Quote: A Liar Telling the Truth

Chad smiled a sad, pastoral smile. Rourke looked at him, sympathetically impressed. Man, this guy was good. But Rourke had been on the force for many years, and he was just as good. Rourke tightened the muscles in his jaw. That man across the desk is telling the truth for now, just this moment. But he is a liar telling the truth, and it almost suits him.

So Rourke just sat and watched admiringly. Chad chose his words with care, but with a carefree care. Everything was parsed, but it looked as though it was spontaneously lying about. Shabby chic.

Evangellyfish, by Douglas Wilson, p. 49

Quote: Survive!

One’s own order to oneself, “Survive!”, is the natural splash of a living person. Who does not wish to survive? Who does not have the right to survive? Straining all the strength of our body! An order to all our cells: Survive! …

They lead thirty emaciated but wiry zeks [=prisoners] three miles across the Arctic ice to a bathhouse. The bath is not worth even a warm word. Six men at a time wash themselves in five shifts, and the door opens straight into the subzero temperature, and four shifts are obliged to stand there before or after bathing — because they cannot be left without convoy. And not only does none of them get pneumonia. They don’t even catch cold. (And for ten years one old man had his bath just like that, serving out his term from age fifty to sixty. But then he was released, he was at home. Warm and cared for, he burned up in one month’s time. That order — “Survive!” — was not there. …)

But simply “to survive” does not yet mean “at any price.” “At any price” means : at the price of someone else.

The Gulag Archipelago, by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, p. 302

Quote: Stay Edgy

“Don’t water so much, boy. These plants are like people, they need to be a little scared.”

“They need to be scared?”

Black Mesa nodded. “If the seedlings aren’t scared, they won’t sink their roots deeply into Mother Earth. Then when the droughts come they’ll blow away without a fight. If you want to save them, don’t make their lives easy, force them to prepare for the worst.” He nudged Poor Singer with his elbow. “Hurting makes everybody stronger.”

People of the Silence, p. 265

Quote: Alternatives Actually Available

Judicially expanded “rights” to appeal state court decisions to the federal courts led to an increase in such appeals for habeas corpus from fewer than 100 in 1940 to more than 12,000 by 1970. … This is not to say that there are literally no innocent men ever convicted in a country with a quarter of a billion people. It is simply to raise the question whether extended federal second-guessing of state apellate courts will turn up many or any … and at what cost, not only in terms of money, but in terms of innocent people sacrificed as victims of violent criminals walking the streets longer and longer, while legal processes grind on slowly in a seemingly interminable way.

In short, while saving some individuals from a false conviction is important, the question is whether it is more important than sparing other, equally innocent individuals from violence and death at the hands of criminals. Is saving one innocent defendant per decade worth sacrificing ten innocent murder victims? A hundred? A thousand?

Once we recognize that there are no solutions but only trade-offs, we can no longer pursue “cosmic justice,” but must make our choices among alternatives actually available. These alternatives do not include guaranteeing that no harm can possibly befall any innocent individual. The only way to make sure that no innocent individual is ever falsely convicted, is to do away with the criminal justice system and accept the horrors of anarchy.

Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed

I realize this might seem a little esoteric, but I’m posting it for two reasons. 1) I love Thomas Sowell, and 2) This theme of having to choose between existing options, none of which are perfect and all of which may be awful, is a major theme of both my second and (freshly drafted) third novels.

New FAQ from a Reader

A reader recently asked me this, and I have added it to my FAQs page.

Q. I’ve heard writers say “I was going to do X, but then the character did Y.” I always think, Wait, aren’t you the one who makes up what the character does?

A. Well, it may sound strange, but when we are writing fiction, the characters do “come to life” and do things the author wasn’t completely planning. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if this does not happen, then the story is not working. All the richest parts of my own stories have come about as a result of this phenomenon.

Of course, the author still has to “make up” what the character is doing in a sense, and write it down. But it seems to come from somewhere else at the same time. This is similar to what happens to actors and musicians when they talk about “being in the zone.” They still have to play the notes or say the words, and they need to be talented and to have practiced. But something more is also going on. This is the reason that ancient poets and storytellers used to invoke the Muse before embarking on their art.

