Introduction

Introduction to My Blog

With this blog, I aim to ask and answer provocative or otherwise interesting questions. I hope you find it valuable. Enjoy!

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Antitrust Enforcement in the Big Tech Age

The following is a policy brief I put together for a writing class at USC. I liked this piece enough that I want to share it. It is meant to be a letter to the Chairman of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) but I modified it slightly to be more conducive to this blog format. Enjoy!

Executive Summary
            The FTC Bureau of Competition, via enforcement of past antitrust legislation, vows to act as an opposing force to “unfair methods of competition” and “corporate acquisitions that may substantially lessen competition” (A Brief Overview…). Unfortunately, a cursory glance at the technology industry landscape reveals a troubling anticompetitive reality. Google, Facebook, and their properties account for over 70 percent of all internet traffic (Cuthbertson). This market dominance is indicative of a massive concentration of revenue in few platforms.  Relevant dynamics governing this anticompetitive atmosphere like the network effect, anticompetitive acquisitions, and the use of proprietary marketplaces must be checked by the FTC. 
The United States needs a 21st-century outlook regarding what constitutes anticompetitive, unfair, and monopolistic practices. Thankfully, there exists a remedy to these issues: enforce antitrust legislation. This remedy has precedent thanks to the U.S. V. Microsoft case in 2001, which ruled that Microsoft imposed excessive barriers to entry with its anticompetitive practices and market dominance. The FTC needs to break up Facebook and Google, as their size is the root cause of their anticompetitive business practices. Their size affords them vast power, which translates into leverage used to stifle competition. They must be broken up into independent components. Below is a link to a graph showing how singularly dominant Google has been in recent years, consistently close to controlling 90 percent market share among search engines.

The Problem
In 1880, Standard Oil controlled roughly 90 percent of oil production in the United States (Rockefeller and…). In 2001, Microsoft controlled roughly 90 percent of personal computer production in the United States (U.S. V. Microsoft). Today, Google controls roughly 90 percent of the global search engine market (Figure 1). Both Standard Oil and Microsoft were subjected to successful antitrust lawsuits by the federal government of the United States in the years following these figures. These phenomena are quite different in how they came about, but equally troubling. By creating a trust, Standard Oil’s executives were able to reach majority ownership in dozens of other companies which constituted essential components of Standard Oil’s supply chain (Rockefeller and…). This practice stifled competition and helped lead to the aforementioned 90 percent figure. Microsoft engaged in its own anticompetitive practices, which I will detail in a case study later. 
Facebook accounts for roughly 60 percent of social media use when its property, Instagram, is included (Figure 2). Mark Zuckerberg argues that Facebook has plenty of competitors, like Microsoft, Apple, and Twitter. In a sense, he is right. The antitrust case against Facebook and Google is difficult if one depends on past antitrust precedent. Neither company is creating a trust to annex their supply chain. While Facebook and Twitter do ostensibly compete in the social media sphere while Google and Bing do so in the search engine sphere, this is not a true and full depiction of the situation. Facebook provides an entirely different service from Twitter. There is no serious alternative to Facebook for those who want a major social media platform with the same possibilities and components. The following analogy clarifies the positioning of Facebook, and Google to a lesser extent. The automobile industry certainly does not have any monopolies in the United States. However, if only one company sold sports cars at a mass level, while another company was the only one selling muscle cars, with another company was the only one selling motorcycles, that would not be a healthy marketplace. No single company would have a complete monopoly over the ‘automobile’ industry. However, the consolidation of certain sectors of the industry would constitute a bundle of effective monopolies not seriously competing with one another. This analogy, to a significant degree, faithfully represents the social media sphere.
Dynamics at Play
Three principal dynamics govern the maintenance of Google and Facebook’s respective market dominances: the network effect, anticompetitive acquisitions, and the use of proprietary marketplaces. The network effect refers to the notion that as the use of a service increases, so too does its value and dominance of the market (Khong et al). Facebook benefits from this more than almost any company because Facebook pioneered the social media sphere, and now benefits from its network of roughly 2.5 billion active users monthly (Facebook Reports…). To a lesser degree, this applies to Google’s features such as restaurant reviews integrated in Google Maps. Both Facebook and Google are guilty of engaging in anticompetitive acquisitions. Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp and Instagram vastly increase its dominance of the private communications and social media markets, where Facebook was already incredibly powerful. Facebook’s anticompetitive acquisitions have led to the fact that Facebook now owns four of the eight top communication apps, two of which it did not develop (Blumenthal). Google’s acquisitions of Waze and DoubleClick powerfully consolidated Google’s position among mapping applications and online advertising. The use of proprietary marketplaces to limit competition takes the form of Google tuning its algorithms to favor its own content and properties (Berlatsky). Below is a link to data showing just how dominant Facebook is in the social media sphere, especially when its properties, Instagram and WhatsApp, are considered as well.

