind of false optimism not based in reality is dangerous is because of the impact it has on the national consciousness. The Stockdale Paradox perfectly illustrates this. James Stockdale was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for 7 years. When asked how he lasted he said:
I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life.
When asked who wasn’t able to last in the terrible conditions he said
Oh, that's easy, the optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart. 
Many Americans have seemingly moved on in their attitude and behavior toward the virus because we’ve become victims of Presidential hype. We’re impatient because we were told over and over again that the car trip would take just a few weeks. Now we’re several months in and new cases in my own hometown are higher than they have ever been and many businesses that reopened are now re-closing. My own comedy theater has yet to resume in person activities. Trump’s most recent suggestion to the spike? Saturday at the Tulsa rally he said “Here’s the bad part. When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people slow the testing down, please.”

2) Another event Friday was Juneteenth, a holiday celebrating the end of slavery after the Civil War. This month is also the 99th anniversary of one of the largest race conflicts in American history. The “Black Wall Street Massacre” occurred in the same city and in the same month as Trump’s planned Tulsa rally. It’s possible he was ignorant of both of these commemorations when he planned his rally (especially since he moved the event one day in response to the backlash), but that only reveals how uniformed he and his administration is.

This is not his first debacle on race. In fact his first political lie as a rising political figure was his leading role in the birther movement. Trump was the most prominent figure calling into question the birthplace of President Barack Obama. There is no doubt this conspiracy theory was only able to take hold because he was a man of color with an usual name. It was not until Trump had already won the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, 5 years after he first promoted the lie, that he recanted.

His first campaign speech was also full of racial innuendo when he claimed that Mexico was “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” It continued as he pushed against kneeling at football games, making it a national issue. After a self proclaimed white supremacist march resulted in one of them driving a vehicle into counter protester in Charlottesville, Trump claimed they “had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”

Finally, just a few weeks ago Trump used the racially charged word “thugs” to describe the overwhelmingly peaceful Black Lives Matter protests and tweeted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. He was trying to incorrectly paint the picture of the protests and encourage violence in response. Twitter actually took the unprecedented step to label the tweet as “violating their rules for glorifying violence”. The phrase comes from a Florida police chief in the tail end of the civil rights movement who used the phrase to threaten marchers. Infamous Segregationist George Wallace also used the phrase during his 1968 presidential campaign.

Twitter last week also labeled a video he shared as "manipulated media". The original year old clip was an encouraging scene of a white toddler and a black toddler running to give each other a hug. The clip shared by the President of the United States edited the footage to make it seem like the black child was running from the white child and overlaid it with a CNN logos to make it seem like it was a live broadcast (which it was not). This is by no means a thorough list of actions and words from Trump that could easily be described as racist. That would be (and probably already is) it’s own book. Again, I’m attempting to just focus on events of the last week, but there is just so much (more on that later).

3) Another series of events this week were several major decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court. In both of them, conservative justices (even one nominated by Trump himself), voted against the arguments of the Trump administration. In the first case (and another last year), the SCOTUS claimed that the Trump administration was not arguing in good faith and essentially attempting to deceive the court.

The first case is directly related to the previous topic of race. DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals received a big win against the lawyers of President Trump this weekend. For now, the “Dreamers” will be able to legally stay, something overwhelmingly supported by Americans. Conservative John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion saying:
We address only whether the [Department of Homeland Security] complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action. Here the agency failed to consider the conspicuous issues of whether to retain forbearance and what if anything to do about the hardship to DACA recipients. That dual failure raises doubts about whether the agency appreciated the scope of its discretion or exercised that discretion in a reasonable manner.
AKA, the Trump administration did not think through their actions or give a reasonable explanation for deporting millions of people who have essentially spent their entire lives as law abiding members of our nation; starting jobs, businesses, and families who would be legal citizens at their birth.