I’m not sure this phenomenon is experienced by every single fiction writer. Perhaps there are some very meticulous plotters who don’t experience this and who still write perfectly good books. But this “characters coming to life” thing is definitely a part of my own process, and I’ve heard many other authors talk about it, so I know I’m not the only one.

On a related note, I’ve heard that some people write up “character sheets” before they begin drafting their novel. They come up with details about the character’s personality, back story, etc. In my case, I don’t do this kind of thing before I start drafting; instead, it’s part of the drafting process. I observe how the characters react in the situations I place them, and they reveal back story as we go. It wasn’t until after writing The Long Guest, for example, that I was able to tell that Nirri is an ESTP on the Meyers-Briggs. And MBTI typing him, by then, was just more a silly, fun exercise than a part of character development.

Fellow authors, please chime in about whether and how you have experienced this phenomenon. Do you count on your characters coming to life during the drafting or outlining process? Or is it something that occasionally happens, and you enjoy, but that you can get through a novel without? Has a character ever become so recalcitrant that you had to re-work your entire plot?

Chronic Pain: Poorly Understood

Chronic Pain Could Have a Unique Genetic Basis in Women

You might think this article is going to tell us that women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic pain, or to be underdiagnosed for it.

It’s not.

My main takeaway is that the causes and manifestations of chronic pain are super duper complex, tied up with immune and psychiactric stuff, and (this is the only new bit of information) on a genetic level they appear to operate very differently between the sexes.

We already know, based on our experience living in the world, that women in general are more likely to get sick than men in general. We know that female athletes are more likely to suffer injuries. But this doesn’t mean that men don’t get sick or injured, just that the circumstances are usually different.

We know that different people experience pain very differently and that pain can be made worse by a variety of factors, including being clinically depressed; being hormonal or pregnant (trust me, it’s true); having red hair (sorry, Dutch and Irish ancestors!); or suffering the effects of diseases such as dengue, malaria, fibromyalgia, or Lyme disease. We know that amputees can experience pain in their missing limb, which seems really unfair, and that pain can take on a life of its own and linger in a person’s system long after the initial cause has passed.

The bottom line is, I think we all would like a world where no one experiences chronic pain. Failing that, we’d like to help sufferers as much as possible, above all by believing them. This article nudges us a little closer to that, mostly by confirming: Yep, it really is really really complicated.

Three Logical Fallacies Around “Power”

“Power” is one of those words that is both so polysemous (having multiple meanings) and so emotionally loaded, that I would be just as happy if it was never used in public discourse. However, I am going to be using it a lot in this essay.

1. Misattributing Power to People Who Don’t Have It

It might seem strange to dive right into the first fallacy without stopping to define “power,” but rest assured, all will become clear.

Consider this quote from Ibram Kendi:

One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist.

page 9

OK, let’s skip over the shocking naivete of this statement. (It overlooks the #1 source of “problems”: the sinful heart within every individual human being.) Do you see what he did there? Let us not blame groups of people. Instead, let us blame “power.” But this is obviously a dodge. Power (he is talking about social power) does not float around naked through our cities, towns, and countrysides. It is exercised by people. Hence, locating the roots of problems in “power” is nothing but a sneaky way to locate the roots of problems in certain groups of people … those deemed to have power. I say “groups,” not individuals, because Kendi apparently is incapable of considering individuals. Also, historically, when people have sought scapegoats, they are seldom satisfied with individuals. When getting rid of one individual (or his power) does not cause problems to vanish as anticipated, people who locate problems in power tend to seek to root out an entire villain class, and like concentric circles in a pond, this class tends to widen.

Here are a few historical examples. Witches, in Salem, Massachusetts, were deemed to be a class of people with a lot of power. They were thought to be able to cause sickness, crop failure, bad dreams, sudden sensations of being pinched, and I don’t know what all. This power was misattributed. The girls’ sufferings were caused by their own mental illness (possibly their own involvement with the occult), not by their neighbors. But questioning their misattribution of power meant challenging the accusers’ lived experience, and was likely to get you included in the enemy class.

The Kulak farmers, in Soviet-controlled Ukraine, were prosperous, and so they were deemed to have a lot of power. It was, supposedly, their prosperity that was causing the poverty of the other farmers. They were wiped out, their farms taken, and it transpired that the only “power” the Kulaks had was expertise at farming. They were not powerful enough to stop their own slaughter.