Precedent: United States v. Microsoft 
            In 2001, the federal government of the United States sued Microsoft Corporation for anticompetitive business practices (Martinez). Microsoft made its expensively-developed applications an essential and exclusive component of its computers (Martinez). The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that this created an unreasonable barrier to entry for those attempting to create rival operating systems (U.S. V. Microsoft). This case is now considered a landmark case because prior to it, the technology sphere had been subject to minimal federal regulations. The Microsoft case was dominated by arguments about “viable alternatives,” “market share,” and “barriers to entry” for competitors. These arguments apply similarly to Facebook and Google. They both represent significant majorities in their respective markets, position their own content above rival content, and benefit from networks unimaginable to current start-ups. This case demonstrates that there is recent precedent for the notion that sufficiently anticompetitive industries are fair game for federal regulators.
 Solution
Due to the aforementioned arguments, the FTC should break up Facebook and Google into independent companies constituting no more than 25 percent market dominance. Breaking up these companies is the best solution because the root cause of the harmful network effects, anticompetitive acquisitions, and unfair use of proprietary marketplaces is the sheer size of these companies. The leverage over consumers, rivals, and government regulators implicit in controlling over 50 percent of any market is dangerous to a free market. 
The success of these two massive corporations must not be considered before fair market competition is ensured. The FTC must establish an antitrust tradition of the 21st century based on the Microsoft case. This will make clear the parameters for market competition, so that emerging industries of the future are not subject to the same levels of market dominance by few competitors. The FTC would benefit from ensuring that the core duties with which it is tasked are met, and the United States would benefit from a business atmosphere friendlier to innovators and newcomers. The social media and search engine sphere were pioneered by people Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, and Sergey Brin. Ironically, it is doubtful that these men could have changed the world the way they did if the big tech sphere had been as anticompetitive as it is now.



Works Cited

“A Brief Overview of the Federal Trade Commission's Investigative, Law Enforcement, and 
Rulemaking Authority.” Federal Trade Commission, 16 Oct. 2019, www.ftc.gov/about-
ftc/what-we-do/enforcement-authority.

Berlatsky, Noah. “Google Search Algorithms Are Not Impartial. They Can Be Biased, Just like 
Their Designers.” NBCNews.com, NBCUniversal News Group, 21 Feb. 2018, 
biased-just-ncna849886.

Blumenthal, Paul. “Mark Zuckerberg Doesn't See Facebook As A Monopoly, Since Its 
Competition Is All Human Activity.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 11 Apr. 2018, 
www.huffpost.com/entry/mark-zuckerberg-facebook monopoly_n_5ace81b5e4b0701783ab0ef7.

Clement, J. “Worldwide Desktop Market Share of Leading Search Engines from January 2010 to 
October 2019.” Statista, StatCounter, 5 Feb. 2020, www-statista-
com.libproxy1.usc.edu/statistics/216573/worldwide-market-share-of-search-engines/.

Cuthbertson, Anthony. “Google and Facebook's Dominance Could Lead to the ‘Death of the 
Internet," Warns Programmer.” Newsweek, 2 Nov. 2017, www.newsweek.com/facebook-
google-internet-traffic-net-neutrality-monopoly-699286.

“Facebook Reports Fourth Quarter and Full Year 2019 Results.” PR Newswire, Facebook, 29 
full-year-2019-results-300995616.html.

Khong, K., et al. “BSEM Estimation of Network Effect and Customer Orientation Empowerment 
on Trust in Social Media and Network Environment.” Expert Systems with Applications, vol. 40, no. 12, Sept. 2013, pp. 4858–70, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1701044801/.

Martinez, Antonio. “United States V. Microsoft Corp.” Wired, vol. 26, no. 2, Condé Nast 
Publications, Inc., Feb. 2018, http://search.proquest.com/docview/1989954483/.

Perrin, Andrew, and Monica Anderson. “Share of U.S. Adults Using Social Media, Including Facebook, Is Mostly Unchanged since 2018.” Pew Research Center, Pew Research Center, 10 Apr. 2019, www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/10/share-of-u-s-adults-using-social-media-including-facebook-is-mostly-unchanged-since-2018/.

“Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Monopoly.” Constitutional Rights Foundation, www.crf-
usa.org/bill-of-rights-in-action/bria-16-2-b-rockefeller-and-the-standard-oil-
monopoly.html.