This is a very similar decision to the Court’s decision exactly a year ago when they ruled the Trump Administration likely could, but in this instance cannot add the citizenship question to the 2020 Census. Conservative John Roberts once again spoke for the majority saying that:
here the Voting Rights Act enforcement rationale—the sole stated reason—seems to have been contrived. The reasoned explanation requirement of administrative law is meant to ensure that agencies offer genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public. The explanation provided here was more of a distraction.
The Trump Administration was lying to the Supreme Court in the actual reasons they wanted the question added. Exposed by their own records, the main goal was suppression Latino residents who might otherwise shy away from the census.

And this weekend yet another big loss for Trump’s lawyers in the highest court came in the decision whether or not to allow members of the LGBTQ community to be protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Like DACA, this decision is widely popular among Americans. Yet, in response to this decision the President makes this seem like a personal attack on himself and suggests packing the court. These examples show how over emphasized the often repeated reason for my fellow evangelicals to vote for Trump: to get more conservative justices. This will only help if Trump is able to convince these judges he is dealing in good faith.

Best example of that might be in Trump’s call just a few weeks ago that states must “allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now for this weekend [...] if they don’t do it, I will override the governors. In America, we need more prayer not less.” Yet one week later the Supreme Court ruled with Chief Justice Roberts in the majority once again saying that truth should lead the way:
while local officials are actively shaping their response to changing facts on the ground. The notion that it is ‘indisputably clear’ that the Government’s limitations are unconstitutional seems quite improbable.
In fact, it is Trump's assertion he could somehow reopen them himself that would obviously be unconstitutional.

4) In yet another major story this weekend, our worst fears about the President are confirmed in the release of a book from John Bolton, Trump’s longest serving national security advisor. There is so much in the book, but I’ll highlight several of the most intense quotes from his hour long interview with ABC News. Maybe the most relevant is Bolton’s potential role in Trump’s impeachment hearing. The President’s withheld Congressionally approved funds to U.S. ally Ukraine in order to get them to make an announcement about an investigation into Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden:
But he wanted a probe of Joe Biden in exchange for delivering the security assistance that was part of the congressional legislation that had been passed several years before. So that in his mind, he was bargaining to get the investigation, using the resources of the federal government, which I found very disturbing. 
And I found it using national security to advance his own political position. Now, in the course of the impeachment affair, the defense of the president was he cares about the general corruption in the Ukraine. And that was on his mind. That's utter nonsense.
So why didn’t he testify when the House requested it (and essentially subpoenaed him)? Bolton says:
Because minds -- because minds were made up on Capitol Hill. And my feeling was in the midst of all the chaos that had been created, this would have come and gone, and nobody would have paid any attention to it.
He might be right. I have been consistently shocked at what Trump’s core ~35% base will allow. However, he did not have the right to make that call himself. Instead of being the upper level figure who could confirm Trump did make that quid pro quo, Bolton stayed silent, only offering to testify to Republicans in the Senate once it was clear they weren’t going to ask for testimony. Then Bolton took a $2 million advance to write his book, The Room Where it Happened.

Instead, Bolton insists the impeachment should have been more broad, focusing on things that we didn’t know until now, like this:
It's not a policy to say, "I want a big trade deal with China." What are the terms of the trade deal? He focused on terms like China buying more agricultural products, which he said to Xi Jinping directly would help him in the farm states
And another relating to China’s dictator Xi Jinping:
Well, again the circumstances were such: ZTE [a Chinese telecom giant] was violating American laws with respect to Iran sanctions and the disclosure that they were making. And Secretary Wilbur Ross of the Commerce Department imposed penalties on ZTE. These were not penalties that were harsher on ZTE than they would've been for an American company doing exactly the same thing.

