Monstrous Empathy (To Not Getting Burnt)

Monsters do not seek the shriveled empathy grown in the moral philosopher’s over-weeded garden. Monsters ask to be met in the space where we are most human: where we hope against hope to be loved.

It has become increasingly apparent to me – or rather, I have been repeatedly and rigorously reminded, recently – that there are many people out there who never recognize themselves in the monsters which abound in our literature. They do not ache with the helpless, anchor-less rage of stepping into a world with no place for you. They cannot see that the monsters have been struggling, terribly, to find voices with which to speak and yet can find no words but those which bleed and terrify as they are screamed into the night.

These people believe that the monsters do not merely hide in shadow, but are made of the formless dark. They do not recognize that it is the light which creates the shadow, and that what is wrapped in darkness was there long before the match was struck. These men (for so have they all been) are well-intentioned, sometimes pious, and completely bereft of the compassion the monster has so long sought.

Most alarming, perhaps, is their willingness to lay blame and simultaneously deny compassion. I find them most often discussing Victor Frankenstein and his Creature. They condemn the doctor for his crimes against nature, and then his creation for the temerity of his anguish in the face of an unbearable accident of birth. There is no space for grief at being utterly alone in one’s existence. The desolation of seeing one’s self reflected only in the mirror is utterly foreign to them.

This clear relegation of the “monstrous” or “unnatural” to an indisputable Other – an uncompromising distinction between “human” and “not” – is a repetition of the greatest sin of Enlightenment. This error has wrought unutterable destruction on a vast proportion of humankind.

Those who have been categorized outside the bounds of humanity are innumerable. They are of every race, gender, form, social position, and intellect. They have been exhibited, enslaved, tortured, executed, lynched, murdered, incarcerated, institutionalized, abandoned, aborted, and cast out.

Worse still are those who think that the monsters were defeated, only now to return. In their ignorant terror, they delude themselves, repeating the myth that the horrors we are bearing witness to are of monstrous origin. But these horrors are born of those long used to holding the light which casts the shadows.

It is only now that we are seeing the monsters on their own terms, carefully exercising voices unused declaration, leaving behind the territory of howling to speak for themselves. The person who declares the monster categorically inhuman is waving a torch into the dark, hoping to burn something he has never truly seen.

Most importantly, monsters do not ask for the condescension of high-minded morality; they do not seek the shriveled empathy grown in the moral philosopher’s over-weeded garden. Monsters ask to be met in the space where we are most human: where we hope against hope to be loved despite the exquisite agony of existence. This is the empathy said to be felt by mothers for their children, and between those comrades, compatriots, and brothers who have loved such as to know their lives are meaningless without the bonds which hold them together.

Unlike men, monsters have known the cold of going without the assurances that such love is possible. They have stood perfectly still in the darkness and known what it is to feel truly, utterly alone.

When a flame belonging to another is held to our face, we are rendered unrecognizable even to ourselves.

It should not need to be said: it is time for man to step into the shadow and hold tight to the fear which blooms when we feel ourselves dissolve into that darkness, to recall the way it feels to be alone, and to remember the relief in finding a hand to hold onto in the dark.


This is all prose for the sake of poetry. I don’t usually let myself run free, all extended metaphors and florid prose, due to an undoubtedly misplaced dedication to the minutiae of rational argumentation. (For rational argumentation please see the following post.)

Some Thoughts on Catalonia

An intentional complication

There are 4 major areas to consider regarding the current situation in Spain, where the region of Catalonia recently held a referendum on a declaration of independence:

  1. the economic reasons for Spain’s insistence on retaining Catalonia,
  2. the questions arising from a newly independent Catalonia with regards to the European Union, with an eye towards the freedom of movement of goods, people, and money,
  3. the fascist history of the country and, specifically, Catalonia’s still fresh memories of life under Franco, in particular the condemnation of the present Spanish government as fascist without a meditation on the fascist history which continue to resonate in the present,
  4. finally, with the emboldening of racisms across the Western world, immediately embracing ethnonationalist separatist movements seems premature.

These are a series of spitball thoughts, I do not seek to present myself as an authority on the subject. Nor do I want to appear for or against Catalan independence. Ultimately, I believe many of my points might be justifiably used to support the arguement for independence. Equally, however, a geopolitically conservative and globalist thread in some of my points will be of little interest to certain progressive groups, and the hard left anti-imperialists who see globalism as a direct descendent and scion of colonial imperialism. (A position I am not, strictly speaking, willing to refute.)

1. Wealth and federalism

Spain, like most nations, is made up of regions with their own local governments and governance. Along with the political distinctions, these states create economic zones, which in turn feed into a larger national economy, with some wealth redistribution happening courtesy of the national government.