“U.S. V. Microsoft: Court's Findings Of Fact.” The United States Department of Justice, 26 July 
2018, www.justice.gov/atr/us-v-microsoft-courts-findings-fact#iiib.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

A Defense of Aggressively Putting Aside our Differences, Part 3: Joint Conclusions

According to figures from the Pew Research Center, roughly 7 in 10 Democrats and Democrat-leaning voters seeking relationships would not consider a Trump voter. Just under half of Republican and Republican-leaning voters would not consider dating a Clinton voter. We are deeply disheartened to encounter these figures, and want to understand why it is that this kind of prejudice is so pervasive.

Political affiliations have become so entrenched for many that they take on some of the worst aspects of tribalism: suspicion of the 'other', an unwavering in-group attitude, and refusal to re-examine one's own views.

In my prior post entitled "The Blind Crusade, Part 1," I described Deeyah Khan, who embodied the pinnacle of the principles we are attempting to convey here. She, a woman of South Asian descent, engaged with and attempted to understand white supremacist leaders in the United States on a personal level. In the end, her kindness and warmth led several members of the hateful groups to renounce their affiliations.

We are not suggesting that all should become like Deeyah Khan. She placed herself at great personal risk. However, her instinct towards trying to engage and understand, rather than judge and exclude is an admirable attitude that we hope more people embrace.

Obviously, you must navigate this principle within reason. If you adhere to a strict vegan diet for moral purposes, it may be difficult to embrace a butcher or factory farm owner. Our point is to lean on the side of giving people a chance to make a unique contribution to your life, because they will.

We both love visiting our beloved California beaches. The ideal cuisine for us is tangy southern barbecue. And no music jams quite like Chicago blues. Thankfully, we live in a world where we can go to the beach, bring some takeout barbecue, and play Chicago blues in the car ride. Most of us need not be told that traveling and probing different foods and music broadens our worldview.

This sort of attitude is equally valid when applied to the people you encounter, all of whom have viewpoints and expertise that differ from yours. With an open mind, you can make some unlikely friends, like an Irishman who can help improve your drinking prowess, a Frenchwoman who can correct your pronunciation of L'Etranger, a Costa Rican woman who introduces you to under appreciated Spanish language music, a Dutch couple who teaches you of the glories of Amsterdam FC, or an outraged Czech banker who was unenthusiastic about currency exchanges (yes, these are all real encounters of ours).

We hope that, through the lens of our unlikely friendship, we can shed some light on the benefits of giving the 'other,' whoever they might be, a chance. While they will rarely make such a revolutionary impact as Al has made in my life, they will undoubtedly open your eyes in unexpected ways and introduce you to ideas, music, interests, and hobbies you otherwise would not have encountered.

Friday, May 22, 2020

A Defense of Aggressively Putting Aside Our Differences, Part 2: Al's Take

The first time I met the man I now consider to be my brother, I never imagined that I would know him in any way other than the teacher’s pet at the front of the class. At first glance, I had dismissed Maverick Freedlander as the kind of guy who would live and die sitting in the front row of every class, doing his best to answer every question the teacher asked. 

To me, that kind of lifestyle deserved no more than scorn and mild bewilderment. Who would want to work so hard for nothing more than the ephemeral approval of a teacher? His attitude towards school was anathema to me, and I did not possess the foresight to look more deeply. And if not for a lucky break, Mav would have remained nothing more than a passing curiosity, the kind of animal you would stare at through the glass of an aquarium.


It took a particularly auspicious assignment in our shared class to change my mind. In the class we were taking together, the teacher had directed us to prepare individual presentations on issues faced by individual countries in the Middle East. Since I was too apathetic to take the initiative in selecting a topic, the teacher graciously chose for me. I may not be personally invested in the social issues facing Lebanon, but my knowledge of the history of the region helped make up for my lack of time invested in the project (I spent less than 5 minutes before class preparing the powerpoint presentation, intending to ad-lib the rest. Those who know me can assure you that this is standard procedure). 

The ensuing masterpiece caught the attention of Mav, and we struck up a conversation after the class (and after the teacher had upbraided me for my lack of effort). From that conversation we both walked away with different perspectives. 


I was wrong about him. From that day forward, our friendship developed and our interests slowly began to overlap. I introduced him to rock music and he reinvigorated my interest in it. I taught him what I knew of history and he showed me how much I still had to learn. We became better men thanks to our contact with each other. Nowhere was this more evident than in how our political views have changed since we met each other. Though I may have failed in getting him to embrace anarcho-monarchism (the objectively best political ideology), we’ve both grown in maturity thanks to each other’s input.