And in the course of a conversation with Xi Jinping, the president said he'd rescind the penalties for basically in exchange for nothing. I mean, it's one thing if you had a clear foreign policy rationale to downplay a criminal or regulatory proceeding because of a larger strategic interest.
Essentially he would remove lawful penalties just to curry “a favor” with Xi. And here’s yet another example of that with another of America’s advisories:
By the time we left Singapore, he was at 2,000 [referring to the number of pressing coming along]. And I think that number went up from there. That's what he was focused on. That he had had this enormous photo opportunity -- first time an American president has met with the leader of North Korea. 
And he got enormous attention from it. I thought it was a strategic mistake. The U.S. itself got nothing from that. Donald Trump got a lot. The United States gave much more legitimacy to this dictator. And didn't accomplish anything toward any meaningful discussion on the elimination of their nuclear weapons program.
And another example of what Bolton calls “obstruction of justice as a way of life”:
Well, there were any number of conversations between the president and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan of Turkey on the subject of Halkbank. And what Erdogan wanted was basically a settlement that would take the pressure off Halkbank. And let's be clear, what Halkbank had done was violate U.S. laws respecting sanctions on Iran. 
So if this had been a U.S. financial institution, we would've toasted them, and quite properly so. So it was not a case where Halkbank was being treated by the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York more harshly than an American bank. It was just really looking for the same kind of treatment. 
And the president said to Erdogan at one point, "Look, those prosecutors in New York are Obama people. Wait till I get my people in and then we'll take care of this." And I thought to myself -- and I'm a Department of Justice alumnus myself -- "I've never heard any president say anything like that. Ever."
And one last pair of quotes, which is essentially his call to action for Americans:
And I think the concern I have speaking as a conservative Republican is that once the election is over, if the president wins, the political constraint is gone. And because he has no philosophical grounding, there's no telling what will happen in a second term.
I hope it will remember him as a one-term president who didn't plunge the country irretrievably into a downward spiral we can't recall from.
Now Bolton, a lifelong Republican hawk is not planning on voting for Joe Biden. He said he’ll be writing a different name in. That and voting 3rd party (something I’ve done more than not for the presidency) is also a reasonable option for any disaffected voter. I'll end the obstruction of justice section with the most recent story on this front. Last week it was announced that Trump approved US Attorney the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman, who had been leading several investigations into Mr. Trump and his associates (including Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen and his current personal attorney Rudy Giuliani) was “stepping down”.

However, after Attorney General Barr made that announcement, Berman made a statement that he had no plans to step down and that he had learned about Barr’s announcement from watching news reports of it. The next day Barr clarified that "Because you have declared that you have no intention of resigning, I have asked the President to remove you as of today, and he has done so." Soon after that, Trump claimed he had no role in the firing saying "That's his [Barr’s] department, not my department. I'm not involved." It’s unclear exactly what happened, but it is clear that the Trump administration no longer had confidence in him and did not want to be explicit about why. And this does not happen in a vacuum. Since the impeachment trial ended, Trump has removed witnesses Lt Col Alexander Vindman (and his twin brother) from their post along with Gordon Sondland, former ambassador to the E.U. (and several others whose firings were unclear). It’s obvious the President, who blocked all subpoenas to the White House, does not appreciate their candor.

5) The final topic from this week is possibly the core of Donald Trump’s self-absorption. He is obsessed with his popularity. Not to be mistaken by the common trait of most modern politicians who closely watch the polls to see where the path of least resistance would be. Instead, Trump seems to only be obsessed with the core who are obsessed with him. He seems to ignore the majority of Americans who do not approve. In fact, his first lie as president was over the crowd size at his inauguration. He pulled out his first (of four) Press Secretary Sean Spicer to make a surprise late night press conference defending Trump’s claim that 1.5 million people attended the inauguration (estimates put it closer to 200,000). It was a surreal moment that such efforts were made to lie about something so unimportant and easily measured.