The Jews in Europe, due to being smart and hardworking, were often prosperous. They were wrongly attributed with having a lot of power, even to controlling whole industries and being responsible for nearly everything that went wrong in society. We all know where this led. But despite the horror, this misattribution of power has a ridiculous side too. A recent hilarious example was speculation about a Jewish space laser that was used to set the California wildfires.

What should be clear from these examples is that if we follow misattribution of power all the way to the end of the path, it leads to killing people, sometimes a lot of people.

Unfortunately, it is really easy to misattribute power when we locate it in groups. Even if some particular group has many powerful individuals that arise from within it, it is almost never the case that all members of the group, distributively, have social power.

So let’s take a break from groups for a moment and talk about individuals.

2. Mischaracterizing Power as Always Arbitrary and Unnecessary

Another way to read Kendi’s statement, above, would be that nobody should have any power at all. No social or legal power, no authority. I don’t think that’s what he means, based on his policy recommendations (whispers: he wants power), but let’s set that aside and go with it, because this is actually a position that is very appealing to human beings. When we talk about power as a bad thing, which is easy to do because nobody likes being under it, it is very easy to begin talking as if all power is unearned and arbitrarily given. In short, that every instance of power residing in a human being is synonymous with injustice.

This is the basic attitude of a kindergartener who sees that his parents are controlling his life in a very totalitarian way. They control his wardrobe, his diet, his bedtime, his screen time, and whether he gets to jump on the couch. He figures that this is very oppressive. If all these arbitrary rules were to vanish, his life would be nothing but fun. It never crosses his mind to wonder, Do we actually need somebody to be in charge?

To be fair, we adults can also fail to ask ourselves that question. That’s because we want to be in charge (most of the time). And most of the time, this is appropriate. In an ordinary, non-emergency, non-war type of situation, each adult should be able to govern him- or her-self, well enough to get through his or her day, with little to no supervision. And then it will actually appear as if no one is in charge.

However, as soon as a drastic situation arises, it becomes obvious that someone has to have power, both in the sense of the power to get things done, and in the sense of authority over others. If there are children around, there must be a parent with power. A platoon needs a leader, especially on the battlefield. As soon as an emergency arises, most people freeze, looking about and wishing for someone to tell them what to do. They are usually relieved when someone takes charge.

As these examples show, power is not always arbitrary. Sometimes it is earned. In the best cases, it is earned by competence. (You hope that the person in charge in the operating room has a lot of medical training and experience.) But there are also cases where someone is in power and it is not arbitrary, despite that they are not an expert in the field. It could be that they were put in charge by someone else, or that they were simply the person who was willing to step up and start giving orders, which is in emergency situations is usually a job that no one wants, because once you are in charge, you are also responsible if things go wrong.

Returning to the ordinary situation where an adult can get through their day just fine with no one telling them what to do, we now see that this can happen only in very stable conditions. These conditions are good and we like them. What we may not notice is that one of their prerequisites is somebody still has to be in charge. If you are not living in the Wild West where you have to fight for your life on the way to work, that is because there is some kind of law enforcement out there somewhere, even if you don’t see them. If you are living in a region that is not torn by war, thank your president or prime minister or the local warlord who is keeping things peaceful in your county. He may not be a nice person (quite the opposite), but he managed to get things under control so that, for the time being, you can live a normal life. If not for him, then just to survive and defend your family, you would be forced to exercise a lot more personal power.

And this raises the question of what exactly power even is.

3. Failing to Recognize Complexity

Now let’s finally define our terms.

Power obviously has a cluster of senses in physics that don’t concern us here: velocity, force, pressure, energy, and the like. But even just restricting our discussion about power to human beings, there are several different meanings.

Power can mean social status. A powerful person can shame or ruin another person but not be susceptible to the same treatment.

It can mean authority, the ability to make people do things without having to physically force them. Of course, authority has to be backed up, ultimately, with physical force when it is not recognized.

This brings up physical strength as another type of power. This one is highly relevant because, as we saw in the last section, if you remove all other types of power (legitimate authority, rule of law, etc.), then conflicts between human beings will ultimately come down to who is bigger.