I’ve been wrong about many things over the course of my life. Of all my incorrect assumptions, I am most glad that I was proven wrong about Maverick. He remains a steadfast and wise friend of mine, and I am eternally grateful that I had the chance to be proven wrong by him.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

A Defense of Aggressively Putting Aside Our Differences, Part 1: Mav's Take

When all you listen to is rap, rock and roll just doesn’t taste right. We develop preferences, patterns, and tastes for certain kinds of music, art, and people. This is natural and it is not problematic in the slightest. However, if one adheres so strictly to their preferences, they may never realize that there is more to probe than just their own cup of tea.


During my freshman year of college, I met an unlikely friend. Al and I were both political science students, but that seemed to be where the similarities abruptly ended. He was laid back and felt that an obsession with schoolwork shouldn’t interfere with an enjoyable undergraduate life. I was singularly obsessed with securing a high GPA in order to transfer to an accredited university. He seemed in sync with obscure meme culture, while I read the full news section of the New York Times on a daily basis, bringing that information to class discussions.


We became acquaintances through our school’s Model United Nations (MUN) program, but during my first semester in the club together we were merely school friends among a whole team of friends. In my second semester, he and I, by chance, both took a Middle East politics class. I sat in the front, answering so many questions that I gained a reputation in the class as the one who would bail everyone else out if they didn’t read the day’s material. Meanwhile, Al sat as far back as he could, discreetly playing computer games or outright sleeping at times.


I had built a great many assumptions about Al based on what I saw. To be clear, I always liked him as a person, but I did hold some negative assumptions. His less-than-enthusiastic attitude towards school led me to assume that he was not particularly gifted intellectually. The lack of political opinions he voiced made me believe that he was both disengaged and uninformed politically. All in all, I thought he was an uninteresting person without much to say about the topics I cared most about.


In these assumptions, I was dead wrong. I was more wrong than I have ever been about anything, and I learned this on a spring day of 2017. I had just learned that Al was interested in history, and he told me he could teach me some of the basics about World War 1, one of the historical periods that most fascinated him. 


I invited him to come to my house, and he sat down with me and opened a blank, entirely unlabeled map of the world. He proceeded for two hours to point out locations and offer the most precise details about what had occurred 100 years prior. Within two years, I would be studying World War 1 directly under David Stevenson, one of the most respected historians of the conflict in the world.


In addition to a blossoming love and appreciation of history, Al gave me something else that is now at the center of my life. He introduced me to Led Zeppelin, which was the first of a thousand dominos, leading me to a deep love for The Rolling Stones, The Eagles, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and of course, Led Zeppelin. I have become such an insufferable fanboy that I now have over a dozen band t-shirts in my closet.


None of this is to say that Al and I are anywhere near perfectly synchronized. While our intuitions are similar on some topics, we have quite different philosophies of life. I would argue that even now, we differ in as many ways as we converge. He won’t shut up about his vague anarcho-monarchist political views, but he also won’t explain them (I deeply doubt his sincerity on the topic). He and I are quite temperamentally different, and it shows. However, our differences almost never bother one another.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Student Debt

Think of a bright young high school senior. Let's call her Anna. Anna is surveying her options regarding moving on to college. She has been volunteering and working especially hard to maintain straight A's in honors classes, all while devoting significant time to her role as captain of her school's volleyball team. As if she wasn't already impressive enough, she is a weekly opinion columnist for the school newspaper. She is 18 years old, has three full scholarship offers, and will be the first woman in her family to attend college.

Unlike his friend Anna, Matt is no superstar. He is a good student, earning a mix of A's and B's. He works a part-time gig at a local Mexican restaurant to help his single mother out with the bills. Luckily for Matt, he has been accepted into three of the five universities he applied to. However, no scholarship offers come, and even with some financial aid, he will have to take out loans. 15 years after his medical school graduation, Matt is still over $100,000 in debt.

I will end the story with one last detail: Anna and Matt end up attending the same undergraduate college. We love the Anna story. She shows us that so much can be achieved by ambitious students and young people. She is a trailblazer and we all rightly praise her. Unfortunately, she is also a distraction from the experience of most students if we focus on her too heavily.

We don't quite enjoy the Matt story in the same way. He seems to represent a gap or contradiction in our system. Hard-working people with good character will catch breaks and make it with a good attitude, right? Maybe. No individual person or decision caused Matt to incur so much debt. He simply walked through the doors he was told signaled future success. Unfortunately, though, the signs on those doors were crafted by PR firms on behalf of elite universities.