Barcelona and Catalonia more generally are among the few regions in the Spanish economy which are flourishing, despite the economic crisis which developed in Europe after the 2008 US financial crash. That prosperity is a strong motivator for the national government of Spain to maintain a hold on the region. Spain continuese to be strapped for cash, even having put into effect the austerity measures and the economic restructuring demanded by international creditors.

It bears remembering that the issue of Catalan independence, while not entirely new, did not have anything nearing its current prominence before the economic crash. It was only as the screws were put on and Spain began to feel the crush of its debt that Catalonia started its legislative saber rattling and invigorated the call for independence.

2. European Unity and the economy

The biggest question regarding secession from a European nation is how the new border and the new government will be integrated (or not) into the European project. Regardless of whether Europe welcomes a newly independent Catalonia into the European Union or not, that accession will have to be negotiated (or renegotiated, depending on your perspective). One can only presume that the Spanish representation in the European government will do their utmost to make life difficult for the new nation. It is unclear if they are likely to have allies who fear similar sucessions within their borders. (With Britain making its own European exit, the Spaniards are down an anti-Independence ally.)

Most importantly, Catalan independence means more uncertainty for the European Union, an already struggling and beleagured project. Until the details of Catalonia’s status within the bloc are worked out, there will be many people in limbo; European citizens who live and/or work in Barcelona or the region, who may or may not be allowed to remain. The fate of Spanish citizens who wish to retain that status yet continue live and work in Catalonia will also need to be negotiated.

Ultimately, Europe has created a region of porous borders which has greatly benefited workers who are able to travel across national boundaries in search of work. Additionally, as we are learning from Brexit, the porous borders of the EU have built an interconnected and interdependent infrastructure system. Renegotiating those contracts creates seemingly impossible quandaries in which the average citizen is left uncertain as to their future.

(New borders and new governments mean that all of the agreements and systems which undergird modern life will need to be examined and repartitioned to meet the requirements of the new government, and the limits of the new borders. This is an unenviable position to leave anyone; I invite you to explore the questions that Brexit has raised for the shared power grids bridging the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.)

3. History (Fascism)

Reaching back into the misty past and the heyday of the Spanish empire is superfluous for understanding the roots of this conflict. The most pressing history is that of the 20th century. It is a history which is still vivid in the minds of Catalans.

Under the fascist regime of Francisco Franco, Catalonia was violently repressed, and much was done to strip them of their cultural and linguistic identity. An acquaintance told the story of how after Franco’s death in 1975 and the return to democratic governance, she had to put in the paper work for an official name change, so that her government documents would reflect the name her parents gave her, a Catalan name, which she was prohibited from carrying under the Franco regime. Her experience was not unique.

Many people who have visited Barcelona are familiar with the habit of Catalans to prefer English over Spanish when encountering someone who does not speak Catalan. Use of the language was banned under Franco, and these little “regional quirks” are the markers of the scars the fascist regime left on the people.

I am uninterested in defending the actions of the Spanish government. The choices they have made are abominable, in addition to making the government look terrible.

The vivid memory of fascism should have served as a reminder for the Spanish government to avoid violent suppression and the suspension of Catalonia’s limited independence. Nevertheless, those outside the country should be careful of invoking the imagery unless they are prepared to hold up the current government against past fascist regimes. Though the actions of the Spanish government are reprehensible, they have not reached the heights of dictatorship. We must urge them to remember their own history, and the respect they owe their Catalan bretheren, and furthermore, we must hope they have learned something from dealing with the Basque Separatist movement.

4. Ethnonationalism

Much of the Western world is preparing to do battle with nationalists of a variety of sorts. Ethnonationalists pose a unique quandary for those who seek equality. Self-determination is a noble goal, but it can create as many problems as it might purport to solve.

Thankfully, Catalonia is positioned in such a way to avoid the quandaries which have plagued the self-determination of the Jewish people. Hopefully, if they do achieve independence, the freedom of movement within Europe will been maintained even across these new borders and there will be no need for the “bloodless genocides” which plagued the establishment of a Greek nation-state and Turkey which saw the exchange of Greek Muslims and Greek Orthodox Turks. We can only hope that prosperity will forestall the possibility which resulted in the Bosnian genocide, and the continued unease in the region. Perhaps it we will avoid armed conflict, but the possibility of avoiding all political tension is a fantasy.

The consolidation of ethnic identities into nation states has left a number of wounds in the developed world. They are implictly tied to the history of empire, colonialism, and imperialism. There are no good answers, never mind any easy ones.