Even before his inauguration, Trump was saying his election was a “massive landslide victory”. My initial reaction to Trump’s unexpected win was to blame the polling, which consistently showed Hillary Clinton in the lead. But instead I should have blamed myself for not having a better understanding of what polls are. In reality, the 2016 polls were as accurate as polling usually is. Which is to say, they were pretty accurate. The night before the 2016 presidential election Clinton was up by about 3%. Comparably Obama was up by more than double that, 7% in 2008 the night before he won. It’s also worth noting that Clinton’s lead narrowed in the weeks before election for at least two reasons: 1) Trump got unusually more popular among his own party in the final weeks and 2) 10 days before the election James Comey announced the FBI investigation Clinton campaign was reopened. So things were in flux.

This is not to take away from the incredible surprise I felt the night he won. I have no doubt it will go down as one of biggest political upsets in modern history. But a huge part of the reason it was surprising and the reason it was hard to predict is that it was so close. By any measure it was not a landslide victory. Putting aside the obvious fact that Trump lost the popular vote by 3 million people, the largest ever (and yet still winning the election). His electoral victory was actually well below average. In fact, if you rank all electoral victories his ranks in the bottom 20%.

Since his election, he has actually gotten less popular. He received 46% of the popular vote (and this was also the percentage of people who approved of him on his inauguration day). Today, and every single day after his inauguration, he has been below that number. Trump loves to criticize the polls that don’t favor him. In fact, he did it again this week saying “@FoxNews is out with another of their phony polls, done by the same group of haters that got it even more wrong in 2016. Watch what happens in November. Fox is terrible!” But the reality is that President Donald Trump is consistently the least popular sitting President in my lifetime. Here’s a neat visual of him compared to previous presidents (Trump is the green line):


Politicians and especially presidents regularly use their own version of the truth to meet their policy ends. Bush was overconfident about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and used that to follow a strong policy preference. Obama overplayed the success of Obamacare and underplayed its impact on Americans who did not want to participate. But I do not believe these two Presidents regularly and intentionally attempted to undermine the concept of truth to further their own celebrity.

I’ve tried to focus on just news stories that have come out in the last week and yet it feels like I had to write my own book just to get my head around it. This has just reminded me why I haven’t tried to tackle any major topics on the blog in the last several years. Luckily this week has given me some extra time and writing this has helped me pull together a lot of my own thoughts over the last 3 years.

By the typing of this sentence, President Trump made 19,128 false or misleading claims in 1,226 days (it will likely be higher before anyone is able to read this). That’s an average of 15 a day! I mentioned the writing of this to a friend who also used to blog back when blogging was cool (or at least we hoped so). Justin suggested I read this research from the RAND Corporation on the idea of “firehosing” as a way of government propaganda. Here’s their definition:
model for propaganda as “the firehose of falsehood” because of two of its distinctive features: high numbers of channels and messages and a shameless willingness to disseminate partial truths or outright fictions.
Lie a lot and with abandon. Firehosing is a power move. You say so many outrageous things so many times that your opponents look like fools just for engaging. And as we have all felt, it’s exhausting. It took me much longer to write this than it took for Trump to say the things I’m fact checking (and I’m just citing those who have already done the hard fact checking work) . The craziest part about this RAND article is that it wasn't about Donald Trump. It was about Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is a strategy of dictators, not democracies. Yet, this is exactly what Donald Trump does on Twitter, in interviews, and especially with his campaigning team on 24 hour news citing “alternative facts”. I think this helps explain while even though Donald Trump has the lowest rating, he also has the most consistent. There is not very much room for dissenting voices. The propaganda is “Rapid, Continuous, and Repetitive”. Or what Trump’s former White House Chief Strategist Steven Bannon called it in 2018, “flood the zone with shit.”