I just graduated from the University of Southern California. Luckily for me, I was able to graduate free from worries of debt. However, I am all too aware that this is not the case for most of my former classmates. At least half of my American friends who attend or attended universities exit with student debt.

It seems that official statistics confirm my experience, as 69 percent of students in the class of 2018 (the most recent data I could find) had to take out loans for their post-secondary education, and graduated with an average of $29,800 in debt. To give you a sense of the sheer scale of this on a national level, the total student debt of Americans is $1.56 trillion dollars.

A glass-half-full kind of person may retort: "But surely this debt is overwhelmingly held by those mere months or a few years out of college". Most people with student loans cannot expect, based on current statistics, to have fully paid them off until their 30s and 40s.

Millions of middle-aged and senior Americans still have student debt as well. We can only expect this proportion to rise, since the effects of astronomical tuition increases in recent years have not yet been reflected across all age groups.

This article by the Washington Post does a wonderful job of outlining the negative consequences of student debt about which we should all be worried: lower home ownership, less marriage, fewer small businesses, and preventing retirement savings among those still in debt.

A college diploma is now worth what a high school diploma was worth two decades ago, and we should treat it like the essential good that it is for millions of young people. This means, at a minimum, abolishing student debt, and ideally, funding public universities entirely with public funds, so all qualified students have an opportunity, at the very least, for a high-quality but affordable post-secondary education. Unfortunately, other than from a few marginal voices in the public sphere, I hear very little of this conversation.

One day, someone will be shocked to learn that a university education in the United States was once a luxury that drove people into crippling debt, rather than a basic guarantee from a society that values widespread access to advanced education. I hope that day comes soon, for the sake of everyone burdened by student debt.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Our Journalism Problem

Our problem with journalism is deeper than most realize. The problem on the surface is that good journalism isn't sexy or fantastical, and draws fewer eyeballs than sensationalism. The rise of outlets like Fox News, followed by the Trump surge for MSNBC and CNN, all attest to the problem with journalism.

Less eyeballs amount to less opportunities to reach consumers by advertisers, who are increasingly the financial backbone of the journalistic business model. The question arises: how can journalists reach more readers and gain more of those coveted eyeballs? The answer to this question highlights the deeper problem with journalism.

With the free market left alone to determine winners and losers, good-quality journalism is decidedly unprofitable in the digital age. As my generation and those younger than me grow into adulthood, we have never had to pay for basic information about the world. The internet allows us to browse all of the free news sites we wish to see.

What is the problem here? We are watching a devastating spiral staircase come into form: Young people are less and less inclined to pay for journalism, decimating traditional outlets of quality journalism reliant on community funding, and elevating sensationalist trash that attracts mountains of clicks. Traditional outlets are indispensable for good information because they actually employ journalists who go out in the field and cover stories, gaining new information.

According to a New York Times article from December, more than one in five U.S. newspapers have closed. The article includes statements from ordinary people in communities, who describe how the loss of a local paper impacts them. Many describe a lack of coverage of vital local issues, while only being told of local violent crime, weather, and the occasional police chase.

It may be worth lingering for a moment here with the police chase idea. Why are police chases such money-makers for local television coverage? Everyone irresistibly watches. People tell their friends and family to turn on the channel to watch. They're thrilling. Anything can happen.

Live police chases highlight what is so terrible about market incentives for journalism, which leads us to our deeper, core journalism problem: most people simply don't want good journalism. People want the car chases. They want the "OUTRAGEOUS" and "AMAZING".

The difference between real journalism and what passes for journalism today is the difference between a documentary about a war and a war film. I am far from the first to publicly worry about the role entertainment plays in our information intake. Most refer to the problem as a "fusion" of entertainment and information

I am slightly more pessimistic. The way I see the issue, entertainment is slowly replacing information. The problem isn't that news of our local laws is becoming too sexy. The problem is that it is vanishing altogether. The increase in entertainment relative to sober information is making us more dull. It also makes our politics less focused on substantive problems and more on tribalism, personality auras, and the insult fights that occur in that vast wasteland we call "Twitter".

My message at the end of this is relatively simple. If you agree with the sentiments I express in this article, then be more skeptical of cable news. If it isn't a burden, subscribe to a good newspaper that does original journalism. Notice when the conversation becomes divorced from what real people are experiencing, and tied to petty squabbles between public figures. Think about how advertising money may pollute news coverage. Without corrections of the poor incentives, real journalism will continue to suffer. At the very least, we can be conscious of this and set better standards for ourselves.