Personally, I have ever stronger reservations about the logic of ethnonationalist self determination. Mostly because it feels like an excuse for those who have to abandon those who have not, and those who have not to justify power moves which lead to greater pain down the line. Here I undoubtedly split with any anti-globalists, who see porous borders and rampant capitalist internationalism as the great evils plaguing all nations and peoples. Nevertheless, I stand with those who see globalization as a reality with which must contend and should make our decisions with an eye towards justice and equality when it comes to crossing borders and making opportunities for all people on our planet. Ethnonationalism seems to invite divisiveness and trouble.

2017.03.31: exercises of the imagination

Sometimes, as I read the news, I try and imagine a different man as president. This other man has been duped into office.
He is a man of limited intellect and even less insight. He is hopelessly ill-equipped to do the job before him, and is scared to do it at all, because all of us fear failure, especially when others are watching.

This man is, moreover, at the mercy of people for whom planning is easy. These people have their own agendas, often in conflict with one another, and this man has no choice but to trust them. He cannot do the job himself. He cannot do the job at all.

This man is instead the lighting rod, the focal point, of all the mockery and the criticism of an entire country. He doesn’t understand why, exactly, because these plans aren’t his plans, the failures do not stem from him. Why is everyone laughing at him and calling him names? This isn’t how it was supposed to be. This isn’t how things were, before. Can we go back? Can it be like before?

He has to trust what people tell him: things will be okay, don’t worry, we have a plan, just go out there and let the people know you’re on their side. He does what he does best, but the heat never let’s up. People are handling things, so things will be okay. Things are not going well.

But I can’t keep this image in my mind for long. I can’t maintain sympathy. I never believed this would be easy, for anyone. I never thought it would be fun. I have never seen this as a choice to be made lightly.

The man in my imagination might exist, but I already promised I would stop forgiving ego, thoughtlessness, and stupidity. Bad judgement is no excuse for bad behavior. We teach our children that they are responsible for the choices they make, even when they didn’t mean for anything bad to happen. We teach them when they are young because it never stops being true. As you get older, the only thing that changes is how much damage you can do.

Sometimes, I imagine what sympathy for my President feels like. But I can’t hold onto it.

Is 80% “good enough”? Thoughts on Internet Penetration is Franklin County

Yesterday in the car, driving along Route 47, my friend said, “Wow, Sunderland really is just a lot of land.”

As a student at a large state university, it is strange to think about my current home as being “rural”. Nevertheless, that is exactly what it is, don’t let the pizza place or the laundromat fool you. The stretch of land between routes 116 and 47 is farmland, when it’s been cultivated or put to use at all.

The definition is elusive for the reason that many things are in New England, unless you’re overlooking the ocean; it’s hard to see much of anything at all with all the hills and trees interrupting your vision. The university helps hide it as well. The migrant population of tens of thousands of young bodies is reason enough for a reasonably extensive public transit system and provides more than enough indenture to build and maintain any number of housing complexes, which cause little related businesses to sprout up to attend to the needs they create (like pizza and laundry).

Without thinking about the landscape at all I’ve been contemplating what it means to be a rural area. In a fit of frustration about the cost of our telecoms utilities, I started looking to see if there were alternatives to our current subscription.

In the process, I visited BroadbandNow, a site which bills itself as a consumer interest group, looking to provide information on the services and available to a person in every county in every state in the US. Of the three options in Franklin County, in Western MA, only  one provider achieves the minimum download speed necessary for “broadband internet”. The FCC has set “broadband” speed as a minimum of 25 Mbps (megabits per second) download speed and a 3 Mbps upload speed. Xfinity by Comcast is your only choice if you want broadband internet. Their promotional first year rate is approximately $35/mo. if you keep their service for over a year, it goes up to nearly $90/mo.

comcast pricing-Recovered
Graphic displaying promotional vs. actual internet subscription rates from Comcast.

The thing that got me stuck on this issue is from the little factoids that run along the side of the BroadbandNow website when you look up a particular region. There’s a little box there that reads, “Approximately 5,000 people in Franklin County don’t have access to any wired internet.” It’s unclear if the other number, 14,000, which is the number of people who don’t have access to internet with a speed of 25 Mbps or higher, is inclusive of the 5,000 who don’t have any wired internet at all. To a degree, I’m not entirely sure that it matters. What I can tell you, from looking at the maps of “underserved” or “unserved” towns, is that Wendell, MA, 33 minutes away from the University by car, has no cable or DSL at all. Leverett, 13 minutes away, and Shutesbury, 19 minutes away, have only partial DSL, and no cable internet at all.

If you overlay the maps of the underserved towns, over the map of wireless broadband access, you’ll see that most of Franklin County only has mobile wireless.

I don’t know for absolutely sure, but I imagine that this is what it means to feel left out of the political conversation. The Internet was supposed to be the wave of the future; this was going to connect everyone to everyone else, make us all equals in a massive interconnected conversation. But, in this, as in most things, it seems that some are more connected, and more equal, than others.