So how can you counter this? How can you “expect to counter the firehose of falsehood with the squirt gun of truth”? You can’t. “Instead, put raincoats on those at whom the firehose is aimed.” The research on Firehosing suggests one main strategy, “Forewarning”:
Propagandists gain advantage by offering the first impression, which is hard to overcome. If, however, potential audiences have already been primed with correct information, the disinformation finds itself in the same role as a retraction or refutation: disadvantaged relative to what is already known.  
When people resist persuasion or influence, that act reinforces their preexisting beliefs. It may be more productive to highlight the ways in which Russian propagandists attempt to manipulate audiences, rather than fighting the specific manipulations.
My hope for myself and anyone willing to read this far is that by seeing just a single week of Trump’s Russian style propaganda, we have protected ourselves just a little. The final suggestion for dealing with Firehosing is the “turn down the flow”. In my case, that means removing myself from the dopamine addiction of righteous outrage about Trump’s most recent attempt to bait me. I remind myself though our country is more divided politically than any other time in my life, we are not more divided on most other topics (see graph).

It’s for that reason I’m encouraged by a nation that has made hard sacrifices to protect the most vulnerable during the Covid-19 pandemic (despite how quickly the nation was burned out by it, for reasons discussed earlier). I’m encouraged by the outpouring of support nationwide to say that Black Lives Matter (despite Trump’s own inability to comfort a nation mourning). I’m encouraged by the schools in Greenville (including the one where I teach) and improv theater communities throughout the country (including the one where I perform) as we have all worked together through an incredibly challenging time.

The word I’ve come back to over the last few months is TRUST. In a time of crisis, people flock to it. I know I’ve tried very hard to earn the trust of my family, friends, school, and theater in my words and actions. The opposite is also true. When we cannot trust someone in power, it only causes more anxiety. Richard Neustadt, a political scientist specializing in the American presidency once highlighted that because the role of the President does not have the actual power to pass laws or change the constitution, real “Presidential power is the power to persuade”. President Donald Trump cannot persuade anyone who does not already agree with him, because he cannot be trusted.

Monday, August 26, 2019

We are NOT the Walking Dead

Sometime in the early 2000's I heard about a new comic book series about zombies. Being a fan of the genre I was especially excited to read that the author planned to continue the series indefinitely. To create an ever expanding apocalyptic world.

15 years and 193 issues later the series has come to an end. In the final act Rick announces to a crowd, "We are NOT the Walking Dead!". This parallels an important moment very early in the series when Rick says the same line, but without the "not". It's then that the writers reveal that in this world all humans, no matter how they die, become zombies.

Reading the end of this series, feeling the "NOT" in the last speech, made me so happy. The world they created moved beyond survival. Mirroring the comic books themselves, the characters had created something bigger than themselves. The positive ending also struck a familiar chord with my life the last few days. With school starting back and my extended paternity leave ending, this last weekend was still wonderfully boring.

We went on our first family walk downtown in quite a while (now featuring bike riders). Had tacos and ice cream. Finished off the original Batman Animated Series with my children. Played some basketball with friends. Had s'mores with family. Rejoined the original improv team I help form 8 years ago. My new church celebrated our 3 year birthday. So many everyday joys.

I won't spoil the book series, but the theme of legacy is strong. Rick is a character who creates something that extends beyond his own life. This is one of my core missions. It's how I view education. It's how I view my improv theater. And it's how I view being a husband and father. Build and add. Part of me felt energized by the finale. A push to go out and grow my worlds bigger. I do plan to do that. Even more I felt a sense of, if I can quote another recent meaningful series ender, that I can "rest now".

I'm writing this to commemorate the deep feeling of gratitude I've been feeling lately. At 34 I've already done more than I thought I ever would. If this is the best it ever gets, if this happens to be the end of what I have now, I want to say I enjoyed the good old days while I was in them. We are NOT the walking dead. Right now, we are alive. And so, I'll leave you with the last page of the series.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Economics of Organ Donation (and Trade)

"many trades as you can possibly make because that's what a market's for"

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Takeaways from "Long-Form Improvisation and the Art of Zen"

As I've done several time before (especially when this blog was more active), here are some takeaways from a book I recently finished: Long-Form Improvisation and the Art of Zen. Some of this is items directly from the text and some are just thoughts inspired by it.