Tuesday, May 12, 2020

On Toxic Masculinity

The very term "toxic masculinity" has become so charged that it is an effective conversation-ender. What does this term mean, though? Surely, the mention of this term conjures up images of frontline military men, competitive violent athletics, and fraternity culture at American universities. I happen to believe that toxic masculinity refers to something that is problematic. However, I also think that it is important to be measured in one's critiques.

In high school, I played on the football team. In this environment, I was encouraged to manifest my masculinity. There was nothing wrong with this, but some of my teammates took their masculinity to absurd degrees. Some would run off the field after a big play, and then clash helmets with several teammates on the sideline in celebration. At the time, I found it amusing and laughed. Some of my teammates would scarcely seem different off the field than on it.

It became ugly, though. Fights broke out seemingly for no reason off the field. One time, several of the more senior players grabbed a freshman who was changing and threw him in a trash can, then moved it to the showers and turned the cold water on. Another time, a fight broke out on the curb in the parking lot of our school just when my dad arrived to pick me up, and he ran in to break them up. None of this was funny. It was a real dark side to the countless hours of great work we did as a team.

Violence and excess came to characterize how some of my teammates sought to prove their masculine worthiness. However, they did not invent these practices. They inherited them from others, including professional athletes they idolized and other cultural figures they admired like rappers.

There exist much healthier ideals of what a masculine figure could be. Regarding a better masculine ideal, I would like to discuss the great demigod Achilleus, as depicted in Homer's Iliad. Achilleus, or Achilles as he is often known, is said to be the finest warrior among the Achaeans. He is swift on his feet and wields incredible physical strength. At a turning point in the Iliad, Achilleus's close friend, Patroklos, is slain in battle by Hektor, greatest among the Trojans.

This practically drives Achilleus mad, as he nearly tears out his hair and screams at the news of his beloved companion's death. Achilleus soon confronts Hektor in battle, and can hardly contain his rage. Hektor attempts to forge a gentlemen's agreement with Achilleus, that whoever should defeat the other, they must return the body to their loved ones and not desecrate it. Achilleus refuses, telling Hektor that "there are no trustworthy oaths between men and lions" (Homer 464, Book 22). Hektor lays dead soon after, having succumbed to the spear of Achilleus.

Achilleus returns to the Achaean camp with Hektor's body, and drags it around with his chariot. Priam, king of the Trojans and heartbroken father of Hektor, makes a seemingly suicidal journey in the night to the Achaean camp with the hopes of retrieving his son Hektor's corpse. He approaches Achilleus in the night, and immediately drops down to kiss the hands of his son's killer.

Priam pleads: "Honor the gods, Achilleus, and take pity upon me remembering your father, yet I am still more pitiful; I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through; I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children" (Homer 510, Book 24). After this, they both weep for those they have lost, and Achilleus returns Hektor to his grieving father, defying all conventions of war at the time. Achilleus could have ended the war, with the opposing king in his custody. Instead, Achilleus is able to see his own father in the heartbroken Priam, and is moved to gentleness towards Hektor by thinking of his own loss of his friend Patroklos.

On the battlefield, Achilleus is a lion among men. His rage makes him a force of divine destruction. By the end of the Iliad, though, he learns something valuable about what it is to be human. His actions on the battlefield and their consequences are much clearer to him, and he learns restraint. He is also in touch with his emotions, and this does not take away from his excellence as a leader and warrior. To the contrary, it makes him a more complete man.

I find the figure of Achilleus at the end of Homer's Iliad to be among the finest exemplars of masculinity. Furthermore, it is my view that if this type of healthier, more well-rounded form of masculinity is elevated in American culture, we would all fare better.

As I have grown into a young adult, I have increasingly realized something important. One does not need to be a strictly "masculine" nor "feminine" person. Those who know me best would find it difficult to place me in either of these camps. I played sports my whole life and still enjoy lifting and exercising, but I also often sing and dance to love songs by the Beatles. I love to study the history of World War 1 and am quite assertive at times. On the other hand, I am deeply in touch with my emotions and love cooking. I enjoy playing poker but write a blog. I could go on.

My point is that masculinity is not an all-or-nothing proposition. In fact, I find the most rewarding path to be one of manifesting both masculinity and femininity at different times, and I think that this advice can be applied for men and women alike. I know what it is like to feel boxed in by expectations of strict masculine behavior, and it is no fun. We should not foist expectations like these upon anyone, especially young people still finding their ways to adulthood.

