National Security and Personal Privacy: Percentage Games

Very large percentage[s],” that is. (Some might even say yuuuuuge.)

While there are instances in which two or more things can be true at the same time, this really isn’t one of them. The difference between OK and not-OK from the perspective of national security and/or privacy is not simply a significant percentage of the purchase price.

Except, of course, according to the logic of the art of the deal. As has been obvious for some time now, everything is potentially for sale.

A Mental Moonshot

What does this country mean to you?

What does it stand for?

Who is it for?

Where do we need to go from here, and why?


Try writing these things down. Then look for all the metaphors, received ideas, and historical just-so stories that might appear in your answers (the opportunity for all people to bootstrap their way to the moon in pursuit of happiness, for example).

This is much harder than it sounds: it’s surprising how little we know what we mean when we try to say what we mean. But woolly thinking, thickets of mixed metaphors, and solved problems are not very solid ground to build the future on. (Make no mistake!)


PS: Bonus points for sharing this exercise with someone you know.

Reading with the Wind

I don’t have to point out that this is a good time to read something by or about Rep. John Lewis.

But I think it’s also a good time to consider what role reading played in forming the consciousness and practice of Rep. Lewis, Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and other leaders of the movement. Their relationship to time and truth was differently formed (and informed) than that of so many people today, and the difference matters.

Where did the movement look for fundamental truths and precepts? Where do you look for or store those? Why?


On a completely different note, the Code of GyShiDo made me grin this week.

Purity and Proscription

As the Roman Republic was descending into chaos (before the emergence of empire, which Caesar naturally framed as the necessary salvation of the Republic), lists were posted in the Forum every day with the names of enemies of the state.

Obviously, the way to have a new list of bad guys every day is to make one up. And it doesn’t take many “generations” to become a purely political exercise — a convenient way to bump off that guy who was mean to you that one time, or the one who’s surely (surely!) up to no good.

I’m hardly the first person to point out the way our current politics rhyme with those of the late Republic, but it’s no less important to keep a weather eye on history as we go into what will surely be a tough six months.

Both politically and socially, our culture is really hooked on purity tests and demonstrations. This personalizes our politics, which makes them more volatile and dangerous.

The immediate risk probably isn’t so much a specific caesar as breaking the political fever so that any rebuilding isn’t premised on personal vendettas.

Sooner or later, there will be a new president. But a new presidency also means an enormous slate of new appointments, from the lowliest executive-branch offices to the Supreme Court bench.

And that’s where we’ll need to draw some careful lessons and distinctions: the spoils system is one thing, but full-on purging is another. Given how loose our language has become, it’s not at all difficult to imagine some people pushing for something like a “de-Nazification” of the executive branch. That might be the natural extension of the “all those on the other side are Nazis” line of thinking, but that crowd needs to have an answer for the calamity of de-Ba’athification before they start putting up lists of personae non gratae.

Once started, these sorts of cycles are very difficult to stop. Far better to see the danger beforehand and forbear the desire to inflict maximum punishment.

96 Days to Go

That’s all there is.

If you’re tired of a so-so New York real estate developer taking up space rent-free in your brain, today’s a great day to:

  • Make a plan to vote — by mail if at all possible [check your registration at]
  • Have a conversation with someone else about their voting plans
  • Know your races [see Ballotpedia for clear, evenhanded information]
  • Consider volunteering, either in an organized fashion or by using the networks and channels you already have [everyone’s overwhelmed, so personal outreach is especially valuable]

Pay as much or as little attention to the news as you want (or can stand) over the next three months.

But by all means please vote — the sooner and safer, the better.

Warp Speed?

There’s been a strong line of argument that we’ll just innovate our way out of climate change (or its worst effects).

As the world watches the race for a coronavirus vaccine, we ought to be asking two questions about the much bigger challenge of climate change:

(1) If we’re going to sprint, when will we start?

(2) From what we see of the all-out sprint for a vaccine, is this the process on which we’re eager or willing to bet our collective future?

It’s Time to Reform Workism

In a February 2019 essay in the Atlantic, Derek Thompson described how “The Religion of Workism is Making Americans Miserable.”

This is especially true of men in general, he writes, and most especially true of Millennials — who have been conditioned since birth to “hustle” and hook their identities to their work.

This is soul-crushing. And as much burnout as we might have seen even if we hadn’t walked straight into the two worst economic crashes in living memory, it’s really time to blow the whistle on this culture now. Work is, ultimately, meaningful — but it’s a terrible place to look for ultimate meaning.


Crucially, Thompson also points out that workism is not merely another new atheism, but also the law. And so we come to today’s big reveal from Congressional Republicans, featuring payroll tax breaks rather than unemployment benefits — and a lot smaller than previous stimulus overall, even as COVID continues to rage across the country.

Face it: 10 percent of Americans aren’t staying home because they just don’t feel like working. And the idea that $600 a week is more comfortable than being employed isn’t an indictment of lazy people as much as it’s an indictment of a society and an economy that can’t manage to pay an awful lot of people even $31,200 per year in good times.

This is indeed a recipe for misery and meanness, and all of our quality-of-life statistics (to say nothing of wealth distribution statistics) bear that out.

So, yes, we need to think about creating more and better jobs during and after the pandemic. But we also need to think deeply about what we’re really looking for in a “good” job.

Two Things at Once

In the latest example of two things being true at the same time, last week offered the contrast of Bari Weiss’s resignation letter from the New York Times and the administration’s totally out-of-line words and actions about the Portland protests (and more).

The letter is worth reading for at least two reasons: first, because it didn’t reach all the people it probably should have; second, it’s a well-written account of just how much our theoretically mainstream/objective/fact-based media have been warped by social media. (For what it’s worth, I generally agree with her conclusions about social media at face value — and I also believe that Twitter has become the world’s de facto editorial board. As a cultural institution, we can hope for better from the paper of record, but as a newspaper business, it’s hard to see how the NYT could avoid getting swept up in and along by larger digital-cultural trends.)

And as for Portland? Debating whether or not this is fascism is a little like debating collusion: we can argue the legal points as long and hard as we want, but the bigger point is that actions like this are typical of how this government behaves. If those aren’t the actions you want from government, it’s time to pick a new one.

Life, Records

In anticipation of this summer’s place issue from the Oxford American, I re-read a 2017 essay that dances with the idea that just about everybody wants to enjoy Southern culture, but not too many people are so eager to claim all of Southern heritage. And isn’t that — “the duality of the Southern thing,” as Patterson Hood called it — how we deal with so much of our culture in this country? Without further ado, Zandria F. Robinson’s “Border Wars.”

I did plenty of other reading this week, too, including my first real deep dive back into the always-excellent historical-cultural-international writing at the Scholar’s Stage in a few years, but the words that probably moved me most this week were from two relatively recent records: Willie Nelson’s First Rose of Spring and Brandy Clark’s Your Life is a Record. Enjoy.