I'm reading this book to keep myself fresh as I teach the Alchemy Comedy Theater's inaugural Improv 601 class. It's mean to be a conservatory culmination of our previous 5 levels. It had a submission process and only acceptance 6 students. Each January the plan is for the current Artistic Director to end their 1 year term with this class and "graduate" a new class of veterans. Although this book is far from my favorite on the topic, I really appreciate that it's essentially Jason Chin's blog of thoughts on long-form improv (in fact the last third is literally just excerpts from his blog).

Jason was the reason why I purchased this book a while back. He tragically died very young a few years ago and I had always appreciated his perspective and performance whenever we crossed paths. He was so well loved he even has his own improv holiday. The only time I was in a classroom setting with him was while I was in Chicago for a summer doing the iO summer intensive (I believe the best deal in improv training) and he did a lecture/discussion about the history of improvisation. It was great.

Here's a great excerpt from the book:
In the Godfather movie, Michael Corleone dispassionately discusses his assassination of Sollozzo and the police captain, McCulsky. "It's not personal," he says, "It's business." The novel, however, goes one step further: "Tom, don't let anyone kid you. It's all personal, every bit of business."
It reminded me of the classic Del Close quote:
"Nothing we say to each other is innocent of emotional manipulation. Everything that we do on stage, is to effect each other, in some way and if we notice, very carefully, how those swine we are working with are trying to get to us and get at us. Sometimes I suggest we perform on stage as though we are a whole bunch of raving paranoids.  -Del Close
Nothing is more difficult to build on and heighten that big choices (like for example an assassination) with no one taking it personally. Here's a good rule of thumb: inject either a little narcissism or codependence in all your characters.

Improv scenes are never really about very much, but they are always about something. Understanding all the pieces of a scene are great (Relationship, Characters, Environment). Understanding the comedic Pattern of the scene is essential. But above that, the context of the scene lies in "what the scene is really about". Jealousy. God vs. Science. Survival. Etc. That said, you won't be able to preplan or layout that large thematic concept. What an improv scene is actually about is figuring out what it's about.

Here's another quote from the book, from Bruce Lee:
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend. 
This is not only great for the nature of how improvisers should be, it's also a good foundation for how improv shows should work. Figure what what makes the first scene it's shape (example: cup) and then pour it into another context (example: bottle).

Jason has an interesting breakdown in the terms coach or director. It encouraged me to layout definitions for Alchemy's three artistic leadership titles for the stage:

  • Director: Implement the mission of the theater on stage
  • Coach: Implement the mission of the team (as stated by the theater)
  • Coordinator: Encourage the members of the team to implement the mission of the team (as stated by the theater)
Similarly, here are how I've now defined the leadership roles off stage:
  • Producer: Implement the mission of the theater off stage
  • Manager: Implement the mission of the night (as stated by the theater)
  • Facilitator: Encourage the attenders of the event implement the mission of the event (as stated by the theater)
Jason was adamant about doing note sessions after shows (something I've done with success at other theaters). However, at Alchemy we have a culture of not doing that and treating the show itself as a moment of play reward for a period of hard work and practice (all of our House Teams and Company Members are required to attend a weekly practice). I think both systems can work and I wouldn't be bothered if a coach wanted to take Jason's suggestion. He also suggests that scene notes never last longer than the scene. Preach.

Hit a inspirational wall as a coach of a team? Ask yourself, "what are you learning?" and teach that. Not learning anything? Well, read a book or take a class.

Jason mentions a different book I've seen suggested several other times in multiple different contexts: Zen in the Art of Archery. Apparently it has many applications.

Here's a another great quote from the book, this one from Daisetsu Suzuki:
Technical knowledge is not enough. One must transcend techniques so that the art becomes artless art, growing out of the unconscious.
For a long time I've intended this 601 class to be a kind of final review for our veteran players. From here, it will just take time to get the groves in your brain to become second nature.