Monday, May 11, 2020

The Blind Crusade, Part 1

Racism against African-Americans in the United States is an issue most either love to ignore or hate to talk about honestly. It is a social issue, true, but this is where the analysis ends for many who pretend to want to solve it. It is an issue of real estate, economics, poor incentives, and neglect by both sides of the political spectrum. It has become a vacuous truism to say that the Democratic Party takes African Americans for granted. It does, but muttering that sentence doesn't signify heroism.

In this post, I will offer some of my thoughts on attitudinal racism in individuals, which is as real a problem as there is. I will follow this piece up with one about racism as an institutional phenomenon as well, as I see these as different and requiring different remedies.

For clarity's sake, when I use the term "racist" in this piece, I am referring to people who consciously and intentionally manifest discriminatory words and actions. I am referring to any who show prejudice, in the sense that they judge others based on their race, absent other information. I am not referring to implicit bias. I am also not referring to "reverse racism," which I do not believe to be a real issue.

First, I acknowledge that racist attitudes are deep, complex, and difficult to address. Mass conversion is not a realistic goal in the short term. 

I believe, however, that we can chip away at it around the edges by showing racists kindness rather than hatred and contempt. Many will likely not agree with me here, but allow me to cite Deeyah Khan to make my case. Khan is a Norwegian British woman of South Asian descent and documentary filmmaker. I first heard of her in her promotion of her documentary entitled White Right: Meeting the Enemy. I found what she did in the making of this film incredibly interesting and noble.

Rather than conducting distant research on far-right extremism in the United States, she reached out to white supremacist groups, hoping to engage with them and get a close look at their movements. Being nonwhite, this put her in great danger and she had some terrifying experiences in the making of the film. Luckily, she finished the film and emerged unharmed. Furthermore, due to the kindness and lack of judgement displayed by Khan (who was supposedly their enemy), some of the white supremacist leaders who served as sources and guides for her actually left their hateful movements.

I found this to be a beautiful triumph of love and human connection over the lesser human inclinations. I would not propose this as an industrial-sized strategy, especially because Khan put herself in danger. However, I do want to make the point that I see Khan's actions as far more effective in changing minds than the typical strategy of denouncing and dismissing racists, reenforcing their enemy status.

I understand that my views here may not be agreeable to many. I believe that the reason for this is that we view this topic through different lenses. I think that many who disagree with me see racists as evil and/or hateful people for their views. The way I see it, these people were all born perfectly lovely babies with all kinds of potential: potential for love, hate, greatness, irrelevance, greed, and compassion. Somewhere between then and now, they became infected with bad ideas. Their bad ideas, in my view, say little about who they could be with the right influences.

One of my favorite films is called American History X. It is a 1998 fictional crime drama film about a period of time in the life and surroundings of an American neo-Nazi named Derek Vinyard. At the start, he is as hateful and racist as you could imagine, and he goes to prison early in the film for killing two African Americans trying to steal his car. At one point, he is on laundry duty in prison with a black inmate, Lamont, and something revolutionary happens in the life of Vinyard.

Initially, Vinyard ignores Lamont in conversation, and barely looks at him. Lamont persists and begins to do an impression that Vinyard can't help but laugh at, and within seconds, they both fall over laughing. This is a turning point for Vinyard, who moves away from his neo-Nazi ideology, and aims to get out of prison to be a better example for his little brother, who idolizes him. All of this, emerging from a moment of laughter, and of human connection.

You may be familiar with some variation of the phrase "you are who your friends are." I happen to believe it is relevant in this conversation. Racists feed off of each other's racism, so being a friend to someone with otherwise hateful ideas could serve as a good influence. My beliefs regarding this topic coincide with my beliefs about retributive justice, which I find to be a deeply flawed principle.

I believe, generally, that humane treatment tends to breed a more humane response. Hate, on the other hand, breeds more hate. This is also why my political leanings are humanistic and progressive. Allow me to be clear regarding the topic at hand, though. I do not see this as a panacea. Far from it. I merely believe that this attitude towards racists can produce better results than the kind of hostile engagement more common today.

The counterproductive and combative attitude against racists as people rather than merely racist attitudes represents half of the blind crusade being waged by well-intentioned people. I will detail what I see as the other half in a follow-up post.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

On Charging Cable Length

I used to live in the shadows of ignorance. Indeed, the most terrifying fact about the unknown is the futility of not knowing what you're missing. The opening to this is far more dramatic than the topic warrants, so I'll leave the literary chest-thumping at that.

Smartphones are facts of the modern age. The vast majority of us carry them around with us so we can connect to people and ideas around the world, sometimes at the cost of interacting with those right in front of our faces, but I'll get to that in a later blog. A necessary component of running a smartphone is a charging cable. Most of us simply hold on to our charging cables and hope not to lose them, because buying a new one feels, for some reason, like submission or defeat.