Finally, there is power in the sense of ability to get things done. This is an interesting one, and hugely important to all of us in our daily lives. Being able-bodied is a kind of power in this sense. It enables you to do all sorts of things for yourself in the way that you would like. Money is a kind of power in that it enables us to get things done that we otherwise couldn’t. Competence in various areas is also a kind of power. When I cook a meal for my family, I am able to do so because of the power given to me by the technology of my electric stove, the money with which I buy food and pay my electric bill, my strong legs that allow me to stand in front of the stove, and my competence at food prep. All of these are different kinds of powers.

The ability to get things done, or mastery, is the kind of power that babies lack. When we become toddlers, our whole life is about gaining this power to make things happen. We figure out how to walk and talk, how to flip the light switch, how to get various reactions from adults and other people around us. The more competent we become, the more our sphere of personal power expands.

Seen from this perspective, it is obvious that every person has a sphere of power in their daily life. In Bible terms, these are our “kingdoms.” (I owe this point to writer Dallas Willard.) Our kingdoms vary in their extent and in the shape of their borders. But everyone needs some sort of power in order to live. In the typical case, we have to have a job at which we are competent. We need to be making money, so as to convert our competence in that one area into a form that can get things done for us in other areas. We need to have authority over our own bodies (personal hygiene and the like), our schedules, our property, and (getting more complex now) various kinds of power in our relationships with family, friends, bosses, coworkers, etc. There is nothing wrong with this kind of power. It is a basic part of human dignity. In fact, one of our favorite kinds of stories, that of the underdog, features a main character who has no social status or legal authority, but has a great deal of personal presence and forcefulness, and who may be physically very strong (think Jean Valjean).

But this is a complexity that simplistic power-bashing rhetoric does not take into account. People will often speak as though, if someone has a lot of social status, they also necessarily have a lot of ability-to-get-things-done in every area of their life.

When I lived as an American expat in Asia, I was in this position. As an American, I was very visible and was assumed to have a lot of social status. I was also assumed to have great wealth. (I had plenty, especially compared to the average person in that country, but not as much as people assumed.) Yet, despite all this, my ability to get things done was close to zero. As a foreigner, I couldn’t move house or even take an overnight trip without getting letters of permission from at least two government offices. My visibility and assumed wealth made me a target. My assumed status made people interpret everything I said and did in the most (pardon me) bitchy way possible. And because of government regulations, when it came to the work that I actually went there to do, I was prevented from doing virtually any of it. I never did get most of it done.

I’m not even complaining about all this. When you go to another country, you have to follow their rules. My point is that status (even wealth) and actual on-the-ground power don’t always go together.

Of course, it can work the other way too. People can have lots of advantages in their personal life (like a prosperous farm or business, as in our first section) but not have much social status or legal power. Sometimes when people are prosperous, the kind of power that got them that prosperity was personal energy, industry, and competence, not status arbitrarily leveraged to rob others.

The bottom line is that everyone has power of different sorts and in various degrees at different times in their life, and even in different spheres of their life at the same time. Thus, people who want to draw a line down the middle of the world and declare that people on one side of it “have power” and people on the other side “don’t have power,” are guilty of an oversimplification so gross that it is indistinguishable from a lie.

Seriously, Please Stop Telling Me I Have “Power”

I have some, sure. The kinds I would like everyone to have. I have health, housing, an income, the ability to raise my own children. And let’s not forget the vast intellectual powers, before which you must all tremble.

But I have been reliably informed that because of certain personal characteristics, people like me have an arbitrarily ascribed status that is so lofty that we should be able to get literally anything done that we want to. This is a dicier claim, but I have tested it.

We should be able to walk into any room and get exactly what we want; for example, publishers will beat down the door to publish our books. We will not get pulled over for possible drunk driving because we were driving down the middle of a country road and not down the right side because we wanted to avoid the ditch (not that this has happened recently). And when pulled over by the cops, we are not nervous. Our group status protects us from a variety of diseases such as migraines and “female problems.” Oh yes, and we never experience the normal insecurities that every woman experiences about her appearance, because we embody our culture’s standard of female beauty.

Experience has proven all these things to be false.

That is why I am not very patient when told by a writer or celebrity whose status is so high that they could ruin me with a single tweet that I need to acknowledge and give up my power. Sorry, friends. I don’t have a lot, but what I do have is legitimate and I’m going to try and hang on to it.