The biggest (only?) advantage improv has in the entertainment industry is that it's live. For that reason it's important to treat the audiences like heroes and performances like lightning in a bottle. In addition, improv theaters also need to do all the things other forms of entertainment do. Be organized, be professional, be on time, etc. From the author: "Improv [sometimes] lacks follow through".

Near the end of the book there is a list of ten suggestions. His number one is Listen. I don't think I've seen a list that didn't have some form of that at number one. The only thing I'd add to that is the other simultaneous number one rule. Act. If you're really listening and they're really saying something, then you'll really have a reaction.

With so many quotes of other people, I'll end with one from the author, Jason Chin, in the afterward of the book:
Improv is a fascinating art form that continues to evolve and mutate. I believe the trend is toward longer and longer shows with smaller and smaller casts (in number, not height) which allows for more intimate emotions and intense performances.
I agree. The graduation showcase for our 601 class will be duo monoscenes on Friday, February 23rd. At just 55 pages this isn't really an improv book, but more a collection of Jason Chin's thoughts on the topic. I'd be interested to read more mini-takes like this.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Mother's Day: Positive Impact of Siblings on Divorce Rate

Here's one my greatest pieces of gratitude to my mom from myself (and the mother of my own children). Thanks for having so many kids:
Researcher Doug Downey observed adults who grew up as an only child were least likely to marry. Those who did marry were the most at risk for divorce than adults who grew up with at least one sibling.  
Adults who grew up with one or two siblings, that is in a family of four or five total, had pretty much similar divorce rates. 
While there were only minimal divorce-prevention gains with family size of up to three siblings, in families with four to seven siblings lower divorce rates in adulthood were pronounced.
In fact, with 7 Brookie kids, my parents hit the number just right! Here's one guess on why:
children who grow up with multiple siblings have more opportunities to learn how to negotiate differences. They've had to learn how to live harmoniously with others
They not only have to learn to deal with the bad, they get more good:
In large families younger children receive loving attention from not just two parents but many older siblings as well. If they fall down, many hands reach down to help them up. If they aim to accomplish a goal, whether it’s learning to throw a ball or succeeding at a school athletic event, many sibs are there to coach and assist them, and many voices then chime in to celebrate their victories.
And it continues into adulthood:
When illness strikes, there’s an unexpected job loss, or grief besets adults, adult siblings can come to the rescue. Their help can lower the stress on the sibling with the problem and his her spouse.
That doesn't even count the benefits of your siblings spouses as additional siblings. With underpopulation looming, if you're able, my armchair suggestion is to have one more kid than you think you can handle, then drop what's necessary to keep your sanity. I'm not only am excited about trying to create my own clan, I'm sure the benefits 14 first cousins (more than half in town) are also measurably positive!

Bonus link: Various other correlations of divorce rates

Sunday, March 19, 2017

There's No Money in Improv (Directly)

Alchemy held our bi-annual auditions and company meeting today and here was a quote I emphasized. From Miles Stroth:
Improv is not something you make money doing. It’s a skill set that hopefully one day will be rewarded better commercially or financially. But people love it because it’s a fucking art form. But there’s not money is doing it well. There’s money is translating the skill set you learn doing it into other things.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Alchemy in Audio

I've been lucky enough to be interviewed in a handful of podcasts mostly discussing the local improv theater that I run. If you'd like to get a better idea of how it works and my personal vision for it, here are a few options:
  • There It Is: "Harrison talks with Jason about improv, his time at Clemson University and in Chapel Hill, NC at DSI, starting the Alchemy Comedy Theater, juggling running a theater with his other part-time job, and the New South Comedy Festival"
  • Improv in Action: "Sebastian and Jim sit down with Harrison Brookie of Alchemy Comedy Theater and discuss what it is to run an improv theatre in Greenville SC."
  • Stories of the Upstate: About my younger days as a "lovable little buddy as a teen, pretty irresponsible and pretty fun" and how that led to opening a comedy theater.
  • Greenville Comedy Marathon Panel:  "Part of the Greenville Comedy Marathon, an annual marathon put on by Alchemy Comedy. It was moderated by Alchemy Artistic Director, Harrison Brookie, and features Meg Pierson, Todd Janssen, Tom Emmons, Traysie Amick, and Carrie Adams!"
Bonus non-improv topic with improv people... I Was Just About to Say That: "This week we have an equally educational and enjoyable episode with a very special guest, Harrison Brookie, who is a local high school teacher and improviser extraordinaire. We're talking the top 5 US presidents with the first name James."