I hope I can convince readers that a long (even absurdly long) charging cable is a worthwhile investment. The upsides are quite obvious, but the physical difference they make in terms of movement and comfort cannot be overemphasized.

Even a well-placed power outlet rarely allows one to sit and shift around into comfortable positions while using a device connected to a standard 3-foot (or shorter, God help us) cable. Imagine never having to lean uncomfortably to one side of the chair or couch. Imagine being able to comfortably charge and use your device in any room, so long as it has a power outlet or two.

Consider how much money we invest into being able to sit comfortably while working or watching television. We buy expensive furniture sets, place televisions and computers on desks with upscale, adjustable chairs in front of them. Smartphones occupy our time and lives as much, if not more than televisions and computers do (depending on the individual), so why would we not take the extra step to be able to use our devices comfortably while we charge them?

When I first heard of 6-foot and 10-foot charging cables, I thought it was gratuitous and even absurd. Now, I hope to spread the good word about their utility. Let us not literally bend over backwards to accommodate for our smartphones.

Friday, May 8, 2020

That's Life and Joker

Link to "That's Life": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnlPtaPxXfc

One of the most uplifting and spirit-filling songs I have had the pleasure of enjoying is Frank Sinatra's cover of "That's Life" by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon. During the fall of 2017, my first year at USC as a sophomore transfer student, I developed a great love for Frank Sinatra's music. His songs ranged from those about loss and reflection to those depicting hope, love and triumph. "That's Life" has always been special to me because it speaks to how we phase out of one and into the other. While Frank Sinatra did not pen the lyrics to "That's Life", he comes across as an honest voice of the lyrics. His life was one of great peaks and valleys, and by the time he covered "That's Life", he reportedly had attempted suicide due to his declining musical career in the 1950s, but then arose once again in the late '50s and early '60s, with classic tunes like "Come Fly With Me" and "The Best is Yet to Come". These ups and downs of his life make "That's Life" especially meaningful coming from him.

I was pleasantly surprised on an October evening in fall of 2019 when I saw the film Joker and "That's Life" was featured heavily in the film. Joker depicts the painful journey of a man who comes to embrace the image of an unsuccessful, mocked, loathed, and ridiculous clown. More than embrace the image, he turned it on its head and made the image a symbol of the struggle for all who feel confined to the role of an outsider. "That's Life" seemed a great fit for a film about reaching the lowest of lows and finding one's way back up. The song's lyrics seem on first glance to almost perfectly reflect the Joker's struggle:

"Each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race".

However, Joker is not merely an uplifting tale of never letting the world get you down. It is also one of class resentment, vengeance through violence, and the coming together of a pseudo-anarchist movement (that is, if the final sequence is not a dream). After reflecting on the movie and the song for some time, I now find the movie's use of the song to be a perversion of something that was much more beautiful.

The lyrics to "That's Life" are apolitical. The song is about an individual struggle: a struggle everyone can relate to. This is the power of the song's message. We have all experienced abrupt changes in life for better or worse, and the song validates all of these experiences as part of the process of life. One day, it seems that nothing can go wrong, but the next day yields only pain and sorrow. None of this is to minimize the unfortunate moments and periods in life. They are as real as anything, but this song offers a hopeful and productive path beyond unfortunate times.

The portrayal of the song in Joker interprets the meaning as one of nihilism and rejection of the world as it is, and I find this to be a misguided understanding of the song. The pivotal lines in the song that compel me to make this argument are the following two:  

"But I don't let it, let it get me down,
'Cause this fine old world it keeps spinning around"

The song doesn't condemn the world for containing sadness or misery. Much to the contrary, the message of the song is that one can only expect the world's turning to deliver a chaotic and unpredictable mix of triumph, frustration, and pain. If taken literally, the last line of the song can lead one to believe that the struggle can be futile:

"But if there's nothin' shakin' come this here July,
I'm gonna roll myself up in a big ball and die, my, my"

However, I find these lines to be more of a mockery of childish whining than credit to the fatalism of giving up on life. In my view, the fetal image of the final line delivers the message that expecting life to always proceed in one's favor is immature. One must live with the understanding both that life will at times seem to try drag you down, but also that, as the song says, it shouldn't get you down

"'Cause this fine old world, it keeps spinnin' around".




Introduction to My Blog

With this blog, I aim to ask and answer provocative or otherwise interesting questions. I hope you find it valuable. Enjoy!