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Politics As Religion

I'm catching up on my "Conversations with (Economist) Tyler Cowen" podcasts (earlier on Tyler). Here's a great quote from an interview with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:
National politics is different from local. National politics, I believe, is much more like religion than local politics is. If you take it all the way down to the very local level — who the dogcatcher is, who the treasurer is of the town — that’s all very practical stuff. People are very worried about their property values and things like that. It’s not very ideological. National politics is much more like a religion. The president is the high priest of the American civil religion
And to be clear, I think this is mostly a negative.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

Why I Was Wrong About Trump's Victory (But Not Necessarily About His Presidency)

My brief streak of correctly predicting the presidency while never actually voting for the winner has ended. Donald Trump is now the 45th President of the US and few saw it coming (not even Trump). Last week I got to do a second presentation to my campus to update them on my own prediction failure and help them process why exactly the polls and national media were so wrong. Here was my explanation:

The Polls Weren't Wrong
When I first spoke to my school in late October, Clinton had about a 70% chance of winning in the polls. We all forgot the implication that 30% is not zero and far from it. He had a 1/3 chance of winning, which is still pretty possible. Secondly, the polls were off, but the 2016 polls were actually slightly more accurate than the 2012 ones. Only in 2012, the polling error didn't change the outcome. Here's an eerie title from Nate Silver (who I vowed to never link again) just 4 days before the election: "Trump Is Just A Normal Polling Error Behind Clinton". And finally, last minute undecided voters (who can't be measured well) did seem to shift towards Trump (was it Comey, Russia, Johnson, or likely Clinton's fault?).

Very Very Close Election
It looks now that Hillary Clinton is going to get more than 2.9 million votes than Donald Trump. In fact, if you convince 38,595 Trump voters in close states to switch to Clinton she wins. That's close. But of course the Electoral College system choses the president. That was relatively close too. Trump's victory is 46th out of 58 in past presidential elections.

No Obama 3rd Term 
The now well known "Prediction Professor" has a successful 13 yes or no question system for predicting a win (in this case, a Trump win). You can read them all here, but most of them come down to much larger factors beyond the candidates themselves. Very rarely does a political party get 3rd term in the presidency (it takes a Jefferson, Jackson, or Roosevelt) and it seems now it was Clinton's election to lose. If fact, I think Biden was the Dems only chance.

Party Loyalty Trumped (Literally)
The most surprising thing for me this season was just how little Trump's surprises mattered. Since his initial Birther claims in 2011 and every unelectable thing he did since, I'd assumed he couldn't win. I assumed the Republican base would not get behind someone who wasn't a Republican just a few years ago. I assumed... well you know what happens...

  • 81% of white evangelicals supported Trump, more than voted for last 3 Republicans (looks like they didn't read my post on the abortion)
  • Hispanics and African Americans voted for Trump more than the last Republican (at the end of the day, Hillary was no Obama)
  • Midwest/Rust Belt (PA, MI, WI, OH) voted with what they hoped for their wallet over any dreams of social justice
  • Rural America is underrepresented in our nationally culture, but purposefully overrepresented in the Electoral College, and voted for Trump by a huge margin 

You can see the rural/urban divide in the nation, my home state, and even in my precinct here in the city of Greenville
Trump won in at least part because he was Trump, and if there's one thing his first 2 weeks as President prove, he's still